Chicago Museum of Science and Industry
Featuring the Harry Potter Exhibition
August 1, 2009
This unusual weekend excursion started when a friend of ours invited us to go see the Harry Potter Expo up in Chicago. The cast of characters this time, is our friend Julie, my mom and me. Once we decided when to go, the trip planning involving the hotel and tickets took just a few minutes. For the hotel we chose the Homewood Suites as we had prior experience with them, and for three people we could get a nice suite for what two regular rooms would have cost elsewhere. The museum's online ticketing system was just as easy and we soon had 10:53 tickets for August 1st.
As I have been what my co-workers call, a PTO abuser, this summer with several litttle trips planned, I designed this one to not require any time off. The plan was simple, they would pick me up from work on Friday, two hours later we'd be in Indianapolis for dinner at Shapiros, and and we'd get to our hotel right around 9 or 10 pm.
They did pick me up from work, and we drove, perhaps 15 miles from my office when the car started to act up. By acting up, I mean the car just wanted to accelerate faster and faster, we verified the cruise control was off, the drivers foot was no where near the gas pedal and the car kept speeding up, stepping on the brakes we could get it down to about 50 mph, but that was it. We attempted to exit I-74, and did manage to get the car stopped on the exit ramp, but not before mind altering visions of slamming into the cars ahead of us raced through our minds.
Great, now what? It seemed like it was 2 minutes to collect our thoughts, and we were just about to call AAA when the mircale occured. If you don't believe there are angels in the world, this might help you beleive. As I said not more than 5 minutes a van pulls up in back of us, the driver gets out and is wearing the uniform of a major auto maintenance firm. We tell him what happened, he takes a look under the hood and discovers one of the connectors for the cable from the gas pedal to the throttle had broken, effectively jamming the throttle in the fully open position. He perofrmed a quick short term fix that we were able to use to get the car down to a garage located just a bit off the exit. Their mechanic came out, and the two mechanics discussed it and we got the good news and the bad news. The good news is it is a relativley inexpensive fix, under $100 in fact, the bad news is he didn't have the parts in the shop at the time.
With that the guy who met us at the interstate exit showed us to a a car rental place located a few doors down, that rental place just happened to have 1 car left, and our new friend obviously had some dealings with them as he was able to negotiate some pretty favorable rates. The guy even helped us transfer the luggage from our car to the rental and then escorted us back to the interstate. Let me stress, this took a good 60-90 minutes of the guy's time, on a Friday night, coming home from work. Just proof that there are good people left in the world, or was it an angel, I mean for us to get just what we needed, out of the middle of nowhere. We even looked at the bright side, we'd be driving at night now, so no rush hour traffic to deal with.
So, we proceed to Indianapolis, and we do manage to make it to Shapiros around 7:40, which was extremely lucky as they close at 8:00. It's a cafeteria, so we knew as long as we were in the serving line by 8, we would be fine. I had a gigantic Ruben sandwhich, potato pancake, clam chowder, and rhubarb pie, does it get any better? Shapiros also does not have the word "small" in their vocabulary, unfortunately that also applies to your check. Dinner for two at a cafeteria - $35, ouch.
We proceeded on to Chicago, with me using my handy iPhone in "Maps" mode. It's not quite Garmin, but it works. I noted as we passed the exit to Indiana Beach that I'd be back there on Wednesday. A fuel and releif stop later, we were at the top of Indiana, about to head for the Skyway. I-94 is a toll road, and they hit you for the first toll (50 cents) right after you switch from I-65 to I-94. What ever happened to the big coin hoppers where you could easily toss your coins out the car window and move on? Now they have some big fancy electronic machine standing there, and the coin drop is a standard coin slot like on a vending machine. Not only that after you insert a coin it seems to take its own sweet time registering the coins.
Okay, now we are on some forsaken part of I-94. Okay, I just paid a road toll, why is the road in horrid condition, and there are little to no street lights to speak of. Before you actually get to the Skyway, they manage to hit you up for another toll, this time its $1.25 and they have a real attendant there to collect your money. Then we hit the Skyway and pay the big one, $3, to cross the bridge. We noted the toll collectors wear latex gloves. Overall we are back to being all smiles and making time when we happened to cross the Skyway just after the White Sox game let out. There must be 10 lanes here, all jammed up. Great now we are moving at about 5 miles an hour through the city, it can't get worse right? Well, we were in a lane that decided it should branch off and become a highway serving the western suburbs , we realized this fact after it was too late. Not a big problem, we used the Maps feature and plotted a route through town heading up Michigan Avene.
Google Maps was quite clear go up Michgan, then turn left onto Grant. Uhm, yeah, there is just one tiny problem. A huge Nordstroms store is standing where the road should be. So now instead of just one left hand turn, we have to go up two extra blocks, turn left, then over another two blocks, then zig zag our way through side street to get to the hotel. By this time it is after midnight, Chicago time. I get out of the car, and head to registration, which happens to be on the 6th floor. Registration was fairly painless, particularly when you are the last to arrive and they have all your stuff sitting out waiting for you. I head back downstairs and find the bellman is already loading the luggae cart, and the valet is about to take the car to wherever valet's hide your car. Overnight parking at this particular hotel - $42 a night. I've paid less than that on some hotel rooms!
We go to our suite on the 12th floor, and find it suitable with a living room, kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, 2 tvs, and a sofa bed. Not much time is spent on ceremony before we get cleaned up, decide to set the alarm clock for 7:30, no better make that 7, no better make that 6:30. I thought I liked to pad in extra time. Good night for day 1.
Day 2 starts, not much to report of the early morning, we all got up sometime between 6:30 and 7:30, but the important thing was we all made it to the hotel breakfast room by 7:45. The breakfast room on 6 served a full hot breakfast buffet complete with eggs, bacon, saugage, home fries, fruit, cereal, as well as all the stuff you normally find on hotel breakfast bars. Having 3G available I didn't really check into the WIFI situation, but the free breakfast was above average for a hotel.
Next we got tickets ready and headed to the museum. We had previously decided to drive as littleculture shock. One is a tranist system that is actually well thought out and useable. Bus timetables, well in Chicago they have timetables for off hours, otherwise it is simple "Every 7 minutes" or whatever the interval is. If that isn't good enough for you, you can pull out your iPhone and get up to the minute updates. "You are standing at the corner of Lake and State, at the SOUTH bound bus shelter" Followed by a list of all the busses that stop there, their destinations, minutes until their arrival, and even the serial number of the coach that will arrive. I want this for Cincinnati, not that we'd put out that kind of money.
In theory our hotel should have been perfect, just a half a block from a Red line train, from which we could easily transfer to a #10 express bus that goes all the way to the museum's front doors. We easily walk the half block early in the morning, and then decend the long, dark, decrepit stairway to the State and Grant station. This is clearly not the station they use for PR purposes. But inside the station lobby there is an attendant on duty, as well as some farecard machines and the turnstiles. Having prepared for this we each inserted a $5 into the farecard machine and bought a card. Then turn around, and run those cards through the turnstile. $2.25 was deducted from the card and we were admitted to a long thin hallway. We turned right to go southbound, noted the escalator only goes up, time for 2 more flights of stairs down to a rather nondescript butt ugly station. To be fair they may be doing some work here as there were construction walls up and wooden slabs placed over the floors.
In just a matter of minutes, a train arrived, and we boarded. I had looked at a system map and thought "we have to go two stations", so we ride for two stations, and I look out of the train windows and somehow we were like 4 stations down the line. We get out, befuddled, and there just happens to be a platform attendant standing right there. The only plaform attendant we'd see all weekend. Instead of asking the question I should have asked "How do I get to the #10 bus", I asked the seemingly right question "How do I get to State and Lake" (Where I planned on getting the #10 bus) He put us on a Northbound train for one station. We exited the train and were delighted to see escalators to guide us all the way up to the street. Here, we ran into another unexpected problem. The town was running some sort of marathon event the next day, which meant they were preparing the street and sidewalk - power washing and stuff like that. They were also boarding up quite a few of the subway entrances and the like. Namely the bus stop at Lake and State was closed, which led to us having to walk to the next stop, which was three blocks away, and was also right above the subway station where we turned around.
But on a good news/ bad news front we spotted others waiting at the stop who were also going to see Harry Potter so we knew we were in the right place. One of those people had a Museum of Science and Industry staff shirt on. She offered us the advice that the #10 express bus is very unreliable in the mornings, and we should use the local (a #6). We boarded the local, inserted our cards and the bus farebox somewhow knew we were making a valid transfer and only charged a quarter. This bus turnd out to only be local up until we got to the Museum Campus where it became an express down Lake Shore Drive, and then resumed being a local around 47th street or so. Really the big difference is that it turn arounds 1 block away from the museum. We walk the final block and then rest in the big bus pick up area in front of the museum. I note the big Chicago flags, and the mailboxes done up to look like R2D2.
The museum itself is a very classical Greek/Roman style building, and as I would learn dated back to the 1890's when it was part of the Columbian Exhibition, and later converted into the Museum of Science and Industry around the 1930s' Long tall columns line the front, and big lawn is in front of the building. At the time the lawn is sporting a big white tent that holds the Harry Potter exhibition. Anyway, you no longer walk across the lawn to get into the museum as ticketing has been moved to a tunnel underneath the lawn. Along the traffic circle are two small unassuming buildings with a revolving door that reads "Main Entrance", we enter and are presented with the choice of three flights of stairs or the elevator. We opt for the elevator, they only have one, but it is quite large.
At the bottom of the elevator, we come to the main entryway, clearly designed with the same traffic flow ideas Disney would discover. By that I mean the ticket windows are on the right side of the hall as seen by a person entering, followed by the restrooms, and then the escalator up into the musuem. An exiting patron would see the big gift shop on their right. The parking garage sits between this tunnel and the lawn above. It's actually a pretty efficent design. In the lobby is a free exhibit were one can walk alongside and through the Zephyr train, and for Harry Potter they have parked the flying Ford Anglica in the center of the lobby. It's sure to be the most photographed item in the exhibition, as its the only one in an area where photography is allowed.
Being a Saturday it was a pretty sizeable ticket line, and we were releived when we asked the host at the start of the line if we even needed to wait in the line since we had presale tickets to see Harry Potter which included general admission as a benefit. She told us we could bypass the main ticket line and just zip right through the tunnel and up the escalator.
At the top of the escalator you are in what was the basement of the original museum, now its the first floor as they consider the tunnel to be the basement. The ticket taker is at the top of this escalator and you enter right into the a seating area for the museums food court. In reality you have the main museum building and two long arms stretching out to either side. They do some clever thigns like color code the stairwells.
Sometimes, some of the neatest exhibits are the ones that don't earn a spot on the museum guide they hand you as you board the escalator. In the back of the food court seating area is one of those big displays where you watch a big ball bearing travel through a long twisty habitrail full of neat gimmicks - jumps, swirls, bells and the like. This one, though is themed as a "Trip to Switzerland" and so the big ball bearing rides an incline, a steamship a couple trains, stops in a phone booth, and travels past stylized scenes of Swiss villages and culture. Fun to watch, fascinating from a design standpoint, and even educational on a cultural level.
From there we took the next escalator up to what is the Main Floor. We decided to see how rigid they were being with the timed tickets for Harry Potter, the answer quite rigid. We looked around one of the big galleries off the center rotunda. Not much happens in the rotunda, they had a couple demonstrations going on in there but it is mainly a convenent meeting spot, and I imagine special events area. It is also the focal point where you realize the museum itself is also an exhibit, particularly for fans of art deco. We entered the trainsportation hall where, amongst other things they have a big train engine sitting there and you can climb up and go inside the engine. Overhead they have some planes, including a Boeing 727 you can tour. The back half had the olbigatory model railroad display.
We looked around here until it was an acceptable time for us to return. The museum opened at 10, we had tickets for 10:53, and it was acceptable to return two time slots in front of yours in order to start the process. So at 10:39 we approched the area. They had a section of the hallway around the escalators and the big front doors designated as the Harry Potter waiting area. We couldn't actually join the formal waiting area until 10: 46, but in the informal waiting area you could, for an extra $5, pick up a handset for the audo tour. It seems like every museum of any size is adding these audio tours, I mean they are a good extra money maker once the initial audio program is devised and the hardware is purchased. The idea is the visitor can move at their own pace, and listen to a recorded narration about any exhibit, in any order, at any pace, as often as they want. The audio narration can be much more engaging than boring signs that probably won't get read. We bought the aduio tour, and the attendant told us we could listen to the introduction and instructions for using the player by dialing 99 on the cell phone looking device, and the Ford Anglica in the museum lobby's narration is 46. The device also had a neck strap so you didn't have to carry it the whole time.
At the appointed time we were able to move up to the real waiting area. Here they have a huge Harry Potter banner whose main feature is that it contains a digital clock that tells the "Official Harrry Potter Time" A host meets you at this point and goes over all the usual rules and safety information, you know the stuff about no eating, drinking, smoking, photography, re-entry and the fact there are no restrooms inside the exhibit. To fill the time she asked Harry Potter trivia questions being careful, as she stated to stay away from book 6 and 7 content. When it came closer to our time she instructed those with yellow tickets (which would have come out of the ticketing machines at the museum) to be prepared to hand over their tickets upon entering, and those with white tickets (which were printed at home) to fold them a certain way and hold them in front of your chest just like a mug shot number. They would be scanned as you entered the exhibit, and I'm almost surprised she didn't infer the scanner was a magic wand or some other such magical device.
When your time comes up, the front doors of the museum are opened, and you exit out the main front doors of the museum, and here they have errected a tent tunnel to take you from the museum to the tent out in the front lawn that has the actual exhibition. The tunnel willl protect you from the wind and the rain, but not the heat. While in the tunnel we go down the front stairs, around the bend and then come to an intersection. To the left is the passageway of people exiting, to the right is the alternate accesible entrance, straight ahead is the exhibit entrance. We go through a set of doors into the climate controlled main exhibition tent.
Once inside the main tent you gather in the first preshow room, the main features here are a stool with the Sorting Hat sitting on it. You are given the big welcome to Hogwarts and a few people are chosen at random to be sorted. The sorting hat does a small sorting hat song to start and I find its a very accomodating sorting hat. They asked each child which house they would like to be in and it just so happened the sorting hat agreed with them everytime. After a few people have been sorted the doors open up into the second preshow room. In here when you enter there are several tall narrow screens showing the movie posters for the various films, then the doors are closed and you watch an introductory montage of favorite Harry Potter scenes.
Just as the video ends a panel opens up to your left and you find yourself walking alonside the Hogwarts Express while being greeted by a call of "First Years?, First Years this way!" Around to the right and you walk a small hallway with some stationary and some moving pictures until you come to the Fat Lady Portrait. Here you will start seeing the cues for your aduio tour and you enter the museum galleries by stepping throuh the Fat Lady Poortrait. Your first stop, why the Gryfindor common room of course, on one side you see the common room with its notice board, and on the other side a part of the dormitory, specifically Harry and Ron's beds. Scattered through the area you see robes, casual wear, various textbooks, Neville's plant, Hermoine's Time Turner, the golden egg with the clue, the Weasley sweaters. This exhibit has many more audio tour cues than I have seen in other exhibitions. In most cases its a member of the prop, costume, or set department giving some annecdotal story about the item. For example they had one about the bed spreads saying they were trying to design some zodiac themed spreads when they found the ones they actually used as a stock item in a store and thought they looked even better for the scene than what they were coming up with.
Another item they talked about and displayed was the Maruders Map, saying how it was one of the more expensive props if only because it was damaged so easy and kept needing to be replaced.
After touring the Gryffindor common room, its time to go to class. The next gallery has tableuax from various Hogwarts classes. You start with Divination and can see the little tuft chairs, the textbooks, and the tea cups, and if you look in the teacup you can see the grim make out of tea leaves. Over at the Potions setup you eee racks on the wall full of potion making kits, Snape's robes, a bench with various potion making implements. A good portion of the galley is taken up by Defense Against The Dark Arts, as it should be since there have been like 6 different teachers, so they have key props like the Lockhart complete works set, the bogarts wardrobe and jack in the box, items from Lockharts wizards duel with Snape, and more. At the other end of the room is Herbology the ceiling area is made to look like you are in a green house, props and plants sit on benches. At one end of the area is an interactive exhibit where you too can pull out a baby mandrake and listen to it whine. For some reason that's not entirely clear to me they put the Deloris Umbridge's office set in this gallery, where you can see the pink everything, the cat plates, and even the special punishment quill, and parchment.
From here you go into the third major gallery section, along one side they have the Quidditch display, here you can see the trunk with its Quidditch equipment, various models of high performance broomsticks, game uniforms, team flags, particulalry those of Ireland and Bulgaria which figure into the Quidditch World Cup, and some of the fan memorabillia including the Omnioculars. In the center of this exhibit is an area that looks like a carnival game. You step up to the counter, pick up a quaffle, and attempt to through it through the goal hoop. They have three target hoops set at differing hights and distances. The hops themselves are 'enchanted' to sound both the scoring bell and crowd cheering noises whenever a goal is made. Under the goal hoops is a green turf playing surface, built at an angle so the quaffles roll back down to the counter on their own. Yes, I tried my Quidditch skills out. only took me two tries to get the furthest target, and I comment that Six Flags would charge you for this.
On the other side of the galley you have Care of Magical Creatures, featuring Hagrid's hut. First you pass the hippogrif before entering the hut. Inside the hut everything is Hagrid sized, and you can see such props as the Monster Book of Monsters, the umbrella which conceals the wand Hagrid really isn't permitted to carry, and the egg of Nobert the dragon. While in the hut visitors are encouraged to sit on Hagrids chair. It's a set up like at the carnival where you sit in a gigantic chair to have photos of you taken that make you look like a kid again. Except here the chair isn't quite as big as its carnival counterparts, and you aren't allowed to take pictures. Most folks sat in the chair briefly and were thinking "What's the big deal" until the attendant instructed them to sit all the way back in the chair so that your back is right up against the seat back. Now try to getout it when your legs barely even extend past the seat cushion. As you leave Hagrid's you pass briefly by the Forbidden Forest and see a centaur and the giant spider.
This is a nice transition into the next gallery which is the dark side of Harry Potter. Here you see Quirrel's turban and props like a chess piece and the flying keys from the first movie, a petrified Collin and his camera, as well as the diary complete with basilisk fang stuck into it from the second movie, the dementors from the third movie complete with a high power ultra cold fan set behind the Dementors. You see the house elves, the Death Eaters costumes, the tombstone from book 4, the Dark Mark up in the sky. The audio tour mentions that some of the creatures whose manquins you see here, the manequins are never actually seen in the movie, its all computer graphics, but the manequins are used in rehearals to determine what the shaodws should be like, and so that the actors get a feel for where the character would be so they can 'interact' appropriately.
As you leave this gallery you enter another trainstion hallway where the four house banners can be seen and you must be right outside the Great Hall as you can see all the wooden cases with the educational decrees. The last gallery is the Great Hall complete with the candles that appear to float overhead. Down the center you have the banquet table loaded with Harry Potter food, and on one side you have a case of the novely products that may have come from Diagon Alley or Hogsmeade, as well as some of the Weasley creations, the skiving snackboxes take on a particularly prominent role here. On the other side you have all the fancy robes and stuff from the Yule Ball, in yet another area are the props like the Triwizard cup and the Goblet of Fire.
From the Great Hall you go down another Hogwarts hallway where the portraits on the wall are all cheering you, before you empty out into the gift shop which is themed to Diagon Alley. They had the usual t-shirts, mugs, robes, hats, etc. I was surprised how much of it was just Harry Potter stuff, almost none of it made special reference to the exhibition. They had wands for all budgets, sorting hats, toy props, games, action figures, all the way up to fine jewley and writing implements based on the movie, then up to cels from the movies, and replica quality souveniers, with some very high price tags. Of course you had the case where you could buy all the books, DVDs, and sountrack albums. I looked at a Maruders Map, but I wasn't about to give $45 for one. Get your Harry Potter merchanside now, its your only chance, its not sold in the other museum shops, and there is no re-entry once you leave the store. Once you leave the store, you go through another doorway (that locks behind you) back into the tent tunnel which guides you back to the front stairs of the museum and guides you back into the main museum building. A kiosk located just inside the museum serves as an aduio tour return area. I must say I really enjoyed that exhibit, and that was the main reason we were here, but now lets see what we can see in the rest of the museum.
We next head through a few galleries on the second floor, the thing that interested me the most in the section was a table with several objects on it, you could move the objects around and the table kept track of where everything was. The main reason we went this way is the signs advertised flight simulators. We got to the end of the wing and then started down into an exhibit about the Navy. On the ramp down they have models of famous warships of old then you board a mockup of an aircraft carrier. You can walk around the aircraft carrier and learn about the various stations, look through the periscope, and things like that. About halfway through you come to the flight simulators. They are purely optional and upon taking the path to them I learn they are also $5 extra.
Not too bad, I pay the $5 get a ticket and enter the line. The area housing the simulator is made to look like, not to surprsingly, the deck of the aircraft carrier. I quickly learn they have two simulator pods, the bad news is one of them is out of service. I see a line of maybe ten people in front of me and think thats not too bad, until I realized most of them wanted to fly solo missions, they only had one simulator running, and the cycle time is about five minutes. Yikes. There also isn't that much to do while you wait, they have a camera inside the pod showing the facial reaction of the pilot, but thats not that interesting, neither is watching the pod move around. It does score points for being able to do full barrel rolls, however.
After waiting nearly an hour, which was entirely too long for my first ever visit to such a large museum, I am being handed an empty cash box looking thing to place any loose articles. The good news is the operator takes the box and sets it on the control console while you ride, and its in full view of those waiting to ride, so I suppose that is as secure as you can hope for. After relieving you of loose articles they show you to the pod. I found the cieling of the pod to be very low, so I had to contort myself to even get into the pod, but once in I was greatly relieved to learn the lap belt and shoulder harness were easily secured. You then get a crash course in flying a fighter jet. You have a joystick with numerous buttons. You have a trigger which fires your main weapon, a machine gun, and you are told you have unlimited bullets for it. On top of the stick there are three thumb buttons, with room for a fourth that is blanked out. One of the buttons is your accelerator (thruster), another drops your missles (limit 40) (I thought he said 4 which sounded reasonable, but 40?), the third button enables barrel rolls. If you don't press it in the pod will just tilt to the sides when you move the stick to the sides, this allows you to turn, holding in the third button and moving the stick to the side performs rolls. You also need to get used to the concept of pull back to climb, push forward to go down. On the roof of the pod on your other side is the camera equipment and an ejection seat button which will instantly end your experience. Of note, the pod has two seats and two sticks, if you have a partner, one pilots and one guns.
I was told my objective is to fly to the enemy base, and to look at the arrow in the upper corner which will guide me there. Oh, and knock out any enemy aircraft along the way, or of course you can just have fun. With that the pod door is locked, the timer set for 3:30 and the unit started. I did about as well as I do on most flight sims, which is to say not very good. Had the line been shorter I might have thought it was a real cool experience, as it was I was more concerned with how much time I just wasted.
We exit the Naval exhibit and head down the stairs to the german submarine exhibit. Here I learn that, yet again, additional tickets are required to board the submarine, oh yeah I can go up and look at it, and tour the exhibits leading up to the sub, but to actually board, thats $7 extra. I would have had no trouble paying that $7 except I was told they had exhausted the days supply of tickets an hour earlier. I just HAD to do that flight simulator, didn't I?
On my way out of the submarine exhibit, I spot another one of those cool things that isn't on the map. A Mold-A-Rama machine!!!!! Man, I have not seen one of these in at least 15 years! I quickly fished out $2 and inserted it into the machine. No sooner had the second dollar bill entered the machine that the toy factory under glass started its show. First the mold squeezes together, then the mold is filled with molten plastic, then the plastic filled mold is filled with air, then after it has had time to form into a nice solid, and cool down a little bit, meaning enough to stay solid and keep its shape, not cool enough to touch, the mold opened back up showing me a battleship grey submarine. A scraper arm scraped the mold off the injection heads and send it into the payout chute below. I knew enough about these machines to let the toy sit in the chute a few minutes before actually trying to touch it. Cool, I now have a Mold-A-Rama toy. Now since the machine makes submarines, couldn we not fill it with yellow dye?
We next head through an area dedicated to the circus complete with a large scale model animated big top, then an even bigger circus train. That was nifty to watch, mesmerizing. After that we headed to the cafeteria for lunch. A big chunk of the 1st floor is taken over to food service now with an active cafeteria, a disused cafeteria, a coffee bar, and a vending area. Its scramble service where they have several stations (grill, deli, pizza, entree, etc) where you go and get food, then take it all to one central paypoint. So we scrambled and I wound up with a double cheeseburger. That was a pretty efficient operation.
After lunch, we headed to the Coal Mine. The Coal Mine is one of their oldest exhibits, yet its one of their big headliners. We joined the line and were promptly informed it was a 40 minute wait, and the coal mine tour was 30 minutes, so we were looking at a 70 minute investment. The rest of the group decided they would rather see other things, but since I missed the Submarine, I wanted to see one of their famous exhibits. To get an appreciation in the middle of the rear quadrant of the second floor hallway they have a big mining derrick right in the middle of the hall, and you can even walk all the way around it. The line starts out level and was wrapped halfway around the derrick, there was one slightly interesting part where you go through a little building and view a cutaway section of earth showing you different rocks and what they are mining for. When you get to the rear of the derrick you climb up several fights of stairs that are made to look like you are climbing up the derrick. They have a couple trivia questions and a movie to watch while in the queue. At the top of the derrick when you are even with the 3rd floor mezzanine there is an alternate entrance to the mine, but its built where even it involved a few stairs. I don't think the mine is ADA compliant, and the alternate entrance is for groups and member express tickets, reading the sign I note the member express pass program is not availalable on weekends, AKA when it might actually be useful.
About every 10 minutes apart the big horn on the derrick sounds and another group is welcomed to the tour. At the point you pass a time clock, and a tag board that would provide a quick way of glancing to see who is in the mine. At this point you are loaded into an elevator. Now, being a theme park fan and a huanted house fan I am dubious of any use of elevators like this. However I think this one is a real honest to goodness elevator simply because with the full derrick in view there is no other place for you to get out while up on 3. Not that much space on 2 either, particularly given what happens shortly after you get off the elevator, Can't be one the first floor either as it is already full of exhibits. I almost wonder if there is another secret floor between 1 and 2 that actually houses the mine.
While riding down the elevator you are informed that this is not unlike actual mine elevators, except for the fact it has walls, a ceiling and a door. We are shown how there are several rows of chains run across the top of the car, miners would grab onto those for dear life, and shorter miners would grab ahold of larger miners. Oh and there wasn't any light either, at that point all the lights in the elevator go out until we reach the mine level. Upon exiting the elevator you take two quick left turns and are then shown the rotary lift. Here you see a row of mine carts loaded with coal one at a time advance forward onto the rotary lift where it is turned over so the coal dumps out onto a conveyor belt which runs to the derrick. We are told "We miners have very simple names for things - we call them what they do! You rode down on the Man Lift (it lits men), and the coal is dumped by the rotary lift. The coal runs into a second hopper which is used to counterbalnce the man lift, as one goes up the other comes down. We are told a little bit about mine dangers. Coal dust, which not only causes black lung but is also highly flamable, and water which could flood a mine at any time. So they have sump pumps which pump dirty mine water up to the surface, and they pump clean water back down for drinking, eating, bathing, fire firghting, and keeping the walls wet to keep coal dust down. We are informed that this demonstration had been run at 1/5th normal speed.
We then go up a flight of stairs and go to an area where we talk about methane gas, the mining industry's silent killer. In our homes it is odorized, in a mine not so much. We also learn that in the past children would have been put to work in the mine, our guide called them Minor Miners which was a term he used when he grouped them to the front at all the stations. We also learned miners get paid by the ton, not the hour, so if the mine is still you aren't getting paid. We learned about severl methods of detecting methane gas: small animals (effective but gave many false positives which led to unneeded mine shut downs, the safety lamp, which while the color of the flame could provide light and tell you if danger was nearby - was also fragile and once broken the open flame + coal dust could start a fire. Up to modern digital sensors. We also learned miners had to buy all their own gear, so while the digital meters were much safer, they were also much more expensive than the safety lamp, so the safety lamps persisted in many areas until they were banned outright.
Safety orientation over, a strange orange train arrives, you baord what is called the Man Trip (It takes Men on Trips, and yes they mean Men, women were considered bad luck in a mine) We start to board the man trip (two cars, each with two benches along the long sides of the car facing the middle. At first everybody leaves room for their personal space, but then our mine guide (complete in harness and other safety gear) exhorts us to keep packing more people into the cars. "Cars like this would carry many more people, so keep loading in, you don't make any money until we start mining" We continued to load the cars until just about every square inch of bench was used with people seated tightly against each other, then the car doors were locked, forming complete cages around us with tight grillework. "These tunnels are dark and narrow so don't stick anything outside" We are then driven through the mine in the Man Trip, stopping onec to view a demonstration on how the roofs of the mine tunnels are braced, then we contine on to the other end of the man trip ride. "Take everything with you, we will not be returning to the man trip"
We then go into an area where various mining methods are demonstrated, the oldest being the simple lie on your pack and swing with a pick axe, while runners run ahead with explosives to clear new tunnels ahead of you. We were then shown some early mining equipment, the downside is the machinery was incredibly loud (Most miners lost 70% of their hearing in the first 8 months on the job) We also learned they mined the mine in a checkerboard like pattern which left ample support to try to prevent the dreaded collapse, but meant they only got 50% of the coal out. We then went to another area were we learned about the longbore drilling which was a big machine that could get about 90% of the mine cleared, however they were extremely expensive, so they were only used in the most coal rich mines. We got a demonstration of this machine, again slowed down to 1/10th normal speed this time. We go through another mine tunnel and come out in an office area. Here they talk about modern mining, computer supervision, other uses of coal (cosmetics, diet products, toothpaste, etc) where coal mining is still a big business, and a comical demonstration of steel toed shoes. Oh, and you get to pass around a chunk of raw coal. After this it's, "and now this is the only mine you will ever exit by going DOWN stairs". You come out on the first floor in the back of the disused cafeteria area.
I made my way to the center of the first floor to the gigantic restrooms. These are noteworthy for their sleek modern appearance, use of indirect lighting, but the main feature is that when you go in there is a stainless steel wall you think is there as a privacy shield, but on the other side of it, there is a narrow ledge, and a channel you can put your hands into. Depending on where you insert your hands into the machine, you either get water, soap, or hot air. Very slick and modern. I then return to the upper level.
I next go through the Old Chicago street scene, and note the old ice cream parlor still operates. In another area, there is an area that shows you how the internet works - by selling you an RFID necklace for $1, which then allows you to create an avatar in the exhibits, and have your avatar follow you from station to station. Further back they have a whisper room you get yourself and a buddy to stand by the two funnels and you can whisper to each other across the room. In another area there is a room that shows presentations about earth, using what appears to be a shperical shaped television.
Down on the lower floor, I toured an area about farming, and wow a second Mold-A-Rama machine, this time a green tractor. I later found out that had I toured the model railroad to the end I could have gotten a train and had I taken the long walk to the space exploration area a fourth mold a rama was available. I then toured the usual fun with physics area, an area about old firefighting equipment, and a fairlyand castle dollhouse that must be famous in Chicago.
By that time, it was time for the musuem to close so I collected Mom and Julie, we headed back to the tunnel, toured the gift shop, then headed out.
There was a line for the elevators back up to the street, and I notice they have wisely put farecard machines there so you can have your fare prepaid. Benefits of being in a town that values its mass transit system. We exited the building and saw an ice cream stand I could swear was not there earler, and then headed to the bus shelter where bus after bus was pulling up to take people back to the main downtown loop area. It would have been a fast trip if not for the traffic tie up on Lake Shore Drive. It was a standing room only crowd on the bus, and comical was a husband/wife or girlfriend/boyfirend combo where the man sat and made the woman stand THEN had the audacity of asking the woman to try to read the map. Yep, he got the if looks could kill stare. A quick ride back into town, then back into the subway, then onto a very packed red line train. We got back to our station to learn the up escalators were broken. It took about all of any energy Mom had left to make the flights of stairs up to the street.
We came outof the subway by the Webber Grill. Sure it was almost an hour wait, but it was Saturday night, and it was right there. It was also very very good, well worth the wait. Your dinner cooked in an open show kitchen, purportedly on a Weber grill, and the big come on? Fresh roasted corn on the cob. Man that was good.
We then returnedto our hotel, where I contemplated, and failed yet again to get to Navy Pier. In the morning, we hit the breakfast bar again, allowed the bell captain to haul our bags down to the street, and took the long, but thankfully uneventful car ride back to Cincinnti. Okay, so we stopped at Shapiros again for lunch. (I order meatloaf, I think they gave me the entire meatloaf), and also a stop at the Hollywood Casino.
All in all a fun way to spend a quick weekend with friends.
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