In a daylong blitz during a trip to Oregon, my family visited some of Portland’s hottest spots for children its science center, zoo and children’s museum.
Such places make Portland an excellent destination for families. They can be seen in a jam-packed day, as we did, but enjoying them over two or three days would be even better. Besides, just hanging around Portland is pleasant.
Unlike many American cities, Portland’s downtown is the place to stay and play. It’s small-scale, friendly, architecturally interesting and easy to get around by walking or public transit.
Teenagers could be turned loose downtown to roam in the pedestrian enclave of Pioneer Courthouse Square with its skateboarders and coffee bars. Or they could explore the flashy Nike Town athletic store or the 275 stalls selling crafts, clothes and food at the open-air Saturday Market (open on Saturdays and Sundays, despite its name, from now until next Christmas).
Book-loving teens could get happily lost in Powell’s Books, a block-square warren of rooms crammed with more than a million volumes.
Toddlers and young children could play for hours in Portland’s Children’s Museum. Housed in a dozen-room, old brick building on the south edge of downtown, it has a mock grocery store and doctor’s office, clay workshop, toy train and more. It’s not nearly as big or diverse as the Seattle Children’s Museum, 175 miles to the north, but it still thrills kids, especially the 3- to 7-year-olds.
In the museum’s annex across a small park (where new playground equipment is being installed), children get a half-hour tour and talk on Native American life in the Northwest. They watch a video of powwow drummers and beat a ceremonial drum, dress up in traditional clothes and sit in a cozy replica of a long house. The museum guide tells them of salmon and cedar and modern-day Native Americans, pitching her talk just right for the kids.
But Portland’s big lure for families with children of any age is the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.
Each time my family has been to Portland we make a beeline for OMSI, a sprawling two-story modern building on the banks of the Willamette River directly across from downtown.
OMSI is similar in size and scope to Seattle’s Pacific Science Center, with rooms full of computerized science games and displays.
Some of the kids’ favorites at OMSI, judging by the lineups, are the telephones with video screens that show each caller’s face and the earthquake simulator - a room that rocks and rolls as if in a quake, complete with shaking lamps and furniture and a radio that squeals with the shrill tone of an emergency broadcast.
Like Seattle’s science center, OMSI has Omnimax movies and a special Discovery Space play room for toddlers. It also has some things that Seattle can’t match - such as the USS Blueback submarine.
The 219-foot submarine is moored in the river right in front of OMSI, and visitors can take 40-minute tours through the decommissioned navy sub, clambering through its tight spaces and seeing how the crew lived and worked deep in the sea. Some crew even slept nestled among the torpedoes.
Another top draw at OMSI is the AT&T; Giants of the Gobi, which continues through the summer. It showcases dinosaur and mammal fossils excavated in China’s Gobi desert along with a re-creation of paleontology lab and a 1920s expedition tent. When the Gobi exhibit was at an Atlanta museum two years ago, it drew a million visitors.
With or without the Gobi exhibit, OMSI could easily absorb a family’s attention for a half-day or more. (Just as well, since admission is a hefty $9.50 for adults and $8 for children 4 to 13, and the submarine tour and Omnimax movies are extra). Bring a lunch and picnic by the riverside or eat in the spacious cafeteria with picture-window views of the river and downtown.
The Metro Washington Park Zoo is another place where families can spend hours. It’s a five-minute drive west of downtown, or forget the car and take city bus 63, which takes visitors between the zoo and OMSI, passing through downtown.
Portland’s zoo isn’t as large as Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo and lacks the spacious habitats. But it has animals from tropical to polar, from insects to elephants. Children delight in seeing Rose-Tu, a 2-1/2-year-old baby elephant, and in watching three dozen naked mole rats scurry through glass-sided earthen tunnels.
The zoo’s minitrain, which circles the grounds on 15-minute runs, also is a big hit with young kids even though few animals can be seen from it. For them, the joy is in the gentle little journey.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: IF YOU GO For advice and the free “Portland Book” guide, contact the city’s visitor office, (800) 962-3700. The visitor office can provide information on Portland attractions or phone OMSI, (503) 797-4000; Children’s Museum, (503) 823-2227; and Metro Washington Park Zoo, (503) 226-7627 for details on hours and admission charges. For information on the Saturday Market, phone (503) 222-6072. A good guidebook to the city, with details on sights and hotels, is “Portland: City-Smart Guidebook,” by Linda Danielson. (John Muir Publications, $14.95)
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