Downstate Illinois: Three Children’s Museums in Three Days

My wife and I packed our three children into the car and drove south into the corn and soybean fields of Illinois. We were taking the kids on a sampling tour of downstate children’s museums, searching for that rare find: something to keep the little angels occupied while also providing some adult entertainment. We chose downstate Illinois because our membership at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry comes with complimentary entry to its partner museums around the world. Since we aren’t planning to take the kids to Berlin or Tokyo anytime soon, we searched a little closer to home.


Our first stop was the Peoria Riverfront Museum. The museum has two halves – one for the body, and one for the mind. Tests of athletic skill dominated the first half of our visit. How many free-throws could I make in 60 seconds? What was my vertical leap? How fast could I throw a baseball? I was having fun, and had to periodically remind myself that I had three children to look after.

The riverfront in the museum’s name refers to the Illinois River, and there was an exhibit extolling the virtues of the waterway. Posters explained the river’s history, ecology, and other learny things, but there was also a real canoe in the middle of it all. Our children answered the clarion call – why bother with knowledge when there’s a canoe to get in and out of?

Water stations have become mandatory in children’s museums, and Peoria’s was no exception (you read it here first: in 20 years this water station phenomenon will have created a glut of hydraulic engineers, who will replace lawyers as the punchlines to jokes). My children played with the pipes and canals and water wheels, until I made them put on the plastic smocks, at which point they lost all interest.

The brainy half of the museum is mostly the history of Peoria. That’s all I learned because the history of Peoria includes the Caterpillar exhibit, which includes a large box of sand and some toy bulldozers. Peoria’s history will have to wait as the rest of my time was spent stopping our three-year-old daughter from dumping the sand on the floor.


Our next stop, 60 miles southeast on I-74, was the Children’s Discovery Museum in the exceptionally-monikered town of Normal. Of the three museums we visited, Normal’s was the largest and adhered closest to current children’s museum standards (dare I say, it was the most normal?).

One entire corner of the three-story structure was taken up with a rope web to climb in. The water station had boats and fountains. The full-sized tractor to sit in had a video screen showing the view a farmer would see while harvesting crops (why, oh why, is there always a line for that?). My wife and our oldest daughter, the only two in the family with an interest in art beyond the mess it can make, found the painting room – a space enclosed by clear plastic walls with troughs running along the base. Participants can paint on the walls with water colors, their inverted creations visible to everyone walking past the outside of the room, and then use a squeegee to erase the mess into the trough. My wife and daughter enjoyed themselves, pushing on the boundaries of human expression, while I followed the younger two back to the tractor, entranced by the video of corn being harvested.

It was an up-to-date, clean, and well-appointed museum. It was also the only one of the three that I got drowsy in. There was nothing for a non-painting adult to do except police the inmates. The museum’s curators might have recognized that issue; to their credit, there were benches on which to slouch near every activity station.

The kids enjoyed themselves, and didn’t want to leave, but they had parked themselves in front of those old chestnuts, a wooden train set and a grocery store checkout counter. They weren’t exploring new horizons.


Our tour wound up at Orpheum Children’s Museum in Champaign. The Orpheum was the smallest and most dated of the three. It was also the only one that had live animals – there were some lizards, turtles, and cockroaches. Specifically, they were Madagascar cockroaches, the largest cockroaches in the world (even bigger than those I used to share an apartment with when I lived in New Orleans).

Oddly, the live animals did not hold my children’s interest half as much as the fake ones in the veterinary clinic exhibit. All three of them put on grey lab coats and performed examinations on stuffed animal after stuffed animal.

Instead of sitting in a tractor watching a corn-harvesting video, at the Orpheum our children manned the helm of a tugboat while watching video of longshoremen lassoing cargo ships. They hardly blinked, lest they miss a single action-packed moment. Lucky for me, nearby was the falling ball maze. I could arrange a series of slats to direct the descent of a plastic ball. The trick was to keep the speed of the ball in check so that it didn’t fly off the maze and into the vet’s office. The challenge had me enrapt: me versus gravity, mano a mano. Adding to its allure, the maze was decidedly low-tech and looked to have been built shortly after Isaac Newton wrote up the Universal Law of Gravitation. Eventually I noticed two kids and an impatient mom standing behind me. Okay, okay. you can have a turn.

Meanwhile, my wife had reached her limit of facilitating vet visits, and we brought the most unlikely-themed weekend in Illinois tourism history to an end.

Yosemite National Park: a Week with My Least Favorite Geometric Shape

We pulled into the gravel lot. There were no lines (that is the last time you will read that phrase here) on the ground guiding the drivers into right-angled order, so the meandering rows of parked cars appeared to be melting in the heat. We exited the car, strapped packs on backs, and set out to find the bus to the visitor center.

It was easy. Like the downtown nightclub, the long, cordoned path filled with waiting people advertised the popularity of the bus stop. Its exclusivity as well. The bus arrived, but it was no match for the line. Soon full, the bus left, the line of waiters no shorter. We decided to walk.

Welcome to Yosemite National Park. Continue reading “Yosemite National Park: a Week with My Least Favorite Geometric Shape”

The Fargo Marathon

I was in the locker room with four other masters runners. One of our group made notice of another’s arm warmers. They’re so light and sheer, said the first, unlike any he’d ever seen before. Who makes them? The owner giggled sheepishly, looked around, and confessed: they’re his wife’s pantyhose. All of us were married with children, and thus, no stranger to oddball displays of ingenuity. There were high-fives all around. Continue reading “The Fargo Marathon”

White-water Kayaking with a Cautious Guide

Safety First. And Second. And Third.

We walked downriver along the shore to scout the upcoming rapid. Our guide was briefing us on what we should prepare for, what to do if we needed to perform an emergency wet-exit, and letting us know that it would be perfectly acceptable to opt out if we didn’t feel comfortable. At the very least, she said ominously, we would have to run it one at a time, because she wouldn’t be able to rescue both of us at once. Continue reading “White-water Kayaking with a Cautious Guide”

The San Francisco Marathon

Gimme Shelter

I stepped out of the darkness into the dim yellow glow of the electric light. I lifted up my shirt to show the hulk in the brown leather jacket the number pinned to my singlet. He nodded and grunted, “Have a good race”.

From the safety of my corral, I noticed that all the guards wore brown leather jackets. I looked closer: all the jackets were adorned with a collection of Harley Davidson patches. Really? They hired a motorcycle gang for security duties? Are the race organizers not familiar with the fable of the Rolling Stones’ Altamont concert? The moral of the story: do not get a motorcycle gang to be responsible for security at your event. Perhaps the organizers calculated that everyone in attendance is a marathoner and, in case of trouble, can just run away? Continue reading “The San Francisco Marathon”

A Day at the Figment Art Festival in New York

Corporate Sponsors Need not Apply

As the afternoon wore on, the costumes became more and more creative, or odd, depending on your perspective. We passed a man wearing orange tights and an orange leotard. His accessories included an orange cape and orange-rimmed sunglasses. He had no insignias on his chest to indicate his allegiances or super-powers. He could have been Orangeman, the superhero brought to us by the Florida Citrus Growers Association, except the festival explicitly forbade corporate sponsorships. Continue reading “A Day at the Figment Art Festival in New York”

A Weekend at Illinois’ Cave-in-Rock State Park

There is an ad campaign, the posters for which are easy to find in Chicago, called Mile after Magnificent Mile, which is meant to entice visitors to venture beyond the friendly confines of the city into the Illinois hinterlands. The ads are, as far as I can tell, completely and unequivocally ignored. No one from Chicago, and I mean no one, burns vacation time in downstate Illinois Continue reading “A Weekend at Illinois’ Cave-in-Rock State Park”

The Little Rock Marathon

When a Race’s Logo Foreshadows its Own Cancellation

The orange goo oozed down the windows, casting the cabin in an eerie Halloween glow. I had never been on a plane while it was being de-iced before. It was an airplane that was supposed to be on its way to Little Rock, Arkansas, where the next day I would be running in the city’s eponymous marathon. Today, I had to get to Little Rock’s convention center in time to pick up my race number. When scheduling the flight I had allotted a couple extra hours for contingencies, so there was no need to panic just yet, but delays at O’Hare during the winter have a tendency to become sentient, and start fighting for their own survival. We needed to get going. Continue reading “The Little Rock Marathon”

The Quad Cities Marathon

A Weekend Spent Crossing the Mississippi

The hail of bullets shredded the front tire of his motorcycle, sending him sliding into a pomegranate vendor. He staggered to his feet, looking around wildly for a sign of his would-be assassin. A flock of startled pigeons near the narrow entryway to a cobblestoned alley gave it away. He bounded to his feet and sprinted toward the alley. I shook my head, “You’re going out too hard. Continue reading “The Quad Cities Marathon”