Set at one end of beautiful Balboa Park, the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in San Diego has more than 100 ways for kids to learn and play. But it’s not just a place for kids either. There are so many wonderful science-minded exhibits as well as an IMAX theater show that adults will enjoy discovering here as well.
Hands-On Exhibits for Everyone
The Reuben H. Fleet Science Center is a two-story, multi-room complex (with both an elevator and stairs) that has enough to explore for an entire day. In fact, we didn’t get through it all in the five hours we visited. The Science Center has a good mix of both limited-time and permanent exhibits.
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On our visit, the temporary exhibit, “Circus!” featured fascinating interactive areas that truly touched on all five senses. Visitors were encouraged to test out the pressure tube and shoot a ball from a cannon. Then they could figure out what circus scent they were smelling (“Is it cotton candy or elephant dung?”). My daughter even had the chance to try out a real tight rope with the help of a harness!
Some of the permanent exhibits have been featured at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center since I was a child! Favorites include the Gallery of Illusions and Perceptions, Look Touch Listen! and Block Busters, where you can build structures both tall and wide.
Toddlers and Preschoolers Love Kid City
Kid City is a longtime favorite area at the “Fleet” for little ones, designed for ages five and under. I’ve brought all of my children here when they were preschoolers and each one has been drawn to something different in this space! One was fascinated by the pulley system and foam building blocks. Another loved the miniature grocery store with the hand-crank conveyor belt, shopping carts and faux food. On this visit, my three-year old spent most of his time at the “ball wall”, sending plastic balls up into a vacuum tube and watching them as they routed through a complex system overhead. It was a great lesson on cause and effect. If you have little ones in this age range, plan on spending an hour or more in this space. Adults are encouraged to join in and there are some seating areas here as well.
Escape into a New World at an IMAX Film
The “Fleet” is known for its iconic Heikoff Giant Dome Theater where IMAX movies and planetarium shows are shown. It’s a 76-foot wrap around movie screen that offers a 360-degree view that takes viewers from deep under the sea to the outer reaches of space, depending on the film they choose. We viewed Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Secret Ocean, an IMAX film that gave us a fascinating glimpse of sea life we’ve never before witnessed (and we watch a lot of nature documentaries!) A variety of shows are shown throughout the day and your daily admission ticket allows you to choose one IMAX film of your choice & time. Additional IMAX films can be viewed on that day at an extra cost. Concessions like popcorn and candy (similar prices to the movie theater) are sold just outside the entrance to the theater and you can take your treats inside during the show. I will note that on the day we went the theater the air conditioning was blowing right on us. My kids were curled up in their chairs trying to avoid the chill, so you may want to pack an extra layer just in case.
On the first Wednesday of every month the “Sky Tonight Planetarium Show” takes visitors on a tour of the solar system. The show is narrated by a “Fleet” astronomer, with a new topic discussed each month. This is a separate admission than to the Science Center and advance ticket purchase on the “Fleet” website is recommended.
Don’t Try This at Home!
Live science shows with names like “Too Loud” and “Too Dangerous” are just what older kids are drawn to. On the day we visited, a scientist used dry ice to freeze a banana and had a guest bang it on a cymbal. To the delight of the kids in the audience, it flew apart in pieces upon contact. These shows are about 25 minutes long and probably best for ages 7+ (my three-year old was bored but my 11-year olds loved it).
Shopping and Eating while at the “Fleet”
Take the science home with you and shop for souvenirs in The North Star Science Store. Lots of books, experiment kits, glow-in-the-dark items and science-themed toys. There’s a wide range of prices, including the reasonably priced and very popular Astronaut Ice Cream!
The food is really hit or miss at Galileo’s Cafe. Offerings range from very nice looking deli sandwiches and salads to standards like soft pretzels, pizza slice or chips and nacho cheese. The latter choices were overpriced and not very tasty in our opinion. There is outdoor seating on a patio outside the cafe with a pretty view of the fountain. Since you do have in and out privileges to the museum, my tip would be to either bring a picnic lunch with you and eat on the patio or steps of the San Diego Natural History Museum. Or better yet, eat elsewhere in Balboa Park. Casa 1915, Panama 66 or The Prado at Balboa Park offer very nice meals and you can return to the Reuben H. Fleet to resume your day after dining.
Make it a Day Trip
Balboa Park in downtown San Diego is a multi-day visit on its own, housing not only the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center but other popular touring locations including the Japanese Friendship Garden, Museum of Man, Spreckels Organ Pavilion, Old Globe Theater and the San Diego Zoo. The Reuben H. Fleet Science Center is a great place to spend an entire day, divided in the afternoon with lunch and a walk through Balboa Park, perhaps through the Botanical Building (which has free admission). If visiting San Diego during the month of October, be sure to check out the list of attractions that offer kids free admission (including the Reuben H. Fleet!)
Planning Your Visit
Parking in Balboa Park is free all day, every day and there is a convenient lot located just behind the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center. I recommend arriving at museum opening to find the best parking, especially on a weekend. The Reuben H. Fleet Science Center is open every day of the year and located at 1875 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101.