Playground of Terror: The City Museum

April 8, 2015 — I don’t use the term “bonkers” lightly. Test me. Type it into the Google box in the right column. That said, the City Museum in St. Louis, Missouri, is bonkers. Absolutely so.

Now, the City Museum is sort of a children’s playground/interactive exhibition, so you may be thinking, “Of course, it’s bonkers. It’s for kids. Like Trix.” No. No. No. I’ve been to plenty of kid’s attractions. Had my share of bowls of Trix. Never anything like this.

It’s almost an indescribable place, and its name, I can only assume, is a public show of defeat at coming up with an accurate descriptor for it. “City Museum” suggests staid displays, quiet field trips, champagne receptions.

No. No. No. The City Museum is bonkers.

Obviously, I don’t even know how to dive into our experience. Gonna have to belly flop.

We pulled into the museum parking lot and barely noticed that said parking lot was outlined in giant scaly, stone serpents. That’s because we were staring at the exterior of the building, an exterior that made no sense. It’s ostensibly a ten-story ex-shoe factory. Straightforward. However, out front I could see actual jets and planes stuck in a jumble of metal mesh made up of tunnels, platforms, bridges, and slides. It looked like an industrial junkyard tended by some undiscovered outsider artist. High up on the roof, I could see vague shapes, including what looked like an actual school bus dangling over the edge. I thought I saw people in it.

We entered, paid our fee, and the only direction we were given was, “You should start on the roof. It looks like it’s going to rain, and we’ll close it if it gets too bad.” She smiled politely when she said it, although, “But we’ll let it get a little dangerous first” was clearly lodged between the words of her greeting.

So up to the roof we went. Me, my wife, our then-four-year-old, and our newborn in a stroller. Eventually, the elevator doors opened onto chaos. I don’t mean there were tons of people. I mean I couldn’t make sense of the layout of the roof. There were animal statues, a pond with dauntingly spaced stepping stones, hollows spires, slides, a wide white dome, and, towering above it all, a 30-foot-tall green praying mantis.

That's me and my daughter in the spire on the left.

In the sky, the gray clouds glowered like they were ready to wash us off the roof, like any second lightning bolts would high-five the massive metal claws of the mantis. So, naturally, we climbed on metal things, doing something you shouldn’t be able to do on a roof even in nice weather: go higher.

My wife decided to stay with the baby, so me and my four-year-old crawled hand over hand up a tube of strong metal wires or mesh that angled some 50 feet up to the green bug-god atop it all. Keep in mind that’s 50 feet on top of ten stories, so the wind that blew past us through the widely spaced wires felt like jet streams. It was one of those climbs that had a “no turning back” point and many “Should I have let me four-year-old onto this thing?” points. If my creaky, bruised knees or her tiny arms gave out, we were stuck. There wasn’t enough room for me to maneuver us out together. Finally, though, we got to the top, made our obeisance to Giamantis, and then jumped onto a Ferris wheel.

Me, my daughter, and some random kid behind us.

That’s right. On the roof was an old Ferris wheel of the type you see at carnivals. The ones with no seat belts and too much sway and the constant threat of slipping through the bottom of the car. A questionable contraption when it’s on solid terra firma, a borderline death-wish high up on a rooftop.

We survived, though, and after monkey-barring across various other thingamajigs set way too close to the edges of the roof, we jumped on a bus. The bus. The one I saw from the parking lot. It was indeed dangling over the edge. And you could indeed enter it, all the way to the driver’s seat where we learned what it feels like to drive off a building. I’m telling you, man, you’ve really gotta trust the engineers at this place.

And the roof was the least bizarre section of the museum.

The whole thing is the brainchild of one man, who took the city’s junk and built this massive, interactive monument to dangerous whimsy. In fact, he both lived and died by that code, as he was crushed in 2011 when his steamroller fell down a hill while he was creating a new attraction called Cementland. But the City Museum lives on.

We returned to the ground floor, which, again, was constructed according to geometries I was unfamiliar with. A life-sized white whale opened its mouth into a tunnel into the unknown. A white pterodactyl soared under a ceiling fuzzy with glittery stalactites. Everywhere were tunnels and small entrances to dark places. I grabbed the handle of the stroller, less out of civility and more out of terror, and let my wife go explore with our eldest for a bit.

I didn’t see them again for half an hour. And when I did, it was my wife, alone, sweaty, and asking me from a balcony if I had seen our daughter.

Eventually, we found her, and it was my turn to enter the dark labyrinth and lose her. Holy cow. I’m not a helicopter parent, but I was terrified of losing her in this strange place in this strange city. And it didn’t help that following her was near-impossible. At one point I was in the ceiling, crawling through dark, hot plastic tunnels whose circumference barely beat my own, with no clue where I was about to be deposited. Or if the thing could really hold my weight much longer.

The kids are certainly in charge here. There are a thousand holes she could and did dive into, ending up in rooms and tunnels that I had to find roundabout and larger avenues to enter. At some point, we ended up in a large cave, with carvings of dragons everywhere. A few dark holes and strange creatures later and we were looking up a ten-story shaft of terraces that were actually slides of various heights, including one that fell in a corkscrew through all ten floors of the building.

Next, we went to another floor, where we wandered through a museum of bizarrerie. This was more my style. Natural history specimens, robots, weird things in jars, carnivalia, antique oddity. Beautiful. And no heart in my throat. No cold sweats.

But I knew we still had that industrial junkpile to conquer.

Outside, this massive jungle gym felt 20 times more terrifying than our rooftop ascents. Sure, I was technically closer to the ground (closer being a few stories in the air), but the arcing wire tunnels like frozen Slinkies and tiny platforms and stuck-in-air planes with stripped cockpits that you can drop into or walk along their wings were riddled with daunting “no turning back” situations. A few times I quailed, only summoning the courage when my kid took off without me. They somehow combined both the fear of agoraphobia and claustrophobia into one experience.

On one hand, it was one of my proudest days of parenting, as I got to hang with my kid while showing her wonders. On the other, it was my worst, as I had to constantly promise her gifts of escalating value to keep her from dashing off or putting me in precarious situations, or just to let me stop and freak out internally for a few minutes before moving on. Brontosaurus making a comeback? That was me. I promised her that.

We didn’t have time to do everything in the 600,000 square feet of the city museum. There’s an aquarium in there, a ball pit with oversized balls, live acts, places I’m sure I just didn’t find in all the nooks and crannies and secret tunnels, and apparently the fifth floor is apartments—full of people I’d love to meet.

The worst part was leaving. The closer we got to the exit, the larger my kid’s suspicions got, until she realized what those four glowing red letters above the door meant. She exploded in a wail like I’ve never heard from her before or since. And it wasn’t so much a spoiled tantrum. It was desperate grief from the deepest regions of her developing psyche. “I want to have fun,” was what she screamed repeatedly through her tears as I hoisted her over my shoulder and out the door. She knew instinctively in her small brain that fun might never measure up again.

And I will always be scarred by that.

But the place is bonkers, and everyone should check it out.