Chicago families can explore wild regions of the globe

I’ve always wanted to travel around the world. In fact, when I wrote my so-called “Life List” back in college, I made sure to include a desire to travel to all the continents (except Antarctica). Sadly, I’ve only made it to three so far.

Except that a visit to the new National Geographic Presents: Earth Explorers changed all that, making me feel like I’d already been to the jungles of the Amazon, the crystal cave of Mexico, and yes – even the frozen tundra of the Arctic.

The new exhibit, which opened March 20, is sure to be a hit with your family, whether you’re big travelers or not. Who could resist the chance to adventure to five strikingly different eco-zones – Polar Regions, The Oceans, Rain Forests, Mountains and Caves, and The Savannas – without ever leaving Chicago? Add in some truly awe-some visuals and lots of interactives to keep little hands busy, and you won’t want to leave.

In terms of the highlights, be sure to start at Base Camp, where you can climb onto an off-road vehicle or peruse information about bugs. I loved the fun simulated submersible that takes you all the way into the “Midnight Zone” of the ocean to see some pretty unusual fish. And the virtual hot air balloon ride over herds of elephants and antelopes certainly is a highlight.

Plus, Chicagoans who’ve just survived the brutal winter can get a welcome reality check in The Polar Regions, where you’ll find out just how cold it can really get.

And although the flashy elements are certainly the major draw, I was most impressed by the way the exhibit slips in other information, from vocabulary words to Illinois connections. “Explorer’s Notebooks” and video footage show what it’s really like to be a National Geographic Explorer. And while I was expecting the exhibit to primarily focus on biology, I was surprised at how many of the other sciences were also represented.

If you have kids who like to accomplish a “mission,” and you have a smartphone, I’d recommend downloading the free EarthExplorers app (the information is found at the very beginning of the exhibit) which helps kids locate “targets” in each region to receive a badge. It’s a fun scavenger hunt-style activity that can involve the whole family.

And that’s really the appeal of the exhibit. Little ones will love to push the buttons and check out the critters, older kids will get a kick out of interactive activities like mapping their thermogram or getting caught in a camera trap, and even the adults will leave with some new knowledge. I feel a little more fulfilled knowing that Mexican tetra fish are blind because they have no need for eyes in the dark caves where they live (and it could come in handy in trivia some day).

So even if your around-the-world plans have been put on hold, a visit to Earth Explorers will leave you feeling like you’ve escaped Chicago – even for a couple of hours.

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