The first floor of The Strong, a museum in downtown Rochester, is a vast playground certain to entertain, excite and enthrall children. The second floor, which is probably more famous, is by comparison staid, more likely to inform adults and remind them of their childhood.
On a recent visit, I saw dozens of children downstairs with bright smiles and eager expressions, wanting to move quickly to the next interactive exhibit but unwilling to leave the one where they were. Upstairs, most of the few children I saw were enduring, at best, the curiosity of the adults reading descriptive signs in the National Toy Hall of Fame.
Typical of the downstairs exhibits is a mini-Wegmans supermarket (about the size of a typical Wilson Farms) where kids can shop; a tilted room, with a sign warning you not to enter if you get dizzy because you might fall (to my surprise, while I did not get dizzy, I sensed the dizziness of the warning), and a super strength machine to lift a "Turbonium Reactor" (a recorder says, "It's OK to let an adult help you lift; it will make them feel useful").
Typical of the upstairs exhibits is a TV with repeating news clips that include Ronald Reagan being shot, a report that Rock Hudson has AIDS, Jimmy Carter announcing that Iran has released American hostages, Bruce Springsteen singing "Born in the U.S.A.," and people protesting nuclear weapons. Also upstairs are thousands of dolls that had been collected by Margaret Woodbury Strong, the benefactress who left millions of dollars in her will to establish the museum when she died in 1969.
Since then, the museum has undergone several name changes. It began as the Margaret Woodbury Strong Museum, shortened to the Strong Museum, expanded to the Strong National Museum of Play and, as of this fall, it will be known as The Strong (www.thestrong.org). Under the new name, is contains five "play partners" -- the National Museum of Play (the part the kids love), the National Toy Hall of Fame (the nostalgia section for parents), the International Center for the History of Electronic Games, the Brian Sutton-Smith Library & Archives of Play and the American Journal of Play.
The doll collection formed the heart of the original museum, and -- since they're all in cases and can't be picked up -- seldom held a child's interest for more than a few minutes. But over the years the museum's focus has both changed and broadened, and today you're unlikely to find any museum as capable of entertaining children for so long anywhere in the country.
There's a mini-rock-climbing-wall (it requires adults to stand by children, and children can climb only across, not up); a xylophone where you put wooden balls on a conveyer belt in designated spots and they fall off and hit metal bars to make musical sounds (if placed properly they will play "Mary Had a Little Lamb" or "Row, Row, Row Your Boat"), and a harp without strings, but if you stick your hand where the strings should be, it plays music, and when you move your hand around it makes different musical sounds.
Upstairs in the Toy Hall of Fame you can view noninteractive exhibits about alphabet blocks, Barbie dolls, bicycles, Hula Hoops, jump ropes, Silly Putty, the Slinky, Scrabble, Crayola Crayons, Lionel Trains and the 34 other inductees. Like all halls of fame, the list of inductees invites arguments (I guess it's all right that checkers are in, but I wish chess was there, too).
Some activities cost more than the $11 entrance fee (there are discounts for seniors, children, members, military personnel and matinees). For example, one of the most popular exhibits, the Dancing Wings Butterfly Garden, where hundreds of butterflies fly around, costs 3, and an indoor train ride is $1.
The museum has its own library (you need a card from a Monroe County library to take out books) and a food court, so you don't have to leave the building to eat. One of the eateries in the court is Louie's Sweet Shoppe, which used to be on Rochester's West Side and where you can buy a milkshake about as sweet as any I've ever tasted. Milkshakes are half price on weekdays between 2:30 and 4 p.m.
Outside the food court but inside the museum is Bill Gray's Skyliner, an old-fashioned silver diner moved here from near Williamsport, Pa. (it's the only restaurant I've eaten in in two different states).
After refueling, it's back to things to do: Stand under a speaker and listen to old radio shows featuring superheroes, including "Superman" and "The Green Hornet"; experience a flight simulator trip of a small space ship zipping through city streets; and walk in front of a large screen to watch your shadow burn in flames of blue, green or red.
One of few interactive exhibits upstairs allows people to dance in front of the machine and see their shadowy image dance around to their choice of music. Children were uninhibited enough to enjoy this exhibit by dancing in front of it. Adults seem more timid.
Adults are, however, likely to feel pleasant reminiscences about the toys like the ones they enjoyed as children. I felt the emotion when I saw a toy typewriter much like the one I used in my early teens, and a small telescope and a microscope. They were all inside cases and I couldn't pick them up and hold them. If I had, I might have been disappointed when I realized how ineffective each really was. The memory of your first telescope, your first microscope, and, especially for me, your first typewriter are more important than their realities.
That's what The Strong does for adults. The walls even let you know that; they're decorated with dozens of sayings that children likely will ignore but that adults may ponder, like this from nature writer Diane Ackerman: "Play is our brain's favorite way of learning." Another, from Plato, suggests, "Life must be lived as play."
There's enough in The Strong to keep children active and entertained a full day, but if you wanted to combine the trip with a visit to another kid-appealing place, you might try the Seneca Park Zoo, about four miles north of The Strong. Among its more than 300 animals are elephants, orangutans (the only ones in New York), polar bears, a tiger, two-toed sloths and a snow leopard.
If you go:
Take I-90 to I-390, go north to I-590, take that to I-490, go west to the Clinton Avenue exit, and you'll see The Strong on your right as you come off the exit. There's plenty of free parking on museum grounds.
To go the Seneca Park Zoo, turn left coming out of the museum parking lot, take the first right onto Chestnut Street, left onto East Broad Street, right onto Clinton, then go a half mile and make a left on to Cumberland, then a right onto St. Paul. Go north on St. Paul about three miles; the entrance to Seneca Park is on your left, the zoo is on the park's main road.
Admission to the zoo is $9 until Oct. 31, when the hours are from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., and $7 beginning Nov. 1, when the zoo closes at 3 p.m. (in either case, visitors can stay in the zoo one hour beyond closing time). There are discounts for seniors and children, and lots of free parking.