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Monday, November 10, 2008

Review: California Academy of Sciences

We had a plan – go to the California Academy of Sciences on a school day to avoid the crowd. But guess what? It was STILL crowded. That’s not a negative – it’s fabulous that this institution draws so much interest. Just keep it in mind when you plan your trip.

We spent five hours there and didn’t see/do everything.

Some highlights:
The albino alligator. Visit Bonnie and Claude, the American alligators in their swamp habitat with the Bald Cypress tree and giant turtles. Claude is a true albino with white skin and red eyes. Claude came from a Florida alligator farm and is 13 years old. Albino alligators don’t usually live this long, because they’re a prime target for food. Camoflauge? Claude doesn’t have it. He also has poor eyesight and bumps into things frequently and you can apparently see his bruises through the white skin. Bonnie and Claude eat “gator chow” which includes vitamins, fish meal and meat.

3-D Bug Movie: I was warned that the movie contains images of bugs mating and bugs eating each other, but decided it was worth the risk. It turns out that with narrator Judi Densch’s British accent and use of words that minimized sexual connotations, the kids had no idea what the mating mantises were doing. I squirmed a little when the beetles were fighting over the female mate, anticipating the nasty beetles doing the nasty. But it was all fine. They kids did, however, notice bugs eating each other. “Ewwwwww” went the squeals in the audience.

This was a fabulous 3-D movie, not just because we got to wear funky glasses. The photography was beautiful and caught the bugs in natural states that must have taken them a long time to film. And there was a proud mommy moment when Zachary said “that’s an exoskeleton” and he was correct.

Rainforest Dome: We headed to the rainforest dome next. We waited about 15 minutes to get in there, but we got prepped standing outside the dome for what was to come. The tropical rainforest had bromeliads, orchids and butterflies, as well as bats, pitcher plants and leaf cutter ants. Further up, we found rainforest frogs (mating, thank you very much) and different lizards too. We took the elevator down to the bottom, where we were then under the rainforest river, in a tube looking up. Cool view, but the kids were hungry so we had to leave.

Steinhart Aquarium – we didn’t have enough time to see all of this great aquarium and need to come back. We did enjoy the large salt water tank, and earlier in the day watched one of the employees feed the fish with shrimp, from the top. The kids enjoyed the touch tank, which had sea stars (aka star fish) and some other creatures. We also liked seeing the upside down jellyfish that held on to the ocean floor with their body, leaving tentacles up in the air to catch food.

Carbon Footprints. Outside the rainforest dome was an exhibit on carbon footprints and ecology. The kids had fun lifting up the various fake food items, which told about their carbon footprint and how they could help the environment by eating less meat, for example. I suppose it was to be inspirational, but with every food on the table, there was something else you could do to help the environment. It made me feel guilty for eating anything.

Living Roof. Our last stop before heading home was onto the 2.5 acre “living roof”. This looks like a moonscape golf course, with two domes (planetarium and rainforest) covered in greenery and windows, and lots of plants. The plantings support wildlife habitat (butterflies, anyone?) The roof also stands to reduce storm runoff water by 3.6 million gallons a year. Below the green roof is set of solar panels which should produce 10% of the academy’s energy use.

The academy is vying for platinum LEED certification for its energy-saving properties and use of materials. For example, the the museum uses denim remnants for insulation. Their garbage cans are in a trio of “recycle” “compost” and “landfill.” If nothing else, you’re a lot more aware about throwing things out when the garbage can says “landfill.”

We look forward to going back and visiting the planetarium and the dioramas, and finishing our underwater exploration.

Tips:-Go early. If you’re not a member, there are likely to be lines if you get there much past opening.
-if you go on a free day, get there extra early. A friend went on a free Wednesday and was told there was a 2 hour wait to get in – and this was in the morning. The museum has a capacity per the fire marshall, and they obey it.
-Bring a lunch. There are two restaurants, including the Academy CafĂ©, where you can order sushi, soup, tacos, sandwiches or salad to go. But it’s not cheap ($6.50 for PB&J).
-Buy a membership. You’ll get in an hour early on Sundays and Tuesdays and go in the express membership line at other times. For $159 a year, you’ll make your money back after 2-3 visits (depending on your kids’ ages) and it’s fully tax-deductible.
-If you want to do the 3-D bug movie or planetarium, get in line early before the crowds do the same thing.

Where: California Academy of Sciences
Admission Hours: Monday-Saturday 9:30 to 5:30; Sunday 11:00 to 5:00
Cost: $24.95 adults, $14.95 ages 7-11, $19.95 ages 12-17, free ages 6 and under
Parking: free in the park, if you can find it. There’s a pay lot under the museum (I don’t recall exact rates, but we paid $15 for parking about 5-6 hours)
Where: 55 Music Concourse Drive, San Francisco (Golden Gate Park, 9th Ave exit from the Sunset)


  1. It's Bonnie and Claude- and I preferred the name she came with, which is Lady better than Bonnie, don't you?

  2. Thank you "anonymous" for the correction and information! After a quick edit, Claude's name is now correct. It is kind of sad to change an alligator's name from Lady to Claude, but it beats the alternative of changing it from Lady to Clod!

  3. thanks for the review, still haven't gone because I'm afraid of the crowds, know a little more of what to expect now.