Throngs discover Port Discovery Children's museum opens downtown to enthusiastic crowds


Amelia Dudley's dream came true shortly after 1 p.m. #F yesterday.

That's when she finally climbed into the sphere at the top of KidWorks, the three-story-high jungle gym at the center of Port Discovery, the $32 million children's museum that opened in downtown Baltimore.

"I wanted to see what it was like," she said, minutes after descending from the structure's highest point. "I thought it was going to be fun, and it is."

Amelia, a first-grader at Rodgers Forge Elementary School in Baltimore County, was one of 2,527 paid visitors who came for the opening day of the museum, conceived as a place that can help kids realize their dreams and aspirations.

Featuring three levels of educational experiences and exhibits designed by Walt Disney Imagineering, the 80,000-square-foot building ranks as one of the largest children's museums in the country.

Within minutes of yesterday's noontime opening -- preceded by a parade and a raucous ribbon-cutting ceremony -- kids were in every corner of the former city fish market at 35 Market Place.

The crowds were so heavy that staffers had to issue timed tickets to control the number of people inside at any given moment.

"We feel we're really off to a spectacular start," said executive director Kathy Dwyer Southern. "The general comments we received throughout the day indicate that people had a great time."

Museum staffers saw a high percentage of people who bought individual tickets and then converted them to memberships, Southern said: "In all, we sold about 250 memberships. That's the ultimate complement."

Michael Spock, the children's museum expert who helped plan Port Discovery, said he was delighted with the opening.

"It was a fabulous day, an incredible day," Spock said. "It was full of tiny problems, which you have when you open any place.

"But there were also thousands of happily absorbed, completely bushed people. You cross your fingers, and sometimes it just seems to go right."

The crowd was about half adults and half children. Spock said he was particularly happy to see a high percentage of older kids, which some children's museums have had difficulty attracting, and to see so many of them "thoroughly enjoying themselves."

Spock said he was pleased to see that the mix of visitors was culturally diverse. "It looked like a cross section of Baltimore," he said. "It didn't look like the usual museum-going crowd."

Finally, he said, he was glad to see many of the kids staying three hours or more because that meant "they kept finding new things to do in spite of fatigue."

Kids have a reputation for having short attention spans, but that is not necessarily true, Spock said. "When kids become engaged, they really become engaged for a long period of time."

One of the earliest visitors was Madeline Plout, a first-grader at Chatsworth Elementary School in Reisterstown. She asked her mother, Kate, to bring her, she said, after seeing commercials for the museum on television.

Another first-day visitor was Matthew Hopkins, a third-grader at Mount Washington Elementary School in Baltimore. He had been to one of the previews this month and came back yesterday with his grandparents and several friends.

Matthew was especially proud that he found all the clues at Adventure Expeditions, an exhibit that challenges kids to find the hidden tomb of an Egyptian pharaoh. But he said he was frightened by the maze leading up to the tomb. "They made it too scary with all the sounds," he said.

Parents and grandparents had other criticisms. Several expressed concern that the coat room wasn't attended. Some were worried about losing track of their kids, especially when they didn't all want to visit the same area.

Marion Brenna, a Pasadena resident who came with her husband and two grandchildren, said she didn't think the jungle gym was exciting enough.

"It's a good idea," she said. But "it should be more of a challenge. Maybe the top should revolve or something."

Brenna liked the fisherman sculpture by artist-in-residence Steve Gerberich. "I wouldn't mind having that in my yard."

The museum's uniformed employees and volunteers are always available to help parents look for lost children -- or vice versa -- and the staffers can communicate by headphones to find someone in a hurry. Yesterday, the museum had about 30 volunteers to supplement a paid staff of 30 inside the museum, and no kids were lost at the end of the day.

So far, about 100 people have signed up to work as volunteers, and the museum needs about 300 more to work either behind the scenes or inside the museum, said Mindy Amor, director of volunteer services. "It's a great cure for the post-holiday blues."

Southern said she was pleased with the general flow of traffic throughout the building because there were no major "logjams."

Many of the kids, she said, started at the KidWorks climbing structure in the center of the building and then spread out from there, once they got an overview of the museum and figured out what they wanted to do next.

Port Discovery is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5: 30 p.m. Staffers say they will be fine-tuning the building in response to suggestions from kids and parents -- such as the recommendation for a guarded coat room.

One area that received high marks was Sensation Station, an area with activities designed for toddlers. Parents said it was a godsend for groups with children too young to enjoy the more complicated exhibits.

Many parents also said they liked the variety of activities, which range from classes in making bubble gum to a participatory game show about earning and spending money.

"I think it's really neat," said Debbie Kearney, an X-ray technologist from Pasadena. "The kids like it. It's fun. It's colorful. There's a lot to do."

At the end of the day, some kids didn't want to go home.

"We brought an 8-year-old, a 10-year-old and a 3-year-old, and there were enough activities for all of them," said Ronnie Weidenhammer, who came with her niece and three great-nieces. "The only one who's tired is the adult."

Pub Date: 12/30/98

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