If you live in Central New York and have children, a trip to the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester should land at the top of your must-do list, especially during these long, bleak winter months.
In fact, a day or weekend trip to Rochester could focus on Strong, mostly because it offers thousands of fun and fascinating activities for your child to do. Strong offers everything from shopping in a full-fledged grocery store to walking through a giant kaleidoscope to exploring the world of literature in an endless maze of kid-sized settings.
Infants and toddlers have a blast, too, because the museum offers padded play areas, sandboxes, and exhibits such as Sesame Street and Kid to Kid that allow even the littlest explorers to fly helicopters, drive a taxi, host a tea party and dress up to their heart’s content.
For veteran visitors, Strong keeps the museum interesting by constantly adding, changing and improving exhibits. This winter, for example, the exhibit Grossology: The (Impolite) Science of the Human Body offers imaginative displays to teach children about runny noses, body odor and other functions. That exhibit runs through May 19. On April 26, a new and long-term Berenstain Bears exhibit will open for the first time, celebrating hundreds of children’s books by Stan and Jan Berenstain.
So you might want to head to Strong this winter, especially during the upcoming school break, but where do you start? When’s the best time to go? What should you bring? Where do you eat? And what about the Dancing Wings Butterfly Garden, which tacks on an extra $3 to the general admission price of $7 for children (ages 2 to 17) and $9 for adults?
To answer such questions, Family Times visited Strong and talked to parents, children, and museum employees to come up with some useful tips for visitors.
Traveling to Strong Museum from Syracuse is a breeze. Head west on the New York State Thruway to Exit 45 (Rochester), then follow I-490 West until you reach Exit 16 (the Clinton Avenue, Downtown exit). At the first light, take a right onto Woodbury Boulevard. Drive straight until you reach the Strong Museum entrance.
Parking is free and plentiful, especially if you get there before 10 a.m., when the museum opens. As with most popular attractions, it is always worth the effort to get to the museum early, before the biggest crowds arrive. If the parking lot is full, which usually only happens during busy weekends or school breaks, signs will direct you to nearby city parking garages, which have varied but modest fees, depending on how long you plan to stay.
If you can’t arrive early, other quieter times include early and mid-afternoon, when many parents take their children home for naps. Just keep in mind that the museum closes at 5 p.m. every day of the week except Friday, when it stays open until 8 p.m.
Friday evening, in fact, is an excellent time to go—a time that is considered a “really big secret” by Strong regulars, says Susan Trien, the museum’s director of public relations and advertising. Because of the extended hours, some parents bring their children in pajamas and let them play until bedtime. That might be especially convenient if you’re staying at one of the nearby hotels.
Strong offers several choices in its spacious cafeteria, such as Pizza Hut, Subway and Taco Bell, as well as a sit-down diner. Nonetheless, most parents suggest bringing your own snacks, drinks and a picnic lunch—a practice the museum encourages. By bringing food, which you can eat in the huge cafeteria, you avoid the extra expense and the hassle of standing in line for food when the crowds are heavy.
If you’re thinking of leaving the museum for lunch and coming back, be prepared to travel. Most nearby restaurants in downtown Rochester cater to adult crowds. Plus, Strong offers so much to see and do, you probably won’t want to waste time getting in and out of the museum and losing a convenient parking space. A spacious coat room provides plenty of storage cubicles for snacks and food; you can also store your lunches in a backpack or stroller.
Strollers and More
Strollers are definitely worth it. The museum offers a limited number of free strollers, but they don’t have the big mesh pouches that allow you to store essentials, such as diaper bags and snacks. Because of the museum’s huge size, you’ll also need the stroller for children who can’t walk far without tiring. You certainly won’t have a hard time maneuvering because the museum has large, open spaces between exhibits.
If you do have a small child, put Strong’s admission ticket—a small round sticker with a different color for each day—on his back. That way, your child won’t be able to mess with it, and you won’t have to worry about losing it.
For nursing moms, private rooms in the museum are clearly marked as “guest rests.” These are cozy, comfortable places for parents to sit comfortably and feed or change their babies. Shelves of children’s books are provided to occupy older siblings. If your child spills on his or her clothes, or you forget a diaper, guest services offer some emergency backups.
Finally, if the crowds are especially heavy, you might want to consider bee-lining to the very back of the museum first. Most guests work their way from front to back, which means the museum’s exhibits at the front, including a 1,000-gallon aquarium, draw big crowds. Going the opposite way will give you more time and room to play, especially during school breaks, when crowds are at their peak.
At Strong, nearly every exhibit offers something interesting or fun to do, so narrowing the list to a few “must-dos” is nearly impossible. Still, if you are only going for one day, or have limited time, here are the exhibits that many parents and children recommend:
The Super Kids Market. With few exceptions, the Wegmans child-sized grocery store appeals to children of all ages. Shoppers use metal carts to stock up on produce, bakery, deli goods, and meat that all look real. The best part: the checkout line has the moving black conveyer belt, a scanner that beeps, and a cash register that rings up your order with a receipt. The store also has only one entrance, which means it’s easy to keep track of your child.
Field of Play. This new addition came with a major renovation of Strong in 2006. It features loads of fun, from walking through a giant kaleidoscope to climbing a rock wall to using pulleys to push balls through a giant overhead ball machine.
A huge favorite is the slanted room, where visual cues defy the laws of gravity and trick you into thinking you can stand up. (You can’t!) Another must-see area is called “A Room with a Viewpoint,” which teaches children about perspective. Children stand in one part of the room and look tiny; they stand in another part of the same room and look huge.
Kid to Kid. This area includes a life-size helicopter, a whaling ship, a dress-up stage and a post office. On a recent visit, children sitting in the helicopter’s huge cockpit had loads of fun doing radio transmissions.
This area is not enclosed, however, so you will have to keep a close eye on youngsters prone to wandering off. If you are looking for a terrific enclosed area, the nearby “One History Place” offers big and small trains, an old-fashioned kitchen with tea-party essentials, and dress-up clothes in a section with only one entrance.
Reading Adventureland. This 12,000-square-foot zone is often referred to as a “life-size pop-up book.” Children feel like they are living in storybooks that include mysteries, adventures, fairy tales, wizards and “nonsense” themes. You can climb a beanstalk, walk through a secret door in a bookshelf, play chess with giant pieces, and explore a shipwreck. This section is so big and interesting, it could have been its own museum.
Make It & Take It. Veterans of Strong love all sorts of craft tables that are sprinkled throughout the museum. Children can find a seat, plop down and make anything imaginable—hats, signs, posters, designs—with bins of supplies that never seem to run out. The best part: Your kids can take their creations home.
The Dancing Wings Butterfly Garden. In this exhibit, 500 to 800 colorful, butterflies flutter about and sometimes land on you as you walk along a paved path in a rain-forest environment. Visitors sign up for 20-minute visits in advance.
Is it worth the $3 addition to the admission price? Most parents say yes, but they also have a lot of “ifs.” If your child is not particularly interested in butterflies, or is too young to appreciate them, don’t bother. If she might get upset when a butterfly lands on her, do not buy the ticket. If she might be uncomfortable in the warm and humid conditions (the temperature is about 84 degrees, and the humidity is more than 70 percent), don’t do it.
On the other hand, children who are old enough love spotting the butterflies in the foliage. A large chrysalis case, which is my favorite part of the exhibit, allows you to see emerging butterflies.
Finally, you should never visit Strong with the idea of hurrying, despite having so much to see. If your child wants to spend an hour doing a craft, why not let him? If your child wants to spend two hours inside Field of Play, why make her hurry? Regular visitors to Strong say the best visits are the most relaxed ones. If you really want to see something, but you miss it, simply make that your first priority the next time.
A final bit of advice may be obvious. If you have a hard time getting your child out of the museum, which is a very common problem, offer her a 50-cent ride on the intricate Elaine Wilson Carousel, built in 1918. The musical carousel, with its carriages, flying horses and whirling tub, is always a joy for children (and adults) to ride. Best of all, it sits right next to the exit, offering the perfect way to get out the door.
PHOTOS BY JACKIE WIEGAND