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Amazement Square in Lynchburg is a wondrous workout for families.
Monday, March 11, 2013
LYNCHBURG — Five minutes after walking into the crowded, four-story funhouse called Amazement Square, I lost the two children entrusted to my care when they disappeared into a tower of tunnels, ladders and slides.
“How am I gonna explain this when I get home?” I thought.
Luckily (for me), my 6-year-old daughter and her 7-year-old pal popped out of a chute on a completely different floor, allowing me to breathe easier — that is, until they were gone again 30 seconds later, playing, splashing, climbing and loving every second in this amazing place.
Amazement Square is downtown Lynchburg’s children’s museum, housed in a pre-Civil War building on the banks of the James River. Since opening in 2001, Amazement Square has drawn thousands of kids, parents and grandparents from Central and Western Virginia and even beyond.
“We come in the winter when it’s cold outside and we come in the summer when it’s too hot — we love it,” said Brankica Frenchik , while her son, Andre, 5, played in the insect exhibit. A Lynchburg resident, Frenchik said her family comes to the museum frequently and that her son never tires of the exhibits, some of which change from year to year.
Parents familiar with other children’s museums know the deal: They are a repository of hands-on exhibits and places to play. They’re not really museums in the traditional sense, places to passively observe static displays hanging on a wall. In a children’s museum, kids actually become part of the exhibit as they climb and frolic.
A grown-up might even get stuck in an exhibit. More about that later.
Adults not for tubes
My family has been to children’s museums in Baltimore, Richmond, Portsmouth and St. Paul, Minn. Each place has been incredibly fun (and noisy). Amazement Square is every bit as good and entertaining as the children’s museums in larger cities.
The building, which was an infirmary for Confederate soldiers during the Civil War, is dominated by the “Amazement Tower,” a four-story maze of tunnels and ladders that includes a short zip line and tops out at an enclosed observation deck on the roof. That’s where I lost my kids (the first time).
When we were there on March 2, the museum was playing host to a Dr. Seuss event, which included pictures with the Cat in the Hat and special readings of Dr. Seuss works. The place was packed when we arrived, more like a kids’ free-range zoo than museum.
The girls instantly disappeared into the Amazement Tower. I teamed with the other girl’s mom to keep an eye out for the kids as we scouted every floor. When we caught fleeting glimpses of two blond -haired first-graders, we announced the sightings as if we had spotted a species of rare bird — “A blue-footed booby just came out of a sliding tube on level two!”
Naturally, being the good dad I am, I decided to just follow them into the tower. After all, hadn’t one of the museum’s staffers told me the tower was “safe for adults”?
So, I climbed into one of the plastic tunnels and was immediately jolted by a charge of static electricity that would have stunned a moose.
Frizzed but unfazed, I plowed forward on hands and knees, and it was then that I learned an important biological fact about children: kids’ knees are covered with some kind of blubbery layer of fat that makes them immune to pain when they crawl through plastic tubes.
Grown-ups apparently lose this padding, which made crawling hurt like the dickens. So, in the next tunnel I decided to scoot on my bum and go down a slide on my back. I made it around a curve to the bottom of the tube, then stopped flat on my back with my arms stretched over my head. Stuck!
As claustrophobia-induced panic began to set in, I wriggled like a mutant inchworm until I spilled out of the tube onto the floor, a big blob of old man all laid out for the world to see. It must have looked like a cow giving birth.
Fortunately, the girls didn’t spend their entire time in the tower. The other exhibits were just too awesome.
They pretended to be archaeologists in the “Indian Island,” crawled like Velcro-footed insects in “Bugs University,” made a colorful mess in the “Paint Box,” put on Egyptian costumes and wrapped themselves up like mummies.
Miraculously, they showed no interest in the face-painting table, which was great because I wasn’t about to spend eight bucks a head to stand in line for an hour.
The exhibit they went back to repeatedly (other than the tower) was “On the James,” a model of the old James River canal system that once brought bateaux of goodies through Lynchburg. Kids could operate the doors of the canal locks and send little wooden boats speeding (tumbling, in most cases) down the river.
“I love the way you can look out the window and there is the real James River,” said Ashleigh Karol , Amazement Square’s marketing director. Her own 2-year-old enjoys splashing in the mini currents.
Karol said that nearly 90,000 people come to the museum each year, an amazing total when you consider the place was designed to accommodate half that number. Even though visitation dropped during the economic downturn, space is tight.
Amazement Square is planning an expansion later this year, which will include adding an education center in another old building and using an old railroad tunnel that runs underground.
The museum will partner with Centra Health on an exhibit that will highlight nutrition, obesity awareness and kids’ health. Don’t worry, it will still be fun, I’m sure!
Funding, as it is for most nonprofits, is a constant battle for the museum, which gets most of its money from grants and contributions, but Karol is confident the museum will be able to do the necessary expansion work.
In the late 1990s, the museum got off the ground with a successful $7.8 million campaign launched by the city’s Junior League, with Maylia Rightmire giving the first million. Amazement Square also bills itself as The Rightmire Museum in her honor.
Until the expansion, kids can climb, splash and zip to their hearts’ content, making a drive from Roanoke to Lynchburg well worth the trip. Following our two-hour visit, my little climbers fell asleep on the ride home, which is the best evidence of a good time.
One last piece of advice: When you go to Amazement Square and happen to see a guy’s feet dangling from the end of a plastic tunnel, don’t hesitate to pull the poor dude out.
Ralph Berrier Jr.’s column runs every other Monday in Extra.
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