The California Science Center is a free museum in Los Angeles offering interactive exhibits focusing on innovation, technology, the environment, and more. In this post, we’ll review this popular science museum, and share some tips for making the most of your visit to the California Science Center.
If you’ve heard of the California Science Center, there’s a good chance it’s because of the Space Shuttle Endeavour Exhibit, which we’ve reviewed and offered tips for experiencing in a separate post. This is the crown jewel of the California Science Center, and one of the highlights of things to do in Los Angeles.
You could say that the California Science Center has been evolving for the last two decades, and will continue to do so for the next two. The modern incarnation of the California Museum of Science in Industry opened roughly 20 years ago, and has since added several major exhibits, most notably the Space Shuttle Endeavour several years ago in a temporary hangar…
The Samuel Oschin Air and Space Center will be the third phase of the museum’s expansion, and the permanent home to Endeavour. If all goes according to plan, this will debut in 2019.
This next expansion will add 188,000 square feet to the California Science Center, making it the largest science museum in the western United States.
Reviewing the California Science Center is challenging. Since I’ve already separately reviewed the Space Shuttle Endeavour Exhibit, which is sort of a standalone thing, it would make sense to exclude that exhibit from this review. The problem there is the Endeavour is why pretty much everyone goes to the California Science Center now.
Going to college near Chicago and living in Indianapolis, I had a lot of exposure to the Museum of Science and Industry (Chicago) and Children’s Museum of Indianapolis (not strictly a science museum, not I think it compares). While all three offer totally difference experiences, I think the California Science Center (excluding the Endeavour) holds its own against its Midwestern counterparts.
Actually, given that California is a mecca for science and innovation, perhaps it’s the Midwestern museums that are holding their own against the California Science Center. Even as I write this, I realize it’s a silly comparison.
If you’re visiting Southern California from the Midwest where these museums are located, your “home” museums don’t have a space shuttle, so the California Science Center still holds that trump card. Once you factor the Space Shuttle Endeavour Exhibit into the mix, the California Science Center becomes a must-do for all visitors to Los Angeles.
Fortunately, there’s plenty to do beyond Space Shuttle Endeavour (and since we already have a separate post about that, I’m going to shut up about it). My favorite of these other exhibits is “Ecosystems.”
Built in zones that visitors move between to learn more about each of the 8 galleries, this is an interactive and incredibly engaging exhibit. As you pass through the various zones, you encounter environments ranging from familiar urban areas to the less familiar (like the North Pole), learning how humans and animals adapt to and impact their environments, and how those environments define them. (There’s even a “Los Angeles Zone” that covers the fascinating geological make-up of L.A.)
The Ecosystems exhibit features a mixture of live plants and animals, hands-on science exhibits, and cutting edge technology that makes it engaging and interactive for kids and adults. Rather than reading about these ecosystems, you’re actually encapsulated in them. It’s simultaneously fun and educational.
Ecosystems is another newer addition to the California Science Center, and opened as “Phase II” of the museum’s expansion plans. At the time, it doubled the size of the museum. (This means that the size of the California Science Center will have quadrupled between 1998 and 2019; pretty impressive.)
Creative World is another exhibit at the museum, and it showcases advances humans make to fill the needs for structures and transportation. This is an exhibit that highlights technology’s role in improving infrastructure, and the hands-on offerings here are also pretty cool.
In addition to these free exhibits, there are also a number of special exhibits that change about once per year (Body Worlds opens this month and runs through February 2018) as well as the incredibly popular IMAX theater, which shows a rotating selection of educational films and documentaries.
In terms of tips, we’d recommend going on a weekday afternoon. This is because it’s a popular stop for school groups in the morning, and with approximately 82,328 school districts in Los Angeles (rough estimate), you’re always bound to find a few school tours on weekdays when school is in session.
Alternatively, have the California Science Center be your first stop of the day on a weekend, before the crowds arrive. The California Science Center averages ~1.7 million annual visitors, making it one of the top 15 museums in the United States in terms of visitation and the most popular museum in Los Angeles County.
We’d recommend allocating at least 3 hours to the California Science Center (about half of which you’ll want to devote to the space shuttle), but you could easily spend longer at the museum if you fully explore all of the exhibits. Longer still if you do one of the IMAX films.
Really, you could turn it into a nearly full-day experience, if you wanted. That’s true even if you don’t have kids. The exhibits have a lot of ‘all ages’ appeal, and while kids might appreciate a particular exhibit on one level, adults will appreciate them on another.
While entry to the museum is free, parking is not. You can either pay to park (currently $12) or find free street parking a few blocks to the west. Note that on Saturdays when USC’s football team has home games or when the Rams are playing at the Coliseum, you might have a really difficult time with parking (and it may not be $12).
If you want to make a full day of the experience, the Science Center is within a 10-minute walk of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, which we highly recommend. You’ll also find Exposition Park and the California African American Museum a short walk away.
Overall, the California Science Center is a Los Angeles must-do. A big part of this status for out-of-town visitors comes from Space Shuttle Endeavour. While I’m not totally sure I’d give such a wholehearted endorsement of the full museum if it didn’t have a space shuttle, it does…so I am. While you’re checking out that glorious space shuttle, you might as well pass through the rest of the museum (particularly the Ecosystems exhibit) and see what captivates you. I’m guessing plenty will, but even if it doesn’t, what’s the harm? The museum is free and you got to see a freaking space shuttle! 😉
If you’re planning a California vacation, check out my California category of posts for other things to do. For Los Angeles-centric trips, we’ve found the most useful guidebook to be The Best Things to Do in Los Angeles: 1001 Ideas, which is written by locals (and we use it even as locals!). If you enjoyed this post, help spread the word by sharing it via social media. Thanks for reading!
Have you visited the California Science Center? If so, how does it rank in terms of Los Angeles museums for you? Would you recommend it to an out-of-town tourist with only a few days in Southern California? Is it worth it for the opportunity to see a freakin’ spaceship alone? 😉 Any additional tips or thoughts to share about the Science Center? Any questions about visiting this museum? Hearing from you is half the fun, so please share your thoughts in the comments below!