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Good Night, Sleep Tight, Don't Let the Blue Whale Bite

By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 11, 2007

I slept with a giant squid. And not just any squid, but one with hard eyes and a mean streak. The squid was attacking a sperm whale; I was just looking for a place to lay my sleeping bag.

Granted, on a recent overnight at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, I could have chosen friendlier sleeping companions: specimens of dolphins, harbor seals, walruses, a vibrant coral reef. The open space beneath the big blue whale was filling fast with pillows, Disney character blankets and stuffed animals.

"I think the most exciting part is going to be sleeping," said Miranda Leong-Hussey, an 8-year-old from New York who had installed herself under the whale's tale. "Because we are going to be sleeping in a museum, and that is so weird." And so wild, too -- in the taxidermied sense.

The museum's sleepover program, A Night at the Museum, had lain dormant for 20 years but was resurrected in January, overlapping with last year's release of the flick by the same name. The timing, however, was coincidental: Museum officials had mobilized the plan before they'd even heard of the movie, in which a night security guard is terrorized by animals and other exhibits that come to life.

"The opportunity to sleep under the whale is pretty exciting, and the idea that things come to life," Brad Harris, the museum's senior director of visitor services, said when asked about the program's appeal. "I think [participants] will leave here saying that things really did come to life."

When it came to the squid, I was hoping not. But in the dusk-to-dawn hours, the museum came alive in other respects. Nearly 400 kids and adults had the place to themselves, with no impatient mobs and, better yet, no need to wear street shoes -- fuzzy slippers would do. The museum is heavily staffed for the overnights, with at least one staff member per 20 guests; for visitors, the ratio is three children per adult.

"I hiked all over the museum with my mom," dinosaur-loving Andrew Kisler, 8, said over breakfast the next morning, which was served buffet-style by the cafeteria. Added his mother, Michelle Kisler of the Bronx, N.Y.: "We had such freedom. We actually read the exhibits. You don't typically get to do that on a Saturday." Not unless you can find a clearing amid the 8,000 to 15,000 daily visitors.

The New York institution isn't the only one throwing slumber parties. As our sampling below shows, other museums, zoos and aquariums in the region are supplying unusual sleeping quarters. They also organize special activities for overnight guests.

During A Night at the Museum, for example, there were origami lessons (penguins, easy; rocket ships, hard), moon-surface rubbings and walks through the butterfly conservatory, where the colorful insects alighted on hands and heads. "When you grow up, you can become a volunteer here or an entomologist," one volunteer said to a little boy with a Costa Rican owl butterfly perched on his shoulder.

At 9 p.m., kids armed with flashlights swarmed the dinosaur and fossil rooms, looking for clues to a puzzling list of questions as T. rex lurked in the shadows. "When it went dark, I was a little scared," said John Cunningham, 10, of New York. "But I liked flashing the fossils with the flashlight."

Once the children collected their wits -- and correct answers -- they settled into plush seats for a star-splashed planetarium show (the snores definitely came from the adults). Afterward, they brushed their teeth in the public bathroom, then curled up on their cots for bedtime stories and a documentary on dolphins. At midnight, the museum called for lights out.

Of course, lights out is a risible concept when you have a room full of mischievous children harboring flashlights. Yet, as if by magic, after the last beams were cast on the whale's belly, the room fell silent and the squid receded into darkness.

The American Museum of Natural History's A Night at the Museum is sold out through August; new dates will be announced in mid-summer. Central Park West at 79th Street, 212-769-5570,http://www.amnh.org/kids/sleepovers ; $79 includes breakfast and an evening snack.

Here are some other overnight programs in the region and beyond. Call the sites for dates and availability.

Science Museum of Virginia

The Camp In program includes a Segway ride inside the museum, a snake show and an Imax movie.

2500 W. Broad St., Richmond, 804-864-1436,http://www.smv.org; $36 per child and $18 per adult for a group of six kids (additional adults are $36) .

Maryland Zoo and Philadelphia Zoo

At Roar N' Snore in Baltimore, guests set up tents in the Waterfowl Lake Pavilion and gather 'round the campfire for pizza, songs and s'mores. Come morning, man and beast alike get fed.

Druid Hill Park, Baltimore, 443-552-5276, Ext. 8062,http://www.marylandzoo.org ; $70, $210 for a family of four.

The Philadelphia Zoo's Night Flight program includes a hike and animal encounters.

34th Street and Girard Avenue in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, 215-243-5235,http://www.philadelphiazoo.org; $45, $50 starting Oct. 1.

National Aquarium in Baltimore

The aquarium's outings focus on specific themes (Australia, sharks) and include a behind-the-scenes tour, crafts and dinner. Slumber under the tank of stingrays or dolphins, or beneath the glass pyramid that overlooks the harbor. Breakfast is followed by more fish-friendly games.

501 E. Pratt St., Baltimore, 410-576-3833,http://www.aqua.org; $79.

Battleship New Jersey

Man the Battleship New Jersey -- in your jammies. Begin with a tour of the venerable ship, which served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam and is now retired in Camden, N.J. Guests also ride a simulator over Iwo Jima before getting some shut-eye in the sailors' bunks. Dinner and breakfast are served in the mess hall -- perfect for messy kids.

62 Battleship Pl., Camden, N.J., 856-966-1652,http://www.battleshipnewjersey.org; $49.95.

Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum

The museum in St. Michaels, Md., opens its Hooper Strait Lighthouse to guests who want to sleep in what once was a giant night light. The evening includes an interactive lesson on life in a lighthouse, a picnic dinner by the Miles River and a sleeping spot on the wooden floor inside the 19th-century structure.

213 N. Talbot St., St. Michaels, Md., 410-745-2916, Ext. 103,http://www.cbmm.org; $41 each for family members and individuals, $550 for groups.

Baltimore Maritime Museum

Groups of at least 20 can commandeer the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Taney or the submarine USS Torsk -- no enlistment required. On the Cutter Crew Overnight Program, honorary sailors are assigned watch detail and learn about navigation and the inner workings of the steam room. The Submarine Overnight Program follows a similar itinerary. Both vessels are docked in Baltimore; unfortunately, the sub is floating, not under the sea.

Piers 3 and 5, Inner Harbor, Baltimore, 410-396-3453,http://www.baltomaritimemuseum.org; $35.

Rubin Museum of Art

The Himalayan art museum in New York City transforms into Mount Everest, complete with Tibetan gruel and real Sherpas. The Peak Experience event also includes a puja ceremony, trust exercises and an ascension up the gallery staircases, around which junior climbers look for clues in the artwork.

150 W. 17th St., New York , 212-620-5000,http://www.rmanyc.org ; $108.

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