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Kids administer the final exam Tryout: Four youngsters examine the new Port Discovery museum from top to bottom and conclude that it makes the grade.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The thinking here, which luckily required a minimum of brainpower, was this: If you're testing the appeal of a brand-spanking-new children's museum, it pays to do it with real live kids.

After all, if kids don't like it, pretty soon your museum will be replaced by something such as, oh, Ralph's Carpet Warehouse, where oily men in loud sport coats discuss Berbers and area rugs like it was the World Series.

So on a sunny afternoon a few days ago, The Sun commissioned four kids to tour Baltimore's new Port Discovery museum and give us their impressions in preparation for Tuesday's official grand opening.

The third-largest children's museum in the country, Port Discovery cost $32 million and took four years to build. It enlists the considerable resources of Walt Disney Imagineering, Disney's design and development branch. And since museum officials are hoping to attract some 500,000 visitors a year, it's obviously important that kids actually like this place.

With the target age of Port Discovery (6-12) in mind, our distinguished panel was composed thusly: Luke Carlson, 12, of Cockeysville; Brian Jeffries, 11, of Baltimore; Sara Trotta, 10, of Cockeysville; and T.J. Sanders, 7, of Cockeysville.

Our visit got off on the right foot when the kids walked into the cavernous lobby and discovered two large tables overflowing with cookies, as well as two stations serving soft drinks. This seemed an inspired touch by museum officials. If you're a kid, how do you rip a place when they're giving you free cookies and fruit punch?

Privately, an adult accompanying the kids wondered if we'd find an ice cream sundae bar on the second floor and a taco-and-fixin's bar on the third floor, all but guaranteeing a rousing thumbs-up. But it turned out the cookies were also for the families of city hospitality-industry workers, who were touring the museum with their families.

With the kids nicely buzzed on sugar and chocolate chips, our first stop was KidWorks, a three-stories-high play area in the heart of the 80,000-square-foot museum.

KidWorks is a futuristic-looking jungle gym, a jumble of gray, black and chrome-colored stairs, slides, ropes and tunnels. Kids get to climb, crawl, slide, swing, ride zip lines, even traverse a narrow foot bridge three stories up. And they don't need to have the lineage of the Flying Wallendas to do any of this, either; the area is enclosed by a mesh netting heavy enough to catch a John Deere tractor, never mind a kid.

Our tour guide, program coordinator Carter Arnot, said parents are encouraged to hack around in KidWorks with their children.

"I can climb this as easily as any 5-year-old," she said.

Of course, Arnot happens to be 24. For the less limber adult - and this would include our four testers' accompanying adult, who is about as limber as a mahogany desk - there are benches nearby on which to collapse.

In any event, our four testers happily climbed all over KidWorks, a scene that had all the calm of a street riot in Jakarta.

Six to 10 paid staff members and volunteers, all wearing headsets that make them look like operators at Sports Illustrated standing by to take your subscription, monitor the action and assist those kids who need help.

"We want kids to take risks, though," said Arnot.

Minutes later, T.J. was doing just that as he swooshed down a zip line on the second level, his face frozen in an uncertain grin that said: "Am I going to check out for good this time?"

"Cool!" he said when the ride was over, scrambling onto a round, silicone-like pad known as Body

Music, which emits various, um, body sounds such as snorting and belching.

To a 7-year-old, of course, this is drop-dead funny, like a "Best of Seinfeld" video. (Note to nervous parents: On the second floor, next to KidWorks is KiddieWorks, a play area of multicolored mats, tiny ladders and tamer slides for the under-5 set too small to tackle the big time.

Although in terms of fun potential, KiddieWorks is to KidWorks what a Quonset hut is to the Empire State Building.)

The bottom line is that all four testers pronounced KidWorks "awesome," the best play area they'd ever killed time in.

A half-hour later, when it was time to move on to another exhibit, there was rebellion in the air. It was stamped out quickly and brutally - well, quickly, anyway - by the bribe of an after-tour meal at nearby Fuddruckers.

Our next stop was Adventure Expeditions, an exhibit that replicates a spooky pharaoh's tomb in ancient Egypt.

The object here, as you wind your way past various vases, tablets and mummies in a stone chamber, is to decipher the hieroglyphic clues to find the secret tomb.

"You're looking for the four secret signs of Anubis," said

marketing coordinator Kim Axtell, our new tour guide.

"Right," said Sara, who then mouthed: "What's an Anubis?"

While Anubis sounds like an aperitif, it turned out to be a jackal-headed guide to the underworld. In the hieroglyphics, he looked sort of like an angry Great Dane.

"Look at this!" Brian yelled, scanning an X-ray machine that lets the viewer examine the bone structure of a mummy from head to toe.

While all four kids seemed engaged in exploring the chamber - Luke was off examining a sarcophagus - none seemed particularly eager to decipher the clues and get down to finding the lost tomb.

But this was fine. Because when it came time to tap a series of lights corresponding to the clues that were deciphered, it turned out the lights were temporarily not working. Oh, well, the impeachment hearings weren't working, either, and they seemed lot more urgent.

After leaving the tomb, we passed an area called DreamMapping, where kids can write down their dreams on green sheets of paper and post them for all to see.

"My dream is to shoot 3-under at Pebble Beach," someone had actually written.

Another sheet, in a more child-like scrawl and signed by a boy named Stephon, announced: "My dream is to have a $100 bill."

At this time of year, the adults agreed, the 3-under at Pebble Beach was probably a more realistic dream.

From there we moved on to Miss Perception's Mystery House, where kids help the ace detective solve the mystery surrounding the disappearance of the Baffeld family by sifting through a variety of clues. Some of these clues are written, some are visual, some are gleaned by touching and listening.

Our four testers eagerly explored all six rooms, during which T.J. and Brian slithered through a "drain" in the kitchen, eventually emerging from a bathtub in the bathroom.

"There's hair in the drain!" T.J. shouted, in a voice that suggested perhaps a little too much realism was involved here - even though the hair was actually plastic.

But the highlight of this exhibit, all four testers agreed, was the Monster Closet, where the lights were turned off and the sounds of shouts and mice scurrying across the floor seemed eerily close in the pitch blackness.

"Listen!" said Marni Bloom, who works with the museum's educational programs. "The mice are carrying off Grandma!"

The idea of mice big enough to carry off a grown woman - big, hulking mice on steroids, with tattooed biceps the size of grapefruits - seemed intriguing to the kids. They also seemed more than a little relieved when the lights were finally switched back on, and the room was not, in fact, filled with rodents.

"That was my favorite place!" Luke said as we were leaving the exhibit. "The place where the rats were."

Uh, they were mice.

"Whatever. They sounded pretty big."

Big as buffaloes, we all agreed.

Our final stop was the R&D; Dreamlab, basically an interactive workshop where kids can build anything their little hearts desire. The R&D;, in this case, stands for Research and Development, and our four testers went right to work with blocks of wood and tools, attempting to build ... well, something.

"What are you making?" Sara was asked as she vigorously drove a hand drill into the wood, then hammered it, then stuck a green feather in the hole.

"I have no clue," she said. "Do you like it?"

There is, perhaps, no more frightening sight than a 7-year-old whaling away at wood with a bow saw, although Axtell said that when the museum opens, parents will be required to supervise their kids in the Dreamlab.

With the noise level of all that whacking and sawing approaching that of a Boeing 747 at takeoff, it was time to leave.

In the lobby, all four testers said they had really enjoyed the museum, and were sorry their visit was over.

"Was there anything you didn't like?" asked the adult accompanying them, in the interest of furthering the cause of Yellow Journalism.

For a moment, all four were silent.

Finally, Luke Carlson said: "Some of the noises in that Body Music thing weren't really funny to a 12-year-old."

Oh.

Gee, with that kind of monumental negative feedback, they might as well tear the place down.

At this point, all four testers reminded the adult of an earlier promise, so we went down the block to Fuddruckers for burgers and fries.

Naturally, The Sun got stuck with the check.

These kids today, they take you for everything you've got.

Pub date:12/27/98

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