Saturday, November 5, 2011

Never Have We Enjoyed Staring At Rocks So Very Much: The Hayden Planetarium Delights!

The Good: Educational, Impressive, Generally inexpensive
The Bad: Parking issues, One must pay extra for the best activities.
The Basics: Informative, visually overwhelming and surprisingly fun, the Hayden Planetarium offers a full day's activities in one wing of the American Museum Of Natural History!

As I finally wind up my reviews from my last trip to New York City - a birthday event that put me in the City for several days back in March - I find myself considering the Hayden Planetarium. As my birthday gift to my partner wound down and we discovered we were not hitting all that many touristy places in New York City, we made the decision to not waste our last two days in New York City doing things like shopping for rings, wandering the parks or hunting down the many Barnes & Noble stores in Manhattan (okay, that last one was my activity on our trip). So, we made a plan to go to the American Museum Of Natural History.

However, when we arrived at the American Museum Of Natural History, we entered through a doorway in back, in what appeared to be a more secluded entrance set back through a garden (or what we're guessing was a garden; it was winter). We entered through the Planetarium entrance. Little did we know, until we had wandered around for about two hours, the Hayden Planetarium is adjacent to the American Museum Of Natural History and it is just as easy to get lost in as the portion of the museum which dominates the building.

The Hayden Planetarium has a minimum suggested donation of $15.00 for adults, but that does not grant access to any of the premium programming options. Options like Planetarium-sponsored debates, lectures and IMAX films within the Hayden Planetarium all tend to run $15.00/ea. with special tickets required.


The Hayden Planetarium is a wing of the American Museum Of Natural History in New York City which consists of the Hayden Planetarium and the Rose Center For Earth And Space. These occupy a building at Central Park West at 79th Street in New York City. This is midtown Manhattan essentially in the middle of the island. Given all of the one-way streets in this section of Manhattan, I highly recommend getting directions off something like MapQuest to insure you get from where you are to the Hayden Planetarium.

Ease Of Local Transport/Parking

As the name of the street suggests, the Hayden Planetarium is adjacent to Central Park and while Central Park West is a long street, one might have to circle the block several times in order to find a place to park. We visited the Hayden Planetarium in the middle of winter and at two in the afternoon, we were actually able to find on-street parking within a block of the Planetarium. Feeding the meter gave us only two hours within the Planetarium, but we were able to move the car up a few positions after our first two hours expired.

Actually, when we first arrived at the Planetarium, we had figured there would be no parking nearby, so we parked about three blocks away. Again, given that it was midwinter, we found metered parking for over an hour. We lucked out and I suspect most people will feel compelled to either get to the museum ridiculously early, travel and park in packs or shell out for the Museum parking which is never going to be cheap. The one advantage of parking in the Museum parking garage is not having to worry about one's vehicle and the meter expiring. There is something of a buzzkill over having to break up one's Planetarium experience to go out and feed the meters.


The purpose of the Hayden Planetarium is to marvel at the wonder that is space and come to understand more about the Earth's place within the universe and what we humans know about it. The facility consists of three main sections: the Space Theater, the Harriet and Robert Heilbrunn Cosmic Pathway and the Rose Center For Earth and Space. The Space Theater is a giant sphere and the location of all of the premium programming. Here the experience splits into two parts, a celestial tour projected above the visitors and a walk through the experience of the big bang. Narrated by guides, the projection system is a high-definition map of the known galaxy in surprising three-dimensional detail. This is visually overwhelming and those who get dizzy easily are likely to freak out here.

Also visually stunning and a function of advanced projection technology is the display on the Big Bang. This presentation, within the Space Theater sphere, is another premium programming exploration of the forces at work involved in the creation of the Milky Way galaxy. This is more colorful and involves more movement than the star projection tour and the three-dimensional visual effects are even more overwhelming. The activities in the Space Theater are likely to leave the viewers astonished and needing a few moments to regain a sense of balance. (Judging from the reactions of some of the college-age kids going through this at the same time, I'd recommend not going through this while high.)

Premium programming in the Star Theater includes things like the new "Journey To The Stars" presentation, SonicVision, and lectures from prominent physicists or astronauts. We did not do any of those while at the Planetarium, so I'm not able to judge them, but one suspects given how impressive the theater is for the standing programs that they are visually amazing.

The Harriet and Robert Heilbrunn Cosmic Pathway is a much more mellow exploration of the history of the galaxy and this is made up of educational models that wind around a central room. Models and displays detail what is known about the galaxy and the particles and forces that make it up. There are talking displays and tons of boards to read with information presented on them about all that one sees around them in the pictures. This is interesting and what makes it work is how it transfers linear space (the distance you walk) into a real sense of history for how old the galaxy is. The relative youth of our star system and Earth is somewhat astonishing when one considers it in this context!

But the place my partner and I spent most of our time at the Hayden Planetarium was actually in the Rose Center For Earth and Space. The Rose Center For Earth and Space, like the Cosmic Pathway, is available to anyone who pays for a day's entrance to the Planetarium (or the American Museum Of Natural History). The Rose Center For Earth and Space is two rooms filled with giant rocks. I kid not, that's all it is. The hall contains two corridors (essentially big figure-eights that take visitors on walks around massive and ancient rocks. I never in the million years it took to create some of the rocks in this section would ever have guessed this would have been anything that would have interested my partner.

But it was. Near each display - and most of the displays are about the size of an adult! - of various colors, shapes, and textures of rock formations are easy to read and understand boards featuring information on how each type of rock was created. It is amazing to see how heat, pressure and time change all forms of mineral and the hours we spent in the Rose Center For Earth and Space went surprisingly fast. Never before have rocks been so interesting to us! In fact, for those visiting New York City on a budget, one can skip the premium Planetarium programs and get a great deal of satisfaction and education out of the displays of rocks that are millions of years old in the "free" (if one's donation is not as much as suggested by the Planetarium) section of the Planetarium.

It is fascinating to see the veins of different metals flowing through common rocks or to be able to place one's hands on something that is millions of years old. In this section of the Planetarium, that is possible!


I do not recall seeing anywhere to eat in the Hayden Planetarium wing, but the adjacent American Museum Of Natural History did have several places to eat, most of which were drastically overpriced cafes.


The Hayden Planetarium contains a gift shop which sells educational souvenirs as well as the usual tourist swag, like t-shirts, stickers, magnets and the like. The gift shop also has books and astronomy resources as well as rocks for sale. The Hayden Planetarium is not exactly a shopping destination within New York City.


The Hayden Planetarium is a decent scientific opportunity for those visiting New York City and is more impressive for the artifacts than it is for the paid programs.


For other travel reviews, please be sure to visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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