I walked through a gigantic mouth into a chamber where, besides seeing a life-size skeleton and identifying things by touch and smell, I learned fun facts through hands-on exhibits about burping, peeing and flatulence.
If it seems juvenile, well it is. Jacksonville’s Museum of Science & History uses just that kind of strategy to get kids’ attention and slip right by them the fact that they’re learning.
Its The Body Within exhibit is one of many changes and innovations for families I recently found in Jacksonville after having gone eight years without a visit.
The museum resides in a neighborhood of big-city Jacksonville known as the Southbank, along the Riverwalk with its fountains and historic plaques in a park setting overlooking the St. Johns River.
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The museum devotes its first floor to all facets of science, from The Body Within element to a cool Atlantic Tails section that explores whales and manatees. Special daily programs take place in its science theater and new second-floor planetarium.
The second floor is otherwise focused on Northeast Florida history in a nostalgic way with vignettes and street and home scenes from prehistoric to modern times.
The nearby historic Riverside Avondale neighborhood holds more in the way of museum enrichment for families. I noticed roughly a 50-50 split between kids and adults on my latest visit to The Cummer Art Museum and Gardens. That’s right — kids and an art museum! Kids who looked happy and excited to be there, no less.
It made me remember my first visit to The Cummer with my son Aaron at preschool age. I firmly believe that as his first art museum foray, the visit helped him view the experience as a treat. Because he could “play” with art, it shaped his views on art and museums in a positive way.
Art Connections, The Cummer’s children’s wing, had a lot to do with molding those mindsets. It is devoted entirely to hands-on children’s art activities. But after that, he enjoyed even traditional art viewings because The Cummer helped him to see art from a child’s perspective. Lose the snootiness. Gain the simple appreciation.
The colorful and fun kids’ room is filled with hands-on activities and games, but it too had matured in intervening years with a timeline that covers the walls and floors, fusing art in the museum’s permanent collections with what was happening at the time in the cultural, science and tech worlds.
At the Picture Perfect exhibit, kids can create a masterpiece virtually by waving a paintbrush in front of a big screen. Toddlers can explore Gallery Under Five, a shrunken version of the museum with touchable art.
Hand-out family guides help kids explore the “grown-up” aspects of the museum in a playful manner. In the gorgeous riverfront gardens, they can use their smart devices to view podcast guides about the sculptures and vegetation.
A calendar of short Drop-In Art and Art Adventures sessions for ages 5 through 12 appears on the museum’s website, along with other special programs.
Across the river from Southbank, Jacksonville Landing has long been a family destination for shopping, dining and just strolling along the river. Live music, Friday markets and other events happen there almost daily. Its restaurants are family-affordable, especially in the food court, and have grown in number through the past decade.
Away from downtown, animal attractions, a new entertainment center and a facelift at Jacksonville Beach keep the destination lively and multidimensional. Bookended by the more upscale communities of Atlantic Beach and Ponte Vedra Beach to the south, Jacksonville Beach hasn’t been so much rough around the edges as at its core.
Now it’s changing from its center, around the Jacksonville Pier, outward. I hardly recognized it at its intersection of First Street and First Avenue, where wavy pavers and new development have updated the retro beach scene.
In its fourth phase, the project is sprucing up Beach Avenue, the main drag, with roundabouts and streetscaping that bring it into the 21st century. Officials expect it to be finished by mid-January. The final phase extends the beautification project another two blocks along the oceanfront and should complete by April.
Besides the beach, kids will like the railroad-oriented exhibits and train car at the new Beaches Museum & History Park (formerly the Pablo Historical Center) and the slides and wet excitement of Shipwreck Island Waterpark.
At the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens in the city’s northern reaches, near the airport, the new excitement is Butterfly Hollow overlooking the Trout River and a new Happy Feet penguin ride simulator.
Zoos are natural kid-magnets, but Jacksonville’s version takes the attraction a step further than animal-gazing with a splash play park, a wildlife carousel, the Discovery Building with toys and activities, giraffe-feeding and a choo-choo train that loops the entire park. The layout even thoughtfully provides sequestered nursing stations.
Five separate loops take visitors into the habitat and wildlife of Florida, Asia, Australia, South America and Africa. One of the zoo’s signature exhibits, the Range of the Jaguar, is in South America. Around recreated Maya ruins, you can see jaguars, which just so happens to be the name of Jacksonville’s pro football team.
You won’t find jaguars at The Catty Shack Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary in the same vicinity, however. But the 45 beautiful lions, tigers, white tigers, leopards and other rescued big cats there will awe kids and parents alike. Out of the three such facilities I’ve visited throughout Florida, this is by far the most pleasant, with roomy caged pens and an upbeat attitude from staff and volunteers. If you’re visiting Jacksonville on a weekend, make reservations to attend one of their feedings, the only way to visit the facility other than on days with special events.
For rainy or too-much-sun days, head to Jacksonville’s Southside, where you’ll find a Dave & Buster’s and also a newer entertainment center called Latitude 30, a prototype for ones to come in different latitudes.
The concept here? Premium bowling alleys with big-screen TVs, a comedy theater, a video arcade, movie theater, pool tables and a restaurant. Staff waits on you even in the theaters, where you’ll find some tables, counter seating, swivel trays on the big comfy chairs and even recliners in the front row. On Mondays, kids eat and play for free.
The theme here circles back to big cats, but these Jaguars (servers) wear jerseys in signature teal with the name “Jones-Drew” printed on the back. The attraction calls itself the official away-game headquarters for the home team, so whatever you do, refrain from wearing your Dolphins shirt when you visit.