Orlando Science Center Small-Group Observatory Tours Take VIP Stargazing to a Whole New Level | Art Stories + Interviews | Orlando
I’m just an arts and culture columnist, but you don’t need to have a PhD. recognize that the last two years have been particularly difficult for scientists. Cynic politicians have rallied an already skeptical population against reliance on empirical evidence, just when we need the facts the most to fight COVID and climate change. So, as the son of a former science teacher, I had a special satisfaction last week visiting the newly reopened observatory at the Orlando Science Center, which had been closed to the public for nearly two years, but which prompts again the guests reach for the stars.
In case you didn’t know, that grand silver dome overlooking Loch Haven Park atop the roof of the Orlando Science Center 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 at a Cocktails & Cosmos party, and gazing through the enormous telescope was a magical experience despite the fact that the dome was filled with customers. But this time, OSC invited me to experience one of their new socially distanced small group tours, which takes VIP stargazing to a whole new level.
My exclusive astronomical adventure began as my wife and I, along with another couple, were greeted in the lobby of the Center by the CSO’s 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 seemingly Wonka-esque ride through the ceiling and into the upper levels of the building. , which are normally off-limits to guests. We stepped out onto OSC’s wrap-around balcony (overlooking a swanky wedding reception below), where a $1,000 consumer Meade telescope provided small but impossibly sharp looks at Jupiter and its four Galilean moons, as well as the rings of Saturn, a crescent of Venus and unique views of downtown Orlando.
Then it was time to climb into the dome, watching from within as the structure opened and rotated, revealing the heavens to its massive 10-inch-diameter Byers Telescope. (It turns out that circumference is more important than length when observing celestial bodies.) The higher magnification of the larger instrument revealed subtle bands of vibrant color on Jupiter, and even the gap between the rings of Saturn. Even better, unlike my last expedition to the observatory, I wasn’t neck and neck with the others, but I had plenty of 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 OSC’s inflatable planetarium, which from the outside looks like the world’s most boring bouncy house. Inside, we crouched on the carpet under a half-domed ceiling, which quickly came to life with a digitally projected starscape. Instead of the usual pre-programmed planetarium show, this interactive system allowed Jones to guide us on a breathtaking high-speed journey from the poles of Pluto to the edge of the Milky Way and then back to Earth. We also enjoyed an informative introduction to the constellations – not just the Greek mythological figures familiar to Westerners, but the more prosaic Chinese star configurations like “neck” and “legs”.
I probably learned more about astronomy in an hour than in the past decade, and Jones’ joy in sharing his fascination with the sky was infectious. As a bonus, I had the chance to say goodbye to the turtles and alligators living in OSC’s Natureworks man-made marsh, an iconic opening day attraction that will soon undergo a radical reimagining. (Don’t worry, current residents will get 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 January 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 illuminates Stan the T. rex and his fossilized companions with a dazzling seasonal display, also runs through January 4.
On the fourth floor, you’ll also find the Poozeum, a collection of coprolites (or fossilized dinosaur droppings) that brazenly claims to be “#1 for fossilized #2” by displaying the Guinness World Record holder for “largest fossilized excrement of a carnivore”, a turd of T. rex nicknamed “Barnum”. And if all that science leaves you hungry, don’t forget John Rivers’ 4Roots Café on the ground floor, where you’ll find locally sourced plant-based lunches, plus a new exhibit on how kids can become “Food Heroes” by composting and encouraging pollinators.
CSO’s Private Observatory and Planetarium Experiences are offered Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:30 and 9:45 p.m. through 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 cosmos tour.