By TIM JUE
Beat Staff Writer
Those who made it to the front doors looked tired, weary and ready to go home.
Kids from summer camps and schools as far as Elk Grove were cranky, teenagers and their families eagerly searched for a chair or bench — anything to sit on to rest their aching backs, and those who couldn’t take the three-hour wait in a mile long line to get into the new California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park free of charge Wednesday are probably still wondering what they missed.
This is a story of just how popular the new Academy has been – prompting legions of the curious and the exceptionally patient to wait in line for hours for the free admission to the museum on the third Wednesday of every month since last year when it opened to the public. Alternatively, this is a story of how a dismal economy has made venues like the museum’s “Free Wednesdays” more popular than ever as cash strapped families and school groups look for wallet-wise outings in the Bay Area.
Regular admission to the museum can cost adults up to $25. Kids and seniors pay half that price, but since forever, the museum has invited visitors inside free of charge one day every month.
For many, it was a chance to revisit a remodeled San Francisco institution that retains familiar attractions — like its expansive collection of fish and wildlife in the Steinhart Aquarium, but includes new features — like a living rainforest where butterflies can land on your shoulder as you ascend a spiral walkway all the way to the top to a three story dome structure.
There are new creatures living at the Academy too: an albino alligator was brought in when the museum opened last year. It rests in the new swamp exhibit.
But on these widely popular free Wednesdays, there is a non-monetary price to be paid to experience to new Academy.
We’re talking about the three-hour wait.
Sometimes, it’s longer than that.
Die-hard academy faithful hoping the save a chunk of change (and the mid-morning rush) start lining up before the sun even rises. On some free Wednesdays, visitors have been seen camping out in front of the Academy’s front doors at 6:00 a.m. — three and a half hours before the museum actually opens.
The line grows as the sun rises. School kids and youngsters from summer camp are bussed in from as far away as suburban Sacramento. Locals from all around the Bay Area rush to stake out a place in line, and lucky tourists who were probably tipped off by the hotel concierge start forming a mile-long line that curves down the eastern edge of the music concourse bowl and down John F. Kennedy Drive towards the Conservatory of Flowers.
Those who arrive mid-morning (around 10:00 a.m. or so) are greeted with the daunting prospect of waiting in this line to get in. Academy officials warn that from the Conservatory of Flowers point, it’s about a three hour wait. With no benches anywhere near, it’s all done standing.
When the Academy first opened, the free-day line stretched even further, and wait times to get into the museum almost hit the four-hour mark.
The California Beat saw enough people who took one look at the line and with their jaws wide-open, decided to come back and pay the full admission price just to avoid waiting for half the day.
But school groups and non-profit organizations who brought children enrolled in the program to the event had no such luck of simply going back home. Many of them who came to Wachovia Free Wednesday with upwards of 50 children in tow spent their shoestring budgets on charter buses and public transit fares to get the kids from the school and camp sites to the museum.
Camp counselors and teachers were pitted with a tough decision: brave the three-hour long wait with squirmy, hyper kids, or scrap the trip and call the money spent on the buses a loss.
It was a tough call to make, especially when many of the organizations coming to the free admission day saw it as an inexpensive field trip in the face of declining funding from donors and the state government.
But those who decide to stay and brave the wait feel like they’ve finished a marathon once they’ve hit the front steps.
If this is any relief for your tired feet: after the three-hour wait, it only takes an hour to fully explore the museum.