City Museum in Orlando, Florida: A Labyrinthine Funhouse for All Ages

City Museum in Orlando, Florida, is a Labyrinthine Funhouse for All Ages

Imagine a Salvador Dali dream turned into an actual building. City Museum is a labyrinthine funhouse of simulated caves, numberless cubbyholes, and repurposed industrial debris. It even has a floor chute that slides you down ten stories.

Mr. Jump wants it to be irresistible to kids. He also wants visitors to linger.

The exterior

When the founder of City Museum died in 2011, the museum was in a precarious position. Premier Parks bought it, and Atomicdust helped them clarify the brand, create new ways to promote it to visitors and most importantly, to not kill the spirit of the place.

The eclectic mixture of children’s playground, fun house, surrealistic pavilion and architectural marvel is an expression of the wild, singular vision of its eccentric artistic creator, Bob Cassilly. It includes tunnels to crawl and climb, huge slides, aquariums, educational rooms and a rooftop with a ferris wheel overlooking the city.

It may sound like a nightmare for some, but for families, it is irresistible. Kids love to touch, climb and interact with the art. And the museum encourages them to do so. Its director compares traditional museums to a stalagmite, where you get a few minutes before they move you on. At City Museum, you can spend all day!

The interior

A jumble of climbers, slides and tunnels adorns the interior walls of City Museum, a sky-high jungle gym in a former shoe factory. The attraction is a maze of repurposed architectural objects, including two 10-story slides and a roof-top Ferris wheel. It also includes an aquarium, ball pits and a circus arts school.

The museum’s collection includes a variety of architectural ornaments designed by Louis Sullivan, such as this soaring cornice section from the Chicago Stock Exchange. Its curators want families to linger over the art, which they believe is more engaging than a painting at the Louvre or a sculpture at MoMA.

That’s why they’ve created a space where people can smile at, gawk at and even climb on the exhibits to appreciate them. Unlike traditional museums, which treat artwork like a stalactite—viewed from a distance—City Museum treats its collection like a stalagmite—viewed from below. This juxtaposition of repurposed elements creates unexpected forms, and it shows that there are still limits to postmodernism.

The garden

The yellow school bus on the roof and a jumble of slides and climbers loudly hint that City Museum isn’t your traditional art museum. The massive all-ages playground was made by sculptor Bob Cassilly in a former shoe factory. His vision is “a city inside of a city,” and it continues to grow.

The latest addition is Urban Garden Dreams, a special exhibition that showcases artworks inspired by the Missouri Botanical Garden spaces as well as students’ own backyards and neighborhoods. Art teachers from participating schools and community art programs helped the kids to draw or paint their visions for the exhibition.

For more on that, KCUR’s Susan Wilson strolled the grounds with City Museum’s storytelling expert, Richard Callow. He compared traditional art museums to a stalactite, coming from above, and City Museum to a stalagmite, rising up through the ground. Callow says they encourage kids to smile, gawk and even climb on the art.

The rooftop

A ten-story slide, Ferris wheel and artificial caves await visitors on the roof. There are also helical staircases that lead up and down, and a collection of structures that are probably best described as industrial scrap welded together in shapes that look like they could be fun to climb inside.

Sculptures of creatures populate the museum, and tunnels and crawlways are found throughout the facility. Most everything here is meant to be touched and crawled into, though the museum recommends wearing knee pads if you plan to do so.

The museum is world renowned and attracts crowds of all ages. In an era when many museums have become intellectual and stuffy, City Museum reminds us of the more playful early days of art when “cabinets of curiosities” combined scholarly study with amazing wonders. It is also a model for what the future of museums might be, with art that is immersive and accessible to people of all ages.

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