This week Road Trips with Tom visits a pair of L.A. museums that make excellent day trips and are good places to bring kids. If you live in Southern California, put these on your short-term bucket list.
If you live elsewhere, I hope you won’t skip this post, but I’ll forgive you if you do. These museums aren’t worthy of a special trip to California and aren’t likely to be on your list of things to see and do when you visit this area. Disneyland, the beach, or the Getty, they ain’t.
Honk if you remember PSA!
We’ll start with the Flight Path Learning Center and Museum, which is literally on the tarmac at Los Angeles International Airport. This is the only air museum I know that focuses on commercial aviation. It’s certainly the only one where you’ll learn the history of air travel in Southern California and, specifically, LAX.
Despite the nonstop chaos in the terminals and roadways across the tarmac, the museum is a tranquil place that rarely gets crowded, although school groups visit on occasion. When you enter, you first notice the panoramic mural that extends around the museum’s periphery and leads you, decade by decade, through aviation history. It includes an impressive collection of vintage photographs. I’m not a big museum person, but I found these fascinating.
Exhibits present the role of airlines and LAX in the history of Southern California. You’ll see lots of display cases with airline paraphernalia, along with mannequins wearing actual flight crew uniforms from the past. These include such airlines as PSA, AirCal, Pan Am and Braniff (remember those?), as well as carriers that are still flying. You’ll also see models of commercial aircraft. One that I found interesting compared 1/100 scale models of a venerable Douglas DC3 next to an A380 Airbus – largest commercial aircraft ever built.
Climb into the cockpit
Speaking of the DC3, the museum’s highlight for children is the DC3 parked just outside. A docent will lead visitors through the gate, where they can board the aircraft. Kids love climbing into the cockpit!
The Flight Path Museum held my attention for just over an hour. I enjoyed learning the history of LAX while gazing at the modern airport just outside the windows. You’ll enjoy it, too, especially if you have children.
Crummy web site
One of the museum’s weaknesses is lack of a printed map or guide to the exhibits. You pretty much have to figure it out for yourself. The web site is equally unhelpful – it has more photos of the board and officers (most of whom are even older than me) than of the exhibits and displays. You can access the web site at www.flightpathmuseum.com
You’ll find the museum at 6661 W. Imperial Highway in what used to be the West Imperial Terminal. Back when I was a cab driver working my way through UCLA, I used to drop and pick up passengers here – it mainly handled charter flights. The Flight Path Museum has been in this facility since 2002.
To get there, take I-105 west from the 405 to its end, then turn right at the second signal, where a sign will direct you to the museum. Hours are 10-3 Tuesday through Saturday, closed major holidays. Admission and parking are free. You read that right: Free! Donations are welcome – go on, put a few bucks in the box.
You can find lunch options by heading south on Sepulveda Blvd. Keep in mind that restaurants will be packed at noon on weekdays with employees from the nearby aerospace companies.
A museum with a beach
Let’s head south to the L.A. Harbor area, where you’ll find the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium, a nice facility with displays focusing on Southern California’s marine and tidal life.
Like a lot of people growing up in this area, I first visited the Cabrillo museum on a school tour. Tour groups from local schools still comprise a substantial part of the facility’s visitation. After all, kids really love this place, and they’re able to learn while having fun.
The museum, which is operated by the L.A. City Parks and Recreation Dept., is in a much larger and nicer facility than back in the days when I was a school kid in Long Beach. The centerpiece is an exhibit hall with displays from three habits: Rocky shores, sand and mud, and open ocean. Many of the displays contain live plants and animals.
The Aquatic Nursery is a laboratory where staff and volunteers grow young marine animals. Volunteers are on hand to explain the displays and answer questions. The Exploration Center has hands-on displays of some of the tools used by marine biologists. The feature kids enjoy most is a donut-like plexiglass tank, where they can crawl into the hole and be surrounded by fish.
Speaking of hands-on, the overwhelming favorite of visiting kids is a large tidepool touch tank, where they can reach in and touch such creatures as starfish and sea urchins.
Artificial tidepools to the real McCoy
The museum is literally a five-minute walk from Cabrillo Beach, with lifeguard-protected sandy shore, salt marshes, the L.A. breakwater, and the Point Fermin rocky tidepools.
I spent about 1 ½ hours at the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium. If you bring children, allow more time for a visit to the beach. Hours are Tuesday-Friday noon to 5 and weekends 10 to 5. Admission is free. However, you’re expected to donate $5 per person, and there’s a staff member standing by the donation box to, shall we say, encourage you. It’s still a bargain, because this is a very nice facility. And, oh, yes, there’s a gift shop. There are numerous special programs, including seasonal grunion runs, whale watching cruises, and more.
Unlike the Flight Path Museum, the Cabrillo facility has a terrific web site, where you can download the complete visitor guide. Go to www.cabrillomarineaquarium.org.
You’ll find the museum at 3720 Stephen M. White Way in San Pedro. To get there, take the Harbor Freeway (I-110) to its end. Turn right onto Harbor Blvd. Drive past Ports O’ Call Village to 22nd St., then turn right. Turn left onto Via Cabrillo Marina and continue past the Doubletree Hotel, following signs for Cabrillo Beach. This will take you directly to the parking lot. The same lot includes the beach and the aquarium. Parking is $1 per hour, with a maximum of $9 for the day. (I went on Tuesday, July 5, and the gate was unmanned.)
You’ll find plenty of lunch options in San Pedro, although Cabrillo Beach is a great place for a picnic.
Thanks for visiting Road Trips with Tom!
Next week we’ll visit historic Jonesborough, Tennessee — definitely a cool small town.