The Children’s Museum of South Carolina – Where Fun Goes to Die

You won’t believe your eyes! How has this phenomenal little attraction escaped worldwide attention and acclaim?

Well, you won’t believe your eyes, that’s for sure. And I think it’s pretty damned clear just exactly how this has escaped anything resembling acclaim.

Some of you may have visited one of the country’s so called “Children’s Museums.” Wikipedia defines them as “institutions that provide exhibits and programs that stimulate informal learning experiences for children. In contrast with traditional museums that typically have a hands-off policy regarding exhibits, children’s museums feature interactive exhibits that are designed to be manipulated by children.”

Some of these Museums are damned brilliant. I am sure that I am poisoned by the fact that in my hometown of Indianapolis I grew up with one of the United State’s largest, oldest, and most esteemed Children’s Museums. The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis is truly a phenomenal experience: five floors of science and historical exhibits with a multitude of different activities and things to do. At 36 years old, I enjoy it today as much as I did when I was my children’s age.

Down on day two of my vacation in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina I found myself in a position with a few hours to kill with my four-year old son while my older son and wife were out doing other things. Stumbling through trying to find some good attractions down here for younger audiences I managed to locate the website of the The Children’s Museum of South Carolina. Having grown up with “Children’s Museums” I thought that sounded like a plan.

We only had to drive about 12 miles get there. It was just me and the young kid enjoying a day out on vacation, all the while telling him that we were headed to a fun place.

I started to get suspicious the closer we got to the alleged location. Every single tourist attraction in this town has multiple signs, billboards, brochures and advertisements. I had seen absolutely nothing on The Children’s Museum of South Carolina. In fact I had to dig pretty deep on the web to find it. It wasn’t even listed in most basic attraction searches for the Myrtle Beach area. Very odd.

When my handy little Magellan GPS told me I had arrived, there was nothing there. I drove back and forth twice squinting far back off the road to see if there was anything that could be it. After pulling back behind a roped off, empty parking lot we came to a small building that seemed to be a two-store strip mall. One store was Office Depot; the other was THE CHILDREN’S MUSEUM OF SOUTH CAROLINA. Uh oh. Not because of the location, but because the Office Depot was bigger than the museum. That’s okay though. How many times have we’ve all be deceived by something that looks very simple, plain and small on the outside only to be dazzled on the inside? Lots of times, right? Walking in the front door didn’t start to alleviate any of the apprehension. It was too late then. In my son’s eyes we had already arrived at “The Fun Place” and we were committed.

At $7.00 apiece, it was a reasonable investment to keep him occupied and happy for a while I guess, so we took the plunge. It was in the first 2 minutes after paying, that I realized that the afternoon would have provided more fun and excitement had we decided to enter the other door that lead into the Office Depot. This is probably an unfair observation since I generally enjoy occasional visits to Office Depot while my four-year old son generally does not.

My first impression of the place was that it wasn’t too terribly dirty. I wouldn’t exactly call it “clean” by any stretch of the imagination, but it wasn’t covered in grime, either. Everything there was old and in a state of disrepair. It certainly was smaller than the Office Depot. It contained a variety of exhibits that you would find sitting on the back shelf of any old Kindergarten classroom.

One of the first “big” attractions was the Magic School Bus. This was a plywood structure painted yellow. There was a gigantic old steering wheel at the front that you could spin around if you sat in the “driver’s” seat. In the front of the bus was Television and VCR. The TV itself is unlike any I’ve seen in the last 20 years. Certainly it was a mid 80s model from the youngest generation of the advent of cable ready televisions. The program being shown on it was some animated misadventures of some kids driving a bus and getting into mischief. Avoiding animals on the road, flying into space…etc. Of course, in the interests of safety, there was a sign posted in large type asking visitors “PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH THE VCR.”

Just outside the magic bus were the space and astronomy exhibits. One of them was a table about two-foot wide with really fine sand on it. This was the “What it would be like on the Moon” exhibit. At this point, the fine proprietors of the museum will have to forgive if I get the exact wording of some of these signs incorrect. We also apparently got to see what it would be like to actually walk on the moon, because the finely ground grey sand from the table was also scattered generously on the floor all around it.

Next in the space science section was the “What is Your Age on Other Worlds” exhibit. I’m sure you’ve seen similar exhibits yourself in other places. Unlike most of those passive exhibits that might have you enter your age and then show you what your age would be on the Mars, this was highly interactive. Fastened to the wall was one of those large button calculators. As a matter of fact, I had purchased that exact same model for my boss as a gag gift for Christmas last year since she seemed to have a problem constantly mis-placing her standard calculator. On the wall they hand painted the calculations the children need to do to answer the exhibit’s question. You punched your age into the calculator and did the math yourself to get what your age would be on Jupiter, for instance. Of course, your age is your age and this is all relative to the length of a planet’s orbit around the sun, but that would be WAY too much science for a children’s museum.

So much for the space science section. In a couple of places in the museum there were PCs set up to run very simplistic educational programs. Interactive flash games where you could click on things and watch animations that follow. I’m sure that most of those programs could probably be picked up on the discount rack at closeout stores. I would point out though that the metal folding chairs that you had to sit in to use those programs were in very good condition.

Don’t play pin the intestine on the human blindfolded, kids. That’s a bare electrical outlet next to it!

By this time, I was simply floored by the intense lack of class, organization, cleanliness or fun in this place. The biggest exhibit was a massive electric train/car diorama that apparently did something really neat had it worked. There were electric switches all the way around it as well as the main switch to start it. None of it did anything. I’m sure had it worked it may well have been worth the price of admission.

Probing around further, there was the Kid’s Medical Center in one corner. There was a gurney there, an old dental chair with some completely unexplained large metal device on a swing arm over it. In the front of the medical center was a wooden booth; similar to the advice stands that Lucy from Peanuts use to use as places of business. This appeared to be the receptionist desk.

The medical center also had a large felt outline of a human hanging on the wall to which you could attach small stuffed human organs with velcro. There was no real guide to what was right or wrong or where anything was supposed to go, but there was much fun in turning the esophagus upside-down and moving it between the patient’s thighs. Yes, I’m 36 years old physically, but mentally never left junior high.

So fun you can hardly stand it. Totally Tubular!

Outside of the medical center you could experience the magic of TOTALLY TUBULAR! [Exclamation point added by me to emphasize the excitement of the exhibit]. Totally Tubular was quite an exhibit. They had apparently visited Home Depot and picked up a dozen or so pieces of PVC tubing and joint connectors. I believe the instructions for this exhibit were “see what type of structures you can build.” And build we did, for all of about 3 and one half minutes.

Of course what science extravaganza would be complete without homage to the old David Letterman routine “Will it Float?” This one, entitled “Sink or Swim” was a small plastic tub with water in it and hand full of plastic kids toys around it that you could drop directly into the tub and discover the answer to the universal question all human’s ask when they see small objects: Will this thing float or not?

Other exhibits of interest:

The Golf Ball Thingy: Wish I could remember the name of this. It was three pieces of painted wood with grooves in them. You placed the golf ball in the groove and lifted the wood at an angle to watch the ball roll off it and into a hole on the table below.

The Science of Papa John’s Pizza: Like the Magic School Bus, another plywood structure that was a Papa John’s Delivery truck. Apparently, Papa John’s prepares and cooks their pizzas right in the back of their trucks, because behind the drivers seat in what might consider the bed of the truck was a small play toaster oven with several different sizes of plastic pizzas that you could hand over the top to the driver.

Wash the Rocks: I’m sure that this was probably the most educational exhibit there, but you had to pay an extra $3.00 for it, so I was content to watch other kids wash the rocks in the large sink outside the bathroom.

The Discovery Center: In this we had several exotic animals in cages. A couple of turtles, a couple of chinchillas, and a rabbit with a sad “I’d rather be testing mascara” look.

The Bubble Hoop: Here you would step in the middle of a hula-hoop suspended by a pulley and drop the hoop into the middle of an aqueduct of soapy water that surrounded you. If you pulled the hula-hoop up slowly enough it surrounded you with a giant soap bubble that would pop after a few seconds. That admittedly was neat in sort of split second of fun kind of way.

Something You Drop Balls Into to Watch Something Neat Happen: This amazing exhibit was out of order. This apparently was due to the fact that kids had apparently taken the balls to other locations in the museum and lost them.

Another touch of class that is noteworthy was the small cushioned vinyl bench seat. Not sure if it was an exhibit or just for sitting on. However, the rips in the vinyl cover were lovingly and expertly repaired with black electrical tape.

There were a few other people in the museum when I was there. Each of them seemed to have the same stunned look I did regarding what we were witnessing. It did not appear that any of the other parents or gaurdians I saw there were on a “return” visit to this place.

One woman was huddled in a corner in the child’s play area working furiously on her laptop. Maybe she though the cost of admission for her and her kids was worth it so she could get some work done and let her kids run free in a place that seemed somewhat safe. At least they couldn’t easily get out. It was highly unlikely that any of them could have submerged their face in the “Sink or Float” tub long enough to drown without one of the museum staff seeing.

The play area/evacuation path

For me, the piece de resistance was not one of the exhibits, but was the child’s play area itself. It was a standard “play” corner with a couple of mushy mats and table with some toddler toys on it and such (added bonus this day was the aforementioned laptop woman sitting on the mats). Now, it wasn’t the play area itself that was the problem, it was that the emergency exit was smack dab in the middle of the play area just a couple of feet away from the mats and toddler toys. Yes, without taking more than a step, a child could go from a table full of plastic toys or a somersault to a door with a large red push handle that warns you that the “ALARM WILL SOUND” if pushed. I didn’t have the courage to ask how many times monthly the alarm actually got tripped due to this genius placement.

Now, my plan was to summarize this whole visit rather viciously. I actually purchased a couple of items from the gift stand before leaving to commemorate this trip. I really wanted to tear into it. The complete lack of effort to make this thing even have the appearance of class was astounding. The attempt to make the exhibits have the slightest air of purpose or educational content was laughable at best. It was basically a large, poorly kept child’s play room. However, the day after the visit, I saw a sign further up the road from it saying something about “the future home” of the new South Carolina Children’s Museum.

Take it all in! Here’s the main (only) floor of the Museum! I kind of felt a little bad for thinking so harshly of this place at that point. My wife thought she had heard or read something since we had been there about them needing to raise $14 million or something to build the new one.

After I thought about this for a while though, I had no guilt. If I was a tax paying member of this community, I wouldn’t donate a dime to build a new Children’s Museum here unless I knew none of it was going to the group that constructed and kept this one, because absolutely no effort, no care, no real attempt to make this thing even half-assed worthwhile was put into this place. If there are even one or two people involved that have any heart put into it, they certainly are being completely thwarted by those that are just saying “throw a bunch of toys into a big room and see how much cash we can collect.” I didn’t walk out of this place with even the slightest feeling that anyone involved had given a damn or even tried to make something worthwhile.

Do yourself a favor. If you are visiting the Myrtle Beach South Carolina Area under no circumstances go to this place. If you live in the community and are wanting to help build a new Children’s Museum here, please make sure that that those involved with the planning of it know what the hell they are doing and find out where every penny of it is going. Ask them how the new museum would compare to other Children’s Museums across the country, not necessarily in size, but at least in the quality and types of exhibits. Even some of the smaller ones are actually quite good and go all out to make the most of what they have.

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