Friday, June 12, 2009

The Shedd Aquarium's New Polar Play Zone

I took the girls to the Shedd today to check out their years-in-the-making renovation and new children's play area. We had a lovely time. We'd planned to go yesterday afternoon but the line was out the door and down the steps. I knew there would be another endless snaky line once we were inside the doors so we passed on the visit and walked over to the Field instead.

Today, we breezed under the inflatable whale arch and through the Shedd entrance around ten with no problem. We spent our first moments gawking at the sea turtle, rays and schools of fish serenely flying through the 90,000-gallon circular Caribbean Reef aquarium in the rotunda. Then we headed down to the Oceanarium on the lower level. The beluga whale habitat has been enlarged and enhanced, retaining the illusion of the coastal Pacific Northwest. The girls were entranced by the four belugas we saw, including a gray baby who has yet to change his coat to shining white. The whales waved their tails and fins and one spit at a guard to the delight of my girls.

We made out way to the north end of the Oceanarium and descended another set of steps to the Polar Play Zone. The thick glass walls of the whale and beluga tanks line the new play and eating areas of the Play Zone so your lunch could be interrupted by gasps as a Pacific white-sided dolphin glides by, up-side-down and only a few feet away.

Child-level wave pools invite little ones to get wet and explore the play and real versions of shallow sea creatures. The girls and I were amazed at the strange feel of spiny urchins and giant starfish in brilliant shades of purple and orange. Plenty of hand-washing stations keep kids and creatures safe.

The soon-to-be-interactive penguin exhibit is still under construction, but we watched the cute wobbles and hops of the birds before moving on to the highlight of our visit. A tiny yellow submarine, built for children seven and under fascinated the girls. They joined a crowd of kids working the knobs, dials and lit buttons of the sub, peering through the periscope, revving up the propellor and operating a tiny robot arm that picks up shell samples. The child-sized scuba tanks and masks to wear as they worked/played were in high demand. The role-playing reached a level of intense engagement that was very cool to observe; kids called out orders, bustled and reached over the instrument panels, completely serious in their fun.

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