Before I became a parent, the term “children’s museum” seemed like a contradiction in terms. I mean, museums are grand cultural edifices, full might recall the old Los Angeles Children’s Museum at the Civic Center in Downtown of history and significance, while children are small, young and full of Cheetos.
Nevertheless, local Angeleno parents might recall the old Los Angeles Children’s Museum at the Civic Center in Downtown L.A. As a lad living not terribly far from Downtown, I would visit with my parents and my older sister almost on a weekly basis. This was especially true in the summer, when any chance for a parent to enter a cavernous air-conditioned building and sit down for several hours was welcomed. It helped that we loved it, too, and could easily spend hour after hour exploring those echoing halls. I can still picture the multicolored sign featuring a kid’s scribble of “CHILDREN” high over the entrance. My parents, however, keep telling me that it really wasn’t that great. The building was loud and chaotic and the exhibits got pretty stale, beckoning for updates that never came. And thus, the Children’s Museum closed for good a few years later.
The other day, I was scrolling through some click bait on the internet and came across a tag stating: “Best Cities to Live for Family Fun.” Imagine my shock when Los Angeles was named number one. Let’s face it: You can’t really ride your bike down Van Nuys Boulevard to Busch Gardens anymore like you could when I was a kid.
What’s changed? For starters, the museums around the city have become infinitely better for children. The Getty, LACMA, MOCA, Autry, Huntington and others have devoted time and effort to wooing families. In previous columns, I have discussed Kidspace in Pasadena, the aquariums, zoos and art museums, but lately I’ve noticed a trend with some. I call it the 90-minute rule (though some spots give you two hours), and I’m not sure whether I like it.
On a recent trip down to Santa Monica, I took the boys to the new Cayton Children’s Museum. Smartly located at a corner of Santa Monica Place, the museum is a bright new addition to the Westside. Hank, our 5-year old, has plenty to do there. He climbs and weaves through an elevated web of netting on the ceiling; he pretends to be a veterinarian; he puts on the fireman uniform and hops into a replica water tender; he paints a few watercolors in the art room and bounces around in the fun ball pool. But he has to do this all within two hours. When you enter and pay your admission fee, you’re given a sticker to wear that shows the time you and your kiddos have to scram. They ask that after two hours, you politely leave to help control overcrowding, which can impede the overall enjoyment of the kids. Makes sense on a busy weekend, I suppose. The rule also helps speed the activities along. Parents can get comfortable, but not too comfortable. And since you are in Downtown Santa Monica, there are plenty of other ways to spend time within walking distance.
Weeks went by, and I hadn’t really given the Cayton Museum a second thought until a recent outing to the Skirball Cultural Center. Parking is a breeze, crowds are few and far between, exhibits are engrossing, and the facilities are beautiful. The center is perched on the Santa Monica Mountains’ ridge, making it a perfect meeting spot for your Westside friend if you live in the Valley, as we now do. Once you get past the talkative info desk volunteer, and through the gift store, you’ll enter the Noah’s Ark play area. It’s a treat for the animal-loving kid, full of creative play zones and interactive zoological exhibits. Leo and Hank didn’t want to leave. And yet, we were hit with the play area’s 90-minute rule. A time-stamp sticker had been pressed on all our shirts. We made it out in time, went up to the archaeological dig and ran after some lizards. At least the arbitrary rule kept us moving but do keep that time frame in mind when you plan your visit.
Isaac Parfrey is a writer, composer and L.A. native who enjoys roaming Southern California with his wife, Kate, and sons Hank and Leo. Follow him on Twitter @ IsaacParfrey.