When my 4- and 5-year-olds became ardent fans of Star Wars and all things relating to ‘out of Space’, the time seemed ripe to take them to see some Space-themed attractions – especially given that Britain’s largest, the National Space Centre, is rather curiously located in my home-city of Leicester. The latter is not known for its array of family-friendly attractions (the Space Centre is here because it was the brainchild of Leicester University’s space department), so it was good to have something to combine with our trip to Granny’s 60th birthday celebrations.
The centre’s distinctive futuristic rocket-tower rises up out of the rather grey Midlands townscape, generating excitement even from a distance. Once inside, you can take a lift up this tower, which is home to a number of satellites, capsules and the like, as well as mezzanine galleries with interactive and other displays. Many of these proved suitable for younger kids – the minimum age for enjoying the Space Centre is probably about three.
The attraction is focussed around the domed Space Theatre, which hosts changing surround-video shows – on our visit, Astronaut, narrated by Ewan McGregor and depicting in an amusing way the various stages on the road to becoming a space explorer. Although this is billed for ages five and up, it seemed to please the younger kids in attendance, even if most of it went above their heads.
Afterwards, we spilled back out into the entrance foyer (the layout of the place is somewhat confusing) and re-entered the main ground-floor exhibition, where our sons got very taken by a life-size launch pad that they could play in, with buttons and levers galore.
‘I’m a real space man!’ shouted Ripley over and over, and we couldn’t tear him away.
For our eldest, Ethan, the highlight came just as we were leaving, when over the tannoy came the announcement that an alien was loose in the galleries. We spotted him and he prowled over – Ripley hid behind my legs at once; Ethan was unsure for a moment or two but soon made friends with the convincing critter.
The Centre doesn’t make for a cheap day out, and we weren’t impressed by the fact that many of the hands-on displays were coin-operated and that we also had to pay to park. On the other hand, very good money-saving Stay, Play, Explore deals (nearly 50% off) are available in conjunction with other local attractions, such as the Conkers woodland discovery centre, as well as packages with local hotels, including the Marriott and the Holiday Inn, both with swimming pools.
Our subsequent visit to the Wirral’s Spaceport meant seeing the same Astronaut movie all over again in the venue’s own planetarium-like cinema – but the boys didn’t mind that. And though this is a smaller-scale (and slightly cheaper) attraction, there was the same focus on hands-on displays to help kids explore the mysteries of the Universe, although it’s true that most of the exhibition is aimed at ages seven and up. Most popular with my boys this time was the juddering Explorer 1 motion ride simulator, but the Space displays were far outstripped by the temporary exhibition on the first floor – The Art of Doctor Who (now ended), where they could ogle all their favourite monsters and learn about how the hit series is made.
Spaceport is part of the Seacombe ferry terminal, which means you can reach it by taking a ferry across the Mersey (joint Spaceport/River Explorer tickets available) from Liverpool.
Other UK venues with Space-themed displays are Thinktank, Birmingham’s science museum, and the Science Museum in London.