Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Family Adventure: CuriOdyssey (San Mateo)

[Update 07/17: Since I wrote this post 2 1/2 years ago, we've returned to CuriOdyssey time and again, and it has become one of Toddler X's favorite outings. From an age perspective, then, he enjoyed it when he was 3 years-old, and is loving it now at 5 1/2. Definitely worth checking it (and Magic Mountain) out when you get a chance!]

CuriOdyssey in San Mateo has been on my to-do list for a long time, and we finally had the chance to visit yesterday as part of an outing to Magic Mountain playground and Coyote Point Recreation Area (the park that houses both CuriOdyssey and Magic Mountain). What a wonderful place! It's a combination museum/zoo (similar in setup to the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo, but I like it better), with both indoor and outdoor components. The indoor area houses a whole slew of fun, interactive machines and experiments, and the outdoor section features a small (but fun!) zoo and aviary, well-scaled to toddler interests and attention spans.

Though San Mateo is a bit of a hike (especially if you time it poorly with 101 traffic), I definitely recommend planning a trip up there and, if possible, incorporating both Magic Mountain (separate post to come) and CuriOdyssey into your Coyote Point Recreation Area outing. (Caveat: This isn't a great outing for young toddlers -- I'd say kids 2+ would appreciate it the most. See my explanation below.)

Here's the scoop on CuriOdyssey:

Hours: Like many attractions, CuriOdyssey is closed on Mondays, and open Tuesday-Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. I'm not sure if the Monday closures are just a winter thing, like at the Children's Discovery Museum and Happy Hollow, or if it's year-round -- I'll check on that at our next visit.
  • CuriOdyssey is closed on certain holidays -- Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year's Day and (bizarrely) Columbus Day -- but is open on others, even if they fall on a Monday (MLK Day, President's Day, Memorial Day, 4th of July, Labor Day, the day after Thanksgiving, New Year's Eve and Veteran's Day). Check the website to confirm it is open before heading in that direction.

Admission Cost: Kids 1 and under are free and kids 2-12 are $8. Older kids and seniors are $7, and adults are $11.
  • Admission Tip: CuriOdyssey is part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the Association of Science-Technology Centers, so if you are members of some of the local family hot spots, you may qualify for discounted admission. Happy Hollow, the San Francisco Zoo, the Oakland Zoo and the Tech Musum (San Jose) are all on the reciprocal list; the Children's Discovery Museum of San Jose and the Monterey Bay Aquarium are not. Be sure to bring your membership cards to qualify for the discount. More information can be found here.
  • Another Tip: Every other month, Wells Fargo sponsors free Community Days at CuriOdyssey -- the next one is on Tuesday, March 10th. Be sure to weigh the cost of admission against the crowds you're likely to encounter on one of those free days in deciding whether it's worth making the trip. If you're trying not to attend on a free (and therefore packed) day, be sure to check the calendar to be sure you don't mistakenly schedule your visit for one.
Parking: Parking at Coyote Point Recreation Area is $6, payable at a gate at the main entrance. There are several different parking areas in Coyote Point -- if you're just going to CuriOdyssey, you'll want to follow the signs in that direction and park in the lot right outside the entrance. If you're splitting a visit with Magic Mountain playground, you'll have to decide if you want to park close to one attraction, then drive to the other, or park in the middle (the large lot along the waterfront) and do a little hike to both (easier said than done with a toddler).

Snack selection at the gift shop
Food and Drink: You're allowed to bring food into CuriOdyssey, though there are some limitations on where you can eat, and you obviously need to keep food away from the animals. Though there isn't a restaurant on site, there is a little gift shop that has a good variety of snacks and drinks available, including Keurig coffee and popsicles (which, of course, we couldn't resist). There are plenty of benches to enjoy a snack (we picked the ones facing the river otters for some mid-snack entertainment), as well as several picnic tables in a small side area (though those may be reservable for school groups and the like -- I couldn't tell). CuriOdyssey is also located in the midst of the Coyote Point Recreation Area, so there are benches and picnic areas galore looking out over the bay (including a large picnic table area just down the hill from the museum/zoo). You can leave and re-enter with a stamp on your hand if you choose to picnic elsewhere.

The picnic area just down the hill from the museum

Attractions at CuriOdyssey: CuriOdyssey was a hit with our whole group (Toddler X, me, and Grandpa X) right from the outset. The setting is gorgeous, on a hill looking down at the bay, with a harbor off to your right and lovely trees all around. Out front of the museum/zoo sits a big fish bowl-type thing with some koi swimming around -- that, itself, could've entertained Toddler X for a good amount of time. But it's once you get inside that you realize what a special place you've found.

Here are some highlights:
  • The water play area: Toddler X loves any activity involving water, so it was no surprise that he was delighted with the super cool flowing water/sand table, where kids get to move sand around and insert pipes and dams to change the flow of water from one end of the table to another. They have stools to make the table toddler-accessible, and a fun little hand-wash fountain off to the side. Next to the table is a fun contraption where you turn a wheel to raise water up a pulley, which then causes a whole cascade of effects -- cool, but it was hard for Toddler X to manage turning the wheel and looking up to see the cascade, so you may find yourself doing the turning so your toddler can step back and see the effects. There's also a water wall, where again kids can experiment with diverting water and seeing how gravity affects the flow. These activities are all outside, but under awnings; I think they'd be available regardless of the weather.

  • The animal tunnel (Toddler X's name for it -- it's just an indoor corridor of animal habitats): This is a neat way to see some of the zoo's smaller creatures, including snakes (a rattler!), lizards and toads. There are also windows into the bobcat, fox and raccoon enclosures, and specifically into the areas where they curl up to sleep, which was nice because all were asleep during our visit. Several of the windows have little metal steps that a toddler can stand on to get a better view.
  • The river otters: Oh, they're just adorable! Two delightfully playful little river otters kept the visitors (including the three of us) entertained for a long time -- they totally notice the crowds at their viewing area, and clearly enjoy showing off their fun tricks! A volunteer explained that they're a breeding pair -- the female was a castoff from another zoo where they only wanted males, and the male was injured in the wild and rescued (CuriOdyssey's animals are all animals that couldn't survive in the wild). They're hoping they'll breed to bring new genetic material into the zoo population of river otters -- obviously it's not often that a zoo-born animal gets to breed with a wild one. Kind of neat to learn about the genetics and planning involved!
  • The wind tubes: All of the indoor exhibits were cool, but these were by far the most fun for kids and adults alike! They have two large clear tubes with air blowing upward from the platform, and they provide tons of foam shapes that are light enough to float on the "breeze". Kids are encouraged to connect the shapes together to determine which shapes and weights are most aerodynamic -- it's particularly fun to create shapes that just hover in the tube, neither falling nor being ejected out the top. Toddler X could've stayed here all day.
  • The marble run: Toddler X loves any marble run he sees, and this super complex one, which kids can manage by turning a lever, was no exception. The "marbles" are actually bigger than standard marbles, so they're very easy to follow, and they're painted like cute little pool balls. Lots of fun.
  • The bees: At the very back of the indoor exhibit space, follow the hallway to the insect area to see a really neat bee setup, where they have a "hive" with a glass wall (don't worry, it's fully enclosed), with a tube opening up to the window so that the bees can go in and out at will. Basically, it's a glimpse into the lives of bees -- you can see them heading both in and out of the tube, venturing out into Coyote Point to pollinate, and coming back to make some honey. I found the whole thing fascinating. (They also have a tarantula and a black widow spider back there, which creeped me out beyond belief.)

These are just a few of the highlights -- there are tons of other exhibits to try and more animals to visit (we didn't even get to the birds!), but there's no need to detail all of them here -- it's worth making the trip to try them out for yourself.

Special Events: They feed the otters every day at noon and the bobcats at 1:00. There's plenty of space to see, though you may have to lift your toddler up if bigger kids push to the front. On Saturday and Sunday at 1:30 and 2:30 p.m., they have an "Animal Connections" show in their wildlife theater -- it's free with admission, but you need to get a ticket 20 minutes before showtime, and admission is limited to 50 people per show. There are also "Animals in Action" opportunities on Tuesday-Saturday at 11:00 a.m., where you can see the keepers working with the animals.

Crowds: We were there from about noon - 2:00 p.m. on a Tuesday, and I was surprised by how uncrowded it was. There was perhaps one school group of 15 kids (nothing like you'd find at the Children's Discovery Museum), but besides that it was all families, and not even that many of them. We had many of the interactive exhibits to ourselves, and Toddler X had no problem getting in to see the animals. If it were more crowded, it may have been less enjoyable.

Recommended AgesAlthough CuriOdyssey has plenty to entertain any toddler, I would say that most of the indoor exhibits are best managed by toddlers 18 months and up (maybe even 2 and up), as they require pulling levers or twisting wheels that take a bit of strength/coordination (the wind tunnels are an exception -- those are awesome at any age!). At just about 3, Toddler X was in heaven; kids aged 4-6 would probably enjoy it even more, and would be able to understand the lessons/questions involved in each exhibit better than a younger child could. A younger toddler would enjoy the zoo area (playful river otters, cute bobcats and a fox, cool snakes and lizards, lots of birds), but wouldn't be able to control most of the indoor exhibits (there's not a separate space for them like there is at the Palo Alto Junior Museum). I wouldn't recommend making the drive up from the South Bay just for a child under 18 months, though I'd definitely bring a younger child along with an older sibling. (Note that Magic Mountain is definitely an older kid's playground too -- this whole outing may be best for a kid of 2 and up).

So my overall assessment would be that CuriOdyssey is well worth the visit with a toddler aged 2+ (and definitely if you have older kids in the group as well). The zoo part would still be enjoyable for a younger toddler, but they wouldn't be able to enjoy and operate all the indoor elements. Plan to make a day of it with an adventure at Magic Mountain or a stroll around Coyote Point as well, and you'll have a great time!

And if you go, be sure to give our best to our otter friends!

Happy toddling!

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