Philly's Please Touch Museum gets a new building and new exhibits

By Budget Travel
October 3, 2012
Courtesy Helen I. Hwang

Dedicated to children 7 and younger, the expanded Please Touch Museum opens this Saturday (Oct. 18). Its new home in Philadelphia's Fairmount Park is Memorial Hall, a Beaux Arts gem opened in 1876 to host a World’s Fair.

Compared with its former digs, the museum now has three times more exhibition space (plus expanded parking outside). A magical Alice in Wonderland exhibit takes visitors down the Rabbit Hole in a former in-ground swimming pool. No matter what the weather is like outside, kids can experiment with waterwheels and toy boats at an indoor water play area.

My daughter Ella and I had loads of fun at the museum’s special press preview last week. When we wandered into the Roadside Attractions exhibit, it didn’t surprise me that Ella, already a backseat driver, went straight for the kid-size hot rod with flames streaking alongside the car side panels. She must've been a racecar driver in her previous life!

A ride of a different sort capped off our visit. We took a spin on the museum’s newly restored 1924 Dentzel Carousel, with 52 hand-carved animals. It's housed in a beautiful glass-enclosed space.

This Saturday’s opening festivities begin with a brief welcome from Mayor Michael Nutter and include a performance by Fandango—a rock band that entertains kids—and costumed characters that will interact with visitors all day long.

Please Touch Museum, 215/963-0667,, open daily, $15, free for babies under the age of 1, carousel rides $3, parking $5.

—Helen I. Hwang, author of All Grown Up: Please Touch Museum and its Move to Memorial Hall (available at the museum’s kids store beginning Nov. 1).

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My colleagues and I feel odd saying this, but the financial crisis in Iceland makes for great news for American travelers. The U.S. dollar buys twice as much in Iceland today than it did a year ago. And the country is not as far away as you might think. As my fellow BT editor Kate Appleton points out, it's closer to fly between New York City and Iceland's capital, Reykjavík, than it is to fly from the Big Apple to L.A. The Icelandic Tourist Bureau has just told us that Icelandair has just slashed fares from New York or Boston to $400 roundtrip, "about what a one-way fare once cost." This fare is good for travel November 1 through March 31, 2009. IcelandAir has revamped its seats and interiors on its airplanes for economy- and business-class passengers. And starting in November, the airline will have an easier-to-use website featuring online check-in (with matching kiosks to match at airport terminals). IcelandAir flies from Boston, New York-JFK, Minneapolis/St. Paul (seasonal), and Orlando. This past February, Budget Travel sent Jennifer Sabo to Reykjavík to take photos and notes about what it's like there in the off-season. Read her report: "Reykjavík: Cold, Dark, and Handsome." This view of Iceland's appeal has been seconded by our colleague Marilyn Terrell at National Geographic. Terrell says: "You can get a hot dog in Reykjavík for less than in Central Park." She also notes that the Intelligent Traveler blog has an "Iceland on the Cheap" report and photo slide show. For more on hot dogs and other comfort foods in Iceland, see Budget Travel's story "Eat Like a Local: Reykjavík." My BT colleague Summar Ghias says that, despite the cold, Iceland is a great spot to go for New Year's Eve celebrations. "Icelandic law allows a firework free-for-all on New Year's Eve, making for a raucous night in the capital city. Elves, trolls, and other costumed creatures sing and dance at 11 bonfires scattered across Reykjavík." The island is easy to drive around, despite winter weather. There is only one main highway circling the island's key spots, and the country has become super-adept at keeping its roadways free and safe. So…in case you were wondering: What is there to do in Iceland? Attractions include: Hveragerdi, a hot-spring village that uses geothermal water to warm greenhouses. Skaftafell National Park, near Kirkjubæjarklaustur village. The park sits on one of Europe's largest glaciers and is made up of three different geological areas: Skaftafell and Skeioarársandur, a volcano and outwash plain; Lakagígar, a crater area on a volcanic fissure; and the glacial cap. Gape at icebergs in the glacial lake—while they last! The picture-perfect scenery has been a backdrop in many popular movies and TV shows filmed here, among them two James Bond movies (Die Another Day and A View to a Kill), Batman Begins, and The Amazing Race 6. Explore the Golden Circle, home to hot springs, colorful mud pools, and blowholes. Volcanoes aren't far away. If you haven any thoughts on Iceland, feel free to share by posting a comment.


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New York: The free Times Square walking tour

Free tours aren't always worthwhile tours. So when I heard that Times Square offers a free Friday lunchtime walking tour, I was curious just how informative and entertaining it was. Good news: I took the Times Square Exposé Tour a couple of weeks ago, and I found that It's definitely worth taking. It will open your eyes to the neighborhood's good, bad, and even ugly history. And it's price—free—sure beats the typical $25 cost of similar neighborhood tours. Lucky travelers will have Judy Richheimer as their guide. She's a true New Yorker with a flair for the dramatic who has been leading the Times Square Exposé tour for over a decade. (When she does take the occasional day off, an equally knowledgeable substitute leads the tour.) Judy's tour starts at the Times Square Visitor Center under the antique chandeliers inside a gorgeously restored 1925 theater on Broadway between 46th and 47th streets. At the end of the tour, Judy points at the art deco former headquarters of Paramount Pictures, and the ultra-modern New York Times Building. As you stand on the busy street corner, you'll see the differences between the buildings from two very different eras. If you're like me, you'll be awestruck. Along the way, Judy will make more puns than there are lights in Times Square and even teach you how to jaywalk like a true New Yorker. The tour isn't limited to Broadway and theater sites. You'll visit two "churches" on the tour: St. Mary the Virgin, an Episcopal church, and John's Pizzeria, a deconsecrated church. Both stops include views of stunning stained glass features and intriguing smells. John's, of course, smells of the garlic and basil used in their coal fired pizza. St. Mary's, though, smells strongly of incense—so strongly, in fact, that many, including Judy, refer to the church as "Smoky Mary's." The church even sells tins of Smoky Mary's Incense at their gift shop ($15). Judy will also point out interesting architectural details, such as the marble and bronze statues of famous actresses on the outside of the I. Miller Shoe Building. The story goes that Miller, an immigrant cobbler whose shoes were a hit with Broadway actresses, wanted to thank the people that helped him "get his feet on the ground" as Judy would say. He decided to put effigies of his favorite New York ladies on the side of his building. He let the public vote on which ladies should be immortalized. The winners and the roles they portrayed—Ethel Barrymore as Ophelia, Marilyn Miller as Sunny, Rosa Ponselle as Norma, and Mary Pickford as Little Lord Fauntleroy—were unveiled in 1929 and are still proudly visible today. —Katie Jakub The free weekly Times Square Exposé tour is sponsored by the Times Square Alliance, which works to improve and promote the neighborhood. The tour starts every Friday rain or shine at 12 p.m. and lasts about two hours. It leaves from the Times Square Information Center at 1560 Broadway, by the landmark Embassy Movie Theatre. Although no pre-registration is required, you should sign-in at the information center (inside the restored theater) and find out where to meet your guide. The tour ends at Smith's Bar on the corner 8th Ave and 44 Street. MORE INFO? Contact the Times Square Alliance by phone at 212/768-1560 or e-mail at,