They look for all the world like the drawings of a child enchanted by an imaginary fantasy land, spilled out onto paper in a wondrous explosion of Crayola primary colors. Beneath the smiling sun that is also a gigantic light bulb, kids slide through pipes in an oversize mystery house, search mazes and pyramids for the lost pharaoh's tomb, swing from a trapeze in a three-story, futuristic playland best scaled not by stairs but by rope ladders and bridges.
These drawings, appearances notwithstanding, flow not from the hand of an artistic prodigy blessed with a fertile imagination, but from grown men and women who puzzled two years over precisely what the four colorful images should show.
This is how Walt Disney dreamers dream, and this is Disney's dream for the first children's museum it has ever designed. From the childlike drawings, designers at Walt Disney Imagineering ultimately will shape Port Discovery, the $32 million children's museum scheduled to open late next year in the former Fishmarket in downtown Baltimore.
Built around the "Dream Theme," the high-tech, hands-on odyssey replete with Disney's theatrical imprint grew out of Imagineering designers' brainstorming sessions with museum leaders, education specialists, child psychologists, parents and, of course, children.
To the child, after all -- and the rest of us on good days -- play is work, and work is play in one vital respect that underlies everything Port Discovery strives to accomplish: To seize on the child's ability to see the universe in the task at hand, undivided, enthralled, consumed by it.
"First and foremost to us, we figured we had know what our mission is, and we spent two years figuring that out," said Kathy Dwyer Southern, Port Discovery's executive director.
The conclusion? It's educational, to be sure, but to succeed the museum must be pure, unadulterated joy. The term "edu-tainment" comes to mind, and Southern has no qualms with it.
For Baltimore, Port Discovery's impending opening provides a crucial test of whether downtown's tourism district will at last spread beyond the immediate Inner Harbor area. It comes as the city struggles to catch up with competitors who have outspent and outdone the city for well over a decade.
"We knew it absolutely has to be entertaining, really entertaining, and we're not frightened of the entertainment aspect of it," Southern said.
"We embrace it fully, because kids learn, like us adults, when they're engaged, when they're excited, when they're amused and amazed, so these are the most fundamental notions."
Imagineering, created by Walt Disney in the early 1950s to design and build Disneyland, attempts to bring its creative expertise and high-tech wizardry to the $12 million worth of exhibits meant to entertain as they educate.
Today, the 80,000-square-foot Fishmarket is largely barren and lifeless, the last vestiges of the failed entertainment complex gone.
Four core exhibits
Between now and its scheduled November 1998 opening, the vast empty spaces will undergo a dramatic transformation replete with Disney touches and built around four core exhibits:
* "Kidworks" will rise three floors with a jumble of towers, bridges, ladders and rope climbs designed to look as though it's been built by kids. A series of physical and mental challenges exercise mind and body with heavy emphasis on problem-solving, teamwork, music and sound effects, obstacles going every which way.
* "Adventure Expeditions" re-creates an imaginary ancient Egypt, complete with Baltimore's version of the River Nile, mazes, pyramids, a mental obstacle course in a two-story exhibit where kids search for the lost pharaoh. Children plan an expedition and devise strategies on how to best reach the goal. There's no guarantee they'll find it the first time or the fifth, but therein lies the learning. "It's like a kid's 'Indiana Jones and the Lost Arc,' " said Beatrice Taylor, Port Discovery's programs director. "And they'll learn something new with every attempt to solve the mystery."
* "Miss Perceptions Mystery House," inhabited by a loony family, features "nutty rooms" and beckons with a quest to find the family members. Miss Perceptions is a detective parked outside, and children are invited to join her in the search for the lost family. It's a grand puzzle, full of illusions and vexing detours. Do you have to slide down the gigantic pipe in the sink to find a clue, or is it a mere diversion?
* Maryland Public Television Studio: The latest addition to Port Discovery will bring MPT downtown, and offers children the chance to do what past generations could only dream about: create their own productions, from the costumes to the content. A game show will teach financial literacy. The studio also will enable Owings Mills-based MPT to produce live shows with large studio audiences for the first time, a longtime goal of David Nevins, chairman of the Maryland Public Broadcasting Commission.