Cal Academy of Sciences Is for Kids of All Ages - 510 Families
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Cal Academy of Sciences Is for Kids of All Ages

Thank you to the Cal Academy of Sciences, who generously provided my family with tickets for our visit. My family’s honest reviews and opinions are all our own.

The California Academy of Sciences is a truly impressive science museum for Bay Area families and it’s just a quick drive from the East Bay (quick being anywhere from 35-90 min depending on traffic). I recently took my four kids (ages 3-10) on a Saturday morning and I was pleasantly surprised that each one of them was highly engaged and excited for more than several hours. From the stunning Aquarium and immersive new Bug exhibit, to Claude the albino alligator and the new outdoor play space, there’s just so much to see and experience close up, which is exactly what curious kids want to do.

kids in front of aquarium
The Cal Academy of Sciences Aquarium is magical for kids of all ages | Photo: Julie Herson

This is by no means an exhaustive list of everything to see at the Cal Academy of Sciences since that would take far too long. Instead, we’ve rounded up our top three areas to visit for little and big kids as a starting point for your family from which you can further explore. Let us know your top three in the comments!

Favorite Exhibits for Little Kids at the Cal Academy of Sciences

Upon arrival at 9:30 am, my three- and five-year-olds were already bursting with excitement. Being greeted by a (masked) T-Rex in the lobby only further intensified their enthusiasm to epic levels (I’m talking ice cream for breakfast levels). There are so many cool exhibits, but only so much time when you have little children in tow. So if you’re looking for the top three most impactful exhibits for kids five and under, these are our recommendations:

boy looking at bugs with magnifying glass
Get up close and personal with all sorts of insects at the new Bugs exhibit at the Cal Academy | Photo: Julie Herson

The New Bug Exhibit (Level 2)

Fair warning: the Bug Exhibit does not actually have any live bugs in it. This may be a good thing for some (me!), or not (my 5-year-old). Luckily, the exhibit is incredible; visually stunning and highly interactive for young and old kids alike. For little kids, the otherworldly music, lighting and large-scale insect models may prove a bit scary, as it did at first for my 3-year-old. But she quickly got over it and had a blast interacting with all the different models and games. The real highlight of the exhibit is the bee section, where you get to learn hands-on how Japanese honey bees defend their nests from invading hornets. Be forewarned though, there is a small gift shop directly outside of the exhibit exit with very enticing bug stuffies and toys. Avert your eyes!

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Pro tip: Before you visit, get your kiddos excited about the exhibit with some fun at-home activities and videos

boy at bee exhibit
The Bee section of the Bug Exhibit is super fun. See if you can defeat the giant hornet! | Photo: Julie Herson

The Steinhart Aquarium (Lower Level)

What’s so great about all the Aquarium exhibits is that most viewing windows are low enough to be accessible to small children. My kids darted all around looking at all the things, so it was hard to keep track of them at times. Highlights of the lower level Aquarium are: Claude the albino Alligator, the Venom area (spider and scorpions and jellyfish oh my!), and the Philippine Coral Reef. We even saw a scuba diver tidying up the reef and windows.

child looking at aquarium
My little shark was enthralled by the different animals in the Cal Academy Aquarium | Photo: Julie Herson

Pro-tip: Dress your kids in bright shirts or glow-in-the-dark clothing, or have them wear light-up bracelets so it’s easier to keep track of them in the dark areas. 

The Naturalist Center (Level 3)

The “realness” of it all is captivating for little kids. Getting their hands on real specimens, from insects to shark teeth to hawks, is amazing for little kids. My three-year-old couldn’t get enough of touching everything, while my five-year-old was able to see many of the insects we’ve read about in his bug books. Being in the Naturalist Center feels like being in a real lab, with all the trappings of a real scientist.

child opening cabinet
My budding entomologist’s enthusiasm was palpable at the Naturalist Center | Photo: Julie Heron

Don’t miss the cute little library nook full of tons of picture books and several toys to further entice children to sit and immerse themselves in a topic that they find interesting. The Naturalist Center wasn’t crowded when we were there, but they are limiting capacity at the moment due to it being a smaller enclosed space, so you may need to wait in line depending on crowds.

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For more tips on the Cal Academy with little kids, check out our Three-Year-Olds’-Guide>>
child opening fairy door in log
Help your three-year-old find the cute little fairy door in the Wander Wood | Photo: Julie Herson

A fave for me, but NOT the kids: The Osher Rainforest Dome

The Rainforest exhibit on the main floor is truly beautiful and teeming with life, and it was my personal favorite exhibit. My little kids quickly became loudly uncomfortable because of how hot and humid it is in there, and run-walked the whole way through the experience. Wearing masks surely intensified their restless whining, so unfortunately we didn’t linger in there long. I will say though that when a massive butterfly the size of my hand landed on my three-year-old’s arm, the whining ceased completely and the magic of the exhibit seemed to sink in, at least for a moment. So just be forewarned that with a mask, the Rainforest is tough for little kids.

children sitting on bench
Taking a break at the top of the Rainforest dome, gazing at all the beautiful butterflies | Photo: Julie Herson

Top 3 Exhibits for Big Kids at the Cal Academy of Sciences

Big kids will surely love the Aquarium, Naturalist Center, and Shark exhibit too, but there are several other attractions that’ll spark older kids’ imaginations more specifically.

T-Rex with mask
The masked T-Rex in the front lobby cracked up my big kids | Photo: Julie Herson

The Planetarium (Level 1)

Children under four aren’t allowed in the Planetarium, and it’s not even recommended for children under seven (your call, though), so keep that in mind if you have children of different ages. We had to split up when we went, with my husband taking my bigger kids to the show while my five- and three-year-olds enjoyed the reef lagoon and Curiosity Grove with me. When you first arrive at the Academy, take a picture of the QR code for the Planetarium (there are signs at the entrance and near the Planetarium) to make a reservation for the next available show. Don’t sleep on this, the shows fill up quickly. Get in line about 15 minutes before the show.

microbes
Studying tiny microbes in the rocks Chile’s Atacama Desert may help us find life outside of Earth | Photo: Cal Academy of Sciences

My big kids said the new Living Worlds show was “totally awesome” and asked when they could go again. The show is great for their age group (8-10 year olds) because it doesn’t speak past them and they seem to understand the ideas presented about how we may eventually find other living worlds like Earth. Also, the visuals are super cool and the show isn’t too long. Adults will enjoy it as well.

Pro Tip: For those of us who get motion sickness, getting a bit dizzy during a planetarium show is a possibility. Just lay back and close your eyes until the feeling passes.

The New Hidden Wonders Exhibit (Level 1)

Older kids are better able to appreciate the types of exhibits in the new Hidden Wonders exhibit area since they have more patience to read the information and take in the meaning of the exhibits. They’ll get a real feeling for the work the museum does, from cataloging insects and extracting their DNA, to connecting the museum’s work to broader conservation efforts. There’s so much to interact with, your big kids will be thoroughly engaged.

boy using touch screen
The Hidden Wonder’s exhibit at the Cal Academy lets kids zoom-in on specimens with cool touch screens | Photo: Julie Herson

Pro Tip: It’s pretty chilly in this exhibit, since the specimens are delicate, so bring along a jacket to stay comfortable.

The New Bug Exhibit (Level 2)

As I said above, there are not actual bugs in the Bug Exhibit. But that didn’t stop my older boys from diving into the engrossing exhibit head-first. Their favorite parts were the interactive games, especially the bee and mantis ones. They also really liked the cool mood music and lighting. Older kids will also be able to go deeper as far as the learning aspects of the exhibit, reading and going through the touch screen informational sections. My ten-year-old, who loves all things robots, found the bug-robot section particularly interesting.

orchid mantis
The Orchid Mantis installation at the Cal Academy’s Bug Exhibit is fabulous | Photo: Cal Academy

More to Like: The Aquarium, Living Roof, and Gift Shops

All my kids have been begging to go to the Monterey Bay Aquarium again, but we haven’t been able to get there yet because of the pandemic. Happily, the Aquarium at the Academy more than scratches the sea-creature itch, and then some. Between the big kids and little kids, we spent the majority of our time on the lower level enjoying all that the Aquarium and surrounding exhibits have to offer. The Venom area caught my big kids’ attention in particular.

The Living Roof is pretty darn cool too, but there’s not a whole lot to do up there. Bigger kids will appreciate the views and novelty of the ecosystem on the roof.

kids looking at aquarium snake
The Giant Green Anaconda on the lower level part of the Aquarium is worth a look. So huge! | Photo: Julie Herson

And lastly, of course, the gift shops, which are strategically placed throughout the museum. The one just outside the bathrooms on the lower level, as well as the one at the exit of the Bug exhibit, are particularly enticing to kids. In fairness, they are nicely curated, with plenty of learning toys and cool little knick-knacks that won’t break the bank.

Pro-tip: Always have a discussion before entering the museum about what you’re willing to spend at the gift shops, if at all, and when the shopping will occur. 

Getting There and Parking

The Cal Academy has put together a super helpful page about how to get there and where to park, so I’ll direct you there >>

kids watching albino alligator
We were all convinced Claude the albino alligator was a statue . . . until he moved! | Photo: Julie Herson

We arrived at 9 am on a Saturday morning and found ample four-hour free parking on Nancy Pelosi Drive next to a large grassy field, where we sat and had snacks before the Academy opened. A warning though, car break-ins are a reality in San Francisco, so make sure not to leave ANYTHING in your car. The Academy has lockers for $8 where you can store your stuff. If you prefer to park in a garage, the Music Concourse Garage is only steps away from the Academy’s main entrance and may feel more secure if you’re worried about a break-in. Garages fill up fast on weekends though, so keep that in mind. Your best bet is just to arrive early (9 am) to get parking and avoid traffic.

Cal Academy’s Covid-19 Safety Protocols, Rules & Restrictions

Advance reservations are no longer required, but they are highly encouraged. (Thursday night NightLife is back if you’re looking for a cool date-night idea!) Masking is also optional now, though also highly encouraged in indoor areas. As expected, there will be enhanced cleaning and disinfection throughout the day. Nice to know: they’ve improved the airflow and filtration with an updated HVAC system.

As of this writing these are the vaccination requirements: Ages 12+: Proof of full vaccination required; booster shots strongly encouraged but not required. Ages 5-11: Full vaccination strongly encouraged but not required. Be sure to check here before you go since these rules may change again.

Plan your Visit to Cal Academy:

Hours:

  • Monday–Saturday: 9:30 am–5 pm
  • Sunday: 11 am–5 pm

What to Bring:

  • stroller for little kids.
  • snacks/lunch to eat outside (no food is allowed inside)
  • blanket if you want to eat out on the grass
  • magnifying glass
  • good walking shoes as there’s a lot of ground to cover
  • Bright clothes and/or glow bracelets to keep track of everyone

Helpful links:

The Bottom Line on the Cal Academy of Sciences

This place is an iconic landmark in the Bay Area for a reason. It’s located in the beautiful Golden Gate Park, it’s big and clean, and offers countless opportunities for you and your kids to learn and have fun, all within a relatively short drive from the East Bay. With the new reservation system and vaccination requirements, crowds are kept at a minimum and everything feels a lot safer. Yes, it’s expensive, so perhaps consider a membership if your kids are super into it. My littlest was so inspired by our visit that she created her own “lab” at home. That kind of excitement for science is worth the price of admission and then some. I know we’ll be back soon since there’s always so much to see and do.

toddler looking through magnifying glass
My three year old’s home lab, inspired by her visit to the Cal Academy of Sciences | Photo: Julie Herson

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2 thoughts on “Cal Academy of Sciences Is for Kids of All Ages”

  1. Our 3 year old loves the frogs and butterflies in the rainforest and the big wall of fish in the aquarium. Plus the alligator. He also loves to snack in the glass tunnel at the aquarium entrance. Plan for two hours, skip store, street parking, and bring own food.

  2. I was just about to reserve for this weekend after hearing about a new exhibit, until I saw the prices – Holy Crimony! What are they thinking?! I’m appalled, and frankly sorta disgusted… I think we’re crossing this off the list in principle. Absurd… And SF, enough lip service about access – Really, this is shameful.

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