MIDDLETOWN—Children will be instinctively drawn to the new undersea playscape at Kidcity Children's Museum, now open to the public.
The undersea realm is a place of whimsy, of mermaid caves and bubble panels that suggest vast aquariums, of just enough darkness to prompt expectant peeks around a pillar or through a window to see that mom or dad is still there before moving on.
There is a dash of Dr. Seuss, a touch of "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea." It's only for kids 3 and under and parents, and you have to take off your shoes.
Located in the basement level of the new wing, built by artist Ted Esselstyn with $120,000 in private donations, it is one of three planned exhibits that are stretching the bounds of what parents expect to find in a hands-on museum.
The other two exhibits - Middletown as a stop off an interplanetary freeway 500 years in the future, and "The Bend in the River" theme room with a canoe, tree house village and a quarry with boulder-sized building blocks - are to be built over the next two years, as money is raised.
More than 300,000 people have visited the museum - 90 percent from outside the city - since it opened in the fall of 1998.
Esselstyn has designed and built several other exhibits at the museum for director Jennifer Alexander, but none were as challenging - or as rewarding, he said.
"That room pushed me to the limits of my building and painting abilities," said Esselstyn, who had help from artist Scott Kessel.
"To see the concepts morph from the original drawings to something with a life of its own ... it was like jazz, developing new ideas as you go. For an artist, to spend six months in a space like that, just going to town, it was unique.
"I'd never worked for that long in a room, or in that medium of concrete. Jen is always willing to take risks - and it makes the payoff all the greater in the end."
Alexander said some parents told her they were worried that the exhibits in the new wing - part of $3.2 million expansion funded by the state, the city, and private donations - would be too slick, too corporate.
But it turns out the mermaid playground is vintage Kidcity - all original and a little honky-tonk, with a lot of little launching pods for the kids' imagination.
"We like intimate spaces, where a parent and child can be sitting and saying, `Look at that, isn't that great?' and you feel like you're alone, but maybe there's another family on the other side, one foot away," said Alexander.
The Greater Hartford Jaycees Foundation contributed $60,000 toward the undersea playscape, joining Liberty bank, which kicked in $7,500, and a group of individual donors.
One hundred organizations applied for a grant from the Jaycees' children's fund last year - three groups made the cut. Kidcity received the largest grant.
"We were very impressed with the number of children that the museum serves and the fact that Kidcity itself is so much a part of the community," said Stacey Spewock, chairwoman of the foundation's board of directors. "We love the philosophy of having parents interact with their children as the children play."
The futuristic Middletown exhibit, with used-spaceship dealerships, an oxygen bar patterned after Starbucks, a motel with a mirror maze, and a magnetic field where kids walk with tin-can stilts, will cost about $150,000. Citizens bank has committed $50,000 to the exhibit, and Alexander is working to line up other corporate sponsors.