My son, Benjamin, and I love how the characters on SpongeBob SquarePants selectively obey the laws of physics. Of course, this is true of any cartoon, but on SpongeBob, it’s the subtle interplay of competing details that we particularly enjoy. For example, motion bubbles are visual cues we can truly appreciate when they swirl around a character who is building a campfire on the ocean floor. It’s an artful disregard for continuity that Benjamin and I greatly admire, and we gamely identify all occurrences on the show with one-word callouts. A neutral, irony-free inflection works best. Thus, I might flatly say, “sunrise,” as a bright sun ascends from the bottom of the sea. Or Benjamin will offer “soda,” as a character gulps a soft drink from an open glass.
So, on our family’s Night at the Museum when Benjamin pointed to the ceiling and casually remarked “stars,” I immediately recognized the reference. We lay side by side on cots in the Museum of Natural History’s famous “whale room”–so named for the 90-foot blue-whale model that’s suspended from a giant rotunda ceiling. Underneath this colossus, surrounded by vibrant coral and sea-creature exhibits, Benjamin effectively expressed what we were all feeling: That like SpongeBob we ourselves were under the sea, defying the laws of physics. We were observing “stars” from the ocean floor. Benjamin reached for his flashlight and quickly contributed his own light to the riotous constellation that swarmed above us. Hundreds of kids and their parents were using their flashlights to create an ad hoc galaxy on the expansive ceiling. My wife, Francesca, and I grabbed our flashlights and joined in, chasing each other’s or often an anonymous stranger’s light beams across the great dome above.
We had staked out a corner spot just beneath a staircase for its relative privacy. In neat, multiple rows hundreds of cots were lined from one side of the hangar-size room to the other. But we found a separate, short row of maybe half a dozen cots. All around us families huddled together beneath the unblinking gaze of massive walruses, the motionless march of emperor penguins, and one supersized whale. It was quite the undersea community and it was our home-base for the next 12 hours.
We were free to roam parts of the museum on a “flashlight tour.” Most of the museum was closed off, but a number of the highlights, including the dinosaur room–backlit in red to intriguing effect–were accessible. Having been to the Museum of Natural History numerous times, we didn’t explore extensively. Strolling through the dimly lit museum was very cool, don’t get me wrong. Especially because it really did feel like an after-hours, after-dark privilege. I mean, by its very design the museum always takes on a timeless quality. The masterful dioramas do a remarkable job of making you feel as if you’re peering over an endless red-rock canyon or dwarfed by giant Sequoias or lost in a jungle. With no windows anywhere, it’s easy to immerse yourself in the faraway cultures and exotic landscapes of the exhibits and lose track of day or night. But wandering the darkened corridors with flashlights drew the night inside and filled the halls with its unmistakable presence. Still, we were eager to return to our cots, spread out our sleeping bags, and just lie in the legendary whale room–inhabit it in the special way that camping bonds you to your environment.
And for the most part, that’s how we spent the night. Just hanging out, talking, and frequently remarking “how cool is this?” Taking it all in was our primary source of entertainment. There at the museum, at the bottom of the sea (where cellphone reception is mercifully spotty, and remarkably few people took phone calls), we found the rare place that a family can enjoy a shared experience and interact without competing agendas or electronic distractions. Now, how’s that for defying the laws of physics?
Whale room image: Lazurite/Flickr
Eric Wechter is an editor for Fodor’s Travel Guides. He enjoyed an astonishing rise to mediocrity, playing in a number of bands in both New York and Las Vegas before settling down to a difficult career of going on press trips and writing about travel. Actually, he writes about press trips and goes on and on about how he’d like to travel more, but can’t find the time. He’s edited numerous guides for Fodor’s including the Caribbean, Pacific Northwest, Las Vegas, and Belize.