Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 20, 2017

© Please Touch Museum

The Please Touch children’s is one of the largest in the US, and houses a 1908 carousel with 52 hand-carved animals.

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Family-friendly Philadelphia

Larger-than-life attractions, history and critters make Philly more than fit for kids

“What’s that?” my 12-year-old son Cato exclaimed, turning his head. “Do you hear a chugging sound?” The noise was coming from a nearby group of trees. He had reason to be surprised. Why were we hearing an engine in the middle of Philadelphia’s Morris Arboretum?

We went over to investigate. Hidden inside was the Morris Garden Railway, an enormous outdoor model train display containing almost a half-kilometre of track with 15 rail lines and trains. Passing by scale models of world-famous buildings (the Pyramids, edthe Eiffel Tower, Big Ben), the miniature trains darted out of tunnels and whizz over bridges, including one you could walk under.

We’d just visited the Out on a Limb exhibit, a treetop canopy walk with hammock-like trampolines and a gigantic recreation of a bird’s nest, where Cato had sat on boulder-sized eggs. By comparison, the sweeping lawns of the arboretum (100 East Northwestern Avenue; tel: 215-247-5777; upenn.edu/arboretum; adults US16 kids 3 to 17 US$7), a 37-hectare botanical park filled with gardens and groves of exotic trees in the Chestnut Hill neighbourhood of Philadelphia, had seemed peaceful and quiet — until the trains.

Beside the railway track, Cato was admiring a replica of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. “The original is the place the United States began,” I explained. “It’s where the 13 American colonies signed a Declaration of Independence in 1776 and adopted the U.S. Constitution.” My son studied the tiny steepled hall as a toy locomotive rattled past. “So, Philadelphia’s more important than the Flyers?” he finally asked.

The Cradle of Liberty

Aside from Morris Arboretum and its National Hockey League team, the Philadelphia area is indeed a place of some import. Founded in 1682, the city has not only played a pivotal part in America’s past, but is also a cultured and kid-friendly alternative to pricey New York City, especially if you like historical surroundings.

Diverse in its attractions, architecture, and population, Philadelphia also has one of North America’s best-preserved colonial districts, the Old City (oldcitydistrict.org).

Once colonial America’s largest centre, the area is still filled with grand edifices and fine houses from the 17th to 19th centuries. US founding father Benjamin Franklin’s home is here, as is writer Edgar Allan Poe’s. An enduring symbol of freedom, the famous Liberty Bell (525 Market Street) is housed in Independence National Historic Park (nps.gov/inde).

The day after our visit to the model railway, my son and I headed out to the real Independence Hall (520 Chestnut Street; nps.gov/inde; free, reserve ahead), an imposing neo-classical building. On night tours (historicphiladelphia.org/independence-after-hours; adults US$85 kids 12 and under US$55, includes dinner)of the Hall, you can eavesdrop on actors playing colonial personalities like Thomas Jefferson as they reenact important historical moments where they occurred.

As the descendants of Empire Loyalists, when we went Cato and I kept quiet, although he was thrilled to get a scroll of the Declaration of Independence to peruse for clues (it’s the plotline of National Treasure, a popular kids’ movie). Later on, we combined tradition and fun at Franklin Square (historicphiladelphia.org/franklin-square). One of the Old City’s original five squares, it is full of playgrounds and activities for kids past bedtime hours, including an antique carousel.

An Original Zoo

“Okay, that I haven’t seen before.” Too cool to be impressed by a petting zoo, the smug look on my son’s face vanished when he saw the four-horned goat climbing a jungle gym. A weird British variety, the goat looked perfectly at home in the Philadelphia Zoo (3400 West Girard Avenue; philadelphiazoo.org; adults US$20 kids 2 to 11 US$18), North America’s first “zoological garden” and still one of its most radical.

The only zoo I’ve visited with its own hot air balloon, Philadelphia’s dates from 1874 and is internationally recognized for breeding endangered animals like orangutans and snow leopards. The zoo includes innovative enclosed “trail” systems — imagine long pedestrian passages — that allow animals to travel from their quarters on a circuit through the 17-hectare grounds. As Andy Baker, the zoo’s Chief Operating Officer, told us, “In the wild, many species range widely. Our travel system accommodates this, which improves quality of life for captive animals.” While he spoke, monkeys gambolled above us in a sculptural-looking steel and wire tube cantilevered through the treetops. The zoo is currently adding trails for apes, big cats and bears.

To continue our study of local fauna, Cato and I next headed to Please Touch (4231 Avenue of the Republic; tel: 215-581-3181; pleasetouchmuseum.org; US$16), Philadelphia’s celebrated children’s museum, and one of the nation’s largest. Housed since 2008 in Memorial Hall, a giant 1876 Beaux Arts-style building, the museum’s wacky attractions and circus-like atmosphere are even more fun in their stately surroundings; Cato commented it was like “visiting Willy Wonka in the Vatican.”

The huge domed entrance hall contained a full-size replica of the Statue of Liberty’s arm and torch made from glued toys and games. Next were the get-wet River Adventure, the Walking Piano (you jump on the massive keyboard to play it), and an interactive Alice in Wonderland exhibit that spilled over most of a floor. We also found more quotidian delights like the pretend supermarket, hospital, and garage, each well-equipped and staffed by a bustling civilization of children.

Intended mainly for kids under eight, the Please Touch Museum also features theatre presentations, arts and crafts programs, toy collections, and hourly storytimes. There are many activities for toddlers and a restaurant on-site; a walk in Fairmount Park around the museum gave us a good idea of Memorial Hall’s monumental scale.

Down on the Waterfront

Many things in Philadelphia are over-sized, as Cato and I confirmed on our trip’s last night when we strolled from the historic district to the city’s waterfront on the Delaware River. The Delaware empties into the nearby Atlantic, and moored at the dock were towering tall ships, a hulking warship (the 1895 USS Olympia), and a World War Two submarine, all part of the Independence Seaport Museum (211 South Columbus Boulevard; phillyseaport.org; adults US$13.50, kids US$10).

I thought they were outclassed by our dinner destination — a berthed four-masted 1904 sailing ship called the Moshulu (401 South Columbus Boulevard; tel. 215-923-2500; moshulu.com), now beautifully renovated as a high-end floating restaurant. Sitting below the Moshulu’s decks under a stained-glass skylight, I watched as my 12-year old indulged himself with lobster sushi and seared duck breast, all the while scribbling away in a notebook. When he caught me looking at him, he laid down his pen and said, impatiently, “I’m writing my own Philadelphia article — full of the stuff you’ll forget.” Cato gazed around the interior of the ship, the white tablecloths and brass fittings gleaming in the shadows. “This is the coolest place in Philly, but I’m still going to recommend they get a model train.”

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