I'm only an arts and culture columnist, but you don't have to be a Ph.D. to recognize that the past couple of years have been particularly difficult for scientists. Cynical politicians have rallied an already skeptical populace against trusting empirical evidence, just when we most need facts to combat COVID and climate change. So, as the son of a former science professor, I got a special satisfaction last week from visiting the Orlando Science Center's newly reopened observatory, which had been closed to the public for nearly two years, but is now once again inspiring guests to reach for the stars.
In case you weren't aware, that big silver dome overlooking Loch Haven Park atop Orlando Science Center's roof isn't just for show; it's home to the largest publicly accessible refractor telescope in the state of Florida. I last climbed the spiral staircase up to the observatory a dozen years or so ago during a Cocktails & Cosmos party, and peering into the enormous telescope was a magical experience despite being the dome being packed with patrons. But this time, OSC invited me to experience one of their new socially distanced small group tours, which takes VIP stargazing to a whole new level.
My exclusive astronomical adventure began as my wife and I, along with another couple, were greeting in the Center's lobby by OSC public programs manager Spencer Jones. A space enthusiast who joined OSC specifically to work with the observatory, Jones led us into the facility's glass elevator for a Wonka-esque ride seemingly through the ceiling and into the building's uppermost levels, which are ordinarily off-limits for guests. We stepped out onto OSC's panoramic balcony (looking down on a fancy wedding reception below), where a $1,000 consumer-grade Meade telescope provided small but impressively sharp looks at Jupiter and all four of its Galilean moons, along with Saturn's rings, a crescent Venus and some unique views of downtown Orlando.
Next, it was time to climb up into the dome, watching from the inside as the structure split open and rotated, revealing the heavens to its massive 10-inch-diameter Byers telescope. (It turns out that girth is more important than length when observing heavenly bodies.) The larger instrument's greater magnification revealed subtle stripes of vibrant colors on Jupiter, and even the gap between Saturn's rings. Best of all, unlike my last expedition to the observatory, I wasn't elbow-to-elbow with others, but had ample opportunity to let my eyes adjust and focus on the faraway objects.
After about a half-hour of stellar sights, our evening concluded with a visit inside OSC's inflatable planetarium, which looks from the outside like the world's most boring bounce house. Inside, we squatted on the carpet beneath a half-dome ceiling, which soon sparked to life with a digitally projected starscape. Instead of the usual pre-programmed planetarium show, this interactive system allowed Jones to guide us on a breathtaking hyperspeed journey from the poles of Pluto to the edge of the Milky Way and then back home to Earth. We also enjoyed an informative introduction to the constellations — not only the Greek mythological figures familiar to Westerners, but the more prosaic Chinese star configurations like "neck" and "legs."
I likely learned more about astronomy in an hour than I had in the past decade, and Jones' joy at sharing his fascination with the firmament was infectious. As an added bonus, I had a chance as we exited to bid farewell to the turtles and alligators living in OSC's Natureworks artificial swamp, an iconic opening day attraction that will soon receive a radical reimagining. (Don't worry, the current residents will receive new homes.)
Private packages don't include regular admission to Orlando Science Center, so you may want to add on a discounted daytime ticket and arrive early to explore the latest exhibits. Design Zone, which is on display through Jan. 4, lets kids get hands-on with mathematical concepts like variables and ratios while mixing music, designing video games and even building a roller-coaster. The annual return of Dinos in Lights, which illuminates Stan the T. rex and his fossilized companions with a dazzling seasonal display, runs through Jan. 4 as well.
On the fourth floor you'll also find the Poozeum, a collection of coprolites (or fossilized dinosaur feces) that cheekily claims to be "#1 for fossilized #2" by virtue of displaying the Guinness World Record holder for "largest fossilized excrement from a carnivore," a T. rex turd dubbed "Barnum." And if all that science-ing leaves you hungry, don't forget about John Rivers' 4Roots Café on the ground floor, where you'll find locally sourced plant-forward lunches, along with a new exhibit on how kids can become "Food Heroes" by composting and encouraging pollinators.
OSC's private observatory and planetarium experiences are offered on Friday and Saturday nights at 8:30 p.m. and 9:45 p.m. now through spring 2022 (not available on 12/24-25, 12/31, or 1/1). Tours require advance reservations and cost $250 for up to five people; additional guests up to 10 cost $30 each. Visit osc.org/private-experiences for more details or to book your private viewing of the cosmos.