Buying a Membership to Local Museums

Parent Q&A

  • Best-Value Local Museum Membership?

    (8 replies)

    My head is spinning trying to figure out our next family membership, and how to maximize reduced-admission to other institutions, both locally and elsewhere (like other parts of California or Reno-area, not planning any major travel out of state soon). We have been Oakland Zoo & Fairyland members in the past, but have pretty much outgrown both. I'm looking at Children's Creativity Museum, but there's no details online about what the local (within 90 miles? and is that of the place or of our home address?) discounts are; could also do LHS or Chabot (although I dislike visiting Chabot, maybe the reciprocal discounts make it worthwhile?). Not motivated by camp discounts or birthday party discounts. Interested in other science museums or children's museums that serve 6+. Thanks for any advice you can share!

    +1 for LHS and Children's Discovery museum.

    Although you are looking for a membership, your comments about outgrowing some venues made me think variety might be even more helpful. Have you ever tried Discover & Go through your local library?  You can get free tickets to many wonderful attractions in the bay area - this might help you discover new attractions in case you want to consider membership, or just give you a wealth of a variety of free options for fun entertainment for the family. Each library that has Discover & Go will have it on their website, but it might be helpful to ask a library staff member to show you how to find it (I'm a librarian and it can take quite a few steps on each website to find it). 

    Some of our favorites: the Pinball Museum (where you can play pinball for free) in Alameda, the Asian Art Museum, Academy of Sciences, and more. It's worth the effort and time it takes to get tickets and figure out which venues are available. Each library may have different venue availability. And a handy tip: most libraries are free to join if you live in California (unless they are not funded by the state). You can have library cards for many libraries. :) Which gives you access to a wealth of ebooks, e-audiobooks, digital magazines, as well as traditional library books and movies! 

    I understand the dilemma - Personally, I wish you could buy a pass and choose 3 or 4 different museums to visit instead of having to commit to one. But here are some ideas. Did you know you can get free passes to lots of local museums through your library's Discover and Go program?  Depending on your library, I know that the Children's Discovery Museum is one of the museums, so that is a way of trying it out before getting a membership. There are also a lot of other great museums with free or discounted passes: Some museums we have enjoyed this way: Pacific Pinball Museum, Lindsay Wildlife Experience, Playland Not at the Beach.

    Here's comments on your specific questions. We have belonged to Chabot but don't join if you don't like it.. it sounds like you like LHS. Since Chabot is part of the same network - you are better paying 1/2 price for Chabot and getting in at LHS free if that is your preference. Both have reciprocal arrangements with the Children's Creativity Museum. As far as the Children's Creativity Museum, I think you should check it out before joining (see free pass above). My child loved it and used to do claymation all the time, but it is not for everyone - it's creative, and hands-on, but limited.

    Other free options -  Oakland Museum and Asian Art Museum - they have family days one Sunday a month with lots of activities. 

Archived Q&A and Reviews

Membership Museums -- Best Option for 2-year-old?

Dec 2012

My husband and I are planning to get an annual family membership to one of the following options:

  1. California Academy of Science
  2. Bay Area Discovery Museum
  3. Habitot

Our daughter is two years old and we are not sure which of these three options would be the best. We want a place where she can learn a lot but also have fun. Based on your experience please recommend us which do you think would be the best option for a girl of this age.

Thank you

We have 3 kids, and I would say Habitot would be the best bet. But why don't you visit the museums first before you commit to a membership? Alex H.

Of your list, I would do Bay Area Discovery Museum (assuming you live close enough that it's easy for you to drive to Sausalito). I think Academy of Sciences and Habitot are both too crowded and overrun.

You should also consider Children's Fairyland in Oakland.
oakland mom

I have a 19 month old and we live on the East Bay. We recently purchased a membership to the Discovery Museum, only to find that we can get free tickets through our local library. Moreover, we have found that he gets sick almost every single time we go there (probably because everything there is touch and feel), and the drive really is kind of long. I think we have to go 3 more times to make it worth the price of membership, and with the free tix available at the library, we wish we hadn't gotten the membership.

We haven't brought him to the California Academy of Science yet, mainly because it is also a very long drive from the East Bay, and from my experience there (without the baby), it always seemed so crowded on the weekends.

That's just my 2cents worth. I'd visit those places a few times with the free tickets you can get (check your local library and online), calculate the drive time, to see if it's worth it to buy a full membership.

That said, if you live in SF near the Golden Gate Park, then it's much more worthwhile.

It really depends on your schedule and location. Of the ones you listed, Discovery Museum is definitely the best as far as things to do, play with, etc., but it's ~40 minutes from Berkeley, and is not open on Mondays. Hobitot is great, but pretty small with limited hours and I don't care for the basement setting. Science Academy has some cool stuff, but is generally geared toward older kids. For us, after trying out several memberships we've gotten the most use out of our Oakland Zoo membership. L.

I'd get a membership to Bay Area Discovery Museum. It's hands-down my favorite little-kid place in the Bay Area. My kids (almost 4 years old) never cease to have fun there, it's got great indoor and outdoor settings, so many different places, and it's somewhere they can really grow into. The pirate ship, the art room, the little toddler area, the waves center, and the changing exhibits are all awesome. Habitot has the advantage of being closest, if you live in the East Bay, and we do periodically go there. It can be a great (but very crowded) refuge on a cold or rainy day. And my kids do always like it. I kind of hate the experience there, though. It's so crowded and so dark and so cramped. They do often have deals for 5-packs of passes and other things on living social, group on, etc. so you can supplement with that. A membership just never seemed worth it to us. Academy of Sciences is awesome, but it takes forever to get there, parking costs a lot of money, and while there's a lot that little kids can find interesting there, so much of it goes over their head at this age. And it's the most expensive. We reserve Academy of Sciences for a once a year trip at this age. An Oakland zoo membership is also something good to consider. Or, the Lindsay Wildlife center in Walnut Creek. --so many great places in the area!

We've had membership to Discovery Museum, great for outdoor/indoor activities, more like a glorified playground, can easily spend 3-4 hours there. Downside, closed on Mondays, depending on where you live, it's a little more of a trek from the East Bay. Can't speak to Academy of Science membership, but having just visited 5 days ago, I know that membership costs twice as much as BADM, also more of a trek into the city. We also had membership to Lawrence Hall of Science, a little rough around the edges but they have very age appropriate activities, planetarium, hands-on exhibit with the animals, open 7 days a week, and convenient if you live in the East Bay. Also, took advanatage of reciprocity when travelling to other parts of the country to other children museums, a great deal! Hope that helps!
Kids Museum Lover

Habitot for convenience (you will likely go more often) or Bay Area Discovery Museum are much more enjoyable at age 2 - for kiddo and parents. Both are places where little ones can safely move freely without being crowded or trampled by bigger kids. Also there are less interesting things to touch and play with at the Academy. Save it for age 5 and up. Loved Them All

Well, you didn't say where you live or what your budget is - I think both those would play into your decision! However, I have recently looked into all those for my family, with a strong inclination to do Habitot. But the cost is so high (seems like they recently raised their membership rate) that we can't afford it. I think we are going to renew our Fairyland membership (bought last year with our 1 & 3 y.o.s, who are now a year older) which was a great deal for us as we went at least every other month. I am also considering the Oakland Zoo, but it's just a little further so I am not sure we'd go as frequently. I don't think a 2 y.o. needs a particularly awesome environment for learning - they learn anywhere! At the grocery store! On a walk around the block! You have to pick a place that the adults can stand, can afford, and can get to easily.

Both the Bay Area Discovery Museum and Cal Academy of Science are _awesome_ - almost too awesome, as you can't really see them all in one visit and will have to pick and choose. Also, they are across the bay - do you really want to have to plan around sitting in traffic with your 2-year-old?

Habitot is the most age-appropriate, and your daughter will love it, but I find its basement setting dark, depressing and overstimulating as an adult. Also it can be a real germ-fest, with multiple toddlers drooling in the water-table. Ew.

May I suggest Chabot Space and Science Center or the Lawrence Hall of Science? Both have more fluid indoor-outdoor spaces with lots of light and activities, and are easy to get to. LHS tends to have more compelling exhibits, but my little one always wanted to just play in their soft toddler play space, anyways. LHS is also sometimes over-run by school groups, and the space can be hard to navigate - whoever put the only bathrooms down a winding staircase in the basement clearly had never been through potty-training.

I think Chabot is somewhat of a neglected gem. We call it 'the rocket-ship museum' and it has a few ongoing exhibits that have continued to charm (we don't love the new 'Bill Nye Climate Lab' upstairs). The space is fresh and fun, with many levels so you can avoid school-groups when they come, the cafe has kid-friendly options (pb&j, hard-boiled eggs) if you're low on snacks, and not-to-be-overlooked - abundant, accessible bathrooms on every floor! Also, their 'Discovery Lab' (open wed-sun only) is a wonderful, preschool-like space full of tools and toys for active exploration. We could easily spend our whole visit there.

So, I'd vote for Chabot. Luckily, you don't entirely have to choose, as a membership at either Chabot or LHS gives you reciprocal half-price admission to the other museum.

Show the East Bay some love. Happy Museum-ing!

Of the 3 possibilities, the Bay Area Discovery Museum would be my first choice. It's a wonder filled, age appropriate place for a 2 going on 3 yo. Downside is the drive. CAS is better for a year or two older children. Habitot feels claustrophobic to me. Maybe consider Lawrence Hall of Science? We like it there quite a lot & never tire of it. Fellow fun seeker

For a two-year-old, the key to a good membership is to keep it simple - a place that is age- appropriate, not over-crowded with older kids/adults, and convenient to where you live so that you can go often without enduring a long car-trip. You don't say where you live, but you should consider proximity.

Of the options you mention, I would definitely discourage the Academy of Science. It is really for older kids in terms of the exhibits, and in terms of the massive crowds, plus inconvenience of going there. It is the type of place that even adults will find to be a very full day outing -- it's overwhelming for tots.

Habitot is a great place for little ones, as is the Discovery Museum. Honestly, if it were me, I would pick the option closest to you, because that is the one you will go to and enjoy more. Two places you did not mention, but which are great for little ones are the Oakland Zoo, which has a wonderful children's zoo and educational programs, and Children's Fairyland. Fairyland is not a museum per se, but does have animals and is a magical place for even toddlers. Both the zoo and Fairyland are memberships which paid for themselves many times during the toddler/preschool years. Marie

We found the best kids museum/zoo memberships are those that have reciprocal admission deals with other museums & zoos. I believe the Discovery Museum & Habitot have such relationships with similar organizations in the area and out of state but Academy of Sciences does not. We've saved a lot of money of entrance fees over the years. better bang for buck

Also, keep in mind that the various museums and zoos usually offer discounts at other museums and zoos.

If you have a membership at one of these museums, its $5 per person to visit the other museums. Lawrence Hall of Science, Bay Area Discovery Museum, Chabot Space & Science Center, Children's Discovery Museums of San Jose, Habitot Science Center, Museum of Children's Art, Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo, and Children's Creativity Museum.

The Oakland Zoo offers discounts (Lindsay Wildlife Museum, Happy Hollow)

Cal Academy doesn't have reciprocal memberships, so its only good there.