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Downtown Discoveries : Los Angeles Children's Museum charts adventures through the concrete jungle.

April 01, 1999|VALERIE J. NELSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pretend to drive a city bus, then take an actual ride on the subway. Admire a children's exhibition of Mexican art, then stroll over to Olvera Street. Play with the properties of water by floating a boat through miniature locks and dams, then discover the scenic fountains at the Water Court at California Plaza.

Each combination of experiences is available at the Los Angeles Children's Museum and surrounding environs, but museum-goers often aren't aware of it. So just in time for spring break, the museum has devised itineraries meant to help families make the most of a trip to downtown Los Angeles.

"The idea came out of a lot of our audience saying, 'What else can we do downtown?' " says Candace Barrett, executive director of the museum. "And the notion that downtown was this kind of scary place. It was dangerous. It was dirty. It was an awful place to be. But those of us who work downtown know there are wonderful treasures to be found there."

Starting with its immediate neighborhood, the museum put together walking tours that also extend to Little Tokyo, Grand Central Market and Chinatown. The information is available in the museum on a wall of brochures about different venues; it also includes what the museum bills as "Hassle Free Zone family day itineraries," which outline a proposed day downtown.

For instance, one agenda includes a trip to the museum, where you should expect to spend 1 1/2 hours; a one-block stroll to historic Olvera Street to shop at its open-air market and eat lunch at a Mexican restaurant (about an hour); followed by a trip to Union Station, where children can be introduced to an L.A. landmark and take a ride on the subway (which also should take about an hour).

"We want to become the one-stop hub for family doings in the downtown area," says Giovanni Barcesi, director of marketing and public relations for the museum. "Speaking as a parent, the more work that is done for me, the more likely I am to do it. And some of these areas are a gold mine of cultural entertainment."

Some discounts are being offered in connection with the family itineraries. For instance, admission to the Museum of Contemporary Art, nearby at 250 S. Grand Ave., is free with paid admission to the Children's Museum. Other discount agreements are more tentative but will include two-for-one meals at some local restaurants.

Some businesses are willing to give discounts for the month of April to see how it works out, Barcesi says. Specific details will be spelled out on the museum's wall of information, which features photographs and maps of the different areas. Staff members also have been schooled to answer questions about other downtown options.

To make the museum a spring break destination, weekday hours have been added through April 16. The museum's research is showing that children view the facility differently on return visits, making it ripe for repeat business.

"When they come back, even in four or five months, they find all kinds of things they didn't notice before," Barrett says. "They were too big or too little the last time, and it's a completely changed experience for them."

Within the museum, many of the exhibits and activities this month will be geared toward recycling and examining the world, since April is environment month, Barrett says. Children can create an installation artwork about the ocean April 10-16, and a Japanese kite-making workshop using recycled materials will be held April 17. April is also national poetry month and will be marked with the creation of a "poetry bug," a new Volkswagen Beetle that will be decorated with poems children write.

Regular attractions that are always popular with kids include face painting, shadow and water activities, making recycled paper projects out of junk mail, and recording their own television show or making an audiotape of music, Barrett says.

"It is all interactive, and it's all real stuff," she says. "We are married to very few things in the museum except that everything in the museum is something that a child or guest can do."

BE THERE

Los Angeles Children's Museum, 310 N. Main St. Spring break hours through April 16: Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Easter Sunday. $5, children under 2 free. Parking $3.30. (213) 687-8800.

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