Friday, April 17, 2009

Staycation idea: Observatories and planetariums

Much like museums, observatories and planetariums offer tours, exhibits, and special programs. Unlike museums, however, there’s probably a lot of people who don’t know the difference. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, unlike the Americans who think that New Mexico is a foreign country and that Condoleeza Rice is a side dish at Chili’s.

An observatory is a location equipped with telescopes for observing the planets, stars, and other heavenly bodies (insert your inappropriate “heavenly bodies” remark here). A planetarium is a theater with a large dome-shaped projection screen that is often used for presenting shows about astronomy. Both are great to visit, and you can find a list of them at

Most public observatories allow visitors to look through their huge, powerful telescopes. They also schedule “star parties” that include an observatory staff member explaining what you’re looking at through the telescope. The site includes links to observatory Web sites, so you can check out their calendars for special events. Some observatories even offer private star parties in which a staff member will bring a telescope to your backyard and direct your viewing into the sky. Expect to pay some real money for that, however.

Planetariums also have great special programs and shows. Some are for kids, such as “The Sky Above Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” which has played at many planetariums. For adults, there are laser light shows synchronized to music. Pink Floyd was the big laser show at the University of Arizona’s planetarium when I went to school there, but now I see shows for Dave Matthews Band, Bob Marley, the Beatles, Aerosmith, and more. I’ve even read about a show called “Laser ’80s” that has to be worth the drive for anyone who owns as much ’80s music as me (too much). As you might expect, the show includes Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me With Science.”

My sixth-grade teacher was right. Science can be fun.

*** "The Great American Staycation: How to Make a Vacation at Home Fun for the Whole Family (and Your Wallet!)" is now available. You can find it in stores or online.

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