Archive for Sunday, July 30, 2000

Union Station experiences rebirth with Science City

It’s an innovation in children’s museums’

July 30, 2000


— A cacophony of voices reverberates off the walls of the grand North Waiting Room. Children and adults share enthusiasm for the three-hour adventure that awaits them.

But these are not the voices of passengers who boarded hundreds of trains from Kansas City's palatial Union Station in its prime. The trains that passed by are idle. Many say that when their engines died, so did the station.

Admission to Union Station is free.Tickets to Science City are $12.50 for adults, $11 for senior citizens and $9 for children age 4 to 12.A passport for Science City and two shows in the Theatre District are $17.50 for adults, $15 for seniors and $12 for children.Keys to the city are also available, which includes admission to the Kansas City Museum and discounts on shows.In addition to the cafe inside Science City, there is a small food court and an upscale restaurant, Pierpont's.Expected to open this summer is Fitz's Bottling Company, a restaurant that brews and bottles its own root beer.

Today, the voices come from visitors to Science City, the metro area's newest interactive museum, and the impetus for the resurrection of Union Station as an urban focal point.

A city concept

When it opened in 1914, Union Station was the second largest station in the United States behind New York's Grand Central Station. For the next 50 years, it was a vital link to the rest of the country for passengers bound for business, pleasure and war on foreign soil.

But times changed and the railroads left town. Union Station's role changed and eventually the doors closed. The once-proud building -- with 95-foot ceilings, grand chandeliers and its historic clock -- fell to neglect.

Thanks to a bistate tax on five metropolitan counties, Union Station has been refurbished and has won new life at the busy intersection of Main Street and Pershing Road. And its heart is Science City, a museum where children are encouraged to touch, talk and think.

"It's an innovation in children's museums," said Laura Davis, a Science City spokeswoman.

Attendance at Science City has met expectations, she said, with more than 500,000 people coming through the gates since its November opening. This summer has been busy with numerous camps and summer schools bringing bus loads of students.

The museum occupies a portion of Union Station and a new section built to the west. It was designed on a city concept of uptown and downtown.

The Festival Plaza occupies what was formerly the North Waiting Room. It now plays host to Science City's street fairs, which change throughout the day and seasons. There's even a fountain where visitors can be immersed in water -- without getting wet.

Things to do

Entering the city, children can start in the media lab and make their own Science City Star newspapers or television broadcast at KSC-TV.

The next stop in Uptown is Music Park, a virtual sound garden of drums, bells and chimes. Around the corner is the Astronaut Training Center, a hands-on test of communications skills, controlling robots on the "surface" of Mars or conducting experiments in the Research Center.

Nearby is the train overlook. Freight and Amtrak cars still pass by daily.

Like mysteries? Stop at Mister E Hotel or the Crime Lab. The hotel houses strange exhibits that defy the laws of physics. In the crime lab, children work with a real detective to find clues to solve the case.

Other key attractions on the first level are: Einstein Towers, an apartment building under construction with girders and mechanical systems exposed; a combine simulator using satellite imagery; Tree House Nature Center; Community Nature Center, where creatures under the soil come to life; or the Hidden Treasures Cave, complete with bats.

On the lower level, the Downtown District includes a Sports Training Center; Secret City, where children crawl through the bowels of the city to study infrastructure; and Tot Lot, an area geared for preschool children, including a fire hydrant that spews bubbles when a wrench is turned.

Bobby Thornbrugh, 6, found the bubbles fun to catch with his tongue. His brother Michael, 6, was only too happy to oblige with a turn of the crank. The pair were visiting with their family from Castle Rock, Colo.

"This is so fun," Bobby said.

Davis said the average stay at most museums is two to three hours, but guests at Science City are staying as long as four hours, taking in all the exhibits and shows.

More things to do

Moving on, the Medical Center is a two-part experience. In the first, take a tour of the human body and discover what's wrong with the patient's heart. Then watch as he undergoes bypass surgery.

Next door is Dr. Hale N. Hearty's Family Clinic, a center allowing children to explore their own bodies through a series of simple tests.

In the center is the Periodic Table Cafe, an ideal spot for parties and families to grab a quick bite. Or take a breather and watch grandchildren play, as Ray Turner of San Antonio, Tex., did on a recent day.

"I have four grandchildren and they're going crazy here, and I'm tired," he said. "They all like something different."

Science City also features Discovery Centers, where children spend extended amounts of time exploring and learning. Two of these sites are the dinosaur dig and the test kitchen where children learn the chemistry behind cooking.

A city would not be complete without citizens. At least 50 characters roam throughout Science City, interacting with children and assisting their explorations.

One such character is Josiah, a straw hat and bow-tie clad musician who wanders the streets of Old Town. His role is to share stories about Union Station and the history of Kansas City, as well as play music from its rich past.

Old Town is an area for young and old. From an old filling station, to the train platform, to the telephone office to the barber shop, visitors step back in time to a simpler life when technology was crude and often involved a little elbow grease.

Josiah said many younger people have never seen many of the older technologies or gadgets used in Old Town.

"That often brings a laugh from grandparents who remember the times well," he said.

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