I've been to more museums in New York City and Boston than I have in Chicago. Not because I favor those cities over my hometownóI can cheerlead Second City merits with the best of themóbut because it seems natural to bust out the guidebook in a foreign place, while here I'm content to fill my time with things that don't require tickets.
But when yet another set of house guests came to stay with me this winter and I sent them off with a list of places I thought they should check out, I realized that I hadn't been to most of the places on the list in years. Some, like the Adler Planetarium, I'd never actually visited myself.
So for a no-brainer New Year's resolution, I decided to become a tourist in my own town. Since any resolution not accomplished in January is dead in the water, I sheepishly donned my tourism cap in early this month and set off with a Chicago transplant who gushed that the Adler was her favorite museum in the city. We arrived to find blissfully short lines on a Saturday afternoonóbut an immediate money dilemma. While regular admission was a decidedly non-pricey $5, seeing a show would raise the price to $14. My friend assured me the theater show would be the highlight of the trip, so after much debate between "Black Holes: The Other Side of Infinity" and "Space...In Your Face!" we opted to catch the edgy-sounding second show.
That left us with an hour and a half to check out what else the planetarium had to offer, so we climbed the stairs to check out the upper level. I was immediately surprised at how many people were taller than four feet and, of those, how few had kids in tow. While most of the adults were clustered in the galleries that hosted historical astronomy equipment and artwork, quite a few were upstairs in the more kid-centered areas, including a group of twenty-something men that stood mesmerized for 15 minutes over a glass-topped table with a crank that controlled the bubbling planetary surface inside.
Sweeping views of Lake Michigan served as a backdrop to slightly beaten up hands-on education tools. After moseying through the first gallery, feeling out of place and a bit underwhelmed, we decided to pass the time before the star show by milking the joint for every drop of nostalgia we could. We bought astronaut ice cream and raced each other on planetary jigsaw puzzles. We touched and poked and prodded every boxy hands-on display that we passed (who knew I'd be only two years old on Jupiter's moon Io?) and then headed downstairs to gallop through the more "grown up" displays of old school gadgets and charts. My favorite was an interactive sun dial that let you control the sun's motion as well as the season, though my fun was cut short when I realized an eight-year-old was patiently waiting to play with it after me.
We headed to the theater fifteen minutes early to score prime seats for the show, which would be projected on the dome of Adler's historic Zeiss planetarium theater. I settled in, fully prepared to have my socks blown off. Unfortunately, the show was more like having them gently tugged at: a 40-minute guided tour of the constellations that had me spending most of the time trying to figure out how the bobble-headed projector operated in the domed theater. The guide was refreshingly honest ("how these two lines are supposed to make a small cat, I'll never know") but I couldn't help but feel disappointed by the low-impact show and wondered if the black holes alternative would have been more spine-tingling.
Because the show ended after the rest of the planetarium closed, the whole audience exited at once, spilling onto the stone steps of the planetarium in the windy dusk. "I guess my third-grade memories of the show are a bit skewed," my friend said. And while I'd enjoyed the astronaut ice cream-fueled fun we'd had exploring the galleries, I couldn't help but agree with her that some things are best left to eight year olds.
Guidebook rating: Anyone with even a smidge of astronomy love will find something engrossing at Adler Planetarium, but gaggles of kids and some dated exhibits are also part of the territory. Grown-up palates may favor the (free) telescopes set up on the upper levels that provide some killer views of the skyline.
Stats: Adler Planetarium is open 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m., with extended hours in the summer and on "Far Out Fridays," the first Friday of each month. Admission for Chicago residents is $5 adults, $4 kids and seniors; non-resident admission is $7, $5 seniors, $4 kids. For more information check out www.adlerplanetarium.org.