Good news: your three-year old's admission to the glorious newish California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park is FREE. And thank God, because everything else about the visit will cost you.
This is how my modern three-year old compares to prehistoric preschoolers
I had high hopes for our outing to the Cal Academy of Sciences. I remember loving the rainforest walk and hoped that my three-year old would also enjoy them. But he's three, so he loved grabbing things and running away. He was go go go from the moment we entered!
Attraction highlights for three-year olds:
It seems like a lot of the enormous museum is lost on younger kids so it helps to have a few key exhibits in mind when you walk in with your young explorer.
- Penguins. So cute you could stare at them for minutes at a time before darting off toward the lemurs or petrified African animals. Find them near the entrance (or save them for the exit if you need leverage). Penguins exhibit reopens at the end of January. Do not bother to visit before then.
- Elevator. Self-reported favorite thing at the museum, the elevator can be taken to the rolling living roof. Totally worth a visit. There are also other elevators, find them all.
- Butterflies. I have heard from more contemplative three-year olds (ahem, many of them girls) that the rainforest walk is a favorite. I agree with them. The blue and gold macaws are stunning, colorful frogs fascinating, and curious butterflies just might land on a patient child. But not my kid. He practically ran up the spiraling ramp asking, “Are we going in circles? Why are we going in circles?”
- Aquarium. Brooklyn and her little brother, Landis, love the huge tunnel in the fish viewing area; it is the reward for walking all the way up through the rain forest and riding the elevator back down. Highlights are the tunnel of fish that surround you shortly after the rainforest walk and the “Nemo” tank with clown fish and lots of his friends from the movie. Benches line the tunnel for snackers and those who want a closer look.
- Tidepool. The petting tidepool lets children (and you!) get up close with starfish and sea urchins. You'll find it right near the rest of the fish tanks. Note, you can access the aquarium and petting tanks without waiting for and wandering through the rainforest.
- Tortoise. While waiting in line for the kids' play area, for which he is getting a little old, Sawyer enjoyed climbing on and off a big tortoise statue.
- Chocolate milk. As a reward for eating his $7 child's cheeseburger, my kid drank down his other favorite part of the Cal Academy.
- Explorer's Cove. Zayn and Ellis loved the children's play area. We hear it is the best place for a three-year old to touch stuff and play. This is where they keep all the toys. We'll have to take their word for it because after waiting at least 23 minutes (and climbing on aforementioned tortoise 7 times), we lost our collective patience.
Other tips from savvy three-year olds and their parents:
Save money and hassle
- Annika reminds us that toddlers and preschoolers are only good for about two hours. If you can piggyback on someone who has a membership, it doesn't feel like a big waste if you don't spend the whole day.
- Laz tells us try not to go on a weekend! Oops, we didn't listen and learned a real lesson.
- Lisa and Cara agree, Use the Discover & Go pass and pretend the gift shop does not exist.
About the food
- Under reconstruction when we were there, the usual cafe has been set up in a big tent for the time being. The line took forever, but the food was good enough.
- Max and his mom, Natalie, love eating on the outdoor patio; it almost makes for a relaxing meal. (Thanks to a complete overhaul of the dining areas, this is not true right now)
- Becky says that the food is okay but expensive, so they usually pack our own. Her girls, Maisy and Maren, like to run around outside too in the grassy area while they picnic. Wish I had packed a meal!
More details to plan a visit
Plan well, my friends. We had discounted tickets because of my husband's job and still paid $71 in admission, $51 at the lunch counter, and $19 in parking for a roughly 2.5 hour visit where my littlest one raced through and barely looked at anything. Gulp.
- RATES: Your 3-year old is FREE; Adults $34.95, Youth $29.95; Children $24.95 (Check out the Discover & Go program for FREE tickets!)
- HOURS: Monday – Saturday 9:30am to 5pm; Sunday 11am to 5pm.
- WEB: www.calacademy.org
- GETTING THERE: Lots of options to drive, ride, or bike. We drove but parking is crazy expensive in the on site garage.
Special thanks to my friends who contributed their three-year old's wisdom and opinions for this post: Karen M, Chris K, Becky M, Annika D, Lisa T, Natalie G, Cara C, and Anna A. Thanks to my son, Sawyer, who managed to see very little of this amazing museum during our three-hour visit.
[All photos from Heather Flett except the Explorer's Cove photo by Anna Azimi]