Last Friday we visited the St. Louis Science Center. It's a "free" science museum for kids. When we lived in D.C, we got used to the Smithsonian, which is entirely free to visit and easily accessible by public transit or, if you're staying in the city, by foot.
The Science Center isn't downtown. It's about 3 miles down the road and not a walkable kind of road. You have to cross over an interstate. Plus, parking at the museum is $8, which is pretty much like paying an admission fee, since you can't get there any other way unless you live in the neighborhood or have a good understanding and the time and patience for St. Louis bus routes. Inside the museum, there are a lot of choices. The "free" exhibits are older and run down and more older child focused. The one exception is the dinosaur and fossil exhibit on the lower level.
If you're willing to pay some extra dollars there are, of course, extra items for you. The first is why we went in the first place: an exhibit called Dinosaurs Unearthed. Lots of giant, robotic dinosaurs, information on fossils, dinosaur poop, etc. X-man was a little scared when he walked in and saw a gigantic Triceratops making moaning sounds and turning his head.
"He'll eat me!"
"No, he's a herbivore, remember?"
"Oh, yeah. -- Is he real?"
"No, he's a robot. Dinosaurs are extinct. That means they're not around any more."
"Like a robot Superman has to crush?"
"No, like a robot you can control."
Then we walked around the corner where several of the dinosaurs had simple push button controls so that kids could make them move their heads, roar, shake their tails, etc. X-man was in heaven. We spent around 30-40 minutes just examining the dinosaurs and learning how they are related to birds. This exhibit was free for kids 3 and under, but it was $12.50 for kids and adults over 3. When we finished we visited the free part of the museum, where an employee excited X-man by telling him about the Spinosaurus, which was bigger than the T-Rex, but doesn't get any play.
We skipped the new I-Max theater showing of Under the Sea, since we didn't think X-man would be likely to sit still, even watching his favorite -- scuba divers -- on the big screen during "quiet time." Instead, we opted to pay $3 each for him to go to the Discovery Room and run out his "I'm not tired" mania there.
And this is where I think the Science Museum has kind of a good idea -- that they made bad. The Discovery Room is a perfect science learning area for kids 6 and under. It's like a compact, high-quality children's museum. Kids are allowed to play for 45 minutes at a time and they control the number of people in the exhibit so that it doesn't get turned to crap in a matter of seconds. I like the crowd control, but if you're not going to have pre-school friendly exhibits anywhere else in your museum -- what you do have should be free. You can still control the numbers with tickets and you could probably shorten it to 30-minute intervals, but seriously, it was the most X-man friendly exhibit where he could touch things and play with things and understand them. And the toys in the room were pretty fun. His favorite was the table completely devoted to space exploration. But he also raced cars of different weights, sat in a Teepee, played doctor in a hospital, etc.
Lunch time was spent under a ball track that is very cool. It zings brightly colored mini bowling balls (like a pin ball machine) around the ceiling area and into all kinds of crazy contraptions. Lunch choices are either Pizza Hut or a small café that has very healthy salad and sandwich choices. The downfall here though is the portions when it comes to kids. The only kids-sized meal that they offered at the café was a PB and J sandwich. X-man is more of a ham and cheese kind of guy, so we had to get him the adult combo (with a chips pile that could have fed a family of 4) and a sandwich that could have fed two adults.
The gift store was filled with fun science stuff. Seriously, I'd see if I could get dropped off to just shop there if I was in town and looking for gifts. If you're a teacher, they offer a 10 percent discount. There is also a Build-a-Bear store on the lower level that lets you create bears -- or DINOSAURS. X-man came home with a Spinosaurus named Sidney who is dressed as a superhero. :-)
Overall, I think you'd be better off visiting some place like the Indianapolis Children's Museum than the Science Center any day of the week. Indy has exhibits in much better shape and offer much more to the younger set. In addition, you know right away that you're paying admission for quality rather than having it sucked out of you for everything cool at a museum that pretends that it's free and friendly for the whole family.