The Florida Museum of Natural History
The air grew cool as we ventured into the darkness. We could hear the drip of water from the stalagmites- or were they stalactites? My daughter gripped my hand. Excited. Nervous. Maybe even a little afraid.
‘Look- a bat!’ My son said, pointing up.
‘There’s a snake,’ I said, motioning towards a niche in the wall by our feet. For once, my heart did not jump into my throat at the sight of the coiled snake so near our sneakers.
No, I did not suddenly develop super snake-resistant mom powers and no, we weren’t miles beneath the earth in a cavern. We were at the Florida Museum of Natural History, exploring their limestone cave eco-system in Gainesville, Florida.
The North Central Florida city of Gainesville is not only home to the University of Florida and the Florida Gators, but also one of the coolest kid-friendly museums in the state: The Florida Museum of Natural History. And it’s free! Located on the University of Florida campus, the Florida Museum of Natural History has been around since 1906. It relocated to it’s roomier digs on the edge of the UF campus about 20 years ago. I remember taking a 2nd grade field trip there: getting to touch all of the bones and explore the cave. Luckily, they kept the cave and fossils, expanded the displays and added the kids Discovery Room and a Butterfly Rainforest!
A Kid-Friendly Museum in the Heart of North Central Florida
Aside from investigating the limestone cave (a personal favorite), there are various Florida eco-systems to explore, such as a tidal marsh, seepage bog, mangrove swamp and hammock forest. Each area has hidden animals to find (great for kids who love those I-spy books!) and also drawers to pull out, buttons to push- sights and sounds. Learning with all of the senses. (I am waiting for them to add smell, though!) Be forewarned that the Calusa Indian leader’s house scene is dark, with thunder and lightening. The Calusa house can be by-passed on the way to the mangrove boardwalk, but older kids usually love it. There are also displays on the Seminole and Muccosukee Indians. The kid’s Discovery Room, near the front of the museum, is a place for children to play and learn at the same time (save it for last, as it is a good place for parents to rest after touring the museum!)
Experience Close Encounters in the Butterfly Rainforest
Though it costs a fee to enter this slice of fluttering paradise, the price is worth it. A meandering path takes you through a flower filled tropical forest, with waterfalls, bridges and of course: butterflies! Lots of butterflies. Take your time through this garden atrium and keep your eyes open. Take advantage of the benches en-route. Though touching the butterflies are forbidden, if you are lucky, they might land on you! I noted that they seemed to prefer the brighter colored clothes, like flowers. Various food areas are set up along the path where the butterflies congregate over pieces of mango and other yummy fruits. Keep an eye out for the little birds that hop through the bushes and run down the path. They won’t eat the butterflies, but are there to keep any other insects at bay. And they are adorable! Children 12 and under must be accompanied by an adult in the Butterfly Rainforest, and large bags are prohibited. There is a bag-check at the Butterfly Rainforest entrance door.
The Florida Museum of Natural History also hosts temporary exhibits- they were installing a new one when I was there: Wicked Plants: all about carnivorous, poisonous and venomous plants. Apparently there’s more to it than just Venus-Fly Traps! Should be interesting. The temporary exhibits cost an extra fee. This one runs from May 14, 2016 to January 15, 2017.
Don’t Forget the Great Outdoors
Florida museums are not limited to the indoors. Venture beyond the walls and explore the adjacent nature trails (to the left of the building entrance) and butterfly garden (the free one) take the path along the right side of the building to the garden in the back. There is a picnic area outside the entrance too if you bring a snack. There are no food facilities in the museum, but there is a café in the Harn Art Museum, which is next door.
Things to Know Before You Go:
- The Florida Museum of Natural History is located at 3215 Hull Road, Gainesville, FL 32611-2710
- Parking is $4 per car.
- Though museum admission is free, they do accept donations.
- Butterfly Rainforest fees: Adults $10.50, Children (3-17):$6. They offer Florida resident discounts. If your child has a recent report card with an A or E in Science, they can get in for free (with paid adult admission).
- There are only one set of restrooms. They are located in the front lobby by the wooly mammoth skeleton.
- The museum IS on the University of Florida campus. The campus speed limit is 20 mph- and there seem to be a lot of cops in this town! Forewarned is fore-armed.
- There is a gift-shop by the museum entrance.
- Though there is no food on site, there are many eatery choices available on Archer Road around the corner!
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