Remember when all you cared about was how much fun you were going to have that day? You can relive those days again at the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. You can be an actual kid or you can be 85 years old and you’ll still have a blast.
I was thinking, “Here we go, another children’s museum” before I stepped into the place and didn’t realize how different the Museum of Play is than the norm. The Strong Museum is actually billed as “a highly interactive, collections-based museum devoted to the history and exploration of play.” So it’s a museum, but one you can play with.
Also, “The Strong houses the world’s largest and most comprehensive collection of historical materials related to play.” That is no joke. There are some 150,000 items in the collection from three centuries, with only a fraction of them on permanent display. See more about the collection details here.
The History of Play
In this play museum, you can see crude gravity-powered ball mechanisms that were precursors to pinball machines and board games that date back hundreds of years. On display are early card games and children’s toys.
From more modern times, this museum has some notable items that are still in use in some form today. There’s the original Monopoly game the inventor submitted, circular and with hand drawings. There’s a creepy talking doll from 1890 that Thomas Edison tried to market. There are very early Barbie dolls, Erector Sets, Legos, early model airplanes, and cast iron vehicles.
There are original Muppets and Care Bears, Beanie Babies and Kewpie dolls. Then we move into more modern times with video games and Star Wars action figures. You can see the first home video game machines for playing on your TV, from the original Brown Box to Pong and then the Apple II with a monitor.
There’s great signage and explanation for everything, with a strong dose of historical context of how toys changed during wartime, for instance. Key items from the collection that marked some kind of turning point get special emphasis in case you need to breeze through in a hurry.
A “Toy Hall of Fame” is a nice touch. Each year the organizers induct more toys that have stood the test of time and have become icons. These include inventions like the Whiffle Ball, Frisbee, Viewfinder, and Twister, but also some of the earliest toys like the paper airplane and…a stick.
But Daaaad…I Want to Play!
What really makes the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester so special is its hands-on element. There are the usual staples of a children’s museum, like things to bang and climb on and play make-believe with. There’s even a miniature Wegman’s store where the kids can be the staffers or go shopping with tiny carts. While it usually ends there with most museums like this though, leaving the parents hovering or bored, this museum lets the adults play too.
First of all, the historic video games here are often not just for show. You can grab some tokens and play classics like Galaga, Donkey Kong, Ms. Pac-man, Missile Command or Tempest. Or sit in the cockpit and play a simulator game like Mario Kart 2.
Or head into the pinball room and try out an array of games spanning decades of gaming. I was pleased to find that my favorite pinball game of all time—the Addams Family one from 1992—is the best-selling pinball game of the modern era. It’s as fun now as when it came out. I was rather disappointed with the largest commercial one ever made though: Hercules from 1979. With a ball that’s a cue ball from billiards, it just moves way too slowly to ever get exciting.
But wait, there’s more! The museum also has its own butterfly garden, where you can go get some non-electric stimulation with a bit of nature. A working 1918 carousel near the entrance is next to a 1950s diner that was transplanted here and serves burgers, shakes, and fries. Also, an addition with 90,000 more square feet of space is under construction now.
Want another reason to visit the Strong Museum of Play? Rochester, New York is fricking freezing most of the year. The day I visited in May, when most American cities are are full bloom with lawnmowers running, temps were in the 40s. Imagine what it’s like in winter, when they get several feet of snow. It’s toasty warm in the Strong Museum though and you can spend hours having fun without frostbite.
The museum even hosts a “Happiest Hour” party three times a year that’s adults-only. It goes on for three hours, with snacks and several bars serving adult beverages, like local wine and craft beer from the Finger Lakes region. They won’t judge you if you hits the kids’ play areas while you’re there.