Places for the kids, with carousels to ride
Whimsy, wonder, world music combine to make kids Philly fanatics
PHILADELPHIA -- When something new opens in Philadelphia, chances are it has a tie to history. That’s the case with two family attractions welcoming visitors this summer, the Please Touch Museum and Franklin Square. Both are all about play.
Please Touch opened in 1975 as one of the first museums designed for children 7 and younger. Originally located in a compact space along Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the city’s museum row that is also home to the Academy of Natural Sciences and the Franklin Institute Science Museum, it moved last fall to the stunning Memorial Hall in Fairmount Park.
Constructed as the art gallery of the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, Memorial Hall is a premier example of Beaux-Arts architecture, a temple of granite, glass, and cast iron topped by a dramatic dome. More than $88 million was spent on renovating, moving, and designing exhibits to fill the tripled space.
“It just feels like a special place to be,’’ said Franky Carrozza, a local resident who bought a family membership when Please Touch reopened. “I didn’t go to the old location - parking always seemed like a hassle. Here, there’s plenty of parking, and even when it’s a weekend or holiday, there is still lots of room to play.’’ Her children, Everette Greenberg, 5, and little brother Peter, 2, are big fans of the hands-on play exhibits. “We come for hours and every time we come, we find something new to do,’’ Carrozza said.
To get a sense of the building’s history, visit the ground-floor Centennial exhibit, a repository for a few of the items that drew more than 10 million people to Philadelphia in 1876, including a newfangled invention called the typewriter, a blueprint for the nation’s first kindergarten class, and an upstart beverage called root beer. An 1889 20-by-30-foot model of the Centennial Fairgrounds re-creates the fair’s massive footprint, with 200 buildings captured in miniature.
Parents will think all this is pretty cool, but the kids will be more impressed with the rest of the museum and its six exhibit zones. There’s a spectacular Wonderland exhibit, which even tots who aren’t hip to Alice’s escapades will love. A trippy scene full of bright colors, optical illusions, and shape-changing mirrors, it even offers a chance to play flamingo croquet, Queen of Hearts style. Here, as in most areas of the museum, there are designated areas for toddlers, a good way to be sure the little ones get their fair share of the action.
Dress up and make believe are a big component of play, and both are present throughout Please Touch. One of Everette Greenberg’s favorite places to pretend is in the supermarket, a miniature grocery store that lets kids push a cart, shop for their favorite foods, and work the checkout counter. She likes to work at “the bread place,’’ the French-style bakery complete with faux baguettes and tortes. Kids can get under the hood of a car and pretend to fill the tank in Please Touch Garage, and jump into the driver’s seat of a classic city bus. In River Adventure, little ones suit up in waterproof aprons and then make a splash with water currents, boats, and bubbles. Making music is the name of the game at Rainforest Rhythm, where would-be musicians sample world music on instruments inspired by nature.
Cap off your visit with a ride on the restored 1924 Dentzel Carousel, long a fixture at Woodside Park, a shuttered West Philly amusement park once located just blocks from Memorial Hall. The 52 carved and painted wooden animals evoke what is known in the carousel world as “Philadelphia style,’’ which means they’re sculpted in vibrant, lifelike detail. Hop aboard the flirting rabbit with its one sassy paw raised in greeting. Walking out the grand entranceway, take note of the 40-foot sculpture of the Statue of Liberty’s arm and torch. Unlike the original, displayed at the Centennial Exhibition, sculptor Leo Sewell made his version from recycled toys, adding yet another note of whimsy and wonder to this special place.
Across town, catty-corner from the National Constitution Center, one of William Penn’s original five city squares has been reinvented as Franklin Square. A few years ago, this was a desolate spot, a dilapidated corner of the city where the homeless congregated. After the nonprofit tourism organization Historic Philadelphia Inc. made a capital investment of more than $6.5 million, Franklin Square’s 7.3 acres were transformed into a Philly-themed park for families.
A restored grand vintage marble fountain is just one of the park’s icons. Kids love the Philly-themed mini-golf course, where they can putt through a scaled down version of the Ben Franklin Bridge, art museum steps (cue the theme from “Rocky’’), and Chinatown’s friendship gate. A huge 60-ton sand sculpture marks the park’s east entrance. This season it’s a tribute to the World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies, complete with sculpted soft pretzels, hot dogs, and the Phillies Phanatic mascot.
One of the city’s 13 storytelling benches is in the square, a fine spot to sit a spell and listen to a costumed storyteller recount historic adventures and vivid chapters in the city’s past. A burger shack, run by the Starr Restaurant group, is new to the square this summer, a spot for burgers, dogs, chicken fingers, and the like, with everything priced under $4.95. Or bring a picnic; there are plenty of shaded tables available for an al fresco lunch. Two playgrounds, one for the 2 to 5 set, the other for ages 5 to 12, offer all manner of play equipment for swinging, seesawing, spinning, and climbing.
Take a ride on the vintage-style Liberty carousel, also with Philadelphia-style carved animals, a nod to the city’s 19th-century history as the carousel-making capital of the world.
Beth D’Addono can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.