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Imagine climbing a bean stalk to the Giant's Playroom. Or imagine walking through a kaleidoscope so you become the repetitive image. Try going through a secret bookcase into a hidden room.

Or ...

Simply visit the newly expanded and newly named Strong National Museum of Play, which reopens Friday after undergoing dramatic changes meant to turn it into a "destination." Strong remains the country's second largest children's museum -- only Indianapolis tops it -- and becomes the first large-scale museum dedicated to play.

"Play will be the next scholarly window into understanding American culture," said Chief Executive Officer G. Rollie Adams, who once headed the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society. "The way we play is how we transmit our values and beliefs to future generations."

It's easy to see that this museum is serious about play. It houses the National Toy Hall of Fame; it created a timeline chronicling children's literature from fairy tales though "Captain Underpants;" and, plans are in the works for museum-sponsored books on the topic, a scholarly journal and symposia.

But thanks to those who conceived of the new space and the designers, architects and graphic artists who brought it to life -- it's absolutely playful, from its ingenious architecture to its highly interactive exhibits.

Children won't know what to explore first. But they can't make a mistake no matter where they are pulled:

* Reading Adventureland, where storybooks come to life and children become part of their favorite books;

* Mystery Mansion, where they can push a button to make the sound of clanking chains or howling wolves or break a code to get into a safe;

* The Wizard's Workshop, where bubbling cauldrons and recipe books reveal how to cook up secret potions using Woozy's Tail and Lion's Milk;

* The Fairy Tale Forest, which holds a chess set with two-foot-high pieces, a Troll Bridge, Hansel and Gretel's cottage, a pumpkin coach and Cinderella's dress-up gown;

* Adventure Island, with its wobbly wooden bridge, explorable cave, and a rope pulley system so children can send messages to each other;

* The Upside-Down Nonsense House, where funny puns, tongue twisters and nonsensical rhymes abound. It's home to a cackling chicken who lives inside an oven and cracks chicken jokes when the door is opened.

* In Field of Play, children can bang mallets to produce melodic sounds and corresponding light patterns. And adults who are up for a challenge can try walking through the "slanting room" which is tilted at an angle that causes disequilibrium.

Designer Matt Handy said kids simply run through and giggle, while adults struggle to walk through, some feeling dizzy and disoriented.

The additions to the museum, 10 years in the planning, cost $37 million, with a $30 million bond to finance it. The goal is to ramp up visitor numbers to 650,000 annually, from the current 345,000.

Under the architecture firm of Chaintreuil Jensen Stark, an award-winning architectural firm which has offices in Buffalo, the size of the complex nearly doubled, going to 282,000 square feet.

However, none of the feet seem "square."

There's a 200-foot-long, three-story-high walkway, called the Caterpillar. Think of a geodesic dome structure -- that is serpentine in shape. This siney structure contains 4,500 galvanized steel tubes and ends with a 70-foot-high circular glass wall. It was constructed by Triodectic of Canada, which also built Toronto's Ontario Place.

Then there's an external wall that looks like several brightly colored blocks in red, green, blue, yellow, purple and orange, but which is actually 40 tons of steel bolted together at odd angles.

And the Dancing Wings Butterfly Garden, which is housed in a glass and steel structure that looks like outspread butterfly wings and was created by Taiyo Birdair Corporation of Amherst.

Inside, plans call for 800 butterflies of 100 different varieties, orchids and other tropical plants, a chrysalis hatching room and two newly-hired entomologists.

With the expansion, the museum can finally showcase the National Toy Hall of Fame, which it acquired four years ago, said Susan Trien, director of public relations and advertising.

Glass-fronted cases hold toys that are inducted, annually, and that evoke many fond memories. Visitors can run a Slinky down a set of steps, give a hula hoop a whirl or spend hours in Lego construction.

If children had favorites in the former Strong Museum, such as riding the Allan Herschell Carousel, the Skyliner diner, Sesame Street and the pint-sized supermarket, don't worry: they remain, upgraded and updated.

There's a new 900-gallon aquarium, expanded gift shops, food court with fast food restaurants and an old-fashioned ice cream parlor; a state-of-the-art check-in site; a Discovery Garden and double the parking spaces.

Possibly, a determined visitor could see everything in a day's visit, but they probably couldn't do everything.

"We think it would take two days," said Trien.

Asked whether Margaret Woodbury Strong, the museum's chief benefactor, would approve of this approach, Adams doesn't hesitate: "She'd love it. We have finally figured out what Margaret wanted. When we examined her collection 35 years ago, the first impulse was 'play and children,' but we weren't ready for it.

"Now the time is ripe and the need is here. And we've set on a new course."

e-mail: pvoell@buffnews.com

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>Grand opening

The grand opening celebration weekend at Strong National Museum of Play will be from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday through Sunday. Beginning Monday through Labor Day, hours will be 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday; and noon to 6:00 p.m. Sunday.

Admission is $9 for adults, $8 for seniors and students with ID, $7 for children 2 to 17 and free for children under 2.

Admission to the Dancing Wings Butterfly Garden: general admission fee plus $3 per person. Admission is by timed ticket only, with advance purchase recommended. Call 585-263-2700.

Consecutive two-day admission (doesn't include butterfly garden): adults, $14.50; seniors and students, $12.75; children 2 to 17, $11.
Directions: Take the New York State Thruway to Exit 47 (LeRoy). Take Interstate 490 East to Exit 18 (Monroe Avenue). At the first traffic light, turn left onto Monroe Avenue. Travel one mile to Woodbury Boulevard. Turn right into the Strong Museum entrance.