Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Children's Discovery Museum Update/Review of the Voyage to Vietnam Exhibit: April/May 2015

Of all the children's attractions in the Bay Area, without a doubt the one we have visited the most is the Children's Discovery Museum of San Jose. Toddler X's first visit was when he was just 5 months old, and we bought a family membership on his first birthday. We've been coming back consistently ever since.

Given that we love the CDM so much, and that I have so many thoughts and tips to share, I must have written a big review post on it already, right? Um, no. And I'm actually not going to do one right now either -- there's too much to say, and the idea of just getting started is overwhelming.

But I figured there's a middle ground between saying everything, and saying nothing, and it's this: a brief, seasonal update on what you can expect to find at the CDM right now. So here goes:

The New "Voyage to Vietnam" Exhibit in the West Wing

This was our first visit to the CDM since the installation of the Voyage to Vietnam exhibit in the West Wing. In the past year, this space has housed the great Curious George exhibit, then the wonderful Storybook Land one, and most recently, the fantastic "Broken? Fix it!", so we were very interested to see what was in store. (For those new to the CDM, the West Wing is located on the main level, tucked off to the right, and can be hard to find with the current cafe construction; enter the museum, pass by the firetruck, turn right at the traffic light (don't forget to wait for the crossing signal!), and the West Wing entrance will be straight ahead, to the left of the glass doors.)

I'm happy to report that the Voyage to Vietnam exhibit is excellent, definitely on par with the previous exhibits in terms of activities to entertain and engage toddlers. While toddlers won't find familiar faces or stories like during the Curious George or Storybook Land exhibits (who doesn't love that mouse from If You Give a Mouse a Cookie...?), there are plenty of things for them to touch, play with and discover. Here are a few...

A scooter on which they can pretend to cruise the town...

A marketplace, where kids can shop for food using fabric bags (the little fish were a huge hit on toddler shopping lists!), then serve a meal to friends and family at the little tables behind...

A section with traditional musical instruments, all of which can be "played" by toddlers with easy touch mechanisms...

A super cool lion dance costume, which kids can actually get inside and operate...

A fun traditional game involving two big wooden dice (one with colors, one with animal shapes) and corresponding squares on the floor. While the game is apparently to guess a color/shape combo, then roll the dice down the spiral to see if you're right, Toddler X preferred a more Twister-esque "roll the dice down the spiral, then find the square with the animal/color combo indicated", which turned out to also be a fun way to use these implements. (Note: Be careful if your toddler is a thrower -- these dice are heavy, and could definitely injure someone as projectiles.)...

A touchscreen computer set-up where kids can create their own fireworks displays by choosing from different rocket options, then watch their choices play out on the screen above (Toddler X LOVED this!)...

A photo booth of sorts, where you and your toddler can get your picture taken, and then moments later see it enter the rotation on the digital frames to your right...

A kitchen area with some traditional Vietnamese cooking implements and foods (a nice place to visit if the main kitchen in the museum is packed)...

And a toddler-high touchscreen map to let you explore Asia a bit (Toddler X loves anything with a touchscreen, so he enjoyed this as well).

Overall, while a toddler will likely not take any great cultural lessons away from a visit to the Voyage to Vietnam exhibit, you probably will (there are lots of interesting notes and explanations at each station), and your toddler will have had a blast manipulating things at the various stations, so overall, everyone will be happy.

Note that the exhibit is expected to be in the West Wing through May, and in June portions of it will move upstairs to the area where the Circles exhibit is currently housed. 

And more news...a staffer shared with me today that the next resident of the West Wing will be a little girl who carries a purple backpack, has a little monkey pal named Boots, and loves to set off on world adventures. Any guesses? :)

The Cafe Situation

As you may recall, the CDM made a big switch in its food service last year, ending the contract with Hope Services (which provides employment for adults who might otherwise have difficulty finding a job, and who were incredibly conscientious and caring workers at the CDM) and bringing in an outside vendor for a temporary fix.

Now the project has gone even farther, with the original cafe area completely closed for renovation, and a little side area (where the stagecoach and Imagination Playground blocks have recently been) opened up, with prepared salads and sandwiches, snacks and drinks being sold from large refrigerators. I think the same food vendor (can't recall the name, but they're from Palo Alto, I believe) is providing the food. There are a limited number of tables set up in the rather tight space, with some additional benches facing the museum.

We ordered a turkey and avocado sandwich, a yogurt with granola, and a chocolate milk. Service was fast (everything is pre-made) and friendly, but man, the prices were steep -- with tax but before tip, those three items came to $16.15 ($8.50 for the sandwich, with no sides, $4.50 for the yogurt with maybe 1/8 cup granola, $1.85 for an organic chocolate milk box)! Having fed Toddler X and myself a veritable feast at Ikea last week for $7.02, this was kind of hard to stomach.

Admittedly, both my sandwich and the yogurt/granola combo were delicious, and the meals people around us were eating looked pretty tasty too. I forgot to take a picture of the menu, but I can report that it has a lot of variety, features indicators for common allergens and vegan options, and is, for the most part, very health-conscious. All the sandwiches are between $8-8.50, and the salads are around the same price. The kids' mini boxes are, I believe, $6.50, for things like an almond butter and jelly sandwich and some grapes, or cheese slices, turkey chunks and crackers.

Two tips for you: First, while the CDM itself accepts American Express cards, the cafe, operated by a separate vendor, does not. Bring another credit card or some cash. And second, the water jugs previously kept on the island at the cafe for healthy drinking are no more, but the CDM does have nice water bottle refill stations next to the water fountains near both the upstairs and the downstairs bathrooms. Bring your own bottle along and fill up there.

Oh, and one more: by far the best part of the cafe renovation is the fact that you can see behind the big white curtains from the second floor balcony outside the Wonder Cabinet, and what a sight it is -- a big blue piece of construction equipment, tools, even (gasp! Toddler X was so excited!) a shovel ("It's inside, mama! The shovel is inside!") and a broom ("We have a broom, too!"). If you have a little wanna-be construction worker, definitely head to the second floor balcony for a peek.

The Tuesday Factor (aka Avoiding Field Trips 101)

8 of the 10 school buses parked outside the museum this morning

While it would be awfully nice if the Discovery Museum were reserved just for toddlers, in fact it's a wonderful asset for all the kids in our community -- and yep, that means elementary school students too. On any given day, you can find many, many kids there on field trips -- sometimes three, four, even five different schools with whole grades of students running around.

While the upstairs Wonder Cabinet (just for ages 4 and under) is usually unaffected by these field trips (except for being a bit more crowded, as toddler parents move away from the big kids), the situation downstairs can vary drastically depending on how many big kids there are, how old, and how well supervised. I've had to intervene before when a (plastic) food fight broke out among 8 or 9 year old boys in the play kitchen, and three toddlers were literally cowering while the boys chucked food at each other (hard!), dove around corners to hide, etc. There was not a supervising adult in sight -- it was infuriating. While most of the older kids who visit are reasonably nice and respectful (today we had a lot of fun playing with several bigger kids in the kitchen, actually), you definitely do have to keep a watchful eye on a two year old in their midst.

Anyhow, given that we have a pretty open schedule, I'd be happy to arrange my visits not to coincide with field trips, and on two occasions, I've asked at the front desk when I might expect to find the fewest. The answer, both times -- and the answer that has been given to several of my readers who have asked as well -- is Tuesdays. On Tuesdays, they apparently prefer not to schedule standard field trips -- which doesn't do much to explain the TEN yellow school buses that were lined up along Auzerais and Delmas streets when we arrived this morning. (Update: After I wrote this post, I received a very nice note from the CDM explaining that the number of buses on Auzerais does not necessarily reflect visitors to the CDM -- the Auzerais underpass is just a convenient bus parking spot for field trips visiting any of the downtown museums and attractions. Thanks to the CDM for reaching out!)

The crowds were intense when we arrived at 10:30.
Ultimately, I think the answer is that you just can't predict which days field trips will be there, and even if you call that morning, they can't give you a specific answer as to how many kids or how many schools are expected (though they might be able to give you a general crowd estimate). Tuesdays remain your best bet for a minimal field trip visit, but nothing is for sure.

What is for sure, however, is that how you time your visit will have a big impact on the crowds you encounter. Most field trips, any day of the week, arrive approximately at the museum's opening time of 10:00, and most stay until around lunch time. If your plan is to be here from 10 to noon, know that that is the schools' plan too. At about noon, the museum begins to quiet down significantly; by 1:00, it can be downright peaceful -- see the pictures below. In fact, when we left at 1:30 today, all but two of the ten school buses were gone. (Note that this advice only applies on weekdays during the school year -- during the summer and on holidays/weekends, it can be a free for all.)

If you do arrive early in the day, during the height of the crowds, head up to the Wonder Cabinet for a while, until the downstairs clears out around noon and your toddler can go enjoy some of the multi-age exhibits in relative peace. Or, if your nap schedule permits, simply arrive later. The hours from 12-3 can be some of the most pleasant of the day.

Upcoming Events at the CDM

As I mentioned above, a staffer shared with me today that later this summer, an exhibit featuring a very popular Nickelodeon character and her little monkey will be gracing the West Wing, and I imagine that will be lots of fun.

In the shorter term, though, here are some upcoming events at the CDM:
The staffer also mentioned a special celebration in June in honor of the CDM's 25th anniversary -- I'll keep you posted as I find out more about that.

Finally, remember that the CDM is still on its springtime schedule, and is CLOSED on Mondays until Memorial Day -- it is open on Memorial Day, and then I believe it's open 7 days/week through the summer. 

Lots of time to spend at one of Toddler X's favorite places on earth!

Happy toddling!

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