It might seem counterintuitive that the generation whose litany of charges includes flagrant narcissism, a manically buoyant optimism about the future, self-fulfillment as a job requirement and an almost award-winning knack for resisting adulthood would need a chance to discover their inner kid again. But the Adventure Science Center's "Way Late Play Date" — an evening where $15 a pop (or $25 a couple) promises the same educational playground of your childhood, only this time, minus the annoying kids and plus a two-beer buzz — is offering just that.
On a recent Thursday night, a gaggle of twentysomethings scale the grassy incline as they make their way to the glowing green pyramid on the hill — three girls with sleek, long hair and miniskirts, and a beefy young man, hair shorn, in a thinly stretched light blue T-shirt.
"Is there anything in here where I can tackle someone?" he asks, mock-punching the cottony humid air. He promptly receives a chorus of booing from his companions in return. "Hey, I like science and shit, too!" he protests.
But inside at the ticket counter, the foursome's allegedly science-seeking spirits are dashed when met with the news that the event has already sold out, and more eager-faced college kids darting in from the heat meet the same unfortunate verdict. The 500 tickets have all been snatched up well before go-time, and, much like an in-demand show at The Ryman, folks are frantically searching Craigslist for last-minute deals.
"We were blown away," says Virginia Crowe, the marketing director for the center, of the overwhelming interest. The play date, she says, came out of overhearing "casual conversation that [folks] haven't been here since they were children, or they remember coming here on field trips, but maybe they don't have kids of their own yet and they feel they've outgrown coming here."
The center has been educating elementary school kids and their parents about the likes of gravity, the circulatory system and dinosaurs for going on 65 years now, so they expected multiple generations to show up to contemplate the lower intestine or pluck the strings of a supersized acoustic guitar, free from the obligations of a sleeve-tugging child — their own or someone else's.
But on this inaugural night around 8:30 p.m., the vibe is more like a cross between a college dorm mixer and a Chuck E. Cheese at peak attendance. Everywhere you look are the young and nerdy — stylish twentysomething hipsters, early-30s grad students or the occasional romantically inclined couple of scientists — wondering around wide-eyed and giggly, Day-Glo plastic cups of Yazoo in hand, photographing each other posing with dinosaurs, whizzing down the colorectal slide or gawking at each other's heat signature at the Infrared Wall.
The light snacks — what looked to have once been a bowl of tortilla chips and a plate of cheese cubes and assorted veggies — have already been thoroughly destroyed. The beer lines — we count three convenient stations set up in the Wonders of the Universe section — are long, but move quickly. Motor skills suffer in direct proportion to the amount of beer consumed.
Two casually chic girls not out of place perusing an American Apparel T-shirt rack double-team an oversized leveler game in the "Down the Hatch" exhibit, designed to follow food from the mouth to its inevitable exit. They spend a few moments avidly coordinating to shuffle a ball to its correct pit stop along the digestive chain, then give up. "Oh well, poop happens," one mutters dryly as they stumble off in search of better kicks.
Amazing Feats of Aging is a ghost town — perhaps few people in their 20s are ready to face the powerful effects of time — save for a waitress/aspiring songwriter and her cab-driver boyfriend. They are the lone couple perusing the exhibit about the effect of free radicals on the body. He stands up from the Age Machine, which uses software to predict the effects of up to 25 years on the face, looking unimpressed. How'd he look? "Older," he says.
Just beyond them, near the walk-in guitar, is the odd couple out — a married 46-year-old pair on a date. Their son gave them tickets for Father's Day, a thank you for the trips they had escorted him on here a decade earlier. They've enjoyed themselves without little ones to look after, and particularly like the planetarium. Of course, the booze helps. "I had a couple of beers," says the husband. "That makes it a little nicer."
Two tan, blond girls wearing tank tops, shorts and Red Bull backpacks wander around handing out sample cans of the energy drink. A continuously repopulating group crowds in front of the Mind Ball exhibit to cheer along headband-rigged twosomes competing to move a ball with mental energy toward their opponent, even though the game seems busted.
Nearby, a 29-year-old neuroscientist, her fiance in tow for date night, laments her choice of formal attire. "This would have been a lot cooler if I hadn't worn a dress," she says, laughing, while surveying the climbing tower in front of her.
Lines form as soon as they dwindle for Body Battles, a laser game that mimics the immune system's war on pathogens and features teams competing with Duck Hunt-style guns, zapping germs. Space Chase, which simulates a spacewalk in limited gravity, is also mobbed — even though a sign advises against the consumption of alcohol before attempting the button-pushing activities. Once hoisted in the air, patrons in harnesses bat wildly at the multicolored squares.
But the night's real showstopper — and first departure from the grabby twiddling of every available surface — is the planetarium. (An informal poll suggested this was indeed the unanimous favorite of most attendees.) Since drinks aren't permitted inside, interested parties were finally confronted with the evening's only difficult choice: whether to guzzle their brew or ditch it. At nearly 10 p.m., with the event coming to a close, a couple of 23-year-old Vandy research students use the seven minutes until showtime to sip quickly.
Inside, it's considerably cooler and darker, and the vibe quickly transforms into a field trip full of unruly high schoolers. Perhaps it's more college field trip — in front sit a few couples debating monotheistic vs. polytheistic cultures. To the left, a crew of dazed and scruffy dudes with glazed eyes are indisputably high. With all the wisecracking aloofness, it's like Rebel Without a Cause at the Griffith Observatory, but without the threat of a parking-lot knife fight or the fashionable nihilism.
Our dome guide to our family of stars? A man straight out of central casting's nerd file: a brainiac with wild hair and a slight lisp. His announcement of an upcoming laser show brought a round of hoots and hollers; lowering the lights brought oohs and ahhs. Turning off the moon was a feat worthy of applause. When he laments that he has to dim the stars to run a few trailers for upcoming planetarium shows, the crowd's resident smart aleck shouts, "Oh no!" to ripples of cackling.
The show culminates in two sample laser shows, to the sounds of The Jackson Five's "ABC" and Boston's "Rock and Roll Band." The silly, literal, cartoon-trippy graphics might well mesmerize children, but to these grown-ups it comes off a bit cheesy, evidenced by constant snickering.
After it's over, everyone trickles back into the night air, where small groups section off, pausing to grab a smoke, joke about the evening, or make plans for the next stop as they bound back down the grassy hill. After all, it's still early out.
Another Way Late Play Date takes place Tuesday, July 27, at the Adventure Science Center. Visit www.adventuresci.com for information.
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