Chicago museum free days survival guide

Chicago’s museums are offering free days hand over fist/flipper/mummified hand/robotic arm so far in 2011. The Art Institute revamped its longstanding free day programs, MSI came through with free weekdays in January, and Shedd announced this week that it will open its doors with a February free week.

To see all free days and read what’s new this year, click here.

What’s that you say? You’ve never been to a free day at Chicago’s busiest museums? Oh, boy. To help you out, we’ve compiled a Survival Guide to Free Days at Chicago’s Museums, with tips, shortcuts and advice on saving a buck without losing your sanity. We’ll be adding guides to each museum right here as we go, so check back soon!

The upside: It’s free. Enough said. Chicago’s museums are world-class, but they don’t come cheap. Start with a – admission price tag, throw in parking and a trip through the gift shop, and a family trip to the museum easily breaks the 0 mark. So free days are a great deal, though you’re still on your own in the gift shop.

The downside: They can be a bit of a zoo. Veterans of Chicago free days will well remember lines snaked around the Shedd and two-hour waits to get inside at the Field. So we recommend going early, bringing reinforcements (this is definitely a parent tag-team situation if it’s possible) and maybe some animal crackers.

Tips for smooth sailing:

  • Travel light. If you’re traveling with a toddler, take the lightest, nimblest stroller you have. Sure, your Cadillac Escalade model has room for a mobile changing station, but trying to maneuver it through the crowds is like trying to parallel park a tractor trailer on Michigan Ave.
  • Start in the back and work your way up. We’ll go into more detail with our museum-by-museum guides, but in general, most of the crowds tend to build up just after the ticket desk as families try to set a game plan. Smart visitors navigate past the standstill to rear exhibits, then work their way up.
  • Pack snacks. Especially in the summer, lines can extend outside the building, and when you’re standing in 90-degree heat, producing an ice-cold juice pack will earn you some serious parent points (to be redeemed, of course, for well-behaved kids inside)
  • Pee before you see. Bathroom breaks before you go in. This is standard procedure for most outings with the kids, but especially true of crowded free days.

Shedd Aquarium

Shedd has world-class exhibits, from Nunavik the baby beluga to Granddad, the world’s oldest living fish. It’s a guaranteed thumbs-up from the kids but can be pricey if you try to do it at cost, especially with parking rates at Chicago’s Museum Campus.

Shedd’s crowds tend to bottleneck at Caribbean Reef, the 90,000-gallon crown jewel of Shed’s collcetion. So sidestep this exhibit and head straight back to the the Oceans exhibit, where you’ll find octopi, seahorses and, yes, Granddad.

Our favorite spot? Down in Wild Reef, where you’ll see sharks above you, rays below, and clownfish (“Nemos”) all around.

Art Institute of Chicago

Sure, classic artwork isn’t necessarily on the top of every kids’ list, but Chicago’s premier art gallery is full of things kids will get a kick out of. The good news is that free days here tend to be slightly lower-key than some of Chicago’s other venues.

We recommend starting up – way up. On the roof of the Modern Wing, to be exact, where two jet engines sit on the Bluhm Family Terrace. The exhibit, by British artist Roger Hiorn, actually has some slightly jarring, dark undertones about industry and tragedy, but none of that will matter to your 5-year-old obsessed with all things that go vroom!

The Ryan Education Center, which opened in 2009 with the modern wing and replaced the old Kraft Family Center, is a kid-friendly oasis in the museum. Kids need to vent some steam? Head here (immediate left before entering the modern wing) and you’ll find a welcoming spot for kids and families.

Kids can make their own art at the Joseph Cornell exhibit.

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