Balboa Park is one of San Diego’s premiere attraction. Not only is this where the famed San Diego Zoo is located, it is home to many museums, playhouses, gardens and great hiking opportunities. For families with kids, the Fleet Science Center is a regular go to in the park. Of course, every big city (and even many small ones) has its own science center. This is our overview of San Diego’s Fleet Science Center.
Until late 2016, the Fleet was known as the Reuben H Fleet Science Center. The name change was part of an expansion in vision to grow from being a museum in the park to a county wide organization dedicated to supporting the learning of science in the San Diego area. I think this goes to the concept that a science center is more of a community place designed to be visited over and over again. However, because of its location in Balboa Park, right by the zoo, the Fleet is also a great tourist option. It is reasonable to do both the Zoo and Fleet in a single day.
Upfront it is important to note that the Fleet is not a top tier attraction for first time visitors to San Diego. Growing up in Philadelphia, I was used to going to the much larger Franklin Institute. The Fleet is a more modest version and the reality is most tourists would not make this an out of the way destination. However, if you have children and are in the Zoo/Balboa Park area a visit to the Fleet should be a consideration.
The sticker price for the Fleet is $20 adults, $17 children age 3 to 12. This includes access to the core museum and one IMAX film. The Fleet also has special exhibits that rotate. Many times these exhibits are an extra cost. For an example, of these exhibits see our overview of the Lego and Mythbusters exhibitions. On its face value, the Fleet is somewhat pricey. However, savvy visitors can save significantly.
For families with children, the best option is probably an annual membership. This works well not for just locals, but also for many tourists, because of the member exchange program. The Fleet Center is San Diego’s entry into the Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC). A family membership for 2 adults and up to 6 children under 18 is $109. The beauty of this membership is it also gets you into ATSC member museums all over the country and even the world. The full list is here but you can bet there is a museum near you that you can join. If I was coming from Philadelphia my Franklin Institue membership would work at the Fleet. In addition, a membership gets you 8 vouchers for the IMAX films and discounts to the special exhibits (but not through the ASTC program).
As our children have started to enter their tween and teenage years we have upgraded to the Balboa Explorer Park Pass. At $229 a year for 2 adults and 4 children this is twice as much as the Fleet annual pass. However, it gets you into 16 Balboa Park museums. Visitors to San Diego can look into getting a 7-day Balboa Park Explorer Park Pass for $57 adults, $30 children age 3 to 12. This pass allows for unlimited admission to all museums for 7-days. This is a much better deal than a one-day pass which is $46 adults/$27 children and only allows access to 5 museums.
Another option is to get a Go San Diego Card. This allows visitors access to up to 40 attractions for either 1,2,3,5 or 7 days. Note Costco often offers a 4-day pass that costs about the same as the 3-day pass. This is not a cheap option and we would only recommend it for 3 days or more where it is $209 adults/$189 children age 3 to 12. A 7-day pass is a very good value at $299/$269. The 3-day or more passes include admission to the very big attractions like SeaWorld and Legoland. If you do get a Go San Diego Card it is very possible to do the San Diego Zoo, a 5-minute walk from Reuben H Fleet, and other Balboa Park museums in a single day. This, of course, would be a very full-day.
Note, if you are only staying for a day or two, Go City Card gives you the option to buy 2 or more attractions and gives you a discount of 20%.
Fleet Center Attractions
The Fleet Science Center is housed in a two-story building in the heart of Balboa Park. Because the center is constantly changing and rotating exhibits, it is hard to say what will be showing at any given time. Most of the core permeant attractions are on the first floor. However, this changed during 2017 with the temporary video game exhibit that took up most of the first floor. Most of the time, but not always, the special exhibits are on the second floor.
So most of the time you will enter the center into the Main Gallery which hosts the classics that have been around for years. These are hands-on exhibits with things such as sand pendulums, an interactive tornado model and many activities demonstrating principals of physics and others that test the senses. A long-term favorite are the two large parabolic dishes at either end of the gallery. You can whisper to the person across the room and they will be able to hear you.
Also on the first floor is the Dream!Design! Build It! Space where visitors can build to their hearts content using Lego blocks, PVC pipe and Keva wood blocks. There are some pretty amazing pre-built Keva models to help inspire you.
There are also all kinds of projects available at the Studio X space in the back of the museum. Studio X is a workshop that seems designed for older children and adults. They offer all kinds of walk-in and regularly scheduled activites. For example, on our last visit they had a workshop to build bamboo structures. They also offer 3D Printing Workshops and even adult events with cocktails for those 21 and over.
The last time we visited the Fleet there was the Taking Shape exhibit in the back of the first floor by Studio X. This is huge maze made entirely out of packing tape. Visitors take their shoes off and run through the maze. This exhibit was developed by the Fleet Center, but I am not sure if it is permanent as they may loan it out to other museums.
The IMAX theater is a prime attraction at the Fleet and one movie is included with the price of admission (extra movies are $7 each). Usually there are at least 3 movies playing. This was one of the first dome IMAX movie theaters and these films are almost always impressive. The movies change frequently, but as of this writing the films were Under the Sea, Aircraft Carrier and Pandas. Under the Sea will rotate out at the end of June 2018.
As mentioned, the second floor often houses the temporary exhibits. It is also the home of Kid City, a wonderland for children 5 and under. Kid City has all kinds of activities and when our children were younger they could play for up to 2 hours. Highlights include a grocery store, complete with moveable conveyor belt, a ball wall for kids to build a large-scale marble maze contraption and a large fire truck. It is always fun to watch the kids quickly make friends with strangers,
The other exhibits on the second floor are a little more cerebral in nature. Power Play San Diego is sponsored by San Diego Gas and Electric and the goal is to manage the power grid and effectively deliver power to a home. This actually was a little above even my head, but the kids had fun just trying different options.
There is also a large display on how San Diego gets its water. This is an extremely important issue in the region and this display highlights many of the challenges. The display was created by the City of San Diego Public Utilities and the San Diego Water Authority.
Most of the time we go to the Fleet we spend about 2 hours, not including seeing a film. As mentioned, we often combine this with a visit to the Zoo or other museums in the Park. However, we are annual members, so we don’t feel the need to see everything in one visit. A word of caution that applies to all tourist travel, be careful of overextending yourself.
You leave the Fleet through the gift shop, which of course has all kinds of science kits and building projects. If you have children you will likely be dragging them away from all the cool stuff they will want to buy. Right by the entrance/exit there is a small café with sandwiches, salads and flatbread pizzas.
Fleet Center Programs
As mentioned, the goal of the Fleet Center is to provide a full community education program. To this end they have all kinds of activities for all ages. This includes, not only activities at the Center, but also outreach programs throughout the community.
One interesting program is Two Scientists Walk Into a Bar. Basically, several times a year, 2 scientists will go into about 25 different popular drinking locations and talk to patrons about science. Note that is 2 scientists at each place for a total of 50 scientists. These include many of San Diego’s most popular breweries such as Ballast Point.
There are also programs targeted specifically towards seniors and young adults. For example, while the video game exhibit was in town, the center offered an all-night event for those 21 and older to hang out and play games. The Suds and Science program is a monthly series of talks at popular bars and restaurants. It costs $5 to attend.
Of course, there are dozens of programs targeted towards children. This includes weekend programs, after-school programs, and camps. We have attended programs specifically targeted towards scouts and of course they have all kinds of special school programs. This includes not only field trips and special tours but also having Fleet come to a specific school to provide a program.
San Diego is a city filled with scientist, engineers and other innovators. The Fleet is lucky to have this demographic to help drive interest in creating new programs. If you live in San Diego and have children, you will probably get to know the Fleet a great deal. However, the center and its programs also has great appeal to adults interested in all things scientific.