When it was time to think about getting away, I considered whether Zach and I should take a vacation or a staycation, then worked hard to plan our trip. When it was time to visit Crown Center we had a great time staying at the Sheraton Hotel and eating Minsky’s Pizza. We loved our visit to the SeaLife Aquarium, Legoland, and Fritz’s Railroad Restaurant. But when we checked out of the hotel, our Staycation wasn’t quite over– there was still more to do!
We decided to visit Union Station, literally less than a minute from the Sheraton in the car. Growing up, I remember when Science City opened, but Union Station, to me, meant some science activities and not much else… boy, has it changed! While Science City is still there, it’s grown and changed a lot, and there are other great experiences at Union Station that you can’t miss!
If you’re going to visit Union Station, I’ll tell you that the planetarium is a must-visit. And no, your kids aren’t too young or too old to see it, because there are amazing shows for any age. We went to the Sesame Street show (expected to continue through the end of November, 11/21/14), where Big Bird, Elmo, and a new friend from China show us how parts of the sky are the same, no matter where you live in the world. The show, meant for a younger age, encouraged interaction and participation, asking kids to draw shapes in the stars and answer questions verbally.
For older planetarium fans, there’s a Dinosaurs at Dusk show that is engaging for young minds who are past the Sesame Street age, running until 1/2/15. Black Holes is great for older fans, with discussions about what Black Holes are and the mystery behind them. That show runs until 1/4/15.
Finally, the Planetarium offers a show called “Stargaze Kansas City” which is perfect for learning more about the stars right above our own heads, some of which we’re missing due to sunlight or bright city lights. What’s amazing is that this show, which will run through 1/4/15 in it’s current state, changes throughout the year to show the stars that are currently visible as the night sky changes when seasons change.
Tickets to the planetarium’s shows run around $6, with some shows being free for Union Station members.
After the planetarium show, we decided to visit Science City, which is a Union Station classic. With ever-changing exhibits, many things are new, but others stay the same. When you first enter Science City, you see a corridor of activities that are simple and engaging. Honestly, this first corridor was our favorite part of the entire experience, and we could have spent most of our Science City time in there. Depending on your child’s age, they may find it equally entertaining or not. Regardless, there’s something for everyone inside of Science City.
One thing Zach really enjoyed was a table near the entrance of Science City where you could set objects (like balls and round pieces of PVC pipe) on a spinning tray and see how they’d move in reaction to the sudden force.
To me, the best part of Science City is seeing the awe on a child’s face as they test something out and it either does what they had expected it would, or doesn’t do what they anticipated at all– either way, they learn something, and can continue testing it out as long as they’d like. Zach played with this for a good 15 minutes, just placing the ball on top, and watching it fly in the air, then trying different balls of different styles and sizes to see what would fly the best.
It’s after the initial corridor that you get to the real “meat” of Science City, with 3 levels of various interactive exhibits. I will say that it seems at least a little bit of Science City is always under construction– I don’t think I’ve ever been that part of it wasn’t blocked off because they’re adding a new exhibit in place of an old one, so be prepared for restricted access to some sections of the museum. However, part of that construction is really nice– it means that there is something new to see again and again (while some sections of the museum, like melody park, are long-standing features).
Science City is, in parts, designed to be like a real city, complete with “hotel,” playground, the melody park, and more. Other exhibits stray from this theme completely, but most of them tie into the idea that you’re essentially in an indoor city that you can explore and play in, while learning great new things.
Zach particularly loved watching this robot, which would place marbles on a track that would roll through a maze. A very helpful employee at Union Station took the time to tell us about the class of the day, which was a robot building class, but Zach was just a bit too young for us to participate. With master classes most days, young science-minded individuals can try a hands-on activity within the museum.
One section of Science City that is particularly aimed at older kids is the amazing space exhibit, which shows how astronauts live and sleep. The idea of being able to see this in life-size is really exciting, and do some simple training tasks is very cool, but lost on a younger child. However, almost every exhibit has something that is exciting regardless of age, and for the space section, this rocket launcher was pretty cool. You pump a lever as much as you can as the clock counts down, and when it hits 0, the rocket will fly up a certain height depending on how much power you gave it by pumping. Pretty exciting!
Entire rooms were set up dedicated to different ages and stages, which meant there were some great dedicated activities for a younger age group, including soft-build block projects and musical activities.
Many of the sections were set up with the idea of free play and free discovery, but others had a watchful eye from Science City employees and were a bit more… strictly guided. In some ways, this dampened the natural exploration that children have, but in others, there were opportunities to learn a bit more past where a child may have discovered on their own. Because of this, there were some areas we just moved on entirely– at Zach’s age, free, open-ended discovery is a great way to learn. He did, however, enjoy looking at the bugs through the magnifying glasses and identifying different parts of their bodies through that up-close look.
One nice feature of Science City is that it’s great for railfans, especially on a rainy or cold day. We were able to sit at a checkers table inside of Science City and watch trains go by.
Most of the exhibits are very self-paced and interactive. One of the best exhibits in the entire place, in my opinion, was the exhibit where you learn about energy and power. There were various body-power exhibits that allowed you to run on a hamster wheel or ride a bike to light a bulb, and others where you could crank a handle to create wind to power wind generators and light up miniature homes. It’s always a good idea to open communication about renewable resources, and to do so in a way that helps a kid run off energy in a big hamster wheel is the best way, in my opinion!
Zach’s favorite exhibit was the PVC magnet wall, where you took PVC pipes with magnets and arranged them in different shapes, then dropped the ball into the pipe to see how fast it would roll. Different configurations produced different speeds, allowing the ball to get to the bottom straight away, or sometimes, not at all… we also enjoyed setting up different configurations and putting the ball in to see who would get to the bottom fastest.
If you want to check out Science City inside of Union Station KC’s website, you can find out more information about ticket pricing, parking, and hours to plan your visit, as well as find out about the most up-to-date attractions.
One final great perk that Union Station KC has, which is awesome for any train lover, is the model rail experience, where you can view tons of different model trains whirring around cities. Various scales, scenery, and time periods are a backdrops for the important part– the trains!
When I say they’re large, they’re definitely large. If your child loves to sit and watch trains like mine does, then it’s a great opportunity to watch them go through tunnels and over bridges and around houses.
As part of the rail experience, there is a bridge that you can take to walk directly over the tracks. It can get a little loud up there, but otherwise, it’s an amazing chance to stand above the trains and see them drive by. Again, the rail experience and this bridge are completely FREE parts of Union Station, so you can stop by and visit even if you choose not to visit the Planetarium or Science City. Combine the model rail experience and this train bridge with a trip to Fritz’s, and you’ve got the perfect “best day ever” for any future engineer.
Kansas City area readers, what’s your favorite place to visit? Let me know in the comments and I may make it a part of our next KC Staycation Review series!