It’s hard to believe a seaside amusement park once existed in San Francisco’s West End, twirling carnival-goers on the Big Dipper and shooting them up on the Diving Bell. This legendary amusement park, Playland at the Beach, embodied the strange, wacky, and fun-filled carnival scene of another era, and now, the former seaside park lives on, in miniature, as the new Garden Railway exhibit at the Conservatory of Flowers. It’s one more reason to bring the kids back to Golden Gate Park.

Go: The exhibit is now showing and will be up through April 15, 2012. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm.

Travel deets: If you’re driving in, see if you can find free three- to four-hour parking on Conservatory or John F. Kennedy Drives before heading to the Music Concourse Garage. Those taking public transportation will be best served by one of several Muni bus lines.

What to see: The twinkling carnival lights of Playland at the Beach brighten the miniature amusement park scene, which is amazing in its detail. The whole thing is made from recycled bits like old pencil sharpeners and discarded light fixtures. The kids won’t be able to hop on the teeny rides, but they’ll still be excited to watch the mini airplanes spin and the carousel twirl.

Playland’s famed attractions are all there, including the Fun House and Candy Factory, while surrounding landmarks that once stood in the area, like the Sutro Baths and Victorian-era Cliff House, complete the scene. The set includes dwarf plants and model trains and trolleys winding their way through the Garden Railway. And of course, the museum’s themed galleries are filled with wild and beautiful foliage, from giant water lilies to meat-eating plants.

Possible lunch spots: Food isn’t allowed in the museum and there’s no café or restaurant on site. If you bring your own picnic, we recommend enjoying it before you come in. Restaurants at nearby Golden Gate Park museums include The Moss Room at the California Academy of Sciences and the de Young café.

How to dress: Many of the plants at the Conservatory come from the jungle so it’s no wonder it feels like one inside. Temperatures can reach as high as 85 degrees or more, so be prepared to peel off layers.

Need to know: Strollers aren’t allowed in the museum, but may be parked outside. If you’re looking for interactive play opportunities for the young ones, there are some arcade games, a photo booth, and fun house mirrors to run through.

Bonus: Check out the scavenger hunt spinning wheel first – it’s a great way to get the kiddos involved with exploring the museum.

Cost of trip: Free to $7 depending on age and residency. The Conservatory is free the first Tuesday of each month.


— Renee Macalino

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