You don't have to be a VIP to get
behind the scenes at these museums
There's a reason why just about every kid who visits the zoo checks off "zookeeper" the next time school career day rolls around. Being a spectator is fine and good, but what we all really want is to be a part of the action, whether that means feeding dead fish to sea lions, taking a dive at the aquarium or rummaging through rare artifacts housed in museums' off-limits vaults. That kind of access is usually reserved for employees, deep-pocketed donors, and sometimes members and volunteers, but don't go bum-rushing that security guard just yet. We've uncovered a few ways you can get around the velvet rope—legally.
The Adler's monthly Far Out Fridays program puts visitors behind the Doane Observatory's high-powered telescope, which affords views of the heavens that were impossible in Chicago 20 years ago. In fact, it was recently used to discover a new asteroid. The Friday 4 program gives you a close look at Mars that won't be possible again until 2018, unlimited shows in the Sky and StarRider theaters, and a talk with UIC's Peter Doran on the possibility of life on the Red Planet. His colleagues in Antarctica will join the discussion via a live, two-way videoconference. 312-922-7827 for info. First Friday of every month, 4–10pm; $20, ages 4–17 and seniors $17, college students and teachers $10, members $5, Family Star Pack $60.
The Deckside with the Dolphins program puts you in close contact with the zoo's whip-smart marine mammals. You'll spend an hour with one of the zoo's professional trainers to learn the secret behind Flipper's success. See firsthand how and why Atlantic bottlenose dolphins are skillfully schooled, then use what you've learned to participate in a training session. Sat–Tue 3:45–4:45pm, Nov 12–Dec 31; $210, members $170. A paying adult participant must accompany kids ages 8–11.
Starting January 1, Brookfield will also host a Trainer for a Day program. This close encounter costs a bit more, but you'll get four hours to work behind the scenes with marine-mammal trainers and get to know the zoo's resident dolphins, seals and sea lions. 708-485-0263, ext 361, or www.brookfieldzoo.org for info. Thu–Sun 8am–noon, beginning Jan 1; $400, members $350. Participants must be 12 or older.
The Field Museum
Now that the "Pompeii" exhibit has erupted in popularity, the Field's From Magma to Lava program gives kids ages 7 to 12 a more in-depth perspective on the tragedy by granting behind-the-scenes access to the anthropology and geology departments. They'll get a look at rarely seen artifacts that show what life was like in Italy in A.D. 79 and see volcanic-rock specimens that explain the science behind Mount Vesuvius' eruption. 312-665-7400 for reservations. Nov 18, 6–8pm; $15, members $12.
Anyone who's snorkeled or gone diving along a coral reef knows a strange, colorful world thrives below the ocean's surface. In the aquarium's Underwater Photography Workshop, expert Bo Harper teaches photographic techniques to help participants capture what they see on film. Anyone can sign up for the classes, but scuba-certified students can take two dives right into the "Coral Reef" exhibit to start snapping shots. Photography equipment is provided but bring your own scuba gear, or pay an additional fee for rentals. Class runs from Sat 5–Nov 30; Coral reef dive fee $450, members $400, class sessions only $200.
The aquarium also has a Trainer for a Day program. You'll be outfitted with a pair of high rubber boots before you get your trainer-in-training feet wet in the Oceanarium kitchen, where the Shedd prepares daily meals for more than 60 animals. You'll also get a look at reserve areas and go poolside to see how the Shedd's creatures are cared for. Call 312-692-3224 for reservations. Fri–Sun 8am–12:30pm or 1:30–5:30pm; $350, members $300. Must be at least 12 to participate; youths 12–15 must be accompanied by a paying adult.
Call ahead for reservations. Space may be limited.