A week ago, I made my first trip to Discovery World.
Yes, I know it’s a little pathetic that the museum has been open for almost two years now and, while I only live about 5 minutes away, I still had yet to check it out. Needless to say, my trip was extremely overdue.
It was a gloomy spring afternoon and I wasn’t in the mood to do anything outdoors, so Eric suggested that we check out Discovery World. He knew that I had been itching to go for a while now. Rather than walk to Pier Wisconsin like I’d normally consider, we opted to drive and found parking at a meter along the road, and then headed toward the building.
We entered into a gleaming white, open-air promenade and we strolled along its expansive windows. After coughing up $16.95 for admission, we took some time to peer out over Lake Michigan and we admired the near 450 feet of public docks that stretched around the museum – the entire view was absolutely breathtaking!
Discovery World was born from a diverse marriage between the old Discovery World that used to be adjacent to the Milwaukee Public Museum, and the newly developed Pier Wisconsin. The offspring is an unexpected combination of high-tech, user-friendly programming, ecology and history all in one.
The museum itself is made up of several distinct units – the Aquariums, the Challenge, the Techno Jungle, and the Great Lakes Future – that are filled with many interesting and interactive displays. The gift shop and café were both open for business when we were there and families occupied several tables along the walls of the corridor and seemed to be enjoying their lunch.
As we continued in the direction of the lake, we watched a little boy make waves in a wave machine that’s located in the middle of the hallway as his parents looked on. Once we reached the end of the building, we entered into an unusually circular building that reminded me of a pilot house on a schooner. This was the Helen Bader Foundation's Great Lakes Future exhibit.
The first thing I noticed was the 40-by-40-foot scale model of the Great Lakes – how could I not? Weatherman-wannabes like me are able to create their own storms and other weather conditions by pulling levers or spinning wheels along the lake display. Most of all I was amazed to see how deep and expansive Lake Michigan actually is and how it compares to the other four Great Lakes.
The sound of rippling water beckoned us down a small flight of stairs and into the Reiman Aquariums next. Without a doubt, this was the most exciting part of the museum!
We walked into a dimly lit room and were surrounded by a series of aquariums that trace the freshwater and saltwater habitats spanning the Great Lakes, the Atlantic coast and all the way down to the Florida Keys.
Tank after humongous tank were brimming with bright, beautiful fish and other creatures ranging from angelfish to hermit crabs, and all kinds and sparkling, colorful coral. Each tank was outfitted with a touch-screen computer in front of it, which allowed us to select the photo of any of the fish we saw before us and instantly learn more about it. I was completely mesmerized by the jelly fish that almost seemed to glow in their bright blue tank and by the enchanting sea horses that elegantly bobbed around their spacious habitat.
Some aquariums were made to walk across – I felt like I had to tiptoe over them at first as if they were going to break at any moment – while other tanks were designed to let you walk under them. In one room, the aquarium arched and went over our heads, giving the feeling that we were in the water with the fishies. Such innovative aquarium designs allow visitors to experience the underwater worlds without even dampening a toe.
If you want to get a little wet, there’s a “Touch Tank” in the middle of the room that’s divided into fresh water on one side and salt water on the other. This tank houses lobsters, sturgeons, sharks and sting rays – minus the stingers, of course. Several kids had their sleeves rolled up and were elbow-deep in the water, and by kids I mean Eric. As for me, simply looking was enough and I still felt like I had to use the hand sanitizer that’s in a dispenser on the wall.
Next, we went back to the main level and noticed a giant schooner – The Challenge – hanging from the ceiling above us. Don’t ask me how we didn’t notice the wooden hull of a full-scale model boat jutting out of the ceiling earlier... Intrigued, we followed a cluster of people toward the direction of the ship and climbed the stairs to have a closer look.
There on the second level, we saw that the 100-foot replica wasn’t just there to admire, it was there to explore! Without hesitation, Eric hopped on board, turning wheels and pulling levers, and I followed. I felt like I took a step back in time as we climbed into both the living quarters and down into the belly of the ship.
The living area was fully stocked with a mock cooking gallery filled with cupboards, a table, a stove, and cooking utensils, plus an antique den and, sort of, a bedroom (it was just a single bed). The area below deck, however, just held empty barrels and a “hidden” treasure.
After tinkering with the navigation equipment, we left the ship and went to test some of the other exhibits on that floor. Each small exhibit illustrated how certain tasks that may seem impossible can be performed by using a little common sense and some ingenuity. We were challenged to lift a 75 pound block with a pulley on one rope, two ropes and then three ropes, and we learned that it’s easier to lift a gigantic boulder with a long lever versus a short one.
Our last stop was the technology wing at the front of the building. This area features exhibits and programs about science and, you guessed it, technology... and, surprisingly, economics.
We walked back down the glass-walled promenade toward the museum’s entrance and made a beeline for the technology building. Right smack in the middle of the room was a staircase that’s intended to look like a double-helix as it encircles a seemingly living 40-foot-tall model of the human genome. We ascended the staircase – had I still felt lazy, I would have taken the elevator – and watched the genome expand and retract over and over and change into a rainbow of colors every few seconds.
Upstairs is a futuristic jungle of shinny silver and glossy white canopies of artificial trees with clusters of lustrous CDs that creatively represented leaves. The Techno Jungle is completely interactive and composed of robots, cameras and lasers. This area was way more crowded than the other parts of the museum and was chalk full of interesting gadgets and hands-on displays.
First, we stopped at the Rockwell Automation Dream Machine where we were greeted by a virtual guide, a friendly inventor and Milwaukee native, who explained what we were going to see. Eric and I marveled at how his gaze followed us – if we’d move to the left, his head would turn in the same direction – and if we walked away, he’d say “hey, where are you going?”
We saw how the roof of Miller Park opens and closes and how the Burke Brise Soleil “wings” rise and fall. Some kids were also making their own customized products – miniature Denis Sullivan schooners.
Next, we stopped to watch a kid try out a Segway with the help of a Discovery World employee while other kids were making sounds on pipes or drawing on computer screens – this section appealed more to youngsters than to us. We took a quick peek inside a computer and science lab, and peered down the other end of the room, which was still closed off. It will be exciting once the entire place is completely finished. Eventually, Discovery World will contain about 200 exhibits in 120,000-square feet of space.
To be honest, I expected to see jaw-dropping technology here, but it was a lot that I’ve already seen before. I was also a little frustrated because many of the displays were out of order or difficult to figure out – I suppose we aren’t as tech savvy as I thought – so we ended up hurrying through this portion of the museum. I sincerely hope that the broken displays aren’t a reflection of how Discovery World will end up. Paying a high admission fee and not being able to try all of the gizmos on hand sort of deters me from going back.
Despite that minor disappointment, I’ll return to Discovery World since there are always new additions popping up such as the new Les Paul House of Sound exhibit, opening June 21. Most of all, I’m very eager to check out the aquarium again – that was undeniably the highlight of our visit. I loved it!
By combining the natural world of ships and boats and underwater critters with the futuristic world of science and technology, Discovery World is a place you can go on a dreary day and leave excited with sparkles in your eyes...at least that was the outcome for me.
500 North Harbor Drive
Milwaukee, WI 53202
Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, Closed Monday
$16.95 Adults, $12.95 Children (3-7 years old), $14.95 Seniors, $9.95 Students