A pilot sinks into her cockpit, buckles up, checks the controls, and gets ready for takeoff. The engine hums to life and soon the ground rolls beneath her, until she lifts away and the buildings nearby shrink to the size of dust motes. But there's something unusual with the scene: the pilot isn't old enough to see a PG-13 movie let alone pilot an aircraft. That's because the Aerospace Museum of California doesn't let age become a barrier to flight. Children of all sizes climb into airplanes, pilot virtual jets in simulators, and experiment with the physics of flight while adults do the same, exploring the history of aviation both on Earth and beyond.
More than 37,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor exhibits chronicle everything from the very first airplanes made of cloth and wood to futuristic Mars-destined craft made of space-wood. Some of the museum’s prize possessions include the McDonnell-Douglas A-4C Skyhawk I, better known as one of the Blue Angels’ stunt rides, and the Grumman F-14D Tomcat, just like the one co-starring in the 1986 film Top Gun. The Fun with Physics exhibit hammers home the idea of hands-on learning, letting young engineers play with simple machines, whereas the engine room dishes up eye-candy for motorheads, including specimens from 1910’s Le Rhone to the marvels that propelled the Titan rockets.
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A whirlpool drags boats into the watery abyss. Racecars vie for supremacy on a track. Inexorable gears grind in a vast and purposeless machine. These are not the dreams of a dozing Rube Goldberg, but the interactive exhibits at the Sacramento Children's Museum. Next to the fluid-dynamics room, where child Poseidons subject boats to their tidal whims, a solar-powered raceway and an interactive gear assembly teach important lessons about the forces that keep the natural world moving when it would much rather be eating Almond Joys. These entertaining, hands-on experiences with scientific fundamentals are bolstered by the museum's calendar of events. Regular showcases such as story time, cultural-history lessons, and exercise classes intersperse children's-museum interaction with traditional word-of-mouth learning sessions.
KidZone Museum's slew of interactive exhibits, indoor jungle gym, and other playful attractions reverberate with the sounds of joviality, pique the curiosity of pint-size patrons, and encourage family bonding. Youngsters dive into an aquatic adventure in the Starfish Enterprise exhibit, which features an imagination playground, reef building, and a research submarine that grant aquatic education without Poseidon's dull office stories. Visitors skid down the slide or skirt the climbing wall of the indoor jungle gym, and mini adventure seekers explore the nature-themed baby zone. The nonprofit museum's creative center proffers washable paints, clay, and other art supplies for crafting miniature magnum opuses, as well as occasional classes on topics such as messy science and imaginary-friend value appraisal.
Helmed by nature photographers Elizabeth and Olof Carmel, the newly expanded, 2,600-square-foot gallery showcases vivid landscape compositions, dramatic panoramas, and crisp still-lifes. Pair the sublime color and unmatched tonal range of Elizabeth's images—which have been featured in outlets including Sierra magazine—with poetry from the likes of John Updike and Richard Wilbur in Brilliant Waters ($49.95), a 104-page book ideal for coffee-table display. Calendars containing Olof's scenic depictions of the Sierra Nevada mountains ($16.95) can help repressed naturalists find peace amid drab cubicles, whereas the glossy, picturesque images on the front of 5"x7" notecards ($9.95) divert attention from the Days of Our Lives fan fiction scribbled inside. More devoted photo fans can vanquish blank wall-space with fine-art prints that range from 10"x15" to 6'x10' ($50–$1,000 and up; individuals can use up to 10 Groupons toward one purchase). The prints are available framed, unframed, or mounted on stretched canvas, and they exclusively employ museum-quality archival inks that, like most moustache dyes, remain fade-resistant for 80 to 100 years.
Each April, a tear in the space-time continuum opens up along the Sacramento River. Through it rolls a first-class locomotive right out of the 1940s and 50s. For 45 minutes, passengers in the train's coach and luxury first class car soak in the sights of California's fruit-growing deltas as the vintage diesel engine carries them into another time.
The California State Railroad Museum conducts these scenic, historic train rides. The excursions play a crucial role in the museum's mission to chronicle California's railroad history from the early days of the Gold Rush to modern agricultural transports and the proposed railroad to Mars. Spanning centuries, 21 restored locomotives and train cars blanket the museum's 225,000 square feet of exhibit space. A Pullman-style sleeping car and a dining car filled with fine china both sit on display, while the museum's Sierra Scene places a vintage steam locomotive next to a breathtaking mural of snow-dusted mountains. The popular Small Wonders: The Magic of Toy Trains exhibit currently commands the second floor, and with hundreds of examples of early electric toy trains and accessories such as stations, signals, tunnels, and bridges, it should delight even the most discerning miniature conductor.