An old-fashioned diner -- with a red-and-tan checkered floor, counter service and vintage glass sugar canisters -- has opened for business at the Long Island Children's Museum in Garden City. And it has some very unusual patrons.
A towering black bear, a raccoon, a beaver, a boa constrictor and a leopard all wait to be fed. Visiting kids become waiters, offering each animal the meal they've learned that the animal likes to eat. Offer the wrong menu item -- choices include fish, pig, mouse, acorn, frog and ant -- and the sugar canister lights up "NO." Get it right, and see a "YES."
The Animal Diner is the centerpiece of "Feasts for Beasts," the first new permanent indoor exhibit added since the Children's Museum opened on Museum Row 10 years ago. During the grand opening this weekend, in addition to its regular features, the exhibit will offer animal face painting, and kids can make a Critter Chomper mask craft.
While the animals at the diner counters are fake, "Feasts for Beasts" also includes live insects and animals such as bees in a working hive, a bearded dragon named Yoshi, Franklin the box turtle, a tarantula and a python.
"My son was really into all the live animals," says Mei Chiu of New Hyde Park. Jonathan, 5, a kindergartner, got a sneak peek of the exhibit last weekend. "Every time the handler was showing one of the new animals, he was right in front of the table."
The exhibit teaches kids about herbivores, which eat plants; carnivores, which eat meat; and omnivores, which eat both. Almost every aspect of the exhibit is hands-on -- kids will open doors, pull levers, turn cranks, spin wheels. "The way they had it visually displayed made it come much more alive for my kids," says Annemarie Hill-Hotz of Wantagh, who was at the sneak preview with son Sean, 5, and daughter Mairead, 2. "They had to think for themselves; they had to self-correct, which was good."
Kids turn a crank and see how the jaw of a lion opens vertically. Turn another crank and see how a zebra's jaw rotates sideways to chew. They learn that plant eaters tend to have flat-top incisors, while meat eaters have sharp, chiseled teeth. They learn that some whales have fringed plates called baleens instead of teeth -- and see a life-size example of the chomper that seems like it has a mane of hair. "A whale takes a huge gulp of seawater into its mouth and pushes the water back out through the baleen filter," the exhibit explains. "It then licks off and eats the small sea animals that have gotten caught on the baleen."
Port Washington filmmaker Alan Teitel produced a slow-motion video of the mouths of a butterfly, a cockroach and a housefly as the insects capture and consume their food. A display called "Accidental Meals" shows an X-ray of a dog from Lynbrook that ate 22 pacifiers; the boxer, Mylo, had to have them surgically removed by a veterinarian.
The beehive will have a couch in front of it so visitors can sit and watch the activity. The bees fly in and out of the hive through an access tube leading out the museum's second floor; the hive was relocated from Lynbrook. "The colony was saved from a tree that was blown to pieces by Hurricane Irene," says Maureen Mangan, director of museum communications.
TRY A CRICKET
Still other displays teach how birds, which don't have teeth, eat their meals. It explains how short, strong beaks crack hard food; wide, flat beaks scoop up food in the water; and sharp, hooked beaks grab meat and tear it. Roll a slot-machine type wheel and see how animals such as chameleons use their tongues to catch moving prey. Once the exhibit gets rolling and the animals get on a regular feeding schedule, the museum will alert visitors to feeding times so they can watch animal curator Christina Kenny feed the creatures.
Visitors can even buy their own snack of sour-cream-and-onion-flavored crickets, Cheddar-cheese-flavored worms or a lollipop with an edible scorpion in the center from a vending machine that charges $2 or $3 per item. "Eighty percent of the world's population has insects in their daily diet," says Erik Schurink, the museum's director of exhibits.
He recommends the cricket: "The cricket has a nice crunchiness to it."
11 Davis Ave., Garden City
HOURS 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday and most school holidays
COST This permanent exhibit is free with museum admission of $11 for ages 1 to 64, free for younger than 1, and $10 for 65 and older