Walking up to the structure, whether by daylight or in twilight (more on the evening fun at the Academy later), takes one’s breath away. The building is modern, but not intensely, annoyingly so. The glass and metal structure fits in with the green of the park setting and beautifully compliments the De Young Museum across the way.
Evening at the Academy is particular fun. The Academy is open every Thursday evening through October for “Nightlife,” an 18 and over evening in the facilities. I was fortunate enough to attend the opening night of “Nightlife” and must commend the Academy on this wonderful idea. For $10 ($8 for members), less than half the cost of a daytime entry, those of legal age can take in the museum’s exhibits and critters as well as enjoy the sounds of a local DJ and cocktails and attend lectures and Planetarium shows.
One of the benefits of the Nightlife experience is the lack of children–I love seeing kids at a museum enthralled by all there is to see, don’t get me wrong–but no kids means that adults can actually spend time at the various aquarium windows without sticky fingerprints and having to move on quickly, and there is no crying, just the sounds of the music. Most of the exhibits I was able to spend a good 2-5 minutes enjoying and locating the respective animals because the crowds were relatively light. And there was a definite party mood to the Academy, with complete strangers circulating and commenting on what they were seeing.
The opening night of Nightlife was a tribute to the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin, and yes, the DJ did attempt to get the crowd to sing “Happy Birthday” to the legend! There is a huge exhibit at the moment dedicated to Darwin and evolution with plenty to read and see, including a skeleton of an Elephant Bird, the largest bird to walk the planet (I reached to it’s knee). As I jokingly commented to a friend, between the evolution exhibit and the display on global warming, many in our country would find the Academy borderline treasonous.
But enough of evening hi-jinks and back to the Academy itself. When you enter, it is into a main area with clear signs pointing you to the Rainforest, the Aquarium, the Planetarium, and the African Hall, the main parts of the building. The Rainforest is to the right and is where I will start. Imagine something like a giant Habitrail ball, clear, 6 stories tall, filled with a rainforest–plants, trees, water and critters. Walking up a sloped ramp, you first are taken into a small room where you are told to leave food and drinks and warned to not touch any of the butterflies and also given a quick note about the temperatures inside. Then the door opens.
The first thing I noticed was the warmth and humidity. The Rainforest is kept at approximately 85F and misters throughout provide the humidity. The first dwellers you see are fruitbats, behind a glass in a cave-like exhibit. Much to my delight, the bats were very active, even though the darkness of the cave made it tough to see them. As you head up the ramp, you come first to signs discussing the part the rainforest you are in–canopy, etc., then to smaller aquarium-type homes of creatures native to various rainforest regions, such as Madagascar, Borneo and so on. Amongst the animals on display are geckos and frogs of every hue, snakes, and fish. There is even an exhibit that holds a Orb spider; sadly, I either couldn’t find her or she wasn’t out.
After you pass the aquariums, you come to an overlook area in each section of the rainforest, where you can see the plants, butterflies flying about you–if you are lucky, one might land on you, but don’t touch it if it does–and look down into the water of the rainforest, the best part. The fish are enormous and the water is actually the roof of the aquarium below, you can see people in the aquarium walking about 6 stories down with the fish of the rainforest above their heads. Incredible! As an aside, I wonder how many jokes about needing to save the people walking below will be made–I know I used the line twice already.
Taking the elevator down from the rainforest, you are deposited into the Aquarium, with a veritable feast of delightful and mind-boggling creatures to view, from a water-walking spider, to leaf fish, chambered nautiluses, sea dragons, to a very ancient and giant bass who eyeballs all, to venomous creatures. There is a “touch table” where visitors can touch starfish, urchins and crabs (even busy with only adults in the place at Nightlife!) and a section with swamp dwellers and of course, the penguins.
Tired yet? The Academy also has an African Hall, with dioramas of large animals and the Planetarium, which I will not say much about since I have yet to experience it. From the outside, it is impressive, a round building in the Academy, like the Rainforest, but not see-through. There is even a glass-fronted small lab (I affectionately think of it as “Geeks on Display”) where you can see Academy researchers doing their thing–even at night with a party swirling about them, I did call it “Geeks on Display” after all).
I will leave you on the Living Roof, one of the most interesting parts of the Academy, which is built to be a green building. Taking the stairs, you find yourself on an observation deck, surrounded by short walls, outside of which are plants covering the roof. The plants allow for absorption of rainfall and keep the building cool. Even the dome of the roof is covered with plants. Truly impressive and a great way to end a trip to the Academy.
That the Academy is new and still getting its feet under it shows at times. When I went over the weekend with 2 guests that had to pick up pre-paid tickets, watching the entry (I went in through the members’ entry and waited about 15 minutes) was an exercise in frustration as those who buy tickets in advance have to first wait in one line to pick up the tickets and then wait in another, even longer line to get in once the tickets are in hand–why bother buying in advance if there is no upside in terms of entry? Also, this was a holiday weekend and to the Academy’s shame there was only one person scanning tickets at the entry–a double shame considering the small gaggle of staff that stood next to where I waited debating if they should grab another scanner and help out. The answer, staff, is yes, you should have, rather than standing about and laughing and gabbing while those guests who pay your salaries stand in rain waiting to come inside. But I am sure that those things will iron out in time.
The new California Academy of Sciences is utterly impressive night and day. Go explore it if you are in town and able to do so–be prepared to be amazed, scared (by some of the creatures) and amused (by others of the creatures. If you go, plan on spending about 5 hours in total to account for waiting in line for Planetarium shows and the Rainforest, as well as taking in the Aquarium and exhibits in a leisurely manner.
watch the gallery:
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