To the Interstate and Beyond: Geek Vacations for Sci-fi and Fantasy-loving Families
Geeks seek to boldly go where no one has gone before, right? Sometimes that means studying artificial intelligence or genetics or astrophysics. Sometimes it means reading sci-fi and fantasy novels or playing mind-expanding videogames. And sometimes it means getting in the car, picking some quirky destination that connects somehow to all that beloved magical stuff, and driving across state lines to explore the strange new worlds that await out there among our fellow Americans.
Every nerdy family, after all, needs to get away sometimes. Here, then, are five family-friendly trips—East Coast, West Coast, and Midwest—where you and your crew of explorers can do just that.
ROBOWORLD AT THE CARNEGIE SCIENCE CENTER
Ever since Isaac Asimov dreamed up the science of robotics in his sci-fi stories back in the 1940s, people have been working to make it come to life—both in the laboratory and in Hollywood. The past year has seen amazing breakthroughs on both fronts, from the unforgettable robot thriller Ex Machina to the domestic four-legged dog-bots that are beginning to approach the ability to actually do things around the house.
So it’s a timely season to visit Pittsburgh, where the mostly-not-mad scientists of the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute have helped steer the creation of Roboworld, the world’s largest permanent robotics exhibit. Held at the Carnegie Science Center—based on Pittsburgh’s North Shore, right across the street from Heinz Field—it all the hands-on, interactive fun you might hope for. Meet Andy the RoboThespian, match your athletic skills against bots playing air hockey and free-throw basketball, and check out an array of sensors to perceive the world from a robot’s perspective. Roboworld also hosts the Robot Hall of Fame, Carnegie Mellon University’s decade-long project to honor the real and fictional robots that have most profoundly shaped our understanding of what mechanical humanoids might someday accomplish. Life-sized, screen-accurate replicas of seven of Hollywood’s most famous bots are on display at the center, including Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still, Robby from Forbidden Planet, HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Maria from the 1927 film Metropolis and her art-deco counterpart, Star Wars’s C-3PO.
Visitors can stay either on the North Shore or just across the bridge in downtown Pittsburgh. Either way, the Carnegie Science Center is in walking distance of two other must-visits for geeky families: the Andy Warhol Museum and the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.
THE HOUSE ON THE ROCK
Spring Green, WI
One of the hottest trailers to come out of San Diego Comic Con last month was a sneak peek at next year’s Starz series adapting Neil Gaiman’s epic novel American Gods. In the book, Mr. Wednesday suggests America’s roadside attractions are the closest thing we have to sacred spaces:
“Roadside Attractions: people feel themselves being pulled to places where, in other parts of the world, they would recognize that part of themselves that is truly transcendent, and buy a hot dog and walk around, feeling satisfied on a level they cannot truly describe…”
Wednesday is talking about destinations like the House on the Rock, a sprawling, eclectic, and near-indescribable 14-room house of weirdness that features prominently in Gaiman’s Hugo and Nebula Award-winning tale. Built by collector Alex Jordan and opened to the public in 1959, the quirky Midwestern attraction houses an incredible combination of valuable antiques and curated kitsch. As Gaiman said after writing the House into American Gods: “I had to tone down my description of it and leave things out in the book in order to make it believable.”
Carnival wonders can be found beside vintage masterpieces of technology and design: dollhouses and antique Armor, taxidermied animals and mechanical fortune-tellers, Tiffany-style glass masterpieces and coin-operated music machines. The showpieces of the collection are the spectacular giant indoor carousel populated by 269 creatures and lit by 20,000 bulbs, and the 218-foot long cantilevered infinity room with its 3,000 windows overlooking the beautiful Wisconsin valley below.
The House on the Rock takes many hours to explore, and it’s possible to stay beside the attraction at the House on the Rock Inn, or at the nearby House on the Rock Resort just 7 miles away. As it’s only 45 minutes west of Madison, WI., consider visiting other geeky places in Wisconsin’s state capital, like the University of Wisconsin’s Geology Museum, the National Mustard Museum, the Madison Science Museum — or perhaps stopping to play pinball at Geeks Mania or to shop for treasures at Geekplastiq. The House is open year-round, with special programming and activities during the Halloween and winter holiday seasons.
We recommend going now, before the inevitable hordes descend after the show’s launch.
St. Louis, MO
Geeks love maps. Crowdsourced mapping done wiki-style; high-resolution interactive maps of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth; augmented reality games that incorporate geographic data. Maps teach us about ourselves: what were are looking for and the ways that people fit together. Maps help us know our world better.
But what about the unknown parts of the world?
At the City Museum in St. Louis, the staff wear buttons that say “No Maps!” They want you to get lost… and found… amidst a tangle of tunnels and ladders, caves and slides. Because City Museum isn’t just a place that resists maps, it’s a museum that demands climbing onto the displays. The interactive art park was once the International Shoe Company factory and warehouse until Bob Cassilly and his wife Gail transformed it into a museum and playground made from repurposed architectural and industrial objects. A hodgepodge of treasures that include the World’s Largest Pencil, a giant ball pit, shoelace machines, and a Ferris wheel, the museum invites adults and children alike to wander and wonder.
The 750,000-square-foot complex feels like what the interior of the TARDIS might look like if M.C. Escher created it out of metal cages and giant slinkies, and Roald Dahl filled it with large flying machines. It’s whimsy wrought at an industrial scale. Comfortable clothes and even knee pads are recommended (the disordered nature of climbing and sliding through the museum and adjoining MonstroCity are probably best left to adults and older children). Bar and cantina options exist throughout the Museum, and those looking for lodging nearby have several hotel options within a six-block radius. Expand your trip and make plans to visit the Third Degree Glass Factory, the Saint Louis Science Center, or the World Chess Hall of Fame.
HARRY POTTER WEEKEND AT CHESTNUT HILL COLLEGE
(Oct. 20-22, 2016)
How legit is Chestnut Hill College's annual celebration of Harry Potter, which has been gradually becoming a bigger and bigger nerd-tourist attraction each year since 2010? Well, for starters, the program at the heart of it isn't run by English professors—it's run by a chemistry professor and a religious studies professor. Potions and spells, that is!
But their academic conference, where scholars present their latest Harry Potter studies, isn't what draws most fans each October. The magically bucolic campus of Chestnut Hill bears a remarkable aesthetic resemblance to Hogwarts. Visitors can watch and cheer the Brotherly Love Quidditch Tournament; students hold a fan art show, and following the quidditch tournament, the school puts on a "wizard rock" concert, featuring such as Harry and the Potters and the Nargeleptics. Up the road in the neighborhood's business district, local merchants get in on the fun, turning the main drag into an outdoor fan convention full of cosplay, performing magicians, butterbeer, and other family-friendly delights.
Out-of-towners should try to schedule an extra day or so to visit Chestnut Hill's neighboring Morris Arboretum, a vast, steampunk-friendly botanical garden that boasts an elaborate miniature railroad ecosystem—and maybe a couple of the city's other diverse nerd attractions, like the retro-scientific Mütter Museum or the Franklin Institute, with amazing planetarium shows, hands-on science exhibits, and astronomy events courtesy of Dr. Derrick Pitts.
The college recommends several nearby lodging options.
THE EMP MUSEUM
It’s arguably the most iconically science-fictional landmark in the United States: Seattle Center, the site of the 1962 World’s Fair, where the 605-foot-tall Space Needle stands tall over Queen Anne Hill looking like nothing so much as an extraterrestrial craft docked atop a futuristic Eiffel Tower. And right below it? The EMP Museum, the epic pop-culture archive that hosts the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame, permanent exhibitions of science fiction and horror-movie artifacts, and much more.
Originally founded in 2000 as the Experience Music Project, EMP has grown to encompass what might be the most impressive permanent collection of rare genre artifacts in the world. You’ll see props, costumes and scripts from Blade Runner, The Princess Bride, Battlestar Galactica. You’ll walk through a stunning gallery of world-class paintings from top fantasy artists, including familiar gaming scenes from Wizards of the Coast and Blizzard like you’ve never seen them before. And you’ll be slightly unnerved at the sight of Jack Nicholson’s axe from The Shining, the interrogation chair from Hostel, and the original H.R. Giger facehugger from Alien.
In EMP’s Hall of Fame, memorabilia is on display from the most imaginative creative minds of the past century—from J.R.R. Tolkien to Octavia Butler, from Rod Serling to David Bowie. And to nurture the next generation of Tolkiens and Butlers, EMP hosts an annual young writers short story contest, inviting fantastic storytellers from third through 12th grades to submit fantasy and sci-fi tales of their own creation.
Special exhibits currently on view include the 50th anniversary Star Trek celebration; New Zealand’s glorious fantasy fashion extravaganza, the World of WearableArt; and the ever-changing Indie Game Revolution space, which features cutting-edge video game projects.
EMP’s special events calendar offers several unique opportunities to plan a trip. The Seattle Mini Maker Faire, Sept. 17-18, invites families to check out awesome new inventions by hands-on tech & art makers from around the Pacific Northwest. The annual Doctor Wholidays gala on Dec. 4 invites fans of everyone’s favorite Time Lord to party with music, food & drink, cosplay, and original Dalek and Cyberman props. The Science Fiction & Fantasy Short Film Festival, coming in early 2017, showcases the best new short genre films being made across the planet.
Several hotels are located within walking distance of the EMP Museum.
Valya Dudycz Lupescu and Stephen H Segal are the co-authors of Geek Parenting: What Joffrey, Jor-El, Maleficent, and the McFlys Teach Us about Raising a Family, available now (Quirk Books, 2016). Stephen is the child of geeky parents, an award-winning editor, designer, and writer, and the former editor in chief of the Philadelphia Weekly. His revamp of Weird Tales magazine won a Hugo Award in 2009; his book Geek Wisdom: The Sacred Teachings of Nerd Culture was published by Quirk Books in 2011.Valya is raising three delightfully geeky children. Her debut novel, The Silence of Trees (Wolfsford Press) reached the Amazon Top 10 in historical fiction in 2011. She is the founding editor of the literary journal Conclave: A Journal of Character and co-creator of the comic book Sticks and Bones.