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Inside the new Strong

Butterflies and books abound in the National Museum of Play

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On Friday, July 14, the StrongMuseum will reopen its doors after a seven-week hiatus. Much has changed since late May, including the name: the institution is now officially known as Strong --- National Museum of Play to better describe its new focus on the study of play and its role in human development.

Your kids won't notice that.

They'll be far too busy freaking out over what's inside. The old favorites are still there, from "Sesame Street" to the miniature Wegmans store to the branch of the Monroe County Public Library. But the $37 million expansion project has ballooned the museum to 282,000 square feet --- nearly double its previous size --- and the space is packed full of creative, hands-on activities that will keep kids busy for hours, if not days, to come.

Here are some highlights, based on our recent sneak peek of the in-construction exhibits.

Driving down Chestnut Street, you can't help but see the most noticeable element of the Strong expansion: a huge portal known as "The Caterpillar." Once you step inside, you understand the name. This is a three-story, 200-foot-long curved tube that serves as an atrium connecting the established museum to the expansion. If you climb to the top you'll find the relocated National Toy Hall of Fame, which can now spread out instead of being shoehorned in next to the Time Lab in the upper level of the museum.

At the foot of The Caterpillar, however, is something entirely new: Reading Adventureland. The 12,000-square-foot exhibit takes visitors through five exceedingly hands-on "literary landscapes" that bring to life children's storybook staples.

Enter through the archway and step on to the Yellow Brick Road. The first exit to your right is MysteryMansion, a spooky house that tests the skills of aspiring Hardy Boys or Nancy Drews. Are those eyes in the painting on the wall moving? Where are those strange, ghoulish moans coming from? Is something flashing in the fireplace?

Children will have to follow the clues and crack the case... or find the secret passageway, and make a little trouble themselves. (For every Sherlock Holmes, there's got to be a Dr. Moriarty.)

Next door to MysteryMansion is the perplexing Upside-Down Nonsense House. Painted in bright, trippy colors in random patterns, the nonconformist house would make Dr. Seuss proud. Rhymes and limericks are the language spoken here, and if you need help expanding your vocabulary, give the Tongue Twister Machine a spin. Also check out the kitchen for a joke-telling chicken, the hall for mirrors that change your shape, and other screwball ideas.

Off the coast of the Nonsense House, the dragon-fronted S.S. Courageous has crashed on AdventureIsland. Would-be swashbucklers have a chance to steer a pirate ship through some choppy waters, explore a hidden cove for buried treasure, charge over a suspension bridge, or play with makeshift tools and toys on a deserted island.

Harry Potter fans will want to wander through the Wizard Workshop. Be on the lookout for magic hats, cauldrons, and mystical creatures like unicorns and dragons. Next door is Fairy Tale Forest, with a gingerbread house and interactive displays that show how fairy tales have evolved over the years, from terrifying cautionary tales to sweet bedtime stories. The meek can take a peek inside the Jack 'n' Jill's well or sit in Cinderella's pumpkin coach, while the brave can climb Jack's beanstalk and encounter a massive animatronic giant or play a laser-stringed singing harp.

The next destination is the DancingWingsButterflyGarden. The natural offshoot of The Caterpillar, the garden is housed in an attached, butterfly-shaped building filled with tropical plants, a waterfall, and a minimum of 800 tropical and native butterflies that flap through the air, and even alight on visitors. The butterflies are shipped in while still in chrysalis, and then they emerge on-premises. In the waiting room, educational exhibits will explain the butterfly's life cycle.

The final major component of the expansion is Field of Play, housed in an adjoining building that looks as if it's constructed out of a pile of building blocks. Inside, kids will find a rock wall for climbing, an "undersea jellyfish garden" for exploring, a crooked house for balancing in, a walk-through kaleidoscope for making patterns, and mock race cars for driving. The activities demonstrate how important play time is to learning how to function as a human being.

The new exhibits are only the most visual part of the Strong expansion. Strong is also starting its own preschool this fall (as of late last week, only four of the 56 slots remain open). And there are plans to launch a scholarly magazine called the American Journal of Play next year. It's all part of CEO G. Rollie Adams' vision for the museum, which first opened in 1982 to display the prodigious collections of Margaret Woodbury Strong. Margaret Strong's eclectic collections included dolls and dollhouses, stamps, buttons, and furniture, and when the museum first opened it focused on Victorian styles and culture. Adams came aboard in September 1987, and 10 years later he shifted Strong's focus specifically to children. With its new expansion, Strong will be the second-largest children's museum in the country, right behind the Children's Museum of Indianapolis.

The expansion, and the rebranding as the National Museum of Play, is "an outgrowth of the response to our previous expansion [in 1997] and a consequence of market research that indicated a demand for expanded facilities and programs," Adams says. He cites attendance figures that swelled from 142,500 in 1995 to 345,000 in 2005, and says that the goal for the current expansion is to net 650,000 visitors after a full year.

Ed Hall, CEO of the Greater Rochester Visitor's Association, thinks those numbers are totally doable. "If anything, I think they may be a little on the conservative side," he says. "There's an excitement, a repositioning of the museum as a national institution." Hall is specifically looking to the ButterflyGarden as a big draw; he previously worked Houston, which had two nearby butterfly gardens that did a huge business across a variety of demographics.

More than 600,000 visitors sounds like a tall order. After all, MonroeCounty has a population of just more than 733,000, according to 2005 Census Bureau estimates. Adams says that the museum is doing some national marketing, specifically courting travel writers and regularly scoring buzz for the annual Toy Hall of Fame inductions each fall. But most of the focus will remain in the upstate New York area, with the hopes of pulling visitors from Syracuse, Buffalo, and the Southern Tier, and a subsequent push for billboards, TV, and radio commercials is planned for those areas this summer.

In the meantime, Rochester children can get the first crack at what's behind that big Caterpillar eye at the revamped Strong --- National Museum of Play July 14-16 with the grand reopening weekend, during which the museum will be open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. As of July 17, the museum's summer hours will be Mondays through Thursdays, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Fridays 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Saturdays 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; and Sundays noon-6 p.m. Admission will cost $9 for adults, $8 for students/seniors, $7 children 6-12, and free for kids 2 and younger; the Butterfly Garden requires an additional $3 ticket. Two-day passes are also available for $11-$14.50. For more information check out www.strongmuseum.org or call 263-2700.

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