Here’s what’s new at the Alder Planetarium, Shedd Aquarium and Field Museum in Chicago
It can be difficult to plan a memorable family getaway that makes the whole crew happy, especially when traveling with children of different ages. But Chicago has attractions that appeal to everyone from toddlers to teenagers. Hit the road and discover must-see new exhibits at the trio of tourist destinations located on the museum campus: the Adler Planetarium, the Shedd Aquarium and the Field Museum.
Remember that most major museums require tickets purchased in advance online. there are discounts for ages 3 to 11. To save on multiple attractions, consider a Chicago CityPASS (see below).
At the Doane Observatory in Adler, a schoolgirl gazes through a powerful new 24-inch reflecting telescope that reveals many of the mysteries of the universe. The instrument collects 44% more light than the smaller 33-year-old telescope it replaced, allowing visitors to see darker objects in the sky. Mountains and craters on the surface of the moon and even the Andromeda galaxy, about 2.5 million light-years from Earth, are clearly visible.
The budding young astronomer wonders about Saturn. A docent explains that the sixth planet in the solar system is made up mostly of hydrogen and helium, and that the rings around it are pieces of ice and rock.
Scenes like this, common before pandemic-related difficulties forced the attraction to close in 2020, now seem remarkable. When the planetarium reopened last March, astronomers were over the moon. They had missed the celestial wonders seen at the domed landmark, a fixture overlooking Lake Michigan since 1930. Now it’s back and better than ever.
First, Mars mania hit Chicago. NASA’s traveling exhibit “Roving With Perseverance” opened on July 1 in the Our Solar System gallery. It features life-size models of the six-wheeled Mars Perseverance rover, which is the size of a small car, and its helicopter sidekick Ingenuity, the first land plane to fly on another planet. The real Perseverance and Ingenuity are busy exploring the red planet. The exhibition runs until January 2.
Then, head to the Grainger Sky Theatre, home to one of the world’s highest resolution digital dome screens, for a breathtaking ride through the solar system in 2096. Dazzling stars and fiery planets are so close that you can almost touch them.
Michelle Nichols, director of public observation, says humans have always had a connection to the sky, and even in an urban environment, they strive to learn more about the cosmos.
“The Adler thrives precisely because people find the sky uplifting, inspiring and exciting,” Nichols said. “The mission of the Adler Planetarium is to connect people to the universe and to each other under the sky we all share.”
The Adler is open daily. Tickets cost between $19 and $35 for adults and between $8 and $24 for children. Doane Observatory is open Wednesday evenings, weather permitting (1-312-922-7827, adlerplanetarium.org).
After exploring the skies, dive into the ocean. Meet rescued California sea lions Laguna and Cruz at one of the nation’s largest aquariums.
A trainer shakes a rattle at Cruz, taps him, and at the right moment, the huge sea mammal presents a flipper as if to shake hands. He is a crowd pleaser, especially with the aquarium’s younger visitors, and is rewarded with tasty fish.
This is part of the “Animal Spotlights” presentation at Abbott Oceanarium, the sea lion habitat that recreates the coastal ecosystem of the Pacific Northwest. The other sea lions respond to hand signals, but Cruz was blinded by a gunshot as a cub, so the trainers taught him how to respond to tactile and audible cues.
Not to be outdone, Laguna waddles on his big fins and shows what he’s got. He poses with his tail up and stands on his back flippers – an Instagram-worthy photo op. For the grand finale, he demonstrates the loud barks and growls that define sea lions.
In the wild, colonies of sea lions produce a cacophony of vocalizations to communicate with each other and warn of any threat. Puppies can recognize their mother’s call amid the din.
Social and intelligent, these animals are known for their playfulness, so you can watch them scurry through the water all day, but sea lions are just one of hundreds of species in this nine-gallery aquarium. There’s a lot to see, so plan to spend at least half a day there ($40 adults, $30 children; 1-312-939-2438, www.sheddaquarium.org).
The Field’s newest exhibit, “Jurassic Oceans: Monsters of the Deep,” is an introduction to sea creatures of a different kind: huge prehistoric sea reptiles and sharks that would make that man-eater in “Jaws “As intimidating as a kitten.
Thanks to books and video games, kids know a thing or two about dinosaurs, but this exhibit from London’s Natural History Museum showcases their less familiar oceanic counterparts.
Visitors are transported 200 million years back into an alien ecosystem where they come face to face with some of the biggest and fiercest predators to ever swim beneath the waves. There are over 100 fossils and models – some look like a real life version of the Loch Ness Monster.
The fossilized tail of a 9-meter-long Leedsichthys, one of the largest fish ever discovered, is a real marvel. The exhibit runs through Sept. 5 (adults $29-$42; 1-312-922-9410, fieldmuseum.org).
Want to go deep? With the Chicago CityPASS, you can access five attractions, including the Shedd Aquarium, Field Museum, and Skydeck Chicago, plus two of the following: Adler Planetarium, Art Institute of Chicago, Museum of Science and Industry, or the 360 Chicago Observation Deck. The pass costs $114 or $93 for ages 3-11 (citypass.com/chicago).
Where to stay
The Langham, Chicago: A luxury hotel close to many of the city’s top attractions (330 N. Wabash Av., 1-312-923-9988, langhamhotels.com).
Where to eat
At Giordano: Serving Chicago’s famous deep-dish pizza. (1340 S. Michigan Ave., 1-312-583-9400, giordanos.com).
Tracey Teo is an Indiana-based travel writer.