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California Academy of Sciences

55 Music Concourse Dr., San Francisco, CA 94118

While kids may never get excited about the periodic table of the elements or fulcrum formulas, they will get excited about science at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. At a certain age, kids need to explore important questions about life on Earth. The Academy of Sciences is a hands-on place for parents and kids to figure out how things work – and why. Spread out over 400,000 square feet, the Academy's three major attractions (aquarium, planetarium, and natural history museum) show great examples of the planet's natural resources, from the water reclamation system to the solar-powered 'Living Roof' with 2 acres of plant species. Animal-loving kids can see the past and the future, from the Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton, to the tropical rain forest with a bat cave and an overhead freshwater fish tank (the Flooded Forest). Technology-loving kids may be glued to the digital planetarium and galaxy exploration tour. Penguin-loving kids should see the colony of waddling African penguins in the 25,000-gallon exhibit, complete with a rocky shore and naturalistic temperatures. Don't miss the feeding times and FAQ sessions (twice daily at 10:30 am and 3 pm), if your kids are the questioning type. Former visitors will hardly recognize the new facility; open between 9:30 am and 5:00 pm. Pirahnas at the Steinhart Aquarium are close (not too close), while fish and sharks weave through the Philippine Coral Reef. Small and great sea creatures at the California Coast Gallery range from the tiny tidepool anemone to the giant octopus. Each membership allows you to feed penguins, and gain access to the RSVP-only Holiday Nights show with live reindeer. There's as much all-ages activity at the Academy as in the on-site cafe. (Adults enjoy Thursday Nightlife shows, with earthquakes and alligators - and alcohol.) One Academy sleepover (Penguins + Pajamas) is the best mix of a safe outdoor family vacation. After planetarium shows and animal demos, park the family sleeping bags next to the aquarium (or swamp), wake up to a continental breakfast, and keep on exploring.

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Seymour Marine Discovery Center

100 Shaffer Rd.
Santa Cruz, CA 95060

From the whale skeleton outside to the live dolphins inside, there's certainly a lot to discovery at Seymore Marine. The views can be worthwhile even if you don't make it around to all of the marine displays, and it's always a fun idea to be able to touch a shark. The touch pools expand that option to hermit crabs, sea stars, urchins, and many other small critters that would probably be out of reach in a typical tide pool. The giant lobster can be seen, but not petted, which is good – the claws are fearsome. Also, unlike the whale skeleton, the sea lion statues are sturdy enough for climbing, so that somewhat qualifies as a playground feature. The whole Discovery Center is so popular on weekends – especially in the busy summer months – head straight to the tour sign-up sheet at the admissions desk as soon as you arrive. Some parents have been stuck waiting for a tour and missing the dolphins until early afternoon, but knowing that sign-ups start an hour before the tour begins can help alleviate that issue. Of course, you can spend an hour just wandering around the exhibits themselves, or staring at the lovely views of the cliffs and fields overlooking the ocean waves. Parents interested in topics like environmental impact will be fascinated by the displays on marine life impact on local areas, and conservation proposals. While this Center is not as extensive or as graphically impressive as the Monterey Bay Aquarium, it is definitely more suited for slower and smaller groups to wander their way through at leisure, and the volunteers have gotten many good ratings for their enthusiasm and passion for education. The Center's main appeal is as a safety zone that allows kids to touch ocean animals without fear. The secondary reason to visit comes from the Behind-The-Scene Tours, which are free after admission. The weekend 30-minute Santa Cruz Wharf Tours (1 pm or 3 pm) provide great insight into this half-mile marine lab, and great views of the otters and sea lions. Budding scientists will want to go on a 90-minute Marine Mammal Tour to hear about scientists' discoveries about the larger animals like dolphins and whales. Nature walkers won't want to miss the Younger Lagoon Reserve Tours. Bring sturdy shoes and jackets, and watch the calendar for Thursday and Sunday tour times, and call ahead to make reservations.

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