Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Accessibility Review: Great Explorations

A purple sign, with white and multi-colored text that reads, "Great Explorations." Below that, with a white outline, is purple text that reads, "Houghton-Wagman Children's Museum"
Accessibility Grade: A
Since a lot of our clients are kiddos, Custom Mobility collaborates with a number of organizations, such as Wheelchairs 4 Kids, who offer assistance to children with disabilities and their families. Since we work with a lot of kids, our team is always on the lookout for local events and organizations that are both accessible and inclusive for children with disabilities and their families. Great Explorations Children's Museum is an incredible example of that. Located right here in St. Petersburg, Florida, it's a treasure trove of educational exhibits and activities that encourages kids to learn by playing, exploring, and creating.

I want to be honest and admit that Great Explorations was actually an incredible surprise for us. Though we had plans to eventually write an Accessibility Review of this museum, it was our trip to Sunken Gardens (for an upcoming Review) that encouraged us to move Great Explorations up our priority list. But before getting started, we'd like to give a big thank you to Demi Kennedy, Guest Experience Manager, who was kind enough to give us an impromptu tour of their incredible facility.

The lobby of Great Explorations is large, with a lot of open space, gray indoor-outdoor carpet. There is a bench on the right, as well as on the left. A person is sitting at the end of each bench. From here, a child and their caregiver, parent, and/or guardian can access all of the exhibits.  On the left side of the photo is an area called Longo's Cove, where kids can climb. It is completely surrounded by rope.
As a kid who was power wheelchair user, I remember how empowering it felt to attend events, such as field trips and birthday parties, that were accessible. Thankfully, things are getting much more accessible than they were in the 90's. Walking (or in my case, rolling) into Great Explorations gave me that familiar feeling of security, which I hadn't experienced since my elementary school years. As shown in the picture above, the gallery hall was huge, making it really easy for wheelchair users to either navigate on their own, or with a caregiver/parent/guardian. From here, kids can choose to go to a variety of exhibits, each of which have so many things to do and subjects to explore. Additionally, Great Explorations offers a number of events that cater to children and people with disabilities. Stay tuned to the end of this blog post to learn more about those.
Kyle and Guest Experience Manager, Demi Kennedy, are shown talking in the "Smile Spot" exhibit. The wall behind Demi is light green, and is decorated with a giant, blue toothbrush. To Kyle's left is a section of the room that's painted in a light orange. On the wall is a coat rack, where two, small, white lab coats are hanging. In front of them is a large, blue chair, and sitting in it is a large blue alligator, which has an open mouth and is looking towards a light that you'd find in any dentist's office
On our first stop, Demi took us to The Smile Spot, an exhibit made possible by Klement Family Dental. Many people, children and adults alike, have a fear of the dentist. This space is a fun and creative way to help kids feel more comfortable, especially if they  have never been and don't know what to expect. Through a number of interactive diagrams and equipment, not to mention adorable animal "patients," playing in this exhibit helps kiddos learn the importance of dental health and hygiene. And for children who have sensory sensitivities, The Smile Spot helps familiarize them with sights and sounds that they could experience at their own dentists' offices.

Demi shows Kyle an over-sized version of the game Operation. It is in the middle of the exhibit called "My Checkup," an interactive, pretend version  of a doctor's office. Demi is pointing to a spot on the game. Kyle is looking where she is pointing.
My Checkup, an exhibit sponsored by Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital, gives kids a chance to play as if they are in a doctor's office. Here, they'll have a chance to learn about their own health, including the importance of nutrition and exercise. There are a few interactive displays in this exhibit that give kids the chance to get familiar with doctors' offices. As with The Smile Spot, My Checkup lets kids interact in a fun and safe way, helping them feel more comfortable in a space that may seem scary to them. There's even a life-size version of the popular game "Operation," located right in the center of the room!

This picture shows an interactive board, mounted on the wall in the "Great Beginnings" exhibit. It shows some fruits and vegetables, and the plants that they grow on. There are potatoes, beats, carrots, lettuce, tomatoes, blueberries, and oranges. Underneath this picture are seven buttons, each of which are under either a fruit or vegetable. Pressing them causes the corresponding fruit or vegetable to light up in the picture above.
Great Beginnings is an exhibit that's geared towards Great Explorations' youngest guests. This area is filled with a bunch of farm-themed games, including this interactive board that features a variety of fruits and vegetables. Interactive games like these are great, because they encourage children to better develop their fine and gross motor skills.

"Critter Corner" has a number of tanks, which are home to a variety of reptiles such as snakes and lizards. The tanks are mounted inside of a wall, decorated to look like it's made from wood. There are name tags that are located around each tank, which give the name of the animal in each tank.
When I tell you that I've always been a huge animal lover, I mean that I was obsessed with everything about them, especially as a kid. Needless to say that I felt right at home in the Critter Corner. This exhibit is home to a variety of lizards and snakes, such as the beautiful crested gecko. There are even some new critters on display, including a ball python, leopard gecko, and spiny-tailed lizard. The coolest part is that the folks at Great Explorations want you to help name them! Click here to cast your vote!
Nine display cases, made of wood, that are stacked on top of each other, in rows of three. In each case is a collection of fossils, ranging from the skull of a saber tooth cat (in the top-left case), a fossilized fish (in the top-middle case), and a shark jaw (in the very middle of all the display cases. Each of the cases cases can be unlocked and swung upwards, allowing instructors to take the objects out and let the kids interact with them. There's a portable staircase, made of light wood, which has two steps. It is there for kids who may be too short to see the display cases on the top shelf. To the right are a number of smaller exhibits.
Next to the Critter Corner is a collection of fossils and a few other, science-themed displays. I've always had a soft spot for dinosaurs and anything prehistoric, so this exhibit held a special place in my heart. There are a variety of items on display, including shark teeth, a shark jaw, the bottom half of a fossilized, alligator jaw, the fossilized remains of a fish, and a saber tooth cat skull, just to name a few.
I Dream In Lego
Lego are incredible toys because they really encourage kids to think outside the box and allow their creative sides take over. In the I Dream In Lego exhibit, they can let their imaginations run wild, using the tables to design and build whatever comes to mind.

A Publix sign hags above a number of shelves. On the left is a green arrow, pointing down and to the left. In white letters, proceeding down the arrow,  is the word, "Checkout." On the right, there is another sign, which looks identical to the first and also reads, "Checkout."
Among the many exhibits within Great Explorations, Demi told us that the Publix Kid's Supermarket is an absolute fan favorite. Here, children get a chance to shop for groceries, just like they do with their parents. While they learn about nutrition and the importance of making healthy choices, kids love getting the chance to play as if they are working at a grocery store, where they have fun going shopping and ringing up each other's groceries. It's a chance for them to let loose and play as if they are adults which, Demi mentioned, the kids really get a kick out of. 

There are a few other exhibits that we didn't get a chance to photograph, so you'll have to check out Great Explorations to see what else they have in store for you and your kids. But we would like to point out, as we usually do in these Accessibility Reviews, that Great Explorations does have an All Gender and Accessible bathroom.

In addition to the exhibits that we've shown above, the facility also offers a number of educational programs and camps. Specifically for kids with disabilities, Great Explorations hosts a sensory-friendly  event called Great Connections. On the second Sunday of every month, they close their doors to the general public but remain open for children with disabilities and their families. During this time, they provide additional accommodations, including modifying lights and sounds. Bright and loud exhibits are also turned off. Finally, there's a "cool down" room for families or children who may feel over-stimulated and need to take a break from the rest of the event. If you'd like to stay up-to-date with Great Connections, feel free to follow the Great Connections Facebook Page.

It's also worth noting that the Great Explorations parking lot can accommodate accessible vehicles, including buses and vans, and also has a number of accessible parking spaces.

Whether you're looking for a great place to send your kids for summer camp, or you're just searching for something fun and educational for your children, look no further than Great Explorations. This museum is a great opportunity for your kids to make friends, in an environment that is safe, accepting, and accessible to children with and without disabilities.

Kyle Romano

Luis Rodriguez


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