Generally speaking, once we have visited a city, we prefer to spend our traveling time somewhere new. Chicago has been one city that we have visited again, and again, and again and with every visit we always spend a day at the Museum of Science and Industry. With ten acres and 2,000+ exhibits, it is the largest science museum in the western hemisphere. With that much space, you can't help but find something for every age and interest, and you can be certain that there will be as much to see at the end of the day as the beginning. Use these tips to make the most of your time and tour the museum like a pro.
If you are visiting with a preschooler, check out this special tips section just for the under five set.
There are a couple of options for parking at MOSI, and both have benefits, depending on your plan for the day. The underground garage attached to the museum is convenient, especially if it is raining or terribly cold. Parking in the garage is $18 for the day. If you park on the P3 level of the garage, you will enter the museum on the main floor and not need to take an elevator from the garage. If your kids are like mine, and insist on fighting over the elevator button, you will be grateful to save yourself this trouble at the beginning of the day.
The other parking option is a smallish metered lot on Columbia Drive on the east side of the museum. Parking is $2 per hour, so this will be a cheaper option if you don't plan to spend the entire day. Parking here will also allow entering the museum next to the Omnimax Theatre and the Henry Crown Space Center. If you are visiting on a particularly busy day, you can skip the lines at the main ticket counter and purchase tickets right inside the Henry Crown Space Center. As a bonus, if you plan to see an Omni, visit the Smart House or the U-505, you will be right in the center of the action and save yourself a lot of walking. By the end of the day, you'll be glad you saved your energy at the beginning. This lot will fill quickly on a busy day, so arrive early for a spot.
Before you buy your tickets, check to see if you have a membership to a local museum that offers reciprocal benefits for the MOSI. You will save $15 per adult and $10 per child. The entrance fee does not include everything that the museum has to offer, so you will want to check out the museum website before your visit to avoid total confusion at the ticket counter. The Omnimax Theatre, U-505 onboard tour, Smart Home, and any special exhibits require an additional fee. These extra exhibits will also require you to have a time stamped ticket, so you will need to plan to keep an eye on the clock if you want to enjoy everything.
**A personal note about ticketing: Make the U-505 a top priority. You will not want to miss it! Skip the Omnimax if you have experienced a dome theatre movie somewhere else. Only purchase the tickets to the Smart Home if your passion for green living matches Al Gore's.
There are three sets of elevators in the MOSI and they each serve a very specific function. One set of elevators only services the parking garage and is located behind the ticket counter. One set of elevators ferries passengers from the ticketing floor to the main floor of museum exhibits and is located next to the ticket counters. There is only one set of elevators to move between the three floors of the museum exhibits and it is located in an area marked "red stairs."
Take Your Fun Outdoors
The grounds of the museum and the nearby area offer great places for picnicking or outdoor exploration once you have had your fill of museum exhibits. Behind the museum you can tour Jackson Park and its lagoons or the secluded Japanese Tea Gardens. A nice beach along the shore of Lake Michigan, complete with changing facilities, is an easy walk from the east side of the museum. On nice days, you will even see people flying kites and picnicking along the museum's expansive lawns. Normal museum hours are from 9:30-4:00, so with this early closing time you could easily enjoy a packed supper and stroll any one of these outdoor areas. The parking garage closes at 7:00, so be sure to end your fun in time to catch up with your car.
Not to Miss Exhibits and Tips to Make the Most of It
U-505 Onboard Submarine Tour: This is one of only five U-505 submarines still existence (that isn't on the bottom of the ocean floor) and the only submarine available for touring in the US. The onboard tour takes 15 minutes and takes place inside a very cramped space. If you are claustrophobic at all, this tour is probably not for you. The tour is exceptionally well done with great effects to give you total picture of the capture of the U-505 by US forces. To immerse yourself in the history, arrive 30-45 minutes before your ticketed tour time to peruse the pre boarding exhibits. Better yet, and especially if you are traveling with kids and you expect them to actually learn something, order the DVD from the museum store before your visit. The DVD contains all of the great videos that you will see in the pre-boarding exhibits, but you can enjoy it from your comfy couch.
Coal Mine: This exhibit has been on display at the museum since 1933 and offers a chance to take a narrated ride into the depths of a coal mine to learn about the technology of the mining industry. Even on slow days, the lines for this exhibit are long, so you might want to make this the first stop of the day to minimize waiting time. Be sure to stop at the restroom before getting in line and again, claustrophobics might want to choose another activity.
ToyMaker 3000: Kids begging for souvenirs are one of my least favorite things about museum visits, but this is one souvenir that I am happy to purchase. For $5, kids (and kids at heart) program their choices and watch as the automated process builds their gyroscope step by step. From assembly to quality control to packaging, you'll learn a little about automated robots and leave with a fun toy that is engraved with their name and date.
You: The Experience: A total redesigned exhibit that features the connection between the mind, body and spirit with hands on activities and experiments. The littlest kids in our group loved the Get Up and Move shadow wall that captured their movements and projected the shadow in a form of kinetic art. The older kids loved the challenge of using their brain waves to move a floating ball. (I'm not sure I should be proud of this fact, but the ball moves better with slower brain waves and I was the champion ball mover every single time.) One interesting feature of this exhibit is Prenatal Development that features 24 embryos and fetuses from all stages of development. The exhibit concludes with a tasteful video presentation of the beginning of life which can help parents jumpstart conception conversations.
Science Storms: This exhibit answers the questions of wild weather in hands on and engaging experiments. Be sure to take a turn inside the giant tornado. On a schedule, 1.2 million volts of lightening strike in Tesla coil suspended above the exhibit. Check with exhibit personnel to be sure you don't miss the show.
If You Don't Know, You Might Miss It
These exhibits are tucked into corners or hidden in dark hallways or just plain off the beaten path, but still deserve a look and might be your favorite museum treasure.
Pioneer Zephyr: Take a ride on one of the first diesel powered trains and experience the historic ride from Denver to Chicago in 1934. This is a 20 minute guided tour and is almost never crowded because the train is tucked behind the ticket counter and most guests walk right past it to check out the main museum floors. Check with staff for tour times to be sure you don't miss it.
Colleen Moore Fairy Castle: A must see for any castle lovers or doll house lovers or basically any little girls who love dainty fantasy worlds. The details are phenomenal.
Swiss Jolly Ball: This pinball machine contraption is 7 feet high and 15 feet wide making it the world's largest pinball machine. It is prominently located at the top of the escalators, but most visitors pass it by on their way to bigger and better exhibits. Feel free to pass it by, but stop back in the area and enjoy a snack at the nearby tables to give you a chance to check out the pinball fun.
Hatching Chicks: Chicks are constantly hatching in the incubator, so check this exhibit a couple of times during the day for the best chance to see a chick emerge from its egg. If weird science is your cup of tea, you will be happy to find frogs with glowing eyes that were cross bred with jellyfish.
One Final Note
I'm sure you have heard plenty of people say that you should get up early and avoid the crowds to enjoy the best of any major attraction. If you are not doing this already, this is a perfect time to start. Even during the slowest part of the season, this museum still gets plenty crowded and you can see so much more if you arrive way before the doors open. Just plan to get up early and go to bed early. After a day at a museum of this magnitude, you'll be happy to hit your pillow early anyway.
~Want more museums? Head to the Mother of All Trips~