"Kid museum" was oxymoronic when I grew up. Museums didn't want kids and kids dreaded them. The new age of museums, however, has gone from shush-up and touch-not to hands-on and squeals of delight, breeding a whole new generation of enthusiastic museum-going types.
Florida meets kids' curiosity with museums, aquariums and other interactive centers that open a world of new opportunities for the wide-eyed set: Captain a cruise ship, pet a stingray, make a Japanese fish kite, sink eye-level to a fish or fly to Mars. Your museum admission ticket is your family's magic carpet to anywhere.
IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD
When my son, Aaron, was in pre-school, we sought out the smaller kids' museums, where we could sit or walk a spell, examine and play without being distracted by what kids were doing at other exhibits. One of our favorites was Science and Discovery Center of Northwest Florida in Panama City, toddler-doable but wide in appeal.
Aaron liked best the outdoor component, where authentic historic buildings form a 19th-century Pioneer Homestead, complete with farm tools and home furnishings that paints a picture of frontier life. And what little boy could resist the nature boardwalk guiding him into the cypress forest crawling with skinks and box turtles?
At the Schoolhouse Children's Museum and Learning Center in Boynton Beach, replicated buildings including a train depot, post office, general store and farmhouse give youngsters the opportunity to dress up, role play and learn. The museum itself occupies a circa-1913 school.
Museum of Science & Industry (MOSI) introduces visitors to what's rare and fascinating about Florida. The three-floor main museum takes you from models and interactive experiments to an IMAX Dome Theatre.
MOSI's Kids In Charge! opened in 2005 as the largest children's science center in the country. Four exhibit areas challenge kids and inspire them to learn - from tiny tots to scientific minds in the Activate! and Investigate! areas. Lie on a bed of nails, play giant chess and serve your own head on a platter.
At two other Florida metropolitan hands-on museums, innovation also dazzles. Walk through the human body at Museum of Science and History (MOSH) in Jacksonville. Toddlers can escape into their own world at Kidspace with its tree house centerpiece.
At Fort Lauderdale's Museum of Discovery & Science, Florida EcoScapes recreates several realms of local habitat indoors. Its IMAX theater is 3-D.
REACHING FOR CLOUDS & STARS
Those mysterious men and their flying machines! More than 150 military aircraft make a field day for children whose imaginations soar at the National Naval Aviation Museum, a free attraction in Pensacola.
Kids learn most from climbing into the cockpits and flight simulators and doing a tour of the awesome Flight Adventure Deck, held three times daily. Here they watch and participate in demonstrations of propulsion, motion, air pressure, buoyancy and Galileo's Law of Falling Bodies, exhibits that seem more like games and goofing around than learning. There is a fee for the IMAX Theater and the flight simulators.
When it's time to leave the earth's atmosphere, space out at the Kennedy Space Center, a multi-campus complex where you can see a moon rock and meet live astronauts.
Step back in time and immerse yourself in a captivating journey through three centuries of St. Augustine's rich history, brought to life at the Colonial Spanish Quarter – the city's revitalized signature attraction experience in the heart of the downtown historic district. Experience 16th-, 17th- and 18th-century life in the nation's oldest city with interactive activities, living history demonstrations and graphical stories that highlight St. Augustine's unbroken history. (Colonial Spanish Quarter is currently closed, reopening in spring 2013.)
Nearby Old Florida Museum accomplishes the same goal by setting kids to everyday tasks as done by their peers from pre-colonial days into the early 20th century. Kids can grind corn, scrape out a dugout canoe, play Native American games, dip candles and more.
Tallahassee's Museum of Florida History's flashback begins in prehistoric Florida with a giant robotic armadillo. It travels through eras of early native Indian settlements, Seminole and Civil wars, tin can tourism and modern times. In Grandma's Attic, kids can try out an old school desk, historic costumes and vintage toys.
I started out as lowly krill on the food chain, but by the time the Immersion Cinema experience ended, I had advanced to loggerhead turtle, shark and humpback whale - despite bouts of starvation and close encounters with predators. In Sarasota, the Aquarium at Mote Marine Laboratory's virtual underwater experience involves families in marine science through big-screen and interactive small-screen media. "If you're not careful," the big-screen film introduction warns, "you might learn something."
Kids love the water and its mysterious fauna, and several Florida attractions feed their natural curiosity about things they see or can't see at our beaches and within our generous waterways. Mote's groundbreaking marine research is reflected in its Immersion Cinema, its 135,000-gallon shark habitat, and exhibits featuring more than 100 marine specimens.
Fort Myers' Imaginarium Science Center boasts 60 interactive exhibits that include live animal encounters, hands-on shows and a 3-D movie, “SOS Planet.” Discover the Hurricane Experience, explore energy and motion and visit the outdoor lagoon.
In Tampa, Florida Aquarium's outdoor playground lets you get wet, too. Special presentations go in-depth with swim-with-the-fishes programs, shark tank dives, feedings, shark shows and behind-the-scenes adventures.
Dozens of aquariums ranging from 10 to 900 gallons fascinate fish-eyers at South Florida Science Museum in West Palm Beach. Ever see a nurse shark, a bubble anemone or a lion fish? Meet these and other under-da-sea creatures in the cool wavy, aquarium-lined environment.
A SIP OF CREATIVE JUICE
At the Young at Art Museum in Davie, the possibilities are as endless as your imagination. Ride a subway, visit a cave and discover a dig in ArtScapes. Stomp to the rhythm, build sand sculptures and make recycled puppets in GreenScapes. Learn about far-away customs in CultureScapes.
At edgy Miami Children's Museum, the All About Art and World Music Studio exhibits provide juicy experiences that have kids creating their own works of art and sound. Children can enroll in age-specific classes where they can hear "Happy Birthday" to a Middle Eastern tune, sing karaoke, learn from local artists and experiment with painting.
Get familiar with nature at these touchy-feely places.
Crane Point, Marathon. A cave and reef display makes you feel like you’re on the ocean floor looking up to the water’s surface, and nature trails lead to a bird hospital.
Florida Oceanographic Coastal Center, Stuart. Aquariums filled with coastal sea life and hands-on activities like stingray feedings and shallow touch tanks introduce local underwater species across from the beach.
J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge Education Center, Sanibel Island. View the ecosystems of alligators, roseate spoonbills and much, much more. Become a Wildlife Forensic Investigator and help determine what caused the death of a manatee in the new interactive exhibit. Admission is free; open daily (closed most federal holidays).
Gumbo Limbo Nature Center, Boca Raton. Across from the beach, it holds tanks of baby loggerhead turtles and sea denizens. Walk the trail to the observation tower.
Calusa Nature Center and Planetarium, Fort Myers. From baby alligators to an albino raccoon, see live animals in the nature center, along the trail and in the butterfly and bird aviaries.
Marine Science Center, Ponce Inlet. Aquariums teeming with Florida wildlife, a turtle and bird rehabilitation room and a craft room are open to the public.
Gulf Specimen Marine Lab, Panacea. With a room full of them, this place takes "touch tank" to the extreme, putting gushy, prickly creatures safely in kids' hands.