Tour San Francisco: Nightlife| The Academy of Sciences

The Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park hosts an adults only event every Thursday from 6-10PM, complete with DJ’s and cocktails, called “Nightlife.” The Academy is home to an impressive 40,000 different animals and some 900 different species, (including one albino alligator, a local celebrity in his own right), a self-contained rainforest dome, planetarium, aquarium, and natural history museum; all under one solar paneled, grass, plant, and animal covered, living roof.

Tickets are $12 online for non-members, $10 for members (added bonus, members get their own dedicated entrance). Parking can be a challenge, though we had no trouble that night, it’s best to take public transportation if possible. By our 5:30 arrival time, there was already a line about two blocks long, which left ample time for Jae-Min to explore the music concourse (which is behind us in the photo below) full of statues, trees, fountains, and a Romanesque stage, oddly named the “Spreckels Temple of Music.” The big triangular building in the back of the shot is the De Young Museum; I’m told the view from the observation deck is spectacular.


The first room of the Academy, the piazza, was set with a DJ playing lounge music on one end


and a bar on the other, offering craft beer, wine, call cocktails and one specialty cocktail, the “Yuri’s Live Mule” an homage to Russian cosmonaut and first man to cross the final frontier, Yuri Gagarin, the focus of that evening’s event. Each bar offered a different, pre-mixed, specialty drink, and, all bars accepted both cards and cash. At the piazza bar, there were some grab and go snack items available, but we decided to press on.


The first right off of the piazza revealed the entrance to the new whale exhibit, the rainforest dome, and the earthquake simulator, none of which allowed the cocktails we just bought (mules, which were surprisingly well balanced). So, we checked out the non-moving parts of the earthquake exhibit; before and after photos of both ’06 and ’89 (Battle of the Bay World Series shots included) information about preparedness kits and quizzes about what is safe to consume and what is not, should we end up without supplies for some time (toilet tank, safe, fish tank, not) a button which produced the sound of hissing gas, in case we ever needed to recognize what we were hearing in an emergency, info about where to go and what to do in an earthquake (get under the damn table, as every Calfornian knows, though there is the “triangles of life” argument, thoroughly analyzed, courtesy of snopes, here:

We moved on, past a craft table, full of adults crafting…globes? I can’t remember. We saw a couple of them, and while crafts is not my thing per se, the tables were full of people who were obviously enjoying the activity.

Every now and then we would pass a manned cart; we walked by one that appeared to be set with horns or tusks or the like.


Nope. That’s penis bone, accompanied by the most in-depth penis bone lesson to ever be taught, courtesy of a very eager and very informed docent; it turns out that pretty much every animal on the planet is piped with a literal bone, though the lowly skunk seems to be outfitted with more of a toothpick. That’s his sharp little pecker peeking out towards the back of the frame. This is what people look like when they are learning about penis bones:

Penis bone

We finished our mules and got in line for the Osher rainforest dome, an exhibit which should be visited at the first available opportunity, because it closes earlier than the others; also, there can be a lengthy wait, as they let people in in groups. The dome is an extraordinary 90 foot diameter glass enclosure, encapsulating three different rainforest ecosystems (Bornean on the bottom, Madagascan in the middle, Costa Rican at the top), with a 100,000 gallon tank as its foundation; the Amazonian flooded forest, which can be viewed both from above and below, via a translucent tunnel.


A spiral walkway takes visitors up through the different ecosystems in 82 degree heat, with 75 percent humidity. Beautiful birds fly across the dome freely, fish move lazily through the water below, and butterflies flutter about, occasionally landing on people, as this lovely creature did.


Up top, in the Costa Rican canopy, some nightmare inducing spiders spun geometrically complex, sinister webs


Alongside the glass enclosed habitats of rainforest frogs, lizards, and snakes. Before entering and exiting, visitors must stand in an anteroom, to ensure that butterflies don’t escape their safe environs.

The live action part of the earthquake exhibit, the simulator, is set inside a dome of sorts. First, there is a small room where a brief film about tectonic plates and the like is shown. Next, the group is moved into a room that is staged to look like it’s in a home or apartment in San Francisco, down to the ceiling rosette.


There is a “window”, with what looks like a view of the city at sunrise, when the ’06 quake hit (5:12 AM). There is a replica of the built-in buffets that are so common in turn of the century Victorians, filled with plates and wine glasses that shake and shimmy to a soundtrack of rattling plateware during the simulation. Since the Great Earthquake itself preceded the actual Richter scale, it is not known how intense the shaking actually was, but estimates put it at around a 7.8, lasting about 42 seconds (with a twenty-second intro quake to get folks used to the idea). There are plenty of railings to hold on to during the exercise, though there was really no danger of falling.


We were ready to scope out our dinner options. From what we could gather, we had a choice between the prepackaged snacks from the bars, an outdoor eatery that we didn’t investigate (too cold) and the Academy food court, though to be honest, we didn’t explore much and gave in to the food court option rather quickly. The food court offers pizza, burgers, sandwiches, salads, tacos, etc. We ordered burgers, which are cooked well no matter what your preference (we tried for med-rare and were verbally denied by the cook) then some horrible manager woman gave us a ration of shit for straining a trainees limits by ordering wine, and in the end, we just ate some soul suckingly terrible burgers (EVERY BITE, mind you) drank some gross wine, and moved on.

Academy Burger

The Steinhardt aquarium piece of the academy has been in Golden Gate park since 1923 (the Rainforest is technically part of the aquarium); typically that’s where the albino alligator, Claude (seriously, his name is Claude!) resides, but on that night, he was getting his teeth cleaned or something equally human in nature. The aquarium had a different DJ and a different bar with a different specialty drink. There are a ton of great exhibits there, from terrifyingly large snakes, to elegant and ancient looking seahorses


to brightly colored corals


to puffy, bubbly, shrimp


to spiny shrimp


To my absolute favorite, everywhere, always, the mesmerizing jellyfish tank, where the alien discs float and undulate, their insides lit by the changing neon lights, for all the world to see


Tide pools are always a hit; feeling the spiny back of a starfish or touching the pointy spikes of a sea urchin (when you touch one spike, the rest of them move towards your finger) with a cocktail in your other hand, surrounded by attention whores standing about in bizarre costumes (yep, that was a thing)? Beyond.


There is a 212,000 gallon, Phillipine coral reef, which, at 25 feet deep, registers as one of the deepest reef tanks in the world, full of tropical fish and, of course, crazy coral; it’s pretty amazing during the day, but truly spectacular at night, when accompanied by music, drinks, and a dearth of screaming children. Of course, I missed getting a photo of that somehow, but, you can view the tank anytime you want, live, via the Academy’s online webcam stream:

We paid a brief visit to the Focault Pendulum, a 236 pound brass ball that swings back and forth, constantly changing position ever so slightly, along with the earths rotation. The ground is set with a circle of little pegs; as the pendulum slowly relocates, it gradually knocks down each of the pegs throughout the day (every thirty-three minutes). The Pendulum has been sucking people in with its trance inducing qualities since I was a little kid; it’s one of the original items that remained after the major renovation in 2008.

We had circled around to the front again, the piazza area that was once a big empty square occupied by one DJ and one bar, looking more like a rave at that point. Time to bid the academy adieu…until next time.

Nightlife|The Academy of Science
Golden Gate Park
55 Music Concourse Drive
San Francisco, CA 94118

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