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Best-Kept Secrets of the Cradle of Aviation Museum

Best-Kept Secrets of the Cradle of Aviation Museum


Whether you have a preschooler, a grade-schooler, a teen, or all three, the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City will teach and thrill with exhibits on Long Island's history of flight and interactive flying simulators.

 

As a child, every school day I’d pass a marker on the grounds of Plaza School in Baldwin that read “In May 1910, the first American monoplane was flown at this location.” Somehow, though, I remained clueless that Long Island is a supremely special place in the history of flight. Until a recent Friday, that is, when I toured the Cradle of Aviation Museum—and the meaning of the name finally clicked. Every New York metro family, especially Islanders, should pay a visit for a serious shot of pride (and serious fun).

 

Museum Overview

An air and space museum comparable to more high-profile ones in big cities, the Cradle of Aviation Museum covers an incredible amount of ground in an easy-to-follow layout. Walk through a timeline of aviation history, starting with ballooning (a sport for the wealthy, at first), then meet the Long Island experimenters who solved the problems of aircraft shape, propulsion, and finally, means of control. Move through the Hempstead Plains; you won’t believe the shockingly fragile machines that pilots first took to the sky. Continue through the World War I gallery, exhibiting relics from the first era a plane was used as a weapon, and World War II, when Long Island was the center of aircraft production. You’ll end your day exploring space.

hot air balloon cradle of aviation museum long island
In the beginning, only the rich
took to the skys, dressed for the
cold and toting champagne.

 

The overarching theme is that, from the early days of flight to man’s first steps on the moon, Long Island has been flight central. How so? For starters, Charles Lindbergh took off on his momentous flight to Paris from what is now known as Roosevelt Field. You’ve heard of Neil Armstrong? It was, after all, a Bethpage-built lunar module from which the astronaut emerged to take his giant leap. Many contributions like those are brought to life here.

 

Standby Faves for Kids

JetBlue Sky Theater Planetarium

Kids (and most adults) always seem to love planetarium shows, but these have a unique local spin. Each show is preceded by Your Night Sky presentation, during which you get a tour of the constellations, planets, and stars above the Long Island sky. I thought this a real treat. For most Long Islanders, the sky is not quite dark enough to get a really good look at such things, and, let’s face it…who has the time?

National Geographic Leroy R. and Rose W. Grumman Dome Theatre

This is the only giant screen theater on Long Island, showing movies at 10 times the size of a conventional film frame. The choice of shows changes often. When I went, the options were as diverse as Sea Monsters, Space Junk, and Air Racers. We opted for the latter, an insidery look at racing planes. A word to those easily made queasy, though: I did feel a little woozy, but closing my eyes solved that. As would, I suspect, eating breakfast, which I didn’t.

National Geographic Dome Theatre at Cradle of Aviation Museum
The mood is set as we wait for the dome theater show to begin.                                           

The X-Ride Theatre

Kids queue up for this 30-seat motion simulator, which takes them on a ride with the Blue Angels. It’s included in the basic museum ticket.

Junior Jet Club

In an energy-burning play place for littles 2-6, learning goes along with the action. Think: engineering with Legos, constructing roaring rockets, exercising on the space station, and collecting moon rocks. On weekends, you can take advantage of book readings and crafts.  

Apollo 19 Lunar Module

This is the real deal, the one that would have gone up had President Nixon not scaled back manned space exploration. The shiny gold Mylar components (yes, like balloons) gives it a captivating, other-worldly look.

 

Secrets to Discover with Your Kids

Hurricane simulator

When you first enter the main exhibit area, kids naturally want to run in full speed ahead. But first, make a sharp left. In that corner is a hurricane simulator. It’s really fun, and a great photo opp. It costs $2 but is well worth it, especially since two kids fit inside.

Hurricane simulator Cradle of Aviation Museum Long Island
My nephew, Christopher, and daughter,
Amelia, whoop it up as the wind picks up.

 

The docents

As we progressed through the museum, retired aircraft mechanics or Grumman employees or guides otherwise connected to the aviation industry answered questions and shared interesting facts. Here’s one (Thanks, Steve!): The Penguin training plane (in between the Hempstead Plains and The Great War galleries) was built to save the propeller in the event of a crash…not necessarily the 18-year-old flying it…as propellers were pricey. They were great with the kids; in fact, my nephew commented, “We would have missed so much without those guys!” You can recognize them by their red lanyards. If you have a question, I highly recommend asking one of them. On the way out, I asked if you could have one docent take you through the whole museum. You can! Just call reservations at 516-572-4066.

Pan am Fantasy Island Plane Cradle of Aviation Museum
Dah Plane, Dah Plane! Remember Fantasy Island? The
infamous prop plane is right here in Garden City.

 

Air Traffic Control

In the Contemporary Aviation Gallery, look for the Air Traffic Control Panel. It’s fascinating, for kids and grown-ups. You can watch real-time images of all the commercial airliners in the sky over the United States at that moment. Did you know that Long Islanders see more planes in their lifetimes than any other people on Earth? This exhibit makes that pretty clear, and even breaks out the traffic by part of Long Island (we south shore folks see more outbound planes than inbound). I was struck by this comment from an air traffic controller that’s on display: “In a day there may be 110 takeoffs and landings an hour at Kennedy Airport….Theoretically we are responsible in one hour for more lives than a doctor could be in his entire career. But…we don’t dwell on it.”

The Spirit of St. Louis Cockpit

Get a feel for the 33½-hour flight Lindbergh took to Europe. I wouldn’t want to do it; I can tell you that. It’s cramped, and he couldn’t see where he was going. That’s right: there was no windshield. He just sat and stared at monitors and instruments that whole time, and, well, nodding off would not have ended well.

Charles Lindbergh’s first plane, JN-4 Jenny

Find it towards the end of The Hempstead Plains gallery. Kids can sit in it and learn how to yaw, roll, and pitch.

Charles Lindebergh first plane Cradle of Aviation museum
My nephew, Harrison, hopped
right in. Even a 14-year-old isn't
too cool to learn how to yaw.

 

Elinor Smith

Who’s Elinor Smith? The most interesting person you’ve never heard of. Find her display case in The Golden Age Gallery. She was a native of Freeport, flying her first solo flight at age of 15. At 16, she became the world’s youngest licensed pilot. At 17, she flew under all four East River suspension bridges, something another pilot has never done. And it gets cooler from there. If your kid needs a subject for a biography that nobody else in the class will pick, take note.

The View of Earth from Space

It’s unlikely you’ll skip the Apollo Lunar Module, but you might miss the scaled view of Earth from the moon in the darkened room. It’s up on the right corner of the wall that’s behind you as you’re facing the module. It’s enough to make even the chattiest kids fall silent if they’re old enough to understand what they’re looking at. I was reminded of the quote from Frank Gorman, the Apollo 8 Commander: “A small disk, 240,000 miles away. Raging nationalistic interests, famines, wars, pestilence don’t show from that distance.” You’ll exit from here, a fitting note to end on.

 

Special Events

Mark your calendar for these annual events at the museum, including Astronomy and Space Day and the Long Island Festival of Trees.

 

Parents, Know Before You Go!

Parking is easy if you watch the signs. You’ll find plenty of free parking to the left of the main entrance. Don’t park to the right, as that’s designated for nearby Nassau Community college.

Buy the combo ticket. It saves you money, unless your kids have no interest in either big show, a virtual impossibility.

Bring cash if you’re planning to buy lunch: the Red Planet Café, the only eatery on premises, doesn’t take cards, not even debit. If you forget, find an ATM to the right of the exit of the café. It’s Bethpage Federal Credit Union, so if you’re one of the many Long Islanders with an account there, as I am, you won’t pay a fee.

Strollers are welcome and easy to maneuver throughout the museum, thanks to well-designed traffic flow. But if you prefer, you can stash it, along with coats, shopping bags, or whatever else you don’t feel like lugging around, at the coat check to the right of the main entrance.

Allow enough time, but you probably don’t need the whole day. It depends on how prone your kids are to linger at exhibits vs. race on to the next, whether you eat lunch there, and whether you allow a stop at the gift shop on the way out. I went with two 11-year-olds and two teen boys. We saw everything there was, ate lunch, took one bathroom break and a brief spin through the gift shop, and it took us about 4½ hours.

If you do find yourself with time to kill after your visit, it’ll be easy. The Nassau County Firefighter’s Museum is right next door; you don’t even need to move your car. Also within walking distance is Nunley’s Carousel. The Carousel is a sweet childhood memory for just about anyone who was a kid on the south shore of Nassau County during the 60s, 70s, or 80s. Baldwin residents wept (literally) when it closed in 1995. The happy ending is that it was refurbished and recently installed here. Take your kids for a spin!


Details

Location: Charles Lindbergh Boulevard, Garden City

Prices: $14 or $19 (combo); $12 or $17 seniors and children ages 2-12. The combo ticket includes one show at either the planetarium or the dome theater. If you want to do both, it’s another $8 per adult, $7 per child.

Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 9:30am-5pm. Open on Mondays when school is closed.

Birthday Parties? Yes! Call 516-572-4066 for details and to book. Having a party here can relieve you of hosting separate “kid” and “family” parties. Preschoolers through grandparents will love this outing.

Guided Tours: Call 516-572-4066 to reserve.

For more information: cradleofaviation.org

 

Christina Vercelletto

Author:

 Christina Vercelletto is a former editor at NYMetroParents, ParentingScholastic Parent & Child, and Woman’s Day. She lives on Long Island with her kids, a chiweenie, Pickles, and a 20-pound calico, Chub-Chub.

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