Where's the best place to go on vacation in the US if you're five and love everything to do with science?
September 8, 2009 12:58 AM   Subscribe

Help us pick a US vacation destination for a science-obsessed five year old.

So Mr Pootler and Pootler jr REALLY don't like going on holiday. One is geeky/autistic and the other is genius/autistic. But I want a holiday dammit!

Mr and Jr would actually like to go to America. Mr and Jr don't cope with amusement parks, busy beaches and the like, but we do all love museums.

We thought we might be able to do a museum sort of holiday. Specifically one that will appeal to Jr.s obsessions: geology, computers, astronomy, astrophysics, anatomy, chemistry, computers, physics, mathematics, codes, ancient scripts and number systems...... He also loves anything to do with water and books, Tom & Jerry, Bugs Bunny, Garfield and Calvin and Hobbes. ;-)

So clearly we're not looking for the typical travel agents package. ;-) We'd like to have a base in one place, but wouldn't mind driving a couple of hours for day trips. If you want to do theme parks, you go to Florida or California. But where should we go? And what should we visit?
posted by pootler to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (39 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Washington DC is pretty much museum central for the US. Look into the Smithsonian museums, particularly the Air and Space one. I went there as a nerdy kid and it made good memories.
posted by The Devil Tesla at 1:09 AM on September 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley.
The Exploratorium in SF and Golden Gate Park's science museums

I haven't been inside these institutions in decades but they rocked my world back when I was a kid. The King Tut exhibition will be in SF through March 2010.

Perhaps Stanford and Cal will give tours of their respective areas of interest wrt physics and mathematics.

Then you can head down to Palo Alto and check out the Computer Museum there, and there's also a museum in downtown San Jose. Plus of course drive by the campuses of Google and Apple. Just seeing these locations is kinda magical, to inform you that real people labor in real buildings to make this fancy stuff.

Continuing further, there is the Monterey Aquarium, and the beach at the end of Ocean Street in Carmel, one of the nicer beaches in the state. Plus Carmel itself is a nice little place to walk around for adults. Both Pacific Grove (Lover's Point) and Point Lobos are near Carmel and very fun places for kids to get out and rock scramble.
posted by Palamedes at 1:14 AM on September 8, 2009 [4 favorites]

Washington DC hands down winner. The Smithsonian makes all geeks hearts pitter-patter and their little palms sweaty.
posted by Muirwylde at 1:15 AM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

I came in to also recommend Washington DC.

The Smithsonian and the Air and Space Museum--make sure you go to the one out at the airport, though, 'cause that's where they have most of the cool airplanes. There are also a number of smaller museums of various sorts.

I recommend ignoring the Library of Congress, frankly. I was super insanely excited to go there when I was 15. Just out of my mind with anticipation to wander around looking at one of the largest collections of books on the planet. Turns out, if you aren't 18 years or older, with an appointment, and a pre-submitted list of volumes of interest, they won't let you into the stacks. The rinky-dink half hour tour on which I learned these facts is still one of the most painful memories of my life... they let you look through a window, from a balcony, at (some of) the stacks and the researchers. It was heartbreaking to look at that and hear the lady rattle on about how many million books they had and not be able to explore any of it.
posted by Netzapper at 1:19 AM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

The first thing that comes to mind is to go to Washington DC and visit the many Smithsonian Instution Museums located there. I was a nerdy kid (but not autistic) and the only thing I really remember from family vacations to DC as a child was the Air and Space Museum (and the horrible time we went to DC for the 4th of July and watched the fireworks from an obstructed view behind the Washington Monument).

In the San Francisco Bay Area, there's the Computer History Museum in Mountain View and the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco. The Anchor Steam Brewery gives daily tours, which appealed to the geek in me due to all the chemistry and process involved. When I went to Stanford, they used to give tours of the linear accelerator. Unfortunately, SLAC is not currently giving tours.
posted by strangecargo at 1:25 AM on September 8, 2009

Nthing DC and the Smithsonian and there is a Six Flags water park about 30 minutes outside DC. Six Flags America and the mascots for Six Flags are Bugs Bunny and friends...yes, it's sort of an amusement park, but lots of water too :)
posted by legotech at 1:38 AM on September 8, 2009

I unexpectedly ended up on a geeky vacation in New Mexico a few years ago. Some of things we did:

-Los Alamos - science museum there largely focused on the development of the atomic bomb

- Albuquerque - we went to the science museum to kill a few hours before our flight home and there was a display about the development of the computer industry. It was really good and entertaining. I think it was a traveling display. Good geology exhibit as well.

- Roswell - we went for the aliens of course, but did see a nice exhibit in their museum about Goddrod's early rocketry tests

- White Sands - we only did the sands themselves, but I think there were some rocket museums there.

- Three Rivers Petrogylph Site - ancient scripts?

That's all I can remember, but I think I read about more geeky things to do while there. Good food as well.

(D.C. is good as well).
posted by buttercup at 4:34 AM on September 8, 2009

So as not to sound biased towards the FREE museums in my hometown of Washington, I'd like to suggest that if you come here you take day trips to Baltimore, they have ships you can crawl over, water taxis that take you around the harbor, an (expensive) aquarium, a children's museum, a science museum.

You could also take a day trip around the Chesapeake bay and poke crabs and sea life.
posted by Pollomacho at 4:41 AM on September 8, 2009

While everyone is going on about DC, do not forget about BOSTON/CAMBRIDGE and the
- MIT museum (specializing in holograms, kinetic sculptures, robotics, strobe photography)
- an adult-friendly Science Museum with IMAX
- tourable waterworks and waterworks museum at Deer Island
- Warren Museum of Weird Anatomical Stuff at Harvard, among their many many cool collections
- Museum of Computing or whatever the exact title is, which is next to (merged with?) the Children's Museum
- Amazing collection of old book stuff at the BPL, of which random bits are on display at any given time
- Also what kind of books? A lot of old old favorites took place in the area, or have other local landmark - Mother Goose's grave, the House of the Seven Gables, etc.
- The city-wide solar system, which gives you a planetary excuse to hit all kinds of neighborhoods

I am sure there are a lot I am forgetting. But wow :-)
posted by whatzit at 5:02 AM on September 8, 2009

Yeah, I came in to suggest Boston/Cambridge too. The Aquarium is also pretty sweet, and you can do whale watching tours from there (there are cheaper/arguably better ones that go out of Gloucester, about an hour away, but they do all end up going to the same spot).
posted by olinerd at 5:06 AM on September 8, 2009

To expand upon buttercup's recommendation:

New Mexico also has the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Sciences. It is geared for hands-on exploration by kids. I LOVE this museum.

The National Museum of Nuclear Science & History is also in Albuquerque.

South of Albuquerque is the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. At this time of year, thousands of birds migrate in to spend the winter there.

To the west of the Bosque is the Very Large Array. They have a nice guest center/museum and a walking trail which takes you to the base of the center telescope. The trail has educational spots along the way. When we took our son there, he declared it the best day of his life.

Further South is Alamogordo and the New Mexico Museum of Space History. It houses, among other things, the International Space Hall of Fame. It is a very nice museum and the drive into Alamogordo is beautiful.

If you're going to look into White Sands, consider also Carlsbad Caverns. While you can tour the caverns on your own, the guided tour takes you into restricted areas which are more impressive than the rest of the cave system which is available to the public. Also, the sunset presentation at the mouth of the cave is very interesting and allows you to watch the bats emerging for their nightly hunt.

DC has the advantage of the museums being tightly packed together and within walking distance. NM has the advantage of museums more tailored to your stated interests.
posted by onhazier at 5:27 AM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

I came in to suggest New Mexico, but that's been covered. Don't forget the must-see Black Hole in Los Alamos, though!
posted by Bigfoot Mandala at 5:34 AM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Also in Boston area (nearby Waltham) is the Charles River Museum of Industry, which has a ton of industrial revolution type stuff.
posted by clockbound at 5:38 AM on September 8, 2009

New York. If you've never been, you owe it to yourself.

In addition to the world's best Natural History museum, which kids adore and which you couldn't use up in two months of going every day, there are two major children's science museums (Liberty and Queens), dozens of other museums (including the amazing Museum of the American Indian), and a dozen universities with science-oriented public programs running all the time. Plus, it's New York.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:40 AM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Another vote for the San Francisco Bay Area - I had a very geeky childhood going to most of the following places.

In addition to the Lawrence Hall of Science and the Exploratorium, there's also the Academy of Sciences in the new building which has the Morrison Planetarium and the Steinhart Aquarium. The Chabot Space and Science Center in Oakland. The de Young across from the Academy of Sciences has ancient art and textiles. The Children's Discovery Museum in San Jose. The Computer History Museum in Mountain View. NASA Ames Exploration Center in Santa Clara. The Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose. The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose. Seymour Marine Discovery Center in Santa Cruz.Walking in Muir Woods. Hiking Mt. Tam.

This is not to say that the Smithsonian isn't THE place to go. But museums in the Bay Area might be a bit less crowded. And you can go to the Winchester Mystery House!
posted by elsietheeel at 5:53 AM on September 8, 2009

If you've already done or ruled out D.C., in New England you could go to the Museum of Science in Boston, the Eric Carle Museum [in Amherst, Mass.], and the Higgins Armoury Museum in Worcester [45 minutes west of Boston]. There's a good museum at Harvard that's said to have cool glass flowers, plus the Mapparium in the Christian Science Mothher Church.

Also consider geocaching in the area you visit, which might suggest a lot of places you hadn't thought to see.
posted by wenestvedt at 5:55 AM on September 8, 2009

What about Philadelphia? There's the Franklin Institute, and both DC and New York are easily reachable by train. You could do so many science museums you'd be throwing up science.
posted by rikschell at 6:14 AM on September 8, 2009

I'll go ahead and throw Chicago down. We have our fair share of museums, all of them which I have found to be kid-friendly, but especially the Museum of Science and Industry. Shedd Aquarium, the Field Museum, Adler Planetarium, and two passable zoos are all within easy distances from each other - you can take the El, or grab a cab. You can buy a CityPass for around $70 that covers all four museums, plus either Hancock or the SkyDeck observatory.

If you have a car with you, you can head up to Pleasant Prairie, WI and take the Jelly Belly plant tour - it's made for the kids, and you get free jelly beans at the end!
posted by honeybee413 at 6:25 AM on September 8, 2009

Don't forget that entrance to all the Smithsonian museums in DC is FREE.

Thank you, taxpayers!
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 6:44 AM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Washington, DC or Chicago as honeybee mentioned. I grew up 7 or 8 hours from Chicago but had family there and to this science minded kid, I absolutely looked forward to the Museum of Science and Industry every time. I was just there a few years ago and it was just as awesome I remembered it with a giant trainset, a Nazi submarine, stuff from space and oh so much more.
posted by mmascolino at 6:45 AM on September 8, 2009

Nthing Washington DC, for not other reason than that at the Air and Space Museum, you can touch an actual moon rock.

Also, you're not that far away from Baltimore, with the Baltimore National Aquarium.
posted by rmd1023 at 6:49 AM on September 8, 2009

I have been to all of these above, and I would say that the Exploratorium in San Francisco is awesome enough by itself, but once you add in all the rest of the cool stuff in the Bay Area, it's a hands down winner.

The one thing about the Exploratorium that puts it way above the DC trip is that it is so much more interactive. You get to be a part of the science, not just look at it.
posted by advicepig at 6:54 AM on September 8, 2009

Seconding Philadelphia! It has not only the fabulous Franklin Institute, but also the Mutter Museum of Medical Oddities (anatomical/medical geekery), Longwood Gardens (botanical geekery), and the nearby Camden Aquarium (sharks!). Plus a mere hour away in Lancaster, PA is the National Watch and Clock Museum, absolutely the best museum from a sciency/learning perspective that I've ever seen, with zillions of old, awesome clocks and in-depth historical explanations of the step-by-step process of learning to measure time. Yeah, Philly rocks.
posted by Bardolph at 6:56 AM on September 8, 2009

Also near DC is the Udvar-Hazy Center, which is essentially a huge hangar where they display all the planes they don't have room for at the Air and Space Museum on the Mall.

National Aquarium in Baltimore is indeed awesome. If you hunt around a little you can usually get discounts. Fridays after 5 in the winter months have $8 tickets.

DC, Baltimore and Philly are all well connected by train. It'd be pretty easy to stay in one and take daytrips to the others.
posted by electroboy at 7:18 AM on September 8, 2009

but also the Mutter Museum of Medical Oddities (anatomical/medical geekery)

The Mutter Museum (there's a direct link) may be a bit heavy, depending on how old Junior is. It is very, very interesting stuff if you're up for it, but it does have an awful lot of death, disease and misshapen fetuses in jars.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:28 AM on September 8, 2009

If you decide on the Bay Area, I would add a day in Yosemite to the trip. It's a beautiful drive to get there, and in my opinion, one of the places you should see in your lifetime...You will get geology on a scale no museum could match, and an amazing night sky from one of the meadows.

If you are not into camping, it's possible to stay in the park, in a hotel with running water if you plan ahead.
posted by NoDef at 7:30 AM on September 8, 2009

Another vote for Chicago: the Adler Planetarium, Shedd Aquarium, and Field Museum are all in the same park. They're right downtown, near the Art Institute, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and other downtown Chicago attractions (Sears Tower, the lakefront, Navy Pier). If you don't want all-science all-day, you can park Mr. and Jr. at the Museum Campus and do your own thing for part of the day.

On the north side of the city, there's the Museum of Surgical Science (as well as wonderful restaurants and shops). On the south side, there's the Museum of Science and Industry and the University of Chicago Campus, which has the Oriental Instute.
posted by Meg_Murry at 7:33 AM on September 8, 2009

Since you mentioned geeky, let me add the following to your potential D.C. itenerary: The National Cryptologic Museum. Yes, it's operated by No Such Agency and all, but they've got some interesting bits on the history of codes, code-breaking, and espionage which may be of interest. I recommend staying away from the Spy Museum in DC, though. Overproduced, overcommercialized, tiny, and expensive.
posted by Alterscape at 7:40 AM on September 8, 2009

Another thought. If he has any interest in transit, the New York City subway system is the American transit system to geek out over. There are perfectly functional ones in, say, DC and Chicago, but they don't have the age, scope and sheer batshit arcane complexity of NY's.

(Sounds like you're from outside the US, so I should point out too that New York as a whole — and the subway in particular — are much, much safer now than the reputation they picked up in the 70s and 80s.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:46 AM on September 8, 2009

DC, New York, Chicago and San Francisco are all places I have been with and without children. My children were 8 and 11 the last time we went to New York and DC (last year), and I grew up near Chicago. I have been to SF but my kids haven't.

All of them are great for science, museums, science museums, and geeky/geniusy stuff. Not all of them are great for kids on the spectrum. I have one myself. He did really well in DC, and practically shut down in NYC, despite being on the sensory seeking end of things. If you have a sensory avoider, I would maybe not go to NYC. I haven't taken him to Chicago in ages but he did well there when he was much younger. I imagine he'd do just fine in SF. But really, NYC was mostly just too much for him. He was pretty much done after the first day. Just for comparison's sake, we stayed in London for two months this summer and he wants to move there when he's older. It's as busy as NYC (though not non-stop busy, like NYC) but it's not nearly as loud. Not even close.

Every kid is different, I know.
posted by cooker girl at 7:50 AM on September 8, 2009

The Computer History Museum in the SFBay area is sort of the Medina of geekdom. They've built a fully functional Babbage differential engine.
posted by jeffamaphone at 9:03 AM on September 8, 2009

I just got back a couple weeks ago from a two-day flurry of museum-ing in Chicago, and it would definitely fit the bill. Museum of Science and Industry had a U-boat and a Harry Potter exhibit on in addition to all their cool normal stuff, and was packed to the gills with kids; Field Museum was a little less kid-packed, but plenty there for everyone; Shedd was showing/practicing a new show, which was a bit hokey but different than the standard "walk around and look at glass cages" thing; Adler was fun as always, but I didn't get much time there (I missed things as it was, and could have filled another day or two to really take my time everywhere). Buying a CityPass was a pretty good deal, overall.

One surprise to me was that I ended up spending a good amount of night-time (after the museums close) at Navy Pier. I went just to check out the water view, and ended up taking a architectural boat tour from there, and spending extra hours just looking around.
posted by Pufferish at 9:09 AM on September 8, 2009

I Nth Washington DC and/or Boston, MA.

Washington DC has lots of free museums, but I think Boston might be a great fit for museum content. In particular, the Museum of Science and the MIT Museum. For a five-year-old, the Children's Museum is a good bet too.

If you want to pack in a bunch of museums, you could try getting a multi-attraction pass like this, I think they save money. The site can also be helpful in learning about local lesser-known attractions.
posted by Sprout the Vulgarian at 9:34 AM on September 8, 2009

No specific recommendations, but some generalities:

Don't overestimate how much a 5-year-old will remember, at that age it is more about steps along the way, rather than laying down a lot of permanent memories. So don't feel guilty about not cramming your days with every museum available. Go with fanning the flames of science love by concentrating on a few things that look real fun, cut your losses quickly if they are not, and make sure you personally get some time on the things you enjoy. Don't feel your holiday must be totally subordinated to a young child who won't remember everything.

Do buy guidebooks/bookmark websites/buy small items from the museum bookshop so that you can keep the discussions going.

I think the hands-on kids' science "exploratorium" type interactive exhibitions are not really good value and they are a bit repetitive-- I would not include more than one and might skip even that if you have a good one at home.
posted by Idcoytco at 9:47 AM on September 8, 2009

I also recommend Philadelphia. It is a lot less crowded than DC and NYC.
posted by useyourmachinegunarm at 9:50 AM on September 8, 2009

Many of the museums in New York, including the American Museum of Natural History, are free (or have a suggested price, which means you can pay whatever you're able) as well.
posted by ocherdraco at 9:52 AM on September 8, 2009

DC was amazing when I was a kid. Loved the Air and Space museum trips I did with my mom very much.
posted by sully75 at 10:20 AM on September 8, 2009

I think Chicago tourist folks are aiming right for folks like you because they have put together: Science Chicago which has lots to see and do for the science minded.

Here is my recommendations:

They have the German U-505 U-boat at MSI or as I like to call it the Museum of science & Industry- which is awesome. You get to crawl around inside. Can't go wrong with crawling around inside a sub. The museum has lots of other stuff. Get the pass and break it into two days though & pop outside for ice cream otherwise it can be a bit much - it is just huge.

The USS Cobia
Spend the NIGHT on the sub. Yea. That is a near fully functioning WWII US sub sitting in a harbor a couple of hours north of Chicago, and sure, you could crawl around it and see how the Yanks built theirs different from the Germans, but you could also spend the whole night inside. I am rather fascinated with that prospect, and having been inside this boat, somewhat terrified. Possibly the most epic thing I can think of that is open to the public in the area.

On the way you can get a ride in a Tank for a whole 10$. What? You will be visiting America - and yes, you can ride around in a tank or have someone drive one over a car here.

Space & Astronomy:
Props to the Adler Planetarium which is on museum campus with the big fish tank and the Field museum.

And you might be able to see science in action over at the Fermi lab and then over at Argonne where you'll have to fill out the Foreign National Access Request Form to get in the door. And it's best for kids who are over 16.
posted by zenon at 10:33 AM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

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