Techmania in Pilsen, CZ

Sunday afternoon science center visit – treat or chore?

When a rainy Sunday left us at odds for what to do, my husband suggested that we take a day-trip to nearby Pilsen. Although Pilsen is only 80 kilometers and about an hour’s drive from Prague, I’d never actually visited the city. After a decade in the Czech Republic, I thought I should at least be able to say I'd paid a visit to the fourth largest Czech city, one that's known around the world for producing its famous Pilsner beer. We could explore the city’s new Techmania Science Center as well as eat lunch at Na Spilce, the Pilsner Urquell Brewery's on-site restaurant.

When we ran our plan by the kids, they were less than enthusiastic about spending their free day at a science center. Instead, votes among the ten-and-under crowd were unanimous for Beckiland, billed as “the largest family entertainment center in the Czech Republic.” Since none of the adults, which consisted of Radek, my mother and I, was keen on spending the afternoon watching the children turn flips on an indoor trampoline or crawling through a giant toothy mouth, we headed toward Pilsen.

In truth, I wasn’t sure if we needed to spend our leisure time seeing Techmania either, since I prefer outdoor to indoor activities, but combining the visit with lunch at the Pilsner brewery sounded intriguing. We convinced our children by telling them that the center would be something like the IQ Park they’d visited in Liberec with their Czech grandmother.

Upon arriving at Na Spilce, we had to wait for a table. We realized that we should have called ahead for reservations since, although enormous, the restaurant reserves half of its space for tour groups. When we finally did get a table, the service was impersonal, and most of the food was only mediocre. Two exceptions were Radek’s guláš and Anna Lee’s svíčková, traditional Czech meat dishes that did not disappoint. The Pilsner beer was served with a thick rim of foam, and, as to be expected, it was fresher tasting than usual. After a slow lunch at the brewery, we skipped the tour and opted to head straight for the science center.

Two historic exhibition halls comprise Techmania Science Center, which was expanded and updated in March of 2013. From the parking lot, we walked past the digital 3D planetarium and across a bridge to the Science Center. At first sight, the facility was impressive. Its high ceilings made ample space for a historic tram and an electric train engine. There were a series of stations with different movie sets, various large-scale coordination and mind games, a section comparing humans to animals and hands-on scientific experiments involving the transfer of energy.

Although the children were the most excited about watching a 3D film in the planetarium and browsing through the gift shop, the ticket saleswoman advised us that the films were for the 12+ age group because of their advanced scientific themes. She suggested that we visit the Science Center first and then walk over to the planetarium to try the gyroscope and see the giant globe. We bought a family pass, which included all the exhibits in the science center and planetarium, but not the films. I steered the kids out of the gift shop, and our group separated to find the most entertaining activities for each child.

I paired up with Anna Lee and at her request, we attempted to figure out the eleven-step movie making project. After a few false tries filming her at the different sets, which were all related to outer space, I caught an employee with the word “zvědavý ” (curious) printed on the back of his black tee-shirt. He demonstrated the kiosk at Set 1, and I filmed Anna’s first clip – a several second shot of her crawling like an astronaut on all fours up a slanted incline. For the next hour of our visit, Anna and I walked in circles through the hall trying to pin down all eleven stations, which were not always clearly marked, or, at least, we didn’t manage to find them.

In the end, we gave up after filming four stations. The concept was intriguing, but both Anna and I were disappointed that we weren’t able to locate all the stations, and we didn’t find another staff member to help point us in the right direction. It wasn’t until I read the brochure in the car on the way home that I realized the movie making was intended for children 12+. On the positive side, instructions on a large-scale storyboard written in Czech, English and German explained the concept of the movie, and if we’d just been able to locate all the stations, I think Anna would have been thrilled to put together her first short film.

Meanwhile, Radek, my mother and the boys spent their first hour in the Man vs. Animal section. They tested whether they could run faster than a pig, chicken or horse and how fast their hands traveled through the air. Then they fastened on giant animal furry feet and tried to stand in an area filled with balls.

Overall, the hands-on Water World and Malá Věda (Little Science) stations were the best sections for all three of my children. Although billed for children aged 3-8, Anna Lee was actually the only one who figured out the interactive musical stations on her own. They all three got a kick out of walking through the castle and stepping into a large bucket where they tried to pull themselves up to the second story of the castle. They slid down a giant white slide, landing in a sea of square blue foam blocks which looked like a puddle of raindrops at the bottom of a drainpipe. It was a bit more like an indoor play area than a science center, but I was glad, at least, that the children were having fun and not frustrated trying to do something above their ability.

We spent only a few minutes at the planetarium, mostly because the sky had cleared and everyone was anxious to spend the last daylight hours of the weekend outside. Since Anna was the only one above 140 cm, she enjoyed riding the gyroscope while the boys looked on wistfully.

On a rainy Sunday, if your kids need to get their energy out and you want to do more than visit an indoor play center or to go to see a movie, Techmania is a good family-friendly option. If you’ve got children under 10, though, I would advise heading straight for the back of the Science Center where the Water World and Malá Věda exhibitions are. Make a reservation for Na Spilce before you go for a meal, or perhaps check Pilsen's restaurants for a more family-friendly local option.

I didn’t think the museum had such an impact on my kids, but on Monday I overheard Oliver telling his guitar teacher that he could run as fast as a horse. Later, my mom told me that he could really barely run as fast as a pig. But, who’s keeping track? As for Anna Lee, she said the gyroscope was almost as good as bouncing at Beckiland.

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