On a recent Saturday afternoon with nothing to do, a friend and I decided to visit historic Union Station in Kansas City. Since my friend is an avid railroad buff, our original intent was to visit the KC Rail Experience Museum, which at one time was a separate exhibit at Union Station. As we discovered however, the rail exhibit is now part of Science City.
Not having any kids in tow, I wasn’t sure how much we would enjoy Science City, outside of the Rail Experience that was our original destination. Let me tell you, Science City is not just for kids. If you’re a kid at heart, I think you’ll find a visit to this interactive museum enjoyable as well.
Science City is laid out in different sections, each with its own educational initiatives. Most of the exhibits are ‘hands on’, and are geared to teach children, but there’s plenty that adults can learn as well.
There’s a nature center where various reptiles, birds and small animals are kept; each with a brief history of the animal, native regions and interesting facts. Climb the tree house and listen to different insect sounds and see a mounted bird display.
Dig for fossils in the prehistoric area, view different fossils and bones on display, learn how bones and fossils are preserved, and even build a saber-tooth tiger skeleton.
There’s the Hale N. Hearty clinic, where you can weigh yourself (not something I would have done had there been a lot of people around); check your blood pressure and your vision; see your skin under a microscope; and test your reaction time.
At the Astronaut Training Center, you can view what the living quarters are like for astronauts aboard space craft, try your hand at repairing an object in space, and even attempt to land a space shuttle in the shuttle cockpit simulator. I could never be an astronaut; I failed miserably at this seemingly simple task, crashing the shuttle three different times when attempting to land. My friend, however, was successful in his first attempt.
I found the Mr. E Hotel to be quite amusing. At the entrance to this ‘hotel’, you pick up a pamphlet that directs you to 20 different locations within the hotel. At each location, you are faced with a different illusion. By far the coolest illusion, at least for me, was the haunted wash room. You stand in this wash room in front of the mirror, and when the lights dim, you become invisible. This effect delighted many of the children and adults who tried it out the day we visited.
Next to the Mr. E Hotel was the Train Spotter’s Roost, where you can stand and watch many of the 150 daily trains pass by Union Station. There are placards to help visitors identify the types of rail cars on the trains, and there are several locations where you can make rubbings of different rail cars and locomotives. This was one of my friend’s favorite spots; he pointed out several different types of rail cars to me as they passed by.
Other sections of Science City include a crime lab where you are assigned the task of finding a missing cow; a music area where some unusual items are used to make music; a test kitchen (this wasn’t operating the day we were there); a storm center where visitors learn about reporting the weather; and the city’s sewer system, where kids can slide down a sewer pipe.
As we wound our way through Science City, we reached what we had gone there for to begin with, the KC Rail Experience. On display in this area were photographs and lots of railroad memorabilia. In keeping with the ‘hands on’ aspect of Science City, some of the displays in the Rail Experience are interactive as well. There are various figures around the museum, representing different people in railroad history, and if you stand in just the right spot (indicated at each figure), the figures talk to you and tell you their role. You can visit the cab of an engine, and walk through a caboose replica. There is also a train simulator, allowing you to be an engineer. Right outside of the Rail Experience, on some of the old track, are some actual rail cars that you can tour. Because of construction, the only car available for touring when we were there was an observation car, with some sleeping berths; but even that one car gives you an idea what it was like for some train passengers.
There are several model railroad layouts set up in and around the Rail Experience as well. We saw a couple of Lionel layouts in the museum, an N scale layout just outside of Science City, and an HO layout on the lower level of Union Station. Most of these layouts are maintained by different model railroad clubs.
Since we couldn’t just purchase tickets to the Rail Experience, our tickets not only included the admission to Science City, but also to the Gottlieb Planetarium. Since neither one of us had been to a planetarium for years, we decided we’d take in a show. If you’ve never been to a planetarium; or if it’s been a while, I highly recommend visiting one. The show we saw was on the skies over ancient Israel (it was running in conjunction with the Union Station’s special exhibit on the Dead Sea Scrolls, which is sold out); comparing those skies to the skies over Kansas City. It was very interesting; and only slightly disorienting when the first pictures started rotating overhead. The feeling of movement disappears quite quickly. The planetarium show lasts about 40 minutes.
If you visit Science City, the Rail Experience and the Gottlieb Planetarium, I recommend leaving the planetarium for last; so that you have enough time to thoroughly visit and interact with the exhibits in the museums.