Playtime Has Arrived: A Family Guide to Canalside’s Explore & More

Originally Published in The Buffalo News
July 18, 2019
By Christopher Schobert

Think back a few years to the time when Canalside was new and downtown Buffalo’s burgeoning waterfront hope, rather than the established destination it is today. Had you asked Buffalonians what the area was missing, there was one idea that topped the minds of parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, godparents and babysitters: “Something for families to do.”

Fast forward to 2019, and that something has arrived. Explore & More — The Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Children’s Museum is now open at Canalside, and it is the Western New York family destination. The $29 million gem makes the former East Aurora location look like what it was: a lovably quaint play place mainly geared toward little ones.

Explore & More is, in its own way, as impressive as the mighty National Museum of Play in Rochester. With a direct focus on Buffalo’s past and its cultural diversity, the museum is that rare family two-fer: a gloriously good time that is robustly educational.

Here’s a breakdown of what to do, and when to do it. Note that the first floor is where the restaurant is located. So when you arrive, you’re actually starting on the second floor.

Let’s explore, shall we?

The second floor: Colors, cultural traditions and a waterfall

After buying your tickets at the front desk, you’ll see Sketch Town, where little ones can color a vehicle, place it under a camera and then watch it appear on a wall-sized screen. It’s a delight, but it can wait. Head back here later.

It also might be worth moving past the homes on display depicting cultural traditions. They’re cute and insightful, but can be saved until later in your visit. This might even be a nice spot to end your visit, since it can lead to a discussion about Buffalo’s unique diversity on the drive home.

Instead, move right to the enormous, 30-foot waterfall display. Here, kids have the chance to learn about generating power via water, move a boat through a small Erie Canal, and contemplate the history of Niagara Falls and the Erie Canal Harbor. Protective smocks are available, but no one will get too wet. If they do, it just adds to the fun. A replica canal boat is located to the left and is certainly worth a stop.

This area can get a bit crowded, but it’s very large and wisely spread out. Make sure to dry off with the super-cool barrel hand dryers, and then head to the large stairway. The stairways have large windows with stellar views; my son literally stopped in his tracks to enjoy the sight.

The third floor: A ‘rink,’ pedal power and tinkering

This is where we spent a lot of time. You’ll instantly see the area that my kids called the highlight of the visit. No, not the orange seats from the Memorial Auditorium. Instead, their fave spot was the wee rink made for sock feet. It’s a place to slide around and kick some balls, and even features a “jumbotron.” My daughter slid with Tom Cruise-in-“Risky Business” ease, and one of the Explore & More employees delighted her by bringing in a ball and playing catch.

There is a locker room setup with jerseys and props from the Bills, Sabres, Bisons and Bandits, as well as the Buffalo Beauts and Queen City Roller Girls. My guys are huge QCRG fans, so the league’s inclusion delighted them.

Next move to an area devoted to Buffalo’s inventions and scientific ingenuity. There is an abundance of riches — pedal power via stationary bikes, info on inventions that came from the area (including the air conditioner, thank goodness), and a cute medical setup.

Finally, move on to my kids’ second favorite spot, the Tinkering Tank. This is a hands-on place in which to design, create, build and problem-solve. It can get a little crowded, but there are plenty of materials. My son made a pretty stellar Forky from “Toy Story 4” and my daughter made, well, something very creative. Weekends feature a one-hour Lego time; registration is required.

We also spent time in the building area. My daughter was especially enamored of a house construction area, and handed me pieces so I could help her hit the highest sections. Plan to spend some time here, as there are a number of unique things to do. We barely scratched the surface.

The fourth floor: Farmers market, great views

It might be hard to tear your kids away from the third floor, but they’ll enter the fourth with a smile after seeing a cow to milk (!), a farmers market setup and a pickup truck.

Visit the nearby art studio, which is staffed with fantastic Explore & More employees who are ready to help. Also pause to look out the windows; this could be one of Buffalo’s most gorgeous views. The rooftop terrace was closed during our visit due to rain. Rumor has it this offers a view of the Sahlen Field fireworks that can’t be beat.

Another area on this floor will eventually house something new, but currently features big soft blocks for stacking. Also here is a little stationary train that my kids remembered from the old museum in East Aurora; their faces lit up when they realized they had seen it before.

Head back down to the second floor

Now is the time to return to Sketch Town, and watch the kids design vehicles and see them move on the big screen. My son and daughter were genuinely thrilled to see their handiwork in action. This is also a good time to hit the homes on display. Then … well, that’s up to you. Do whatever the kids are dying to see again, and then make your exit. Or, if your hand is stamped, make your first exit.

Before you explore, here’s what to know

What ages will most enjoy the museum?

Perhaps the greatest selling point of Explore & More, beyond the Buffalo-centric approach, is the range of ages who will delight in the museum. During my family’s visit both of my children (ages 5 and 9) were equally delighted. I think it’s safe to say Explore & More is designed for ages 2 to 14. Here’s a key detail: there are bathrooms on every floor.

Is the museum designed for all children, including those with special needs?

Making a museum that was inclusive for all was a goal. “We were intentional in making the whole museum accessible,” said Exhibits Manager Anna Musun-Miller. “Accessibility was a part of our decision-making process at every stage.”

In addition, Director of Marketing and Public Relations Jeannine Weber Kahabka said there are “visual, social, communicative, sensory and behavioral supports throughout the museum — from quiet kits and call-ahead accommodations, to sensory friendly spaces, social narratives, visual schedules, visual/sensory maps, special needs changing table and more.”

Once each month the museum hosts evenings for kids with autism spectrum disorder and sensory processing disorder, as well as their friends and family.

Where should we park?

All the usual Canalside parking spots fit here, including the generally $3 Harborcenter lot. It’s not a bad idea to consider parking elsewhere and hopping on the train, though.

What should we bring?

It’s not necessary to bring anything with you, but there are lockers available for a quarter apiece if you have bags or backpacks. A coat rack will suffice for anything else.

What can we eat?

If you’ve done any paddle boating lately then you cruised right by the Low Bridge Cafe, an eatery located on the museum’s first floor. The offerings are quick, simple and   child-friendly.

Who makes up the museum staff?

The Explore & More employees are truly impressive — a mix of experiences and ages. “We wanted to have diversity in educational expertise and skill set,” says Explore & More CEO Michelle Urbanczyk. “We wanted people with backgrounds in cultural, access and inclusion, STEM, history and art.”

Can we leave the museum for a bit and then head back inside?

Yes, if you get your hands stamped. Weber Kahabka calls the museum “an anchor at Canalside,” that can be a home base for families spending a day at the waterfront. Her advice is to make sure you get your hand stamped, so you can re-enter all day. Head out for a bit, and when the kids are getting hot, return to the museum and explore some more. Plan on a couple hours for the full museum experience.

Explore & More — The Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Children’s Museum

130 Main St., at Canalside

Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily through August. Fall hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Closed on Tuesdays. First Friday hours are 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Admission: $11 for adults and children ages 1 and older. Memberships are available, but need to be purchased at the museum. The $125 base membership is for up to two adults and four children (up to age 18).