Kids administer the final exam Tryout: Four youngsters examine the new Port Discovery museum from top to bottom and conclude that it makes the grade.

December 27, 1998|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,SUN STAFF

The thinking here, which luckily required a minimum of brainpower, was this: If you're testing the appeal of a brand-spanking-new children's museum, it pays to do it with real live kids.

After all, if kids don't like it, pretty soon your museum will be replaced by something such as, oh, Ralph's Carpet Warehouse, where oily men in loud sport coats discuss Berbers and area rugs like it was the World Series.

So on a sunny afternoon a few days ago, The Sun commissioned four kids to tour Baltimore's new Port Discovery museum and give us their impressions in preparation for Tuesday's official grand opening.

The third-largest children's museum in the country, Port Discovery cost $32 million and took four years to build. It enlists the considerable resources of Walt Disney Imagineering, Disney's design and development branch. And since museum officials are hoping to attract some 500,000 visitors a year, it's obviously important that kids actually like this place.

With the target age of Port Discovery (6-12) in mind, our distinguished panel was composed thusly: Luke Carlson, 12, of Cockeysville; Brian Jeffries, 11, of Baltimore; Sara Trotta, 10, of Cockeysville; and T.J. Sanders, 7, of Cockeysville.

Our visit got off on the right foot when the kids walked into the cavernous lobby and discovered two large tables overflowing with cookies, as well as two stations serving soft drinks. This seemed an inspired touch by museum officials. If you're a kid, how do you rip a place when they're giving you free cookies and fruit punch?

Privately, an adult accompanying the kids wondered if we'd find an ice cream sundae bar on the second floor and a taco-and-fixin's bar on the third floor, all but guaranteeing a rousing thumbs-up. But it turned out the cookies were also for the families of city hospitality-industry workers, who were touring the museum with their families.

With the kids nicely buzzed on sugar and chocolate chips, our first stop was KidWorks, a three-stories-high play area in the heart of the 80,000-square-foot museum.

KidWorks is a futuristic-looking jungle gym, a jumble of gray, black and chrome-colored stairs, slides, ropes and tunnels. Kids get to climb, crawl, slide, swing, ride zip lines, even traverse a narrow foot bridge three stories up. And they don't need to have the lineage of the Flying Wallendas to do any of this, either; the area is enclosed by a mesh netting heavy enough to catch a John Deere tractor, never mind a kid.

Our tour guide, program coordinator Carter Arnot, said parents are encouraged to hack around in KidWorks with their children.

"I can climb this as easily as any 5-year-old," she said.

Of course, Arnot happens to be 24. For the less limber adult - and this would include our four testers' accompanying adult, who is about as limber as a mahogany desk - there are benches nearby on which to collapse.

In any event, our four testers happily climbed all over KidWorks, a scene that had all the calm of a street riot in Jakarta.

Six to 10 paid staff members and volunteers, all wearing headsets that make them look like operators at Sports Illustrated standing by to take your subscription, monitor the action and assist those kids who need help.

"We want kids to take risks, though," said Arnot.

Minutes later, T.J. was doing just that as he swooshed down a zip line on the second level, his face frozen in an uncertain grin that said: "Am I going to check out for good this time?"

"Cool!" he said when the ride was over, scrambling onto a round, silicone-like pad known as Body

Music, which emits various, um, body sounds such as snorting and belching.

To a 7-year-old, of course, this is drop-dead funny, like a "Best of Seinfeld" video. (Note to nervous parents: On the second floor, next to KidWorks is KiddieWorks, a play area of multicolored mats, tiny ladders and tamer slides for the under-5 set too small to tackle the big time.

Although in terms of fun potential, KiddieWorks is to KidWorks what a Quonset hut is to the Empire State Building.)

The bottom line is that all four testers pronounced KidWorks "awesome," the best play area they'd ever killed time in.

A half-hour later, when it was time to move on to another exhibit, there was rebellion in the air. It was stamped out quickly and brutally - well, quickly, anyway - by the bribe of an after-tour meal at nearby Fuddruckers.

Our next stop was Adventure Expeditions, an exhibit that replicates a spooky pharaoh's tomb in ancient Egypt.

The object here, as you wind your way past various vases, tablets and mummies in a stone chamber, is to decipher the hieroglyphic clues to find the secret tomb.

"You're looking for the four secret signs of Anubis," said

marketing coordinator Kim Axtell, our new tour guide.

"Right," said Sara, who then mouthed: "What's an Anubis?"

While Anubis sounds like an aperitif, it turned out to be a jackal-headed guide to the underworld. In the hieroglyphics, he looked sort of like an angry Great Dane.

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