Penguins and Pajamas at the Cal Academy of Sciences

For parents who grew up reading and fantasizing about From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, E.L. Konigsburg's book about a brother and sister who run away to, and live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the idea of spending the night at the museum may be a literary dream come true. For kids captivated by Ben Stiller's adventures in Night at the Museum -- and kids who are more interested in dinosaurs coming alive than in Michelangelo -- the prospect of spending a night at a natural history museum might feel like a cinematic dream come true.

Both generations can live out (a tamed) version of their after-hours fantasies with the California Academy of Sciences' Penguins and Pajamas sleepovers.

Joining the bandwagon of other big city museums (New York's Natural History, D.C.'s Smithsonian) the California Academy of Sciences now hosts overnight events nearly every month. The next sleepover is on February 4, 2011.

I took two third-graders in December, in what turned out to be one of the stormiest nights of the year. Despite the fact that the museum is one of the world's greenest and most energy efficient buildings, my night at the museum was interrupted by a power outage, a rolling blackout that turned off the lights, the gloriously glowing fish tanks, the planetarium late night shows -- pretty much most everything but the milk and cookies.

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But while some adults might have been perturbed with the protracted lack of organized edutainment, the free range kids were pretty happy to roam, excite themselves over the added spook value of badly lit gorillas and ponder the suspended animation of Foucault's Pendulum -- did you know that while the earth may rotate, the pendulum needs an electrical nudge?

You'd think that a December thunderstorm and museum-wide blackout might be a little scary. But the Academy of Science is too hospitable for that. "Museums are supposed to have thick walls and dark corridors. You're supposed to get lost," said Gregory C. Farrington, the museum's Executive Director, on opening day. "This," he said "is entirely different. It's welcoming and full of life and light."

Despite the 500 people on the sleepover, the space didn't feel full of human life, so families could get up close to the giant octopus (he can stretch 7 feet or shrink to tennis-ball-size!) without feeling like they were in a mosh pit. There was much time before and after the black-out when docents were on hand to answer every question, show off snakes, and skulls, encourage sea urchin handshakes and reveal the survival secrets of albino alligators.

Luckily, we took in the pre-blackout early show of Fragile Planet. With its trippy space voyage six million light years from home, it blows kids' minds way more than the current daytime show on the Earth's origins. Sigourney Weaver speaks their language, explaining that we live on the Goldie-locks planet. (Not too hot, not too cold.)

But the highlight, obviously, is snuggling in with stuffies under an eel tank. Or, if you get a choice spot (get your sleeping bag early!) under the world's deepest living coral reef display. My daughter wants to warn you that the sound of a hundred fish tanks humming is less than sleep-inducing. The African Hall is quieter, although the savage dioramas may come to life. You never know.

While hanging with reindeer (after Christmas) was another kid-highlight, docent gossip about the spontaneous penguin-on-penguin action transpiring before us was a personal fave. (In fact, it was a romantic tale of forbidden love; these two refused to venture out of their gene pool and their penguin-making was frowned upon.

Oddly, penguin sex was less interesting to 9-year-olds than storytime. The picture book, Pierre the Penguin, tells of the museum's resident penguin celeb who wore a wetsuit when he lost his feathers. ($110.60 at Amazon.com, in case you think New York holds the only museum-based lit. Take that E. L. Konigsburg.)

The next Penguins and Pajamas sleepovers are February 4, March 11, April 8 and June 25, 2011. The cost is $119 per person and the sleepover is for persons over 6 years old. For tickets and information visit calacademy.org or call (415) 379-8000.

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