Oh, you know. Just another afternoon hanging out with Bill Gates. While a play date on the Microsoft campus sure does sound fun (we hear the cafeteria is awesome!), this is the side to the Gates family that you and your kids may not be as familiar with, until today. Located just outside of the Seattle Center is the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Visitor Center, home to one of the coolest places in the city to watch your kids learn about what giving truly means.
Not Your Average Visitor Center
When you think of a “visitor center” you probably picture some roadside historical viewpoint that smelled like old, stale coffee and could hardly be called a “center,” let alone inviting. You know the one — you probably stopped there last summer on that road trip you took with the kids, just to get a break from the are-we-there-yets. As you can imagine, the Gates Foundation does a visitor center right, using some of the best, brightest and most creative local minds to bring the work that the foundation does around the world to life. It’s not quite a museum and it’s not quite an exhibit. Amongst all of the information and the pretty graphics and photographs, there are built-in hands-on elements, places to create and even spots to climb. Every family that’s visited the Gates Foundation Visitor Center marvels about how they were only planning on popping in to check it out, maybe on the way to one of the flashier attractions across the street at the Seattle Center, but they ended up staying for hours, getting involved in every element of what the Visitor Center has to offer. And, it doesn’t smell a bit like stale coffee in there.
Long story short, the Gates Foundation gives a lot of money to a lot of organizations, from local grants to projects on the other side of the globe. They are actually in the business of giving other people, foundations and organizations money to pursue the philanthropy that they are passionate about. For example, the Gates Foundation, itself, doesn’t dig wells in Africa, but they may fund an organization that does. Your kids are going to see that come to life in the stations that are all around the Visitor Center, from giving them a chance to build their own devices that will help others (literally, with pipe cleaners and tin foil and other crafty supplies!) to feeling what it’s like to lift the weight of two full buckets of water (don’t worry, the buckets are spill-free). This is one of those magical parenting moments when you realize that your kids are having fun and learning something at the same time!
While the Gates Foundation Visitor Center is certainly hands-on and they’ve taken measures to make sure that everything is kid-touch-friendly, it’s also not a children’s museum where you can let them run wild. You’re going to want to explore as a family and check out each piece of the Visitor Center together, especially if you have kiddos who are still learning to read. Our favorite part about the Visitor Center is that you can bring your toddler and your teenager and they’ll both have a great time. Obviously, they will explore the Center differently, but this is a place where you’ll all be engaged. Be ready to be open-minded about chatting with your kids as you explore. We wouldn’t call any of the exhibits controversial, but they do tackle worldly issues and their curious little minds may have some questions as they process what they see.
The photo wall when you first walk in — add your own photograph! The cool bathrooms. The Share Your Cause tree in the back corner – draw a picture of your own cause! The concrete bags that you can climb on outside. The footprints. The place where you and your kids can share your ideas to help the world.
The Parking Scoop
Here’s something you’ll love to hear… parking to go to the Visitor Center is quite easy. Yes, that’s what we said. Parking is easy. Okay, well, it’s easy once you get through the Mercer Mess and get to the parking garage that’s conveniently located next door! Coming either direction on Fifth Avenue North (the same street as the Visitor Center), you can turn directly into the parking garage entrance. You’ll see it just south of the Visitor Center, with the garage itself located on the corner. We love this garage because there are always plenty of spaces to choose from and the spaces are big, so you can easily wrangle kids in and out of car seats without bonking your door on the car next door. The only downside? It isn’t cheap. Parking for 1-2 hours is $10 and over 2-hours is $12, but considering there isn’t a fee for the Visitor Center itself, paying for parking seems well worth it.
Grabbing a spot on the street isn’t out of the question, especially if you don’t mind walking a few blocks. Check out the side street that’s just across the street from the front doors of the Visitor Center — there is often parking there during the week. You can also venture a bit north of the Visitor Center, towards Lower Queen Anne, to find a free spot. Beware of the “zone” parking areas, which may limit where you can park… and when!
Bring It & Leave It
You’re going to love this place because the “bring it” list is very short. All of the exploring is self-contained at the Visitor Center, so all you’ll need to bring are rain coats to get your from the parking lot to the front door, a stroller if you have a little one with you (there’s plenty of room to wheel it around!), and your thinking caps, which may or may not be literal caps, depending on your kids. What to leave at home? Your coffee, as you’ll need both hands to interact with the exhibits. Your gigantic carry-all purse, as it will become a pain to lug around. Toys and extras that your kids think they’ll need, but you’ll end up shoving under your arm about two-minutes after walking in the door of the Visitor Center, because they’re having such a good time.
Post-Play Eats & Fun
With such a central location, just across the street from the Seattle Center, once you’re done at the Gates Foundation Visitor Center, you can easily tack on some of your other favorites nearby or, simply pop over to the fountain to run off some wiggles before heading home. Looking for a place to grab a bite to eat after all that thinking? Check out The Armory, across the street in the Seattle Center, just on the south side of the EMP. It will take you less than five-minutes to walk there and if you spend more than $10 on lunch, they’ll give you a voucher for money off of your parking at the garage (Fifth Avenue North location only).
No, you can’t add Bill Gates as a friend on Facebook. But, you can become a fan of the Gates Foundation Visitor Center’s Facebook page, which will keep you up to date on any kid-friendly events they have planned. Be sure to check back on the Facebook page after you visit — they are fantastic about posting awesome event photos of kids exploring the center!
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Visitor Center
440 Fifth Ave. N.
Seattle, Wa 98109
Find them online on the Gates Foundation website
Hours: Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
What do you like most about the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Visitor Center? Will you be visiting soon? Let us know in a comment below.
— Katie Kavulla
Photos courtesy of the Gates Foundation Visitor Center Facebook Page