A Whole New World at Academy of Sciences


The stunning new Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park is nothing short of jaw-dropping. Opening last fall, the Academy bridges the often unseen worlds of sea, ancient and distant lands, and space with its Steinhart Aquarium, Kimball Natural History Museum and Morrison Planetarium – all housed in a state-of-the-art, environmentally sensitive building with a 2.5-acre “living roof” of hills planted with native species. It is the only place in the world to combine an aquarium, planetarium and natural history museum under one roof.

While entrance fees may strike some as steep, everything is included in the price. Children 6 and under are free. Entering the 410,000-square-foot building, a modern mix of glass and metals trusses with two original limestone walls, visitors walk past the new planetarium sphere, seemingly floating on a sea of brightly colored fish. Mirroring the planetarium is the 90-foot-diameter glass Rainforest Dome, with four stories of tropical habitats for free-flying birds and croaking frogs. Stroll through the recreated African Hall, or descend a level to be surrounded by thousands of fish in the world’s deepest living coral reef tank.

“Our mission is to intrigue and inform our guests,” says Chris Andrews, director of the Steinhart Aquarium and chief of public programs. “If we touch their emotions, they’ll care. And if they care, they’re more likely to take care.” With 38,000 live animals from 900 species, scientists and educators on hand, and numerous interactive features throughout (Wii butterfly catching, anyone?), the California Academy of Sciences is a great place for a family field trip that truly brings science to life.


Steinhart Aquarium

Visitors entering the new Academy cross over The Swamp, an old favorite making a new appearance, now with an albino alligator.

Off the soaring central piazza is the Rainforests of the World Dome, where a winding ramp and glass elevator travel through the humid habitats of Borneo, Madagascar, Costa Rica and the Amazonian flooded forest, where you can walk through an acrylic tunnel under the river.

From both the main level and below, you can view the 25-foot-deep Philippine Coral Reef, the world’s deepest and second largest, where technicolor fish swim alongside sharks, rays, sea turtles and frequent in-tank divers doing presentations.

A 100,000-gallon tank is the focus of the new California Coast exhibit, which also includes a hands-on Discovery Tidepool, Kelp Forest and Tank of Giants, which houses 165-pound sea bass.

The Water Planet, with undulating silver walls that give the impression of being submerged in the waves, includes 100 tanks of fish, reptiles, amphibians and insects, as well as interactive, touch-surface exhibits. Once an hour, its walls become a surround-view theater for a five-minute video, narrated by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, called “Water is Life.” While previously live animals were housed solely in the aquarium, many now have new homes throughout the Academy.


Kimball Natural History Museum

Among the perennial favorites are the African penguins, which now frolic at the end of African Hall, the iconic exhibit first opened in 1934. 

Much of the rest of the African Hall has been replicated, including the tiled ceiling and 12 of the intricately painted dioramas. But there are subtle updates. Live animals are included in five dioramas, and projected elephants will walk across one. Plasma touch-screens are found throughout, a far cry from the original exhibits when the museum first opened on Market Street in 1891. (Its successor in Golden Gate Park opened in 1916, following the devastating 1906 earthquake.)

A new Naturalist Center will be staffed by educators who will serve as a resource for school groups and teachers, as well as help answer visitors’ questions and identify their rocks, leaves and other natural items.

An expanded Early Explorers Cove, for infants through preschoolers, contains a replica 1905 schooner, a tree house and miniature organic garden, and an “underwater life” activity area, as well as games, books and costumes.


Morrison Planetarium

Those who choose to leave such earthly pursuits can blast off in the new planetarium, which promises the “most accurate and interactive digital universe ever created.” The 75-foot diameter screen is one of the two largest in North America, matched only by Los Angeles’ Griffith Observatory.

The 30-minute main show, “Fragile Planet,” narrated by Sigourney Weaver, takes off from the Academy itself, travels through the universe and contemplates whether there is life elsewhere. Shows focusing on the sun, moon and solar system dovetail with the state’s third- and fifth-grade science curriculum. Children must be at least 6 years old to attend planetarium shows.


Academy Café and Moss Room

If interplanetary travel leaves you hungry, the casual Academy Café and sit-down Moss Room aim to please with menus of local, organic produce, sustainable seafood and hormone-free meats. Both restaurants are headed by Charles Phan of Slanted Door fame and Loretta Keller of COCO500, both in San Francisco.

The café offers the chefs’ takes on kid-friendly meals such as macaroni and cheese and chicken noodle soup. Three food carts, in the adjoining gardens and central piazza, also offer quick bites including homemade hotdogs and organic milkshakes.


Janine DeFao is an associate editor at Bay Area Parent – San Francisco and Peninsula edition.



California Academy of Sciences 55 Music Concourse Way, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco

Hours:  Mon.-Sat. 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Sun. 11 a.m.-5 p.m.





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