Before I tell you all about the Adler Planetarium, you need to understand that my kids are… shall we say… big into space. Our fridge is covered in drawings of the solar system, every trip to the library yields a new stack of space books, and they love those YouTube videos comparing the sizes of mind-bogglingly ginormous objects in space. In my house, it’s all space, all the time. So we figured the planetarium was probably a good museum for a family trip.
Of course, you don’t need a space obsession to enjoy the planetarium. The stars, the planets, black holes and supernovas… it’s all naturally fascinating, and the Adler Planetarium does an incredible job making topics accessible for all ages. From virtual rocket launches to steering your own rover to exploring light-up displays of the cosmos, there are dazzling displays and hands-on fun around every corner.
But when I was doing research for our trip, many of the articles I stumbled across said things like: ‘the Planetarium is smaller than Chicago’s other museums,’ or ‘you probably won’t spend much time there,’ or ‘feel free to throw it in with a trip to a real museum like the MSI or the Field Museum or the Shedd.’ This meant that I wasn’t quite prepared for the fact that after five hours, my husband and I were the ones begging the kids to finish up. I’m pretty sure if the kids had their way, we never would have left. I’d be writing this to you from the surface of the imaginary Planet X, where they’d be exploring the surface to their hearts’ content.
Features of the Adler Planetarium
The Alder Planetarium, located on Chicago’s museum campus, invites visitors to learn about the cosmos through hands-on displays, space exploration simulations, movies that play on a giant domed screen, and more.
While it is still quite a sizeable museum, with multiple floors filled with exhibits, Adler is smaller than some of the giant museums on Chicago’s beautiful museum campus. For some families (such as ours), this will be a benefit in terms of managing overwhelm, letting kids split up to explore their interests, and finding each other again. Those who are more sensitive to sensory overload or big crowds will find it calmer, with plenty of sound-absorbing soft surfaces.
There are thirteen big exhibits in the museum, all with plenty to explore. In general, you can do a quick tour of the areas and hone in on the most interesting spots for your family, or take advantage of all the extra opportunities to play, read, and learn.
Planet Explorers: The Most Kid-Friendly Adler Planetarium Exhibit
The Planet Explorers exhibit is huge, with plenty of hands-on, interactive play for young children. (The planetarium lists it as being geared towards ages 3 to 8.) It’s almost like a mini children’s museum inside the bigger museum; having all of these activities in one area made it easier to keep track of the kids.
The entrance to the exhibit is a great spot for families with young kids to crash: it has a couch, a TV with simple shows, and toys for young children. In the space after that, kids can pretend to camp under the stars or practice harvesting vegetables the way we do on earth.
Moving onwards, kids can explore the surface of the hypothetical “Planet X” by piloting virtual rocket launches with exciting countdowns, steering remote-control rovers across the surface, stocking their bags with everything needed for a mission to space, exploring a two-story rocket ship playhouse, and more.
My four-year-old gravitated towards full-body play areas like the “underground maze” and pedal rover, while my seven-year-old loved trying to pilot the rocket ship and reading about life at a space station.
All of the digital exhibits worked well and were easy for my kids to navigate and control, which is always a relief, since technical glitches can feel really frustrating for kids. Everything worked well and I didn’t feel like I had to hover over them.
The Community PlayLab, located in the Planet Explorers exhibit, wasn’t open while we were there. (You can check ahead for hours, but it also depends on staff availability.)
While Planet Explorers exhibit is explicitly geared towards the younger crowd, there’s plenty for kids to do throughout the planetarium. My seven-year-old spent the most time in The Universe: A Walk Through Space and Time, learning about all of the different types of stars, planets, galaxies, galaxy clusters, and more. He loved reading about all of the different objects in space and being able to swipe the screens to explore the wonders of the universe at his own speed.
About halfway through our visit, the community design lab in the lower level opened up. An Adler staff member chatted with us an invited us to create with a variety of art supplies, including markers, water colors, hole punchers, and more. Baskets of books on the stars and constellations made it an inviting space to stop and read a bit, too. It was a really nice change of pace.
We usually skip extra movies and shows at museums, but at Adler, I think they’re essential to the full experience! My kids loved the Destination Solar System movie we chose, and it was awesome to have a 30-minute break to relax in the comfy reclining seats. (Did my husband fall asleep? Yes. Yes, he did.) Check out the descriptions when you book your tickets to find the show that will suit your kids’ ages and interests the best.
Adler’s counter-service cafe serves sandwiches, salads, wraps, and more, as well as kids’ meal choices. (You can check out the menu online.) We thought the prices were really reasonable for lunch in the city, and the sandwiches were nice and fresh. Cafe seating is plentiful, with some of the city’s best views of the city skyline and the lake.
Vending machines are also available. In warmer months, the grounds outside are popular with picnickers; you’ll find hot dog carts and other food vendors outside, too.
There are accessible restrooms, as well as a single-occupancy restroom, on the planetarium’s third floor. More bathrooms are on the second floor, by the water fountains, elevators, and vending machines.
While nursing is welcome anywhere, there is a dedicated private nursing room in the Planet Explorers exhibit. You’ll also find stroller parking areas clearly marked throughout the museum. The cafe also has specific kids’ meals with kid-friendly options.
Adler’s hours change seasonally, and in the winter they are not open every weekday; check their website for current hours.
Ticket prices vary, including based on whether or not you are adding shows to your ticket. As of December 2022, admission with one show is $28/adult and $17 for kids 3-11 (2 and under are free).
On Wednesdays, the museum opens at 4 p.m. for Illinois resident free days! Adding on shows is still extra, but if you’re able to make it into the city in the evening, it’s a great way to save.
My four-year-old and seven-year-old both had a blast at the museum. While there are spaces that the two-and-under crowd would likely enjoy, I think that three is probably a great age to begin coming to the planetarium. Preschoolers and younger elementary schoolers will especially love the Planet Explorers exhibit, while older kids will be able to engage more deeply with the other exhibits.
The ability to read definitely changes the experience here, too. My preschooler tended to ooh and ahh at the beautiful pictures and lights, while my elementary schooler wanted to slow down and read about the things that interested him. Adler is a destination for space-lovers of all ages, so older kids, teens, and adults will find plenty to explore, too. I know my kids will want to visit the Doane Observatory outside the planetarium once they get a bit older and can stay up late enough for the observation opportunities.
Depending on your kids ages and level of interest in space, this could definitely be a quicker trip or a longer, full-day activity.
Best Times to Go
We went on a weekday morning when most schools were still in session, so it was much emptier than on a weekend or a Wednesday free night. It felt great to have so much space to ourselves! As the day went on, it got busier with more visitors and field trips, but it never felt crowded to us.
As with any museum, the earlier you’re able to go, the less crowded it tends to be.
If you’d like to skip the stairs up to the museum, head to the right and enter through the Leffmann Education Center. This entrance has automatic push-button doors. Inside the museum, you’ll find elevators to access all floors. The mid-level of the museum has accessible bathrooms, and there is also a single-occupancy bathroom you can find right inside the Leffmann Education Center.
Visit Adler’s accessibility page for all of the information you’ll need, including options for sky show captioning available on your personal device and assisted listening devices.
Adler has parking available; day rate prices start at $25 in their lot. Accessible parking is available. There’s also a spot for passenger drop-off in front of the museum.
You can also take public transportation, which my kids always love to do! In the summer (mid-May until Labor Day), the 130 Museum Campus CTA bus route will pick you up right outside Union Station or Ogilve Transportation Center and drop you off right in front of Adler. It’s not quite as convenient in the off-season, but the 146 runs from the Loop to Adler.
1300 S. DuSable Lake Shore Dr.
Chicago, IL 60605