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Science Centre offers hands-on adventure

No ribbon was cut when the Ontario Science Centre first opened its doors in 1969. Instead, a radio signal from a quasar more than 1.5 billion light years away raised the curtain on the much-anticipated event; a fitting beginning for a center whose concept was revolutionary at the time. In an age when typical museum exhibits were of the "don't touch" variety and likely to be encased in glass, the center offered a new way to experience science.

It was an instant hit.

"It's a do-it-yourself experience," a Toronto Star reporter wrote when it opened. Glowing testimonials are recorded from some of the 7,000 people who "swarmed in" on opening day and "tried all the contraptions in the place, pushing buttons and pedals and turning wheels, all the while learning a little bit more about science."

Today, of course, interactive displays are the norm rather than the exception, but the ever-evolving center remains a top attraction with more than 1 million visitors each year. Blockbuster exhibitions and stomach-lurching IMAX films draw big crowds, but for the most part, people come for the same reason they did when it opened -- to have fun with science.

With more than 6,000 displays and presentations in the center, it's impossible to experience them all in a single visit, but here are some highlights:

Kidspark: If you have children or grandchildren under 8, make this popular area your first stop. Young scientists can explore how water flows across a table using movable partitions to change its direction and speed; create a roller coaster, or try to spot nocturnal animals in a dark room. Pretend play is always fun at this age, so future doctors can put on lab coats and examine "patients" with an X-ray machine and stethoscope; rock stars can belt out tunes while they watch themselves perform on a screen; and construction workers can hoist foam bricks and tiles with a crane. Be warned though: While it's easy to get the kids' imaginations into overdrive, it's difficult to get them to leave.

The Rainforest: The 100 percent humidity will shock you (and play havoc with your hair) as you enter a tropical jungle. Lush vegetation includes creeping vines and rain-forest trees, like the trumpet and tropical almond. A waterfall and small suspension bridge complete the setting and transport you out of Canada to the forests of Costa Rica. If you look carefully, you can spot the turtles, but thankfully the colorful poison dart frogs are safely enclosed behind glass. It's part of the Living Earth Zone, where children also can walk through a dark bat cave and create a tornado by running around a stream of air.

Planetarium: Get comfy on bean-bag chairs, cushions and benches and take a trip through the universe. In a live presentation, you can learn about how other cultures refer to the Big Dipper, how to find Polaris, the North Star, and what constellations can be seen in the current night sky. Get an appreciation of just how minuscule and how special our place in the vast universe is. Check daily schedules for presentation times.

Aging Machine: "I look just like Dad," says my 9-year-old when he looked at the computer-generated image of himself aged 30 years. In less than two minutes this computer program can predict how a child will look in the future. This program, located in the Human Body Hall, works best for 9- to 12-year-olds, so if you're older, it's probably best to give it a miss unless you want to see wrinkles on your wrinkles. Not a pretty thought.

Rocket Chair: Built especially to illustrate Newton's Third Law of Motion -- for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction -- this exhibit will have you hovering on air. Each foot of the chair has tiny holes through which the compressed air flows, raising the device and the rider 1/1 ,000th of an inch off of the ground. You navigate the chair through air jets, trying to hit designated targets. It looks easier than it is. Located in the Space Hall, it's where you can also find the Planetarium, a gravity surfer, a specimen of moon rock and incredible photos of nebulae among the many displays.

Electricity demonstration: "This is what we all remember as kids," says a visitor as he enters the electricity room. The big silver ball that makes your hair stand up is one exhibit that hasn't changed much since the center opened, and it remains a favorite today. The actual name for it is the Van de Graaff Generator, and several times a day it's featured in an electricity demonstration, which ends in a volunteer touching the ball, shaking their hair and everyone laughing as it all stands on end. Everyone gets a chance to try it after the presentation, so get your camera ready.

And finally, one of the best ways to experience the center is simply to wander around and check out what sparks your interest -- but whatever you do, be sure to interact and not just look. Whether you're testing your reaction time in a "car," listening to a native healer's philosophy, generating electricity through pedal power, or racing downhill in a bobsled simulator, getting involved is what the center is and has always been about.

> Tips for visitors:

* One of the best times to go is on school days after 2:30 p.m., when all the groups depart. You'll have the place almost to yourself for the last few hours. Otherwise, arrive when it opens (10 a.m.) and visit the most popular exhibits first.

* Buy tickets to an afternoon IMAX film. After chasing the kids in the morning, it's the ideal way to rest your feet and recharge.

* If you're in town for more than a couple of days and plan to see other popular family attractions, consider a Toronto CityPass. The Ontario Science Center, CN Tower, Casa Loma, Royal Ontario Museum and the Zoo are featured in the one-price admission, which saves you approximately 45 percent (www.citypass.com).

* If you have a membership to another science center, check to see if it's part of the reciprocal program. If, for example, you're a member of the Buffalo Museum of Science, admission to the Ontario Science Centre is free.

> If you go:

Ontario Science Centre, 770 Don Mills Road (888-696-1110; www.ontariosciencecentre.ca), is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day except Christmas; admission is $20 for adults, $13 for children.

If you're staying in Toronto, the center can be reached via the city's subway system. Several hotels have packages that include tickets to the science center. You can find them at www.ontariosciencecentre.ca/hotels. Toronto Don Valley Hotel & Suites (1-877-474-6835) is closest to the center and has a rate of $159 that includes admission for two adults and two children. The Delta Chelsea (1-800-243-5732), with its monster water slide and children's programming, is a popular choice for families and also has packages available.www.deltahotels.com/en/hotels/ontario/delta-chelsea/special.

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