Think back to your favorite time exploring science as a kid. Did you skip stones or build a dam at the beach? Make a model volcano erupt? Test paper airplanes for the best flight? Use a telescope to spot constellations that you still find on your favorite stargazing nights? Whether you’re playing with robots or rocking out to a laser show, you’re never too old for science. The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI, as it’s better known) is Portland’s top spot for exploring the wonder of science all over again, whether you bring your kids for the day or pop in for a grown-up experience. Here’s how to spend the day — and night — at OMSI.
Getting messy and eating local
You can easily spend a few hours here, or an entire day. I’ve been a regular visitor since my two boys — now a tween and teen — were just starting to walk. The Science Playground, upstairs, is designed for children up to age 6. It’s filled with all sorts of educational hands-on activities for this tiny set, but my boys could never get enough of the sand pit and wooden train tracks. In this just-for-little-kids fun zone, safely gated off to prevent escapees, I have vivid memories of the boys toddling around with chipmunk costumes on, playing peekaboo through tree roots, building giant block structures and making sparkle-covered Flubber to transport home.
When they get hungry, which will be much sooner than you planned, head downstairs to the Empirical Cafe for a snack and fresh-roasted Nossa Familia coffee, or the brightly-lit eatery on the first floor. Theory’s modern, airy space, with lots of room for strollers and large groups, flows onto an outdoor patio that overlooks the Eastbank Esplanade and Willamette River. Pizzas, locally sourced salads and drinks — including local craft beer and wine — make it a welcome respite before getting back to the action.
Behind the scenes of exhibits, underwater
Dedicate at least an hour to exploring the featured exhibit at OMSI. The Science Behind Pixar (at OMSI through early September 2019) is a hands-on exploration of what it takes to make beloved movies like “Toy Story” and “The Incredibles,” with interactive sections that let visitors try their hand at everything from sketching and animating to lighting and camera technique.
Next up, Exquisite Creatures (Oct. 5, 2019 to Feb. 17, 2020) is an exploration of Oregon-based artist Christopher Marley’s work as he reveals the connection between art, science and conservation through his 3-D displays of animal, mineral and plant subjects. Past OMSI exhibits have spotlighted the awe-inspiring creations of world-famous brick artist Nathan Sawaya; a collection of Discovery of King Tut artifacts that were expertly recreated by Egyptian craftsmen; long-lost relics from Pompeii: The Exhibition; and the reality of artificial intelligence at Robot Revolution, which featured soccer-playing and Rubik’s Cube-solving robots that were thought provoking yet approachable for all ages. Spend time at the feature exhibit early or later in the day, since lines sometimes get long.
Late afternoon is a great time to get outside and re-energize in the fresh air. Visitors age 3 and up (or 36 inches tall) may purchase a 45-minute submarine tour as an add-on to general admission. The USS Blueback is a real decommissioned U.S. Navy sub, anchored off OMSI for educational purposes. A knowledgeable guide will take you through the space, where you’ll get to peek through the periscope and see everything from the torpedo room to the crew’s cramped bunks and eating quarters. Kids will look at their comfy bedrooms with new appreciation.
Reveling in nature by hand and large screen
Back in the museum, prepare for a few more hours of good, old-fashioned hands-on fun (read: kids not glued to technology). In grade school my boys spent countless hours at the Earth Lab, where they connected tubes and made dams at their own river at a waist-high water table (pro tip: bring an extra set of clothes). Upstairs, the Life Lab is paradise for nature-lovers, with stick bugs, bullfrogs, snakes, dinosaur fossils and other specimens kept for close-up viewing and interpretation by educators. (You can sign up for an owl pellet dissection class here, too.)
Downstairs in Turbine Hall, the Chemistry Lab and Physics Lab are spaces for discovery in the guise of learning. Mix chemicals, experience static electricity, play with wheels, gears and levers and more — all with no cleanup required at home. It’s hard to pry them away from the labs, but I’ve learned to save a treat for the end: a show at OMSI’s giant-screen movie theater, the largest in Portland. A rotating schedule of shows includes everything from blockbusters such as “How to Train Your Dragon 2” to Earth-based documentaries such as “Oceans: Our Blue Planet” and “Superpower Dogs.” These tickets are add-ons to general admission.
Sometimes you just want an evening to yourself. Book a babysitter, grab your partner or a group of friends and snag tickets to an OMSI After Dark event, for visitors 21 and older. Here’s your chance to shoot water rockets, learn about robots or take a deep dive into oceans, astronomy or the science of craft cider and beer making with a glass of wine or beer to enjoy (and most importantly, knowing you won’t be the geekiest person in the room). Astronomy fans will especially delight in OMSI’s Star Party series, with monthly all-ages telescope-viewing events throughout the summer at Rooster Rock State Park and L. L. Stubb Stewart State Park, both just outside of Portland. Prepared to be wowed all over again.
If you go:
Conveniently located in Portland’s Central Eastside, on the east bank of the Willamette River, OMSI is open year-round — but double-check for hours on holidays, and know that weekends and no-school days will be busiest. Parking at OMSI is $5 (members get a discount). If you can, consider taking public transit or going by bike — it’s not far from the bike- and pedestrian-friendly Tilikum Crossing.