Ainsley House

Historic Downtown Campbell: Part 2 of 2. Start with the Campbell Historical Museum, then come read about the Ainsley House.

front of Ainsley House

The Ainsley House is the historical home of Mr. John Colpitts Ainsley’s family. He was one of the businessmen who put Campbell on the map through his successful fruit cannery. When you tour, the docent will share with you about the Ainsley family, California life in the early 1900s, the mixed architectural styles of the house, and the innovative technologies (innovative for their day, that is) incorporated into its design. You’ll walk through all the rooms with your docent and then get to explore the surrounding gardens on your own.

large white daisies with yellow centers

In a Nutshell

As you learned at the Campbell Historical Museum, Campbell’s fruit orchards and canneries were a huge industry in this area for a long time. Mr. Ainsley owned one of those canneries. He was born in England and moved to California at age 26. He wasn’t born wealthy, but he did see the potential to build on the existing apricot farms in this area, so he started a cannery company and became very successful. He built this house for his family later in life and lived here until he passed away in 1937. His children eventually donated the house to the City of Campbell as an historical site. It’s now on the National Register of Historic Places.

oak-paneled entry hall in Ainsley House

This house has many interesting architectural features and details. It also showcases “newfangled” things we take for granted today, such as an electric refrigerator or an upstairs telephone. On this guided tour of the home, you’ll learn about all of these ideas and about a family’s lifestyle in that era. Keep your eyes open for the magic button in the dining room…

Believe it or not, the house was not always on this site! It was originally built where eBay’s main campus is today. In the 1990s, it was literally picked up and trucked more than a mile to the city park land where it sits today. Wow! We were actually lucky enough to see the move happen. (I was very little but I still remember it.) When you visit, you’ll get to see a short video of the move before touring the house. It’s amazing!

Location

The Ainsley House is located at 300 Grant St. in Campbell. It’s adjacent to the Campbell Public Library and City Hall. It’s about a block and a half over from the main Campbell Avenue corridor in Downtown Campbell, and not far from the Hamilton Ave. exit from Hwy 17.

Google map of the Ainsley House area in Campbell

The Ainsley House is about half a block from the Campbell Historical Museum. You can see one from the other, but you’ll probably have to move your car to do both in one day because the museum parking is limited to 2 hours total. For the Ainsley House, you’ll park in the lot next to the Campbell Public Library. They have disabled spots in that lot in the corner closest to the Ainsley House, so you’re not limited to the spots by the library entrance.

diagram map of Campbell Historical Museum and Ainsley House's relative locations

The closest public transit is the VTA Bus Route 26‘s Civic Center stop or the VTA Light Rail‘s Downtown Campbell station on the 902 Winchester line.

Downtown Campbell is very bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly, so if you prefer, you can always choose to bike or walk here to avoid the parking drama altogether. 

When you arrive, the sidewalks and the house’s grandeur will naturally lead you to the front door, but follow the signs from there to the carriage house where you buy tickets. Inside the carriage house, you’ll watch about a 5-minute intro video and then meet your docent, who will take you through the main house.

Carriage house visitor center

Weather

The house has been retrofitted with central heating and air conditioning, so you can plan your visit any time of year.

In the spring and summer, the gardens around the house are particularly photogenic. They actually do weddings here because the space is so beautiful, so be sure to bring your camera!

beautiful pink flower

Cost

When we visited (summer 2019), the Ainsley House tickets were $8 for the general public, $6 for seniors, and $4 for youth ages 7-17. Children 6 and under were free. If you purchase a joint ticket with this and the Campbell Historical Museum, you can save $1 per person over purchasing the tickets separately.

bedroom in Ainsley House

There are also membership options as described in our Campbell Historical Museum post:

If you want unlimited access to the museum and the Ainsley House, a quarterly newsletter, gift shop discounts, and free or discounted admission to museum events, memberships are available for $35 per person. Expanded benefits are available with fancier levels of membership.

Both this museum and the Ainsley House are part of the North American Reciprocal Museum (NARM) Association. This means you can get  free or discounted admission to these and many other museums around the continent if you have a membership at one of them. You can search the full list here.

Length of Time

The tour is led by a docent, so the length of time can range from 30 minutes to easily over an hour, depending on the level of detail they share and the number of questions you ask. Combined with the Campbell Historical Museum, allow 2.5 to 4 hours total.

kitchen

Wheelchair Access

Their website has information for guests with disabilities. The house was built in 1925, so there isn’t much they can do to make it wheelchair-friendly, unfortunately. The main floor of the carriage house (which serves as the visitor’s center and gift shop) is wheelchair-accessible. An accessible restroom is included in that building too.

The Ainsley House itself is two stories, but even the first floor has single stairs up and down from individual rooms. About half the rooms on the first floor are wheelchair-accessible via ramps. The tour involves only short-distance walking, but a lot of stairs and lot of standing. They do have folding chairs available if you need to sit while the docent speaks, but you move between rooms so often that you don’t sit for more than a minute or two in each place. For someone with mobility problems, this house is honestly very difficult. (That’s not their fault at all, they do their very best to accommodate, but the house was built more than 60 years before the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed. What can you do?)

oak stairs

Walkers are allowed, so my mom tried using her walker instead of the wheelchair. It was really tough, honestly. The docent was excellent about making sure to point out the steps and offering to help her up and down the steps if needed. She even offered to carry the walker upstairs if that would help. By the end of the hour-long tour, though, even with sitting in each room as the docent spoke, it was obvious that this was too much walking and standing. Time for Advil and resting the rest of the day. Everyone has their own threshold for when to be stubborn about not missing out on something and when to take care of their health, so of course it’s up to you. Just be aware that this tour involves more standing and walking than it seems like a “house tour” might, so please be gentle with your body if you have mobility issues.

Official service animals are allowed, but emotional support animals are not.

Vision & Hearing

Mrs. Ainsley's desk

The docent narrates the whole tour, so guests could still get a lot out of the visit without seeing the architecture and artifacts directly. There are also recorded sound effects that play in a few of the rooms. If someone in your party has a sight limitation, you can even arrange a “touch tour” to further enhance your experience if you call in advance. (This is such an unusual offering, I have to give them kudos!)

Guests who are deaf would probably need a family member to serve as a sign language interpreter. Tour groups are usually small (often just your family), so if you have limited hearing, you could ask the docent to speak loudly and could turn your hearing aids up. The house is quiet enough for this to work.

garden

Sensory Processing

As you might expect for an historical home, the sensory level here was nicely low overall. One very unusual feature was that a few of the rooms had sound effects set up on motion sensors so they played automatically when you entered the room. (For example, a recording of FDR on the radio would play when you entered the library, or cooking and chopping noises would greet you in the kitchen.) These were not loud, but I found them a bit distracting as I tried to focus on the docent’s words at the same time. Still, this is the only place I’ve encountered such a simple but unusual idea — motion-triggered ambient sounds to enhance the experience — and I thought it was extremely clever.

garden

Food

There’s no food or drink allowed on the house tour. There are plenty of benches in the green park area in front of the house for eating before or after your visit.

Would we go back?

Sure! Even though we saw the house move (because everyone around came to see such an unusual event) in the 1990s, we had somehow never come to tour the inside of the house after that. I’m glad we did and would be happy to do so again some day. If you want to put a more personal face on all the cool stuff you learn at the Campbell Historical Museum, wander over to Ainsley House too. It’s sure to make you smile!

Ainsley House as seen from the side

Campbell Historical Museum

Historic Downtown Campbell: Part 1 of 2. Stay tuned for the Ainsley House visit next time!

The Campbell Historical Museum is a surprising little gem located in the heart of Downtown Campbell. Although we both grew up in this area and even lived in Campbell briefly, we’d somehow never been here. It was definitely worth the visit. We had no idea the City of Campbell had been so important to the history of this valley!

Campbell Historical Museum official sign and front of the building

In a Nutshell

This unimposing little building was actually the first city-owned building when Campbell was incorporated as a city back in 1952. It was the fire station, police station, and city hall — all at once! As the city grew, naturally its services spread out. By 1983, the main services had moved elsewhere, and this building became the Campbell Historical Museum.

Museum dedication plaque from the Campbell City Council

The museum includes a variety of interactive stations, video segments, timelines, and artifacts to connect the valley’s history to today. There are hands-on opportunities and well-written plaques for children and adults to engage with the subject matter in their own ways.

pretend "general store" inside the Campbell Historical Museum

The details of their current exhibits are on this page. You’ll learn about the evolution “from canneries to computers,” tracing Campbell’s history from its origins in orchards and canned fruit to its role in Silicon Valley today and putting it in context with national and world historical events at the time. Many important innovations happened here long before the microprocessor was invented. Did you know President Roosevelt even came to visit once?

timeline called "Campbell in Context," detailing the history of Campbell in parallel to world history

Note: The museum and the Ainsley House are “sister museums” to each other; both are technically independent so you can visit either or both. We highly recommend starting here at the Campbell Historical Museum and then visiting the Ainsley House. The house will make much more sense if you have the context offered in the museum first.

Location

This museum is located at 51 N. Central Ave. in Campbell, on the corner of N. Central and Civic Center Dr. It’s kitty-corner from the Campbell Public Library and one block over from the main downtown shopping and restaurant district on Campbell Ave. If you’re coming from farther away, it’s fairly close to the Hamilton Ave. exit from Hwy 17.

Google map of Campbell Historical Museum area

Parking is always tight in Downtown Campbell. There is a small lot connected to the museum, but you enter it from the other side of the block: turn on N. 1st Street and go in the driveway behind Recycle Bookstore West and Sorelle Salon & Spa. Take the first left inside the parking lot (between the two tiny fences into the second half of the lot) and then turn right to get closer to the museum. The museum is the tall unmarked building at the end of the lot. Park in any unmarked slot. (The first slots you see will be reserved for the bookstore or salon, so be careful. Go deeper into the lot to look for 2-hour parking that’s not restricted to a particular store or reserved for staff.)

Zoomed-in Google map showing arrows of where to park

Parking lot for Campbell Historical Museum

There is also some on-street metered parking on Civic Center Dr. If you don’t mind walking, you can park elsewhere in town and walk in. (Just be respectful of time limits anywhere you park, because Campbell does mean business in their traffic enforcement.)

Although the address and front sign say N. Central Avenue, the entrance is actually accessed from this parking lot, so walk around the building to the back if your GPS takes you to the official front on N. Central.

Very zoomed-in Google map showing the actual front entrance vs. the street address

The closest public transit is the VTA Bus Route 26‘s Civic Center stop or the VTA Light Rail‘s Downtown Campbell station on the 902 Winchester line.

Downtown Campbell is very bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly, so if you prefer, you can always choose to bike or walk here to avoid the parking drama altogether. 

Weather

Thankfully this historical building has been upgraded with modern HVAC, so you can enjoy this little museum anytime of year.

old-fashioned hand-washer and dryer press with pretend laundry

Cost

When we visited (summer 2019), the museum admission was just $2 for anyone age 7+. If you want a joint ticket for the museum + the Ainsley House, it essentially saves you $1 over buying the two admissions separately. (We didn’t get the joint ticket, but did happen to find a $1 off coupon on an Ainsley House flyer, so it worked out the same.) The joint ticket does not have to be used on the same day.

child's wagon with pretend fruit and cardboard cut-outs of children in an orchard

If you want unlimited access to the museum and the Ainsley House, a quarterly newsletter, gift shop discounts, and free or discounted admission to museum events, memberships are available for $35 per person. Expanded benefits are available with fancier levels of membership.

Both this museum and the Ainsley House are part of the North American Reciprocal Museum (NARM) Association. This means you can get  free or discounted admission to these and many other museums around the continent if you have a membership at one of them. You can search the full list here.

Length of Time

Given the relatively small size of this museum, it’s mind-boggling to think of it once housing the fire department, police department, and city government! The museum will take you about 1-2 hours.

If you’re doing both in one day, plan for the Ainsley House to take an additional 1-2 hours. You can ask the volunteers at the museum desk what time the next Ainsley House tour leaves so you can plan accordingly. If possible, do the full museum before going to Ainsley House.

Carriage with picture of Teddy Roosevelt

Wheelchair Access

Physically, the museum was spacious enough and flat enough to navigate easily with the wheelchair. However, most of the displays were surprisingly high up on the walls, so it was tricky to read some of them comfortably from a seated height.

Vision & Hearing

There were more hands-on and audio elements here than at most museums, so someone with limited vision would be able to interact quite a bit. For example, there were plastic fruits on Velcro dots to be “picked” off the “orchard” trees, rubber fruits to be “packed” into the tin cans, and a guessing game with food scents inside metal shakers. There were also narrated video clips and an audio recording of someone reading President Roosevelt’s speech, plus an interactive play space with pretend foods. Unfortunately there is no braille or audio tour of the other material, so a companion would still have to read the text of the main plaques out loud.

guessing game with shakers with scents inside

The video and audio clips had subtitles, so someone with a hearing impairment would be able to participate fully here. There’s little to no background noise to interfere with hearing aids on a regular day. (I’d imagine if an entire class were here for a field trip, that might change.)

Sensory Processing

This was a delightfully calm museum in terms of sensory content. The lighting was normal, the background noise was minimal, and that scent game mentioned above was not noticeable unless you held the shakers to your nose. The displays were visually a little busy in places, but not overwhelmingly so. Particularly for the level of interaction it offered, I found this to be one of the more sensory-friendly museums we’ve visited.

Old electric vehicle

Food

There’s no food or drink allowed inside the museum, but there are picnic areas available outside. Of course the entire restaurant district in Downtown Campbell is also only a block away!

Would we go back?

Sure! We both learned a ton about the legacy of a town that we’d honestly always thought of as just a cute little offshoot of San Jose. It turns out Campbell was once the home to three major fruit canneries that shipped fruit all the way to England. The Pruneyard Shopping Center was even part of a major Supreme Court decision on free speech and states’ rights. Who knew? If you need a short but very interesting spot to visit, the Campbell Historical Museum is sure to make you smile!

sign says "museum & store open Thurs-Sun 12-4 pm"

Intel Museum

We’re back! Thank you all for your patience the last few months. Let’s dive back into exploring our own backyard here in Silicon Valley!

close-up of a mural with 0 and 1 binary text all over

I’d describe the Intel Museum as a “small but mighty” museum that chronicles not just the Intel company but the evolution of Silicon Valley and the technology behind our growth. It’s approachable and interesting for techies and non-techies alike, all without feeling like the information is “dumbed down” at all. We thoroughly enjoyed it!

In a Nutshell

This museum is on the Intel campus in Santa Clara. It includes the museum itself, a cute little gift shop, and a spacious courtyard area outside. The giant Intel sign  out front is known as one of the key high-tech tourism stops in the Bay Area, so be sure to snap a selfie there!

Giant Intel logo sign outside the museum

Inside the museum, you’ll walk through sections showing the history of the company, the evolution of modern computing, the way silicon chips work, how they’re manufactured, and what may be coming next in the world of tech. You can even dress up as a “clean room” worker.

Photo opportunity to dress up as a clean room worker

The design of the museum is quite appealing. It’s a healthy blend of plaques to read, touchscreen stations, artifacts and memorabilia in display cases, movie clips, interactive elements, and thought-provoking questions. I’d say the target audience would be kids at least 9-10 years old through adults.

The museum is open to the public and also hosts school field trips. In a way, it’s like a mini version of the Computer History Museum — less detail but also much less time-consuming and still very enjoyable. I love the CHM, but if you don’t have all day, the Intel Museum is a very good alternative.

Poster of a quote that says, "Today, there is no place on, above or below the earth that the microprocessor has not reached." by Michael S. Malone

They are usually open 9-6 on weekdays and 10-5 on Saturdays. They recommend calling ahead (1-408-765-5050) to make sure they’re not closed for a holiday or special event on the day you plan to come.

Location

The Intel Museum is located on the main Intel campus in Santa Clara. Their address is 2200 Mission College Blvd., close to 101 and Montague Expressway.

Google map of the Intel Museum area

Parking is free and fairly close to the museum, but takes a bit of guesswork to find. Here’s what you need to know:

  • From Mission College Blvd., turn into the Intel campus. If you came from Montague Expressway, it will be a left turn at the light that says “Burton” with an arrow to the right. There’s a little Intel sign at the driveway, but it almost doesn’t look big enough to be the main entrance. It actually is. Turn there.

Entrance to the Intel campus

  • As you enter the parking lot, follow the “visitor parking” signs, some of which are rather small. You’ll hug the right three times, go past the ticket booth (which was empty for the weekend) and enter the parking lot.
  • From the disabled parking spots, you’ll see the blue and white crosswalk and a wheelchair sign directing you to the sidewalk and then to the left. Follow these signs even if you’re not using a wheelchair.

arrow showing the walkway toward the museum

  • Follow the sidewalk along the front of the building until it opens up to a courtyard. Look to your right and see the giant Intel logo sign. Go toward the sign.
  • The museum entrance is the double doors to the left of the sign.
    (Note: We went during Pride month, so I don’t know if these doors are always rainbow-colored or just in June.)

Intel Museum entrance doors

If you prefer public transit, the VTA Route 60 bus drops off about half a block from the entrance. That bus does run on weekends.

Weather

As an indoor museum with good air conditioning, this would be an excellent stop any time of year. In the spring and summer, the flowers in the courtyard are blooming nicely, so that’s an added bonus if you’re a fellow shutterbug.

yellow flower

Cost

Parking and admission are both free here. They don’t even ask for a donation at the door; they just smile and welcome you in. Nice!

If you want to take one, they offer a printed map of the museum layout to guide you through the different areas. (It’s a loop, so it’s not like you need the map to avoid getting lost. It’s just a guide.) The map is available in multiple languages on the rack between the welcome desk and the gift shop.

 

Length of Time

We spent about two hours here including the gift shop, although if you thoroughly read each display and spend more time on the interactive stations, you could easily spend half a day. It’s easy to enjoy at your own pace.

Intel Museum gift shop display of "Pride Inside" t-shirts and bracelets during the month of June

Wheelchair Access

This museum was delightfully wide open and easy to navigate. The displays were magically comfortable to read from both a seated/wheelchair height and an adult standing height. (I’m not quite sure how they managed that, but kudos, because very few museums pull that off!) The floor is mostly made of metal tiles that are smooth and quiet to roll over.

museum display about Moore's Law

The restroom included a wheelchair-accessible stall that was easy to use independently.

Vision & Hearing

As in many museums, most of the displays here are visual. They’re either text on a wall or touchscreen, or artifacts in acrylic display cases. A few of the stations could be interactive through touch or hearing alone, but for the most part, someone with limited vision would need a companion to read the plaques to them. We asked at the front desk and unfortunately there’s no braille guide or audio tour available yet. (Maybe some day…)

antique IBM computer

Hearing loss is much less of an issue here. Nearly everything was text-based and easily enjoyed visually. The museum was remarkably quiet overall, even though there were other people there at the time, so there wasn’t even much background interference for someone with hearing aids to filter out.

Sensory Processing

I found this museum hit the “sweet spot” in terms of sensory levels. It was engaging enough to be interesting, but in no way overwhelming or overstimulating. It was invitingly light but not too bright. The displays were spread out enough not to feel overly busy. The few video stations were loud enough to hear while standing in front of them, but didn’t blast the surrounding area with distracting sound.

Intel Museum first section of displays

The only mild issue was that in the second half of the museum, there were times when a random flash would light up the area. It turns out it was from the the flashbulb at the “selfie station” near the end, where you can dress up as a clean room worker. It wasn’t a strobe or anything too obnoxious, but it was very noticeable and somewhat distracting in the moment. Once I figured out what it was, it was okay.

This museum is very close to the airport, so we did hear quite a few airplanes passing directly overhead while we were out in the parking lot. (You can’t hear them from indoors, don’t worry.) If you or your child are easily triggered by loud noises, do be prepared for the loud overhead airplanes while you’re outside here.

Food

Food and drinks are not allowed in this museum, but there are a lot of benches in the courtyard outside if you bring your own lunch. Otherwise, you’re pretty close to Specialty’s Cafe, Subway, Starbucks, and other nearby eateries.

Would we go back?

Yes! There’s plenty of detail I’m sure we missed the first time through, and we enjoyed the peaceful atmosphere. If your inner geek needs a pick-me-up or if your out-of-town visitor wants to see something free and unique to Silicon Valley, the Intel Museum is sure to make you smile!

Quote by Robert Noyce: "Don't be encumbered by history. Go off and do something wonderful."

Visited June 2019

Harvest Festival: Original Art & Craft Show

We’ve been going to the Harvest Festival almost every year since I was in elementary school. It’s delightful to see some of the same vendors every year – a few of whom even remember us and say “hi” – and to see many new ones as well. As an artist, I always find it inspiring to see so many new ideas and creative styles in one place. We often find truly unique gifts for our hard-to-shop-for friends and family members here too!

In a Nutshell

This is a large indoor arts & crafts festival that travels around California and parts of Nevada every year, showcasing beautiful hand-made arts and crafts, specialty foods, kids’ craft and activity areas, and a live stage with continuous music and entertainment. I think of it as a playful cross between a county fair (minus the farm animals and ferris wheels) and an art & wine festival.

Understandably, out of respect for the artists’ work, the show forbids most photography inside. My apologies for the limited photos in this post as a result.

sign says "no photos or videos of merchandise"

Location

This is a traveling show, so you can choose the location that’s closest to you. Check out the Shows page on their website for this year’s schedule. Parking and transportation details will obviously depend on the venue.

Weather

This is an indoor show, so you’ll enjoy it regardless of the weather outside. Given that many of these shows happen in the fall and over the holiday season, being a weatherproof outing is definitely a feature!

Cost

At the door, tickets are typically around $9 for adults and less for seniors, kids, and military personnel. (Prices are from 2018, but they don’t tend to change much year to year.) You can often get discounts for purchasing tickets online ahead of time, or with a postcard coupon if you join their mailing list. The postcard usually also has a coupon for a free shopping bag, so it’s worth joining the mailing list if you plan to go back next year.

Length of Time

This will take you a few hours to most of the day, depending on how quickly you stroll through the booths and how many exhibitors are at the show. (We’ve noticed some cities or some years bring bigger or smaller shows, but they’re always enjoyable regardless of size. We haven’t spotted a predictable pattern in the sizes, so we just go with the mindset that we’ll enjoy whatever we find.)

Regardless of which show you attend, we highly recommend getting there close to opening time because the event will get more crowded as the day goes on. If you’re going to a particularly popular show, such as the one in San Jose over Thanksgiving weekend, you’ll save some time in line by buying your tickets online ahead of time.

musicians dressed in Christmas clothes at Harvest Festival

Wheelchair Access

Accessibility will depend on the venue, of course, but every show we’ve seen has been in a large public event center, convention center, or the indoor part of the county fairgrounds, so it’s always been wheelchair-accessible in our experience.

The event is large, so if you have any kind of mobility challenges, balance/stability issues, or pain with too much walking, we definitely recommend bringing a cane, walker, wheelchair, or scooter, depending on what works best for you. For context, it’s more walking and standing than a typical trip to the mall, but much less than a day at Disneyland.

Each vendor’s booth varies somewhat in its accessibility because the layout is up to the exhibitor. Some have wide open spaces and some pack more tables into the same square footage, unfortunately leaving less maneuvering room for mobility devices. We’ve found that electric mobility scooters (especially the larger four-wheeled kind) have a harder time in this setting; wheelchairs are much more maneuverable in the sometimes-tighter spaces. Walkers or canes can navigate easily too.

FYI, a few booths also have high enough display cases that it can be challenging to see the merchandise from a low seated position. (This is where it helps to have a sidekick who can reach things for you.) It’s not a big enough problem to keep you from enjoying the event on your own, though. Most things are visible, and most of the artists or fellow shoppers will gladly help if you need it. Just ask!

Vision & Hearing

There would be a lot for someone with limited vision to enjoy here. The food booths often offer tasting samples, the teas and candles smell nice, and most of the textile or jewelry crafts can be as easily felt as seen. Some of the craft booths sell wind chimes, folk music CDs, and other sound-oriented goodies. It’s also possible to pick up most of the merchandise to look at it up close, so someone with limited but functional vision could navigate and enjoy the show independently. All the booths are laid out in aisles, which are marked by overhead flag signs. The layout of each individual booth is different, as mentioned above, and there are no tactile or audio markers to help with wayfinding, so a person who’s blind would need a companion to help navigate this setting.

Music is a much less prominent part of the show, compared to the visual arts and specialty foods, so someone who is deaf could easily enjoy the Harvest Festival without missing out on much. Because of the busy nature of the show, someone who uses hearing aids may have trouble filtering out the background noise at times, so if this applies to someone in your family, please remember to get their attention before speaking to them and be close enough for them to hear you clearly.

stage at the Harvest Festival

Sensory Processing

This is definitely a high-sensory experience, but I enjoy it anyway. I always wear earplugs here, and we are careful to go early in the morning to take advantage of the lower crowds. (This helps in two ways — lower sensory busyness for me and fewer crowds in which to maneuver the wheelchair for my mom.) In terms of visual and auditory input, it’s a little bit busier than a trip to the mall. There’s a lot going on in each booth, but it’s exciting artsy stuff that’s fun to look at, and you can just choose not to go in any booth that may feel overwhelming. There are a few musicians who walk around playing the ukulele or washboard or harmonica, which can be loud, but they pass quickly and there are only a couple throughout the whole show. (If you want to enjoy the stage shows, sit near the back so you’re farther from the often-too-loud speakers.) If you like to touch things, you’ll find many lush fabrics, soft toys, beautifully finished woods, smooth metals and jewelry, and other marvelous textures to explore.

If you’re especially triggered by smells, as I am, be aware that there are quite a few different smells to contend with here. Some of the crafts the vendors sell are handmade scented candles (none of which are lit, fortunately), soaps, foods, teas, seasonings and spices. Fortunately the smells are usually contained to the individual booths (apparently by magic, because the booths are open, but somehow it works), so it’s nothing like walking into (or even past) Bath & Body Works at the mall. I find that if I just don’t go in those booths, I’m fine. The venues are always enormous rooms with very high ceilings, and the fragranced vendors are a small fraction of the show, so it somehow evens out.  There is also a “food court” area, but it’s always off in one corner or one side, so those cooking smells don’t pervade the room either.

Food

You can bring your own food or buy food there. There is an area to the back or the side where a half-dozen booths sell different kinds of food for lunch or snacks. (These are not craft vendors; they’re part of the Harvest Festival itself and tend to be the same every year.) For example, there is usually a coffee & muffins booth, a salad booth, a chili & baked potato booth, a pasta booth, and a pulled pork or Philly cheesesteak sandwich booth. The food is usually made on-site but not always to order, so be careful about allergies. The people preparing it have very limited space and not much flexibility aside from whether or not to include certain toppings. Be patient with them.

food court at Harvest Festival

These food booths are side-by-side, and then there’s a large area with cafeteria-style tables end-to-end where you can eat. This makes it easy for different members of your family to choose different foods and eat together. (Keep in mind that you pay at each booth, so if you want different types of foods, you’ll each need to stand in line for yourself.) The tables are also an easy place to eat your own food from home if you brought it (I’ve never seen signs restricting it) or to just take a break if you need one.

As with most events, the lines for food can get long at peak times, so plan ahead if you can and have lunch a little earlier or little later than average and you’ll be fine.

Would we go back?

Of course! It’s a tradition for us at this point, but it’s also just really fun to see the creativity and variety on display each year. Pack your earplugs, wake up early, and go enjoy the Harvest Festival when it comes to your area. It’s sure to make you smile!

shoppers at the Harvest Festival

The Great Mall

We’ve always loved shopping, especially at big malls. I know not everyone agrees, and that’s okay, but for us, malls are a relaxing way to spend an afternoon. We don’t have to have a specific shopping list or destination in mind; it’s fun just strolling through, “window shopping” and “people watching” and sometimes finding unexpected treasures. When I need creative inspiration, I often find the fabrics, home decor items, jewelry, and other items at the mall to be a great source of new ideas.

Growing up in the Bay Area in the ’90s, I took it for granted that the question was only ever “Which mall?” and not whether or not to make the trek out to “the mall.” (When I got to college and met people from other parts of California, I realized how blessed we are here.) It’s true that online shopping has shifted the nature of most malls to include more restaurants, movie theaters, and interactive experiences than in the past, but anyone who tells you that malls are a “dying breed” has clearly not tried to park at one on a Saturday afternoon recently. Trust me, there are plenty of people still going to malls, and we will always be among them.

Silicon Valley is still home to many malls (although sightly fewer than twenty years ago, it’s true), most of which are listed on our Ideas page. We’ve sorted them by indoor/enclosed malls vs. outdoor/open-air centers so you can choose based on the weather or your personal preferences.  We’ve been to  almost every mall on that list, many multiple times. We have a few favorites but enjoy almost all of them for different reasons. Each has different stores, of course, but also different types of restaurants, different sensory levels, and different overall vibes.

Today we chose the Great Mall in Milpitas because we hadn’t been there in a while and because it had a couple stores we wanted to browse for specific items. As always, we enjoyed this mall’s variety and lively atmosphere.

In a Nutshell

This is a relatively large mall laid out in a big oval shape.  It’s divided into what they call “neighborhoods,” which are just segments of the loop like slices of a pie. It’s a way to help you navigate and know where you are.

The mall has a combination of bigger anchor stores and smaller stores. Many are high-end outlets or big-name stores and some are unique local spots. It’s a Simon mall (meaning the parent company who runs it is Simon) so it has a wider variety of stores  than most Westfield malls do. The exact mix of stores changes on a regular basis, so check the mall’s website for a current list if there’s something specific you want to see.

In addition to stores, the mall has a Century movie theater, a Dave & Buster’s entertainment space, changing activities inside (such as jumpers, 3D simulator seats, or a small train for little kids to ride), and of course multiple restaurants and a food court.

One of the things I enjoy most about this mall is its diversity. It really feels like a miniature version of the entire Bay Area inside. We see families and individuals of all ages and cultures there, but have never once felt a problem in it. (Having grown up in San Jose, then gone to college in a town that was over 80% white and 50% twenty-somethings, this diversity is one of the things I missed most about home and still consciously enjoy now that I’m back.) I love listening to the plethora of languages being spoken all in one place. Call me philosophical, but I find it beautiful to see such diverse people just enjoying their afternoon and sharing this space so peacefully. The world could take a lesson here.

Location

The Great Mall is in Milpitas, just pass the San Jose border, about halfway between I-880 and I-680, near Montague Expressway. See their website for driving directions if you don’t have GPS.

The mall’s address is 447 Great Mall Dr, Milpitas, CA 95035-8041.

The mall is surrounded by a large parking lot on all sides. There’s also a small parking garage on one side near the Bed Bath & Beyond (Neighborhood 5) entrance. For some reason, we’ve found the most disabled parking spaces to be available in this area, but of course there are blue slots all around the mall if you need them.

There’s also a big public transit hub at the edge of the parking lot. The Light Rail, ten VTA bus lines, and one AC Transit bus all meet here, so it’s possible to get to the mall via public transit from most of the Bay Area.

Weather

This is an indoor mall, so it’s great in any weather. In case it’s pouring cats-and-dogs in the winter, do be aware that the parking garage is close to the entrance but does not have a covered walkway, so you may have to walk (or roll) in the rain for a short stretch. In the summer, we have sometimes found it to get pretty crowded by mid/late afternoon on exceptionally hot days when many people (including us) come in search of air conditioning. Other than those two extremes, the weather really doesn’t factor in here. 

Length of Time

This is a medium-large mall, so you can choose whether to spend a couple hours or most of the day here. It depends on whether you’re just wandering and browsing in a few stores or whether you want to go in more stores, try on more clothes, eat in a sit-down restaurant, see a movie, etc.

Wheelchair Access

Unless it’s one of those exceptionally crowded afternoons, this mall is usually nicely wheelchair-friendly. They’ve recently completed a renovation that included new flooring, which makes for even less friction/drag on the wheelchair tires and therefore less draw on the battery. Some stores are laid out with wider or narrower aisles than others, of course, but that’s true everywhere. We’ve had no trouble navigating most of the stores here.

Note: a few big stores and most restaurants have restrooms inside, but the majority of the mall’s public restrooms are located down hallways between stores. They’re clearly marked on the map and with signs. There is at least one wheelchair-accessible stall in each one, but do keep in mind that some of the hallways are fairly long and sometimes you find a long line for the women’s room at the end. Don’t wait until it’s super urgent…

Vision & Hearing

Overall, the Great Mall is similar to other malls in terms of visual or auditory access. The background noise level is usually not super loud (i.e. it’s easy to follow a conversation while wearing hearing aids). One thing to note for someone with low vision: for some reason, this mall has never established a consistent traffic flow pattern. In most malls, I’ve seen that people tend to walk on the right, so most of the people around you are flowing the same direction you are. In this mall, people tend to walk both ways on both sides, so you do have to be a little more alert than usual to cross-traffic or to people walking toward you. If you have very limited vision, it may help to have a companion in this setting.

Sensory Processing

I’d rate this mall as a “medium” on the sensory scale. It’s not as mellow as Hillsdale or Stoneridge, but it’s also not as in-your-face as some I’ve encountered. I don’t usually wear my earplugs here. There is some background music, mostly from the stores, but it’s not overwhelming. In this mall, you will find ample skylights, high ceilings, and mostly neutral-colored flooring and walls in the main walkways, especially since the renovation. (The flooring does have some print to it, but it’s a neutral tone-on-tone pattern, nothing like the bright geometric carpet patterns I see elsewhere.) The signs are color-coded by Neighborhood to help you orient yourself. The food smells are mostly contained to food areas and the strongly-scented stores don’t leak into the common spaces much at all. As long as it’s not too crowded, I usually find this mall to be busy/alive-feeling but quite nice.

Food

The Great Mall has a food court with an ever-changing assortment of choices, plus multiple sit-down restaurants. Some of these, such as Red Robin, are in the mall and some, such as Olive Garden, are freestanding buildings in the parking lot. Check out the “food” tab on their website for a current list of offerings.

On this trip, we were delighted to find that they now have Loving Hut in the food court! This is one of our favorite vegan restaurants. At this location, it’s a self-serve hot bar with lots of choices and you simply pay based on the weight at the end.

We also noticed a new Jamba Juice on this trip, which opens up even more vegan and allergy-friendly choices. Of course you can also always bring your own food to eat in the food court or on any bench/seating area around the mall.

Would we go back?

Of course! We’ve been here countless times before and will continue to visit in the future. We sometimes go for something specific (such as luggage, purses, Pyrex, shoes, fancy dresses, or other things for which they have an uncommonly large number of choices) and sometimes just for the fun of walking around the mall. Whether you’re doing some holiday shopping or just enjoying a day out, the Great Mall in Milpitas will make you smile!

The Tech Museum of Innovation

The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose is a highly interactive exploration of science, technology, and its effect on human society. There is also an IMAX theater showing various movies and documentaries.

In a Nutshell

The Tech is a nonprofit science museum that I’ve visited several times on school field trips and more recently as an adult. In the past, beyond their regular museum displays, they’ve hosted traveling exhibits such as Body Worlds, the Leonardo da Vinci collection, or Star Trek: The Exhibition. Currently, Body Worlds Decoded is set for a 10-year run here and is now included in the regular admission price to the museum.

Body Worlds Decoded is a smaller total collection of bodies than the original Body Worlds traveling exhibit was, but they’ve added more interactive elements using Augmented Reality (AR) tablets (which you borrow for free when you enter the gallery) and other virtual elements.

There are lots of other permanent exhibits to explore inside the main museum as well. These cover topics such as robotics, genetics, medicine, physics, earth science, cyber security, outer space, video games and virtual reality. Each one is explored through interactive, hands-on and/or multimedia displays.

One of my favorite parts was the Tech for Global Good display which shows short documentaries (just a couple minutes long) about the ways in which people and organizations are using technology in creative ways to improve lives by solving medical and social problems around the world. 

The adjacent Innovations in Health Care gallery follows a similar theme. Some of the solutions they described were quite high-tech, but others were more about using out-of-the-box thinking to use resources we already have in new and creative ways. I really loved learning about all these amazing innovations!

Location

The Tech is on South Market Street in downtown San Jose next to Plaza de Cesar Chavez.

There are nearby parking lots in the downtown area and limited on-street parking directly in front of The Tech. Several of the closest slots are reserved for disabled parking, but others are open to anyone who’s not afraid of parallel parking on a sometimes-busy street.

Note: If you have a side-access wheelchair lift van, then the blue parking spots on the curb directly in front of the museum will work for you. Your lift ramp will let you directly onto the sidewalk without a problem. (Just watch out for the palm trees.)

If you have a rear-access wheelchair lift, however, be aware that there are no cut curbs between those disabled parking spots closest to the museum. Instead, the blue curb closer to the Montgomery Theater, just after The Tech, backs up to a large driveway that can double as your cut curb. It’s only slightly further from the door and will let you get onto the sidewalk much more safely. This is where we parked, as seen from standing in front of The Tech:

Of course you can also walk or bike to The Tech, or take public transit from anywhere in the Bay Area. On VTA, you can take Light Rail to the San Antonio station or the Route 68 bus to the 1st & Paseo de San Antonio stop, and then walk across Plaza de Cesar Chavez to the museum. From the Fremont BART station, take the VTA Express Bus 181 to W San Fernando / Almaden and walk about five minutes back up W San Fernando to Market St. If you’re coming from farther away, Caltrain and Amtrak’s Capitol Corridor will take you to the Diridon Station, from which you can walk (about 20 minutes) or take the Route 68 bus three stops up to The Tech. Use 511.org to plan your specific route.

Weather

This is an entirely indoor museum, so it would be enjoyable year-round. (It’s actually a great air-conditioned destination on a hot day if you don’t have AC at home.) If you’re parking in a nearby garage, you may have to walk a couple blocks to the museum, so plan accordingly if it’s raining.

Cost

This is honestly one of the pricier places we’ve visited for Saturday Smiles. As of June 2018, the tickets were $25 for adults and $20 for children, students, and seniors. If you want to see an IMAX movie while you’re there, the standalone IMAX ticket is $12 (or $10 for children, students, and seniors) or the combo museum+IMAX ticket is $31 and $24 respectively. See their website for current pricing.

You may be able to get a $3-4 discount per ticket with your AAA card or using the San Jose Library’s Discover & Go pass. If you have a Bank of America ATM card, you can get one free basic admission on the first full weekend of the month. There are also annual membership options with discounts for teachers.

The Tech has reciprocal agreements with Chabot Space and Science Center, Children’s Creativity Museum, CuriOdyssey, Lindsay Wildlife Experience, and other attractions, so if you have a membership somewhere else, you may get a discount on your Tech admission. See the reciprocal agreement list for details. (Note: Happy Hollow is not on that list, but The Tech might honor a Happy Hollow membership if you have one. It’s worth asking.)

Length of Time

This will take you half to two-thirds of a day, depending on how involved you get with some of the interactive exhibits and whether or not you choose to see an IMAX movie.

Wheelchair Access

Their website has information for guests with special needs.

We found the museum’s galleries and restrooms to be easily accessible. You can even check out a manual wheelchair from the Information Desk if needed, of course on a first-come first-served basis and ID is required. The only only areas without wheelchair access are the jetpack simulator and the Birdly flight simulator. Additionally, the earthquake shake platform is technically accessible, but you’ll need to secure your wheelchair’s brakes and be aware that the platform’s jerky movements may be too strong for some guests’ core strength or comfort.

The IMAX theater has wheelchair seating and adjacent companion seats near the top row. The theater attendants will guide you to the elevator and the proper entrance to reach these seats. Note: the theater’s seats are steeply banked (as in many IMAX theaters) and there is no railing, so the accessible seating area at the top can be a bit daunting at first for anyone who’s afraid of heights. Once you’re seated, it’s fine.

In the Body Worlds Decoded exhibit, part of the experience happens through Augmented Reality (AR) tablets they loan out at the front desk. We were thrilled to see that they offer a special little flexible arm that clamps onto a wheelchair’s armrest or frame and holds the tablet for you if needed. We didn’t need to use it, but it was wonderful that The Tech has thought of this and offered it to us in case it would help.

Vision & Hearing

Some of the displays include videos with audio narratives and closed captioning, so these would be accessible to everyone. As with many museums, the explanatory plaques are mostly visually-oriented, as are many of the exhibits (especially Body Worlds Decoded), but there are more tactile/hands-on opportunities than many museums I’ve seen. While a hearing impairment would not prevent you from interacting with the museum galleries, please note that the museum’s background noise may be challenging for someone with hearing aids to filter out. If this applies to anyone in your family, be patient and make sure you have their attention before talking to them.

Sensory Processing

Overall, I’d rate The Tech as a “moderate” to “moderately high” sensory destination. Some parts (especially the “Exploration” zone on the lower level) were much more intense than others due to a combination of visual busyness, background noise, and strange lighting. Other areas (especially the medical innovation areas upstairs) were reasonably calm, open, and well-lit. I found it fairly easy to regulate here by spending less time in the darker, busier areas and more time in the parts I liked. I did wear earplugs the entire time to help lower the volume.

To their credit, The Tech recognizes this need and actually offers sensory-friendly hours! It’s usually been one Sunday morning a month, but always check the calendar for current scheduling. During these hours, the volume on everything is turned down, the lighting is more normal, there are fewer total guests in the museum, and there are even calm-down/quiet rooms available if needed. Sensory-friendly field trips have recently been added as well. Kudos to The Tech for these accommodations!

We got the combo ticket so we could see the IMAX documentary about pandas while we were there. It was a sweet movie (no sad endings, don’t worry) but sensorially speaking, the IMAX experience was quite overwhelming. The giant curved screen is meant to fill most of your peripheral vision to make the experience more immersive, but we found it unpleasantly intrusive and at times disorienting. We had to simply close our eyes in some scenes, especially during the swooping/flying camera angles. I think part of the problem was that the wheelchair-accessible seating is toward one side (it might have been less distorted-looking had we sat closer to the center of that giant curved screen), but mainly we just hadn’t accounted for how different an IMAX experience is from a regular movie. It was also extremely loud. If anyone in your family is sensory-sensitive, think carefully about the IMAX choice before you upgrade your ticket. We’ll both be skipping the IMAX show next time around.

Food

They have a little cafe downstairs next to the gift shop. (This cafe is also open to the public without museum admission.) It’s fairly gourmet, especially by museum cafe standards, and includes some vegetarian-friendly choices (not much for vegans) and a kids’ menu. Their full menu is available online.

In addition, there is a grab-and-go case with sandwiches, juice, etc., and baskets of candy, protein bars, instant oatmeal, and fresh fruit available. Some of these choices are vegan. The coffee bar offers coffee, lattes, etc., and has almond and soy milk alternatives if you ask.

There is indoor and outdoor seating available. It’s also easy to bring your own food to eat at the tables. No food is allowed in the museum galleries.

As you might expect, the IMAX theater also sells popcorn, candy, etc. to enjoy during the movie.

Would we go back?

Yes, especially if there’s a new or special traveling exhibit. Although it’s more expensive than some other attractions in the area, the museum offers a lot of variety and great hands-on learning opportunities for both kids and adults. If science is your thing, The Tech will definitely make you smile!

The Walt Disney Family Museum

Located in the Presidio in San Francisco, The Walt Disney Family Museum is a thoughtfully crafted journey through Walt’s life, career, family, and creative impact on the world. It is Disney, but don’t expect any rides or costumed characters here – this is a cultural/historical museum, not a park.  It’s run by the Disney family rather than by the corporation.

The Walt Disney Family Museum entrance

That said, it is still Disney, so the storytelling is excellent. Walt has become this larger-than-life figure over the past century, but he was also a real human being who had a family and lived through two world wars and took major business risks that sometimes changed the world but sometimes fell totally flat. There were also a number of key people around him whose expertise made his dreams possible. This museum does an excellent job of showing the struggles as well as the triumphs while weaving a cohesive story of his life and legacy. I found hearing parts of the story in Walt’s own voice was especially powerful.

The Walt Disney Family Museum display
“He just wanted to do wonderful things. He wanted to make people feel good and make them feel happy and take them away from the trials and tribulations of everyday living. That’s what he did. That as his purpose in life.” -Dick Sherman, describing Walt Disney

I also particularly enjoyed the perspective the museum offered. For example, we take for granted that movies and sound effects can always be edited or fine-tuned after the fact, but in the early era of Disney movies, the sound effects and orchestra recordings and everything had to be recorded simultaneously because “dubbing” had not been invented yet. Likewise, the simple idea of animating the candle and having that glow reflected in the Blue Fairy’s face in Pinocchio counted as “special effects” back then because no one had figured out how to animate that level of realism before. Imagine that! As an artist and a millennial, I found that kind of reality-check utterly fascinating. So much has happened in less than a century!

In a Nutshell

The museum showcases various artifacts, photos, video clips, audio clips, drawings, and other elements of Walt Disney’s life and career. It’s set up as a series of interactive galleries in chronological order, from his early interest in art to his journey to Hollywood to the founding and growth of his company. It talks about the movies he made, the technologies he pioneered, the challenges his company faced along the way, the inspiration and process behind Disneyland’s creation, and more. Even hardcore Disney addicts will find new details and stories here. Although you’re free to explore the galleries in any order, they’re designed to be seen in chronological order and I definitely recommend it.

The Walt Disney Family Museum display

We saw all ages here, from infants to grandparents. The younger visitors seemed engaged by the wide variety of visuals and interactive displays, while the older children/teens and adults were engaged by the storytelling in the museum plaques and displays. There is a LOT of information to absorb along the way, so if you’re someone who likes to read all the plaques and milk all the detail you can out of a museum, your younger (elementary school-age) children will likely lose interest before you do.

The Walt Disney Family Museum display
Individual frames in the animation of Steamboat Willie

In addition to the main galleries about Walt’s life, there is often a special exhibit going as well. This may be focused on a particularly famous Disney animator, a landmark Disney movie with an anniversary coming up, or another topic of interest. During our visit, it was about Glen Keane, the Disney animator/artist who drew Beast, Tarzan, Ariel, Pocahontas, and others. Check the museum’s website for current exhibitions.

Location

The Walt Disney Family Museum is located in the Presidio in San Francisco, very close to the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s about an hour north of San Jose.

The address is 104 Montgomery Street. As the museum’s website notes, “there are two Montgomery Streets in San Francisco—the museum is located in the Presidio of San Francisco, not in the Financial District. If you are using a GPS, please remember to enter the zip code 94129 when planning your route.”

There’s metered parallel parking available in front of the museum and throughout the Presidio. (This is where we parked. These slots are free with a disabled parking placard and are closer than the parking lot.) There’s also a main parking lot available nearby. See the museum website’s transportation page for details.

The transportation page also tells you about the public transit options (including the free PresidiGo shuttle and the regular MUNI or Golden Gate Transit busses)  and where to lock your bike if you choose to ride to the museum instead of driving. This is San Francisco, after all!

Weather

This is a fully indoor museum, so weather isn’t really a factor here. It will be enjoyable year-round.

The Golden Gate Bridge as seen from The Walt Disney Family Museum
View of the Golden Gate Bridge from the museum

Cost

Although it’s not a Disney theme park, this museum still has that premium Disney experience in the ticket prices. When we visited (2018), tickets were $25 each for adults and slightly discounted for children, students, and seniors. Children 5 and under are free with adult admission. Some special film screenings or other events cost extra. See their website for current pricing and membership options. (The museum is part of the Time Travelers and NARM and ROAM reciprocal membership programs with other historical societies and museums throughout the country.)

In the past, we’ve found coupons for the museum on those little tourist brochures you pick up at local hotels or airports. It’s also included in the San Francisco Go Card if you’re planning to spend several days seeing multiple locations in the city. If you only want tickets to this one museum, you can sometimes find $1-3 discounts for buying tickets online ahead of time through various sources, but please make sure you’re using a reputable website before purchasing.

If you’re active or retired military, you and your family can get in for free with valid ID year-round and can bring guests for free over the summer.

The Walt Disney Family Museum display

Unless you have a disabled placard/license plate, you’ll also need to pay for hourly parking.

Length of Time

I’m told the average visit here is about 2 hours, but you could easily spend all day. It depends on your level of interest and how quickly your brain gets saturated by either the richly detailed information or the high level of sensory input. If you have children with you, a couple hours is probably the limit. If you’re coming only with interested teens or adults, you could easily spend at least half a day or more.

The Walt Disney Family Museum display
Original furniture from Walt’s apartment above the fire station on Main Street in Disneyland. (What’s in the apartment now is a replica.)

Wheelchair Access

The building fits the Presidio’s historical look on the outside, but is fully modern and accessible on the inside. There’s a ramp to the left of the main entrance and an elevator between floors. The galleries are laid out in an open enough way that there were no issues navigating.

The only minor wheelchair accessibility challenge came in reading some of the displays. Some of the artifacts are arranged in tall glass display cases with tiny number labels next to each item, and then the numbers correspond to the explanation plaque down at hip height. While it was easy to read the plaques, it was not always easy to make out the numbers on the tiny labels next to the artifacts. This wasn’t an issue everywhere and didn’t interfere much with the overall experience, but was an annoyance in places.

Hearing & Vision

This is a very interactive multimedia museum. (See below for sensory notes.) Nearly everything can be read on plaques and/or accessed through the on-demand closed captioning system available through the ticket desk when you arrive. (We didn’t make use of this, but it’s a great service.) Therefore someone with significant hearing loss would still be able to enjoy most of the museum without issue.

Guests with partial hearing loss who use hearing aids may find the museum’s constant background noise from overlapping movie clips and audio recordings playing everywhere, as well as other visitors’ voices, makes it harder to focus on what you’re trying to hear. If you’re visiting the museum with someone who uses hearing aids, realize that the background noise may make it harder than usual for them to hear you, so make sure you’re close and/or have their attention before speaking.

Like many museums, the displays are mainly visually oriented, but I think a guest with a visual impairment could still enjoy a visit here. Many of the galleries incorporate movie clips and audio recordings that are on continuous loop through TV sets or speakers. Other displays include telephone handsets that you pick up to listen to an interview segment or other recording. In many places, the lighting feels low and the font feels small, so some visitors have trouble reading the plaques comfortably, but again it’s more of an annoyance than an actual hindrance to enjoying the museum.

Although we didn’t use it because we don’t have smartphones, there is also an “Enhanced Content” experience available through the STQRY app. This offers additional audio, video, and photo content as you walk through the museum. This is good for all guests but could be especially useful to visitors who need closer access to visual or auditory content.

Sensory Processing

To be honest, the intensity of the sensory experience in this museum caught me entirely off guard and nearly spoiled the whole experience for me. After we took a break about 45 minutes into the visit and I adjusted my expectations, the rest of the day was much more enjoyable. If you’re a sensory-sensitive type, or if your children are, be prepared. This museum throws every modern interactive multimedia museum technology at you all at once and it can be overwhelming for some of us. (For others, that’s a huge selling feature and is what helps visitors stay engaged. To each their own.)

Specifically, some of the galleries have oddly low ambient/overhead lighting while multiple screens run videos on continuous loop. At any given point, I could hear overlapping audio from at least 2-4 speakers, which made focus a challenge even with my earplugs in. This is a picture of the first gallery:

The Walt Disney Family Museum first gallery

The layout is such that the galleries flow in chronological order but there’s no linear order to the displays within a given gallery. This makes it easy to casually wander the space and explore at your own pace, which I appreciate, but it also added to my feeling of there being simply too much to see and do at every turn.

The Walt Disney Family Museum animation gallery

Personally, the sensory combination of video, voices, music, unusual lighting, visually busy displays, and nonlinear flow was intense and unsettling. After taking a break and putting in my earplugs, I was able to handle it enough to avoid sensory panic and focus on enjoying the content instead, but I was still wiped by the end of the day. (I’m an adult. Two of my godchildren (ages 5 and 9) have significant sensory processing challenges, and I honestly don’t think I’d bring them here. I think they’d be overloaded.)

The Walt Disney Family Museum Disneyland gallery

This video that I found on YouTube shows some of what I’m talking about, although the intensity is lower in the video than in real life because the camera zooms in on displays one at a time. As I said, for most people, this rapid and varied input is not a problem or can even be a feature, but for some of us, it’s almost a show-stopper. I would have liked to have known what to expect going in, so I want to help you feel prepared. If you bring your earplugs and go in with your internal “shields” up, the museum can be a very positive experience.

Food

There is a little cafe and adjacent seating area within the museum building. They have a nice array of soups, salads, sandwiches, baked treats, coffee and tea. The prices were surprisingly reasonable, especially by San Francisco and/or Disney standards, and the quality was very good. (No greasy theme park pizza here.) Their menu notes the vegetarian and gluten-free options. There was even a vegan-friendly quinoa salad that was quite good! The half-plate size was plenty for one person. You can also bring your own food to enjoy at the tables. (We did this and I saw plenty of other families doing the same thing. The museum is only picky about not eating/drinking within the galleries, which is understandable.)

The Walt Disney Family Museum food
Vegan Quinoa Salad

The Walt Disney Family Museum cafe menu

In nice weather, you could enjoy a picnic on the grass outside the museum. There are also several restaurants outside of the museum in other parts of the Presidio. Of course, if you go a bit further outside the Presidio gates, the whole city of San Francisco is at your culinary disposal!

Would we go back?

Perhaps. The sensory overwhelm was strong enough that I would not want a membership here, to be honest, but I can see why some of my friends and family who’ve visited in the past were so impressed. The quality of the displays and the level of thought that went into this museum really are Disney-worthy. It’s an impressive place. After all, where else can you sit on the bench where Walt Disney himself sat when he first thought of creating Disneyland?

The Walt Disney Family Museum bench

We’re both lifelong Disney buffs so we deeply enjoyed the stories we learned in the museum. There’s so much detail there, I’m sure we didn’t get it all on the first pass. I thought the museum did a fantastic job of tying everything together, so even the stories that I already knew as trivia or standalone stories were put into context as we walked through the timeline of the galleries. In that way, the day was very satisfying, and I know there would be more to absorb in a future visit.

Whether you’re a lifelong Disney buff, an artist or aspiring movie pro, or just someone who enjoys a good rags-to-riches story, The Walt Disney Family Museum has a lot to offer that will make you smile!

The Walt Disney Family Museum Disneyland model
Model of Disneyland

The Museum of American Heritage

The Museum of American Heritage is a delightful little gem near downtown Palo Alto. It’s a beautiful historic home that’s been converted to a museum inside and a peaceful garden outside. There’s also a classroom space out back where they host special events. The volunteer docents were cheerful, kind, and knowledgeable, but didn’t hover as we explored the museum at our own pace. It’s one of those places that’s been around for a while, but even as a local, we somehow never knew about it. Now that we do, we will definitely be back!

What do they have there?

The museum is dedicated to showcasing innovations that shaped America from approximately 1750 to 1950. It reminds me somewhat of History San Jose, but on a more intimate scale. Here, each room of the house has a different focus. The kitchen is like a time capsule of early 1900s American home life. (Did you know built-in kitchen cabinets are a recent invention?) Other rooms showcase classic woodworking tools, a home office/study with a very cool old typewriter, and an old general store that reminds me of The Waltons.  As a designer, it was especially cool to see the old packages on the shelves and notice which brands/logos have evolved and which have remained nearly unchanged for a half-century or more.

While most of the museum is about looking, some parts are hands-on. Some of the woodworking tools are mounted on the wall so you can turn the cranks and see how they work. Next to the general store room is a room filled with Erector Sets and other building toys meant to be operated. There is also a kids’ hands-on play room near the study with a train table, children’s books, and a typewriter that’s meant to be used. Have your kids ever had a chance to see a manual typewriter?

Out back, there’s a print shop with several beautiful older printing presses which are demonstrated about once a week when the volunteer is there to run them. There’s also a garage with a beautifully restored Model T Ford from 1915!  The gardens outside have been restored to be historically accurate and include a 1942 “Victory Garden,” medicinal herbs, water-wise Mediterranean plants and gorgeous redwood trees. It would be worth going back in blooming season (rather than February) to see more of the gardens.

In addition to the permanent exhibits, a large front room houses rotating exhibits about American innovation. When we went, it was a fascinating display of Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and George Westinghouse’s work on electricity and their mutual rivalry along the way. This exhibit is gone now, but you can check out their website for the next topic. There’s always something new coming!

 

Beyond the museum itself, there’s a classroom space out back that hosts special events for children and adults, both on weekends and for field trips during the week. When we were there, they were having a big Lego building fest. Examples of other offerings include crystal radio building classes, science enrichment workshops, and public lectures. (Note: While the museum is free, some of these events are not.) Check out their events page for upcoming special events, annual events, and past examples.

Ages

Overall, this museum is not targeted at young children. I’d say 4th graders through adults would get the most out of this trip.

Location

The Museum of American Heritage is in Palo Alto at 351 Homer Avenue, Palo Alto, California 94301, just a couple blocks over from the main downtown space on University Avenue. (Here’s the map.) It’s about 20-30 minutes north of San Jose.

It’s directly across the street from Heritage Park and the not-yet-open Palo Alto History Museum.

It’s mostly on-street parking unless you’re there for a special event, in which case there are some spaces available behind the house. The on-street parking is free (but of course watch out for permits or time restrictions, since this is a neighborhood) but has no disabled slots. It would have been impossible to use the wheelchair lift in the place we ended up parking on the street. If you need disabled parking, the museum’s website says to call ahead (1-650-321-1004) to arrange for a spot in the back lot.

If you’re nearby, it would be easy to walk or bike here. If you need public transit, it looks like about a 12-minute walk from the CalTrain station or very close to a Route 35 bus stop. Keep in mind that the museum is usually only open Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays from 11 to 4, so time your trip accordingly. 

Weather

The museum is indoors, so it would be fun any day. Of course if you’re looking at the gardens, it would help to pick a non-rainy day, probably in spring or early summer to see the most blooms. (I’m the furthest thing from a plant expert, so call the museum to ask what’s blooming if you’re specifically interested in the gardens.)

Cost

There’s no admission fee for the museum (as of 2018), but a $5 donation per visitor is appreciated. School field trips or group tours have a small fee ($3-5) per person. You can also join as a member, which provides a large part of the museum’s funding and gets you special access to their events and newsletter.

Length of Time

Visiting the museum will take you about 1-3 hours, depending on how much detail you read in each exhibit and how long you want to spend in the gardens.

Wheelchair Access

The museum is entirely wheelchair accessible! This was a major surprise for a century-old home. I give big kudos to the museum operators for making this happen so naturally. There are clear signs about where to enter. (The wheelchair entrance is through the kitchen door from the side porch, which has a ramp, rather than from the front door, which has big stairs.) Inside the house, the whole museum is on the main floor and all the displays are wide enough for a wheelchair to navigate without issue. The print shop, garage, classroom, and gardens are also accessible. How delightful!

Vision & Hearing

Not surprisingly for a historical museum, many things are don’t-look-touch and some are protected under plexiglass. Even the hands-on parts are mostly about turning a crank or lever or switch and seeing what happens. For this reason, I think this museum experience would be rather limited for someone with a vision impairment. The lectures and workshops might be quite engaging, however.

For all the same reasons, it’s easy for someone with a hearing impairment to enjoy the museum. We found it to be pleasantly quiet (think of it as the exact opposite of something like The Tech) so there wasn’t even much background noise to filter out. I don’t know how this would work for the lectures or workshops; you’d have to contact the museum to find out.

Sensory Processing

This is a very calm museum, as you might expect from a century-old home. Its displays are visually interesting without being busy. It’s neat without being sterile. What stood out the most to me was actually the sensory simplicity of the displays. Whereas most museums these days seem to be trying to one-up each other on the flashy interactive big-screen displays, the information here is all done with nice little posters and plaques. Not only does this help with costs (since it’s a donation-based, volunteer-run museum), but I actually found it much easier to read the information that way. I really enjoyed getting to read the information at my own pace without bright flickering screens distracting at every turn!

Food

There is no gift shop or snack shack here, and no food or drink allowed inside the galleries (true of most museums), so plan to have lunch beforehand. The park across the street would be a great picnic spot in nice weather, or there are several restaurants nearby.

Would we go back?

You bet! We chose to visit this time because it was the last weekend of the Thomas Edison display, but we look forward to going back for future exhibits and maybe some of the special events. It will also be interesting to see the gardens at a different time of year. If you have a couple hours to spend on something interesting, the Museum of American Heritage will make you smile!

CuriOdyssey

CuriOdyssey at Coyote Point is a sweet little combination zoo and science museum. It’s a nonprofit that’s part of the Coyote Point Recreation Area. We particularly enjoyed the peaceful vibe in the zoo and the joy of the children in the science museum.

CuriOdyssey sign

In a Nutshell

Their zoo is small but diverse, including bobcats, eagles, skunks, otters, and other critters, most of whom came to them as rescue animals and cannot be re-released into the wild for various reasons. Because it is smaller than other zoos, you can get very close to the animals and talk freely with the docents and keepers. Although it doesn’t take as long or have as many animals as some of the Bay Area’s larger zoos, I found it to be just as satisfying of a visit because of this more personal feeling. It’s cozy.

CuriOdyssey zoo: owls

CuriOdyssey zoo: raccoons

CuriOdyssey zoo: golden eagle

Their science museum has very engaging hands-on exploration displays on various topics. Some are permanent and others rotate through over time. Check their website for a list of current exhibits. The target audience for this part appeared to be approximately ages 5-12, but I still had fun exploring them as an adult and many younger children were highly engaged as well.

CuriOdyssey science museum: child's hands in wet sand

CuriOdyssey science museum: gears

Location

Coyote Point is in San Mateo off Highway 101. It’s about 30-40 minutes north of San Jose.

Google map to CuriOdyssey

There’s a parking lot just outside the entrance to CuriOdyssey. If that’s full, there’s overflow parking in the lot near the marina. It’s a bit of a walk from that lot back up the hill to CuriOdyssey, but there is a wheelchair-accessible route you can use.

We parked in the overflow lot because the sign said the main lot was full, but when we got there, we found that there were two disabled slots open even though the rest of the lot was full. If you need disabled parking, the main lot would be worth a try even if the sign says it’s full.

Their website has specific directions for driving, biking, walking, or taking public transit. You can technically take CalTrain or SamTRANS, but it’s not a direct route at all and involves a pretty long walk from the station to the park.

Weather

I think almost any weather would work here. The zoo is about 2/3 outdoors and 1/3 indoors but is all heavily shaded and sheltered by big trees and enclosures, so it was comfortable even on a cold January day and would be fine on all but the hottest summer days. Just be sure to dress accordingly. I would imagine it could be less fun in the rain, but they do field trips year-round and just ask students to dress for the weather rain or shine, so maybe it would work. The science museum is entirely indoors so it would be comfortable anytime.

CuriOdyssey: redowod trees

Cost

When we visited (2018), the tickets were $12.50 for adults and less for children, students, and seniors. See their website for current pricing. There are also annual membership options.

Note: There was also a $6 per car admission/parking charge to get into the Coyote Point Recreation Area. (It’s a county park.) This is waived for CuriOdyssey members.

CuriOdyssey has reciprocal agreements with Happy Hollow, the San Francisco Zoo, and other local attractions, so if you have a membership somewhere else, you may get a discount on your CuriOdyssey admission. See the reciprocal agreement list for details.

CuriOdyssey: waterfall

Length of Time

This will take you a few hours to half a day. We finished the zoo and gift shop in about 2 hours and then walked through the science museum for a little while. (The exhibits looked fun, but as an adult, I couldn’t bring myself to push the happy 8-year-olds out of the way to get a turn, so I mostly observed.) If you have school-age children, you could easily spend another couple hours in the science museum part.

Wheelchair Access

Their website has information for guests with disabilities.

We found the zoo to be easily accessible. The science museum got a little crowded in places, but all of the walkways were wide enough to navigate without issue. Even the gift shop was uncluttered enough to roll through, which isn’t always the case in places like this.

Note: The accessible restroom is outside in the zoo area. The bathroom in the main museum building is wide enough for a stroller or wheelchair to wait in line but has no accessible stalls, so it would only work if you can walk a short distance and don’t mind leaving the chair outside the stall. To their credit, one of the museum docents saw us heading toward the main bathroom and very kindly gave us the heads-up about this. We used the accessible restroom instead and noticed that while it was physically roomy enough and had the typical grab bars and such, the door to the restroom was very heavy and the handle/lock was up very high. It would be difficult to access from a wheelchair without a companion.

Vision & Hearing

The animals at this zoo are mostly quiet (no roaring lions here) and every exhibit has an informational plaque describing the animal’s backstory and natural habits. The science museum was similarly oriented around flat visual plaques and hands-on experiences. Someone with a hearing impairment could participate almost fully in both parts of the park. I think someone with limited vision would probably find the zoo fairly pointless and would have a mixed experience in the science museum. Many of the science exhibits were highly tactile and a few revolved around sound or music, but a lot of the displays involving physics or cause-and-effect mechanisms were inside of plexiglass boxes, so these would be difficult to enjoy without at least near-field vision.

Sensory Processing

The zoo was calm and open, with lots of shade and natural colors. There’s no background music. It also doesn’t smell like a zoo (it doesn’t smell like anything I could detect), mainly because there are no elephants and no petting zoo, only smaller animals in well-maintained enclosures. The only semi-crowded point was when everyone wanted to see the scheduled feedings; otherwise there were people around but we had plenty of space to move freely and didn’t feel crowded, even on a busy day.

I did notice that the whole recreation area seems to be directly under the flight path to SFO, so there were frequently airplanes flying somewhat low overhead. For some children, that’s a bonus feature, but for others, the unexpected extra noise could be a factor. It wasn’t obnoxious enough to be a deal-breaker by any stretch, but if I were traveling with a very sound-sensitive or easily-startled child, I would want to tell them ahead of time to expect the airplane noises outside.

The science museum was much busier than the zoo. The museum is entirely indoors so the excitement of all the children is more concentrated there. It was somewhat loud and could be overloading for some children with sensory issues. For sensory-seeking children, however, the variety of interactive displays could be exactly perfect.

Their website also has a social story to help your child know what to expect before their visit. Kudos, CuriOdyssey!

Food

You can bring your own food or buy food there. They have a little cafe with mostly hot dogs, chips, and fruit available during limited lunch hours on the weekends. The gift shop also carries a pretty impressive variety of packaged snacks and drinks, including many healthy options, some of which were vegan-friendly or allergy-friendly. (You could phone ahead to see what they have in stock that day.) When we went, the classroom space (presumably used by field trip groups during the week) was open and several families were enjoying their homemade lunches at the tables. We did the same. There are also picnic tables outside in the shade in the zoo area. If you want to eat before or after your visit, keep in mind that you are also in a county park, so there there are larger tables and even BBQ grills in the picnic areas closer to the nearby playground.

Would we go back?

Absolutely! This is my third visit to CuriOdyssey and will certainly not be my last. I love the gentle vibe and kind cheerful people we always encounter there. If you’re looking for a new spot to visit, it’s sure to make you smile!

 

 

CuriOdyssey sign: building the minds of tomorrow today