IT'S A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD
Pittsburgh Is Kids' Paradise
By Nancy Pistorius
"The man in the sweater" has been gone for five years, but you wouldn't know it, if you visited Pittsburgh's Children's Museum. The wonderful puppets made famous on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, one of the longest-lived and most beloved children's television shows, live here among three floors of hands-on fun for kids. Parents who remember Fred Rogers' gentle, comforting words and songs from their childhoods may be elbowing their own children aside in order to get the chance to make "the little toy trolley roll" in the "land of make believe." King Friday XIII, Queen Sara and, of course, Henrietta Pussycat are all in residence. This year is the 40th anniversary of all Mister Rogers' creations, and what better time to bring the family to Pittsburgh to relive all the warm, fuzzy memories? And speaking of "warm and fuzzy," one of Fred's actual cardigan sweaters is on display. (I confess to getting a bit emotional myself, when I saw it.)
But "Fred's Neighborhood" is just one treat in store for families who come to this award-winning, newly expanded museum, a place where imagination truly rules! Kids can explore the Museum's climbing mazes, build and launch flying machines, use pulleys to raise themselves up in human-powered elevators, and get creative with silk-screening, painting, and computer graphic design. A whole area is devoted to water play, complete with raincoats and boots for the truly splash-happy. You don't have to be a kid to enjoy playing here (I can vouch for that!), but it does help to put your adult cares aside when you visit.
My very favorite exhibit was an interactive video installation called "Text Rain," which seemed almost magical. When I entered the installation space, I saw some wildly enthusiastic kids using their bodies to catch and to play with virtual falling letters. Then I noticed a live video image of myself combined with animated letters raining down on me from above. Like rain or snow, the letters landed on my head and arms, and could be caught, lifted, and let fall again. By catching enough letters, I could even decipher words and phrases in the "text rain." It was an exhilarating and enchanting experience, which I will never forget. Judging from the looks on the faces of the kids who were exploring the exhibit with me, they won't soon forget the magic, either.
The Children's Museum is not the only family-friendly attraction in Pittsburgh. Families should come to Pittsburgh prepared to play! Plan to spend at least a day at one of America's finest children's zoos, the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium, home to more than 2,000 animals in natural settings. From meerkats to monkeys, tigers to tarantulas, and gorillas to giraffes, the Pittsburgh Zoo has it all, including two adorable baby elephants. The zoo's latest exhibit, "Water's Edge," features three new habitats—for polar bears, sea otters, and walruses. The polar bears are real clowns—and you can walk onto a pier to get another view of them from eye level and underwater!
Ever since Kids Kingdom opened in the Pittsburgh Zoo, parents are proud to say that their kids act just like animals. That's because the interactive facility is chock-full of playground equipment that lets kids replicate animal behaviors. Kids Kingdom is a place where kids—and their grownups—can run wild! There are penguin slides, and naked mole rat habitats, where kids can tunnel until they tire. There are plenty of hands-on animal experiences like the walk-through Deer Yard, the friendly Goat Yard, and even a walk-through Kangaroo Yard, where kids can reach out and touch kangaroos! A special bat flyway brings you up-close-and-personal with 300 of these winged mammals. (You'll hear their vocalizations and feel the breeze from their wings as they fly about on the other side of string wire, but don't worry--you won't be required to play patty-cake!)
With the theme "Diversity of Water," the 45,000-square-foot PPG Aquarium is home to more than 4,000 aquatic animals from around the world, including penguins, stingrays, jellyfish, and an electric eel. The $17.4 million facility flows with 380,000 gallons of water (salt and fresh) and houses more than 40 exhibits. Your little mermaid or merman might especially enjoy the Stingray Tunnel, where children can crawl through a clear tunnel to view stingrays swimming above and alongside them.
Can you dig it? Yes, if you head with your pint-sized amateur paleontologists to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History's Bonehunters Quarry, where hands-on excavation is encouraged. Children aged 10 and under (accompanied by an adult) will be transported to Dinosaur National Monument in Utah, where Carnegie paleontologists have been digging for fossils since 1909. After being issued protective goggles, a chisel, and a brush, your kids can chip away at rock matrix to reveal realistic fossil casts buried below. The real dinosaur collection, one of the finest in the world—including the imposing T. Rex—is in Dinosaur Hall, which recently underwent a $35-million expansion. If you have a kid who's crazy about dinosaurs, this place is heaven. (And I'll dare you not to shiver in the shadow of those giant skeletons, either!) Other not-to-be-missed exhibits at the Carnegie are the Alcoa Foundation Hall of American Indians, and the Hillman Hall of Minerals and Gems. The Carnegie also contains The Discovery Room, especially designed for the smallest explorers, which has very few "Don't Touch" signs.
For more high-flying fun while you're in Pittsburgh, don't forget to visit the National Aviary, the nation's premier bird park, featuring more than 600 exotic birds in natural habitats. Your kids can get nose-to-beak with flamingos and penguins, and talk to radiantly-plumed parrots. The National Aviary is a veritable indoor jungle of the world's most incredible birds, including many endangered species. You'll marvel at hummingbirds the size of your thumb, and at Andean Condors with giant 10-foot wingspans.
A great way to top off your family vacation to Pittsburgh is a stop at the Carnegie Science Center, where you and your kids can investigate more than 250 exhibits in this "playground for the mind." You'll tour distant galaxies in the planetarium, view the Miniature Railroad and Village, test your skills at UPMC SportWorks, watch laser shows at the Omnimax theater, and explore a WWII Submarine.
An ideal time for families to visit Pittsburgh is during the annual Pittsburgh International Children's Festival (from May 14-18 in 2008), featuring five days of professional children's theater from around the world.
Pittsburgh really is a kids' Paradise. No wonder Mister Rogers chose it to be his neighborhood!
IF YOU GO
OMNI WILLIAM PENN HOTEL
A grand hotel, but a real kid-pleaser, conveniently located downtown. Ask for the free suitcase filled with games and toys when you check in.
Historic B&B, located within walking distance of the Children's Museum.
MAX'S ALLEGHENY TAVERN
By day, this atmospheric restaurant in the Germantown area is family-friendly, and the potato pancakes with sour cream and applesauce are to die for!
CHILDREN'S MUSEUM OF PITTSBURGH
PITTSBURGH ZOO & PPG AQUARIUM
CARNEGIE MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY
CARNEGIE SCIENCE CENTER
PITTSBURGH INTERNATIONAL CHILDREN'S FESTIVAL