I’m just an arts and culture columnist, but you don’t have to have a doctorate. recognize that the past two years have been particularly difficult for scientists. Cynical politicians have rallied an already skeptical population against relying on empirical evidence, just when we need facts most to fight COVID and climate change. So, as the son of a former science professor, I had particular satisfaction last week visiting the recently reopened Observatory at the Orlando Science Center, which had been closed to the public for almost two years, but which again entices guests to reach for the stars.
In case you didn’t know, this large silver dome overlooking Loch Haven Park atop the Orlando Science Center rooftop isn’t just for show; it houses the largest publicly accessible refractor telescope in the state of Florida. I last climbed the spiral staircase to the observatory a dozen years ago on a Cocktails & Cosmos party, and looking into the huge telescope was a magical experience despite the fact may the dome be filled with customers. But this time, OSC invited me to experience one of their new Social Distancing Small-Group Tours, which takes VIP stargazing to a whole new level.
My exclusive astronomical adventure began when my wife and I, along with another couple, were greeted in the lobby of the Center by OSC Director of Public Programs, 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-like ride, seemingly through the ceiling and into the lower levels. elevated buildings, which are generally off limits to guests. We stepped out onto the OSC’s panoramic balcony (watching a posh wedding reception below), where a consumer-grade $ 1,000 Meade telescope provided small but incredibly crisp looks at Jupiter and its four moons. Galileans, as well as the rings of Saturn, a crescent of Venus and unique views of downtown Orlando.
Then it was time to climb up the dome, watching from the inside as the structure opened and turned, revealing the sky to its massive 10-inch-diameter Byers telescope. (It turns out that the circumference is more important than the length when observing celestial bodies.) The greater magnification of the larger instrument revealed subtle stripes of bright colors on Jupiter, and even the gap between them. rings of saturn. Best of all, unlike my last observatory expedition, I wasn’t neck and neck with the others, but had ample opportunity to let my eyes adjust and focus on distant objects. .
After about half an hour of stellar views, our evening ended with a visit inside the OSC inflatable planetarium, which from the outside looks like the most boring bounce house in the world. Inside, we crouched on the carpet beneath a semi-dome ceiling, which quickly came to life with a digitally projected stellar landscape. Instead of the usual pre-programmed planetarium show, this interactive system allowed Jones to guide us on a breathtaking hyperspeed journey from Pluto’s poles to the edge of the Milky Way, then back 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 the “neck” and “legs”.
I probably learned more about astronomy in an hour than in the past decade, and Jones’ joy at sharing his fascination with the sky was infectious. As a bonus, I had the opportunity, as we stepped out, to say goodbye to the turtles and alligators living in OSC’s Natureworks man-made swamp, an iconic opening day attraction that will soon make the show. object of a radical re-imagining. (Don’t worry, current residents will receive new homes.)
Private packages don’t include regular admission to the Orlando Science Center, so you can add a discounted day ticket and arrive early to explore the latest exhibits. Design Zone, which is on display until Jan. 4, lets kids learn about math concepts like variables and ratios while mixing music, designing video games, and even building roller coasters. The annual return of Dinos in Lights, which lights up Stan the T. rex and his fossilized companions with dazzling seasonal exposure, also runs through January 4.
On the fourth floor you’ll also find the Poozeum, a collection of coprolites (or fossilized dinosaur droppings) that cheekily claims to be “1 for Fossils # 2” due to the Guinness World Record Holder’s display. for “the biggest fossilized droppings of a carnivore,” a T. rex nicknamed “Barnum.” And if all this science makes you hungry, don’t forget John Rivers’ 4Roots Café downstairs, where you’ll find local plant-based breakfasts, plus a new exhibit on how kids can become “Heroes” by composting and encouraging pollinators.
The OSC Private Observatory and Planetarium Experiences are offered on Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:30 p.m. and 9:45 p.m. until 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 tour of the cosmos.