Imagination Station – Lucas County

The Imagination Station is a non-profit science center in downtown Toledo, on the bank of the Maumee River. This was my third time visiting this museum, and the first since it had undergone an extensive amount of renovation. Before we take a look inside, let’s do a little tl;dr history of the location the museum sits on.

tl;dr history

In the late 1800s, two brothers opened up Tiedtke’s grocery store in downtown Toledo. By 1910 they had grown enough to construct a 6-story, nearly taking up a full city block full-service department store at the corner of Summit and Adams street.

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Sadly, Tiedtke’s closed in 1972. The building then burned down in 1975, and the lot sat empty for nearly 10 years. In 1984, in an attempt to revitalize the downtown area, the Portside Festival Marketplace opened.

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It closed in 1990.

At this point, the city of Toledo decided that an educational center would be a better use of the property, and their eyes turned towards COSI in Columbus. In a joint venture of sorts, COSI Toledo would open in 1997.

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In 2006, and with both museums struggling financially, COSI Toledo officially split with COSI Columbus. On December 31, 2007, after voters turned down two operating levies, COSI Toledo closed it’s doors to the public. I seem to remember during this time they kept a skeleton crew together so that schools that had already scheduled field trips could still attend the facility.

In 2008, voters approved a levy, and the museum reopened as the Toledo Science Center. In October 2009, the museum was officially renamed The Imagination Station. Since it was renamed, a large renovation project has taken place, and about half of the original exhibit space has changed.

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Instant Nostalgia

Before I get to the recent trip, I thought I’d share a couple things I remembered from my first two trips to this museum. My first trip there was in 2003. First of all, it was impossible to not notice that this used to be a mall. It was easy to tell where storefronts used to be, and that the atrium area used to be a food court type area. Second, was the instant nostalgia I felt walking inside. More than just the fact that everything had COSI logos (and I was an employee of COSI at the time) was that some of the exhibits started life as temporary exhibits in Columbus.

I remember visiting exhibits like Life Force and Mind Zone when I was a kid, (and in Life Force’s case, I was seeing them everyday in the Life Exhibit at work, since much of it was recycled there as well). So it was almost instantly that I was somehow thrown back into my youth even though I was in a museum I had never set foot in before.

The next thing you noticed was that the very instant you stepped beyond the admission desk, there was stuff to do. That was a hallmark of the original COSI. So it was very nice to see that transfer to this museum.

The second time I visited was in 2009 (just after I left COSI. Ironically enough). I went up with a bunch of my friends that still worked there. I kind of considered it a show of solidarity. The museum had just reopened from being closed to the public for quite a while, after all. Most of the exhibits were the same, they had added a couple new things, but you could kind of tell that things were at a “tread water” stage.

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The first thing, and most frustrating thing, about visiting The Imagination Station is parking. Being right downtown in a fairly big city, there is no parking on-site. Fortunately, there is a really nice old church directly across the street with a large parking garage. There are also several surface lots within 2-3 blocks, but just be aware, you will have a hike on your hands.

We had a slightly more adventurous hike than we planned on this trip when the elevator at the garage didn’t work. This meant a 5 floor hike to the skybridge (we were not going to play human Frogger). Once we crossed the skybridge we then had to…take the elevator back down to street level to go inside. It’s not the most elegant entrance, and doesn’t lend itself to great pictures…but it functions.

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As you enter, you walk between the Science 2 Go gift shop (the name is a holdover from when it was COSI Toledo) and the travelling exhibit area. You also realize that you are now on the upper level of the museum. So work with me here. We parked in an underground lot, climbed up to a skyway, took an elevator to ground level to enter a museum which is also partially underground. Mind. Blown.

At the time of our visit, there was an exhibit about LEGO skyscrapers. For some reason, it cost an extra $4 to visit, but the walls to the exhibit were glass, and you could see inside. So, it was $4 to…play at a big table full of LEGO Blocks, I guess? Cool structures, though.

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This exhibit is not there anymore, so don’t plan your trip around it. They do change their traveling exhibit regularly, so check the website for updates.

Once you get by the admission desk, just like before there is stuff to do almost immediately. You walk in to the central court area, and there is stuff all around. From a high wire bicycle and hot hair balloons above you to the Human Yo-yo, there is stuff moving all around you. The building feels alive. Exhibits are in areas called “Learning Worlds” (another COSI hold over) that branch off from the hub.

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The first exhibit is called Energy Factory. It’s one of the exhibits that has not been overhauled yet (although I got the feeling it might be happening soon). I remember it being called Whiz Bang Engineering on a previous trip, and it deals with all sorts of energy topics. There are still several fun things to play with, but when you went back into the exhibit area proper, it felt very sparse. I believe several things had been removed. This adds up if the exhibit is ready to undergo change. The things that were there were enjoyable, but it’s not a terribly captivating exhibit at this time.

The next area is called Water Works, and I have to imagine this is one of the more popular sections of the museum. It begins with a very dramatic entrance.

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This effect is very similar to the entrance to COSI’s Ocean exhibit, but the Toledo one predates Ocean by three years.

This is mostly a water play area. You get to play with clouds, you can experience hurricane force winds, and you can expect to get wet at the giant water table. My favorite part of this exhibit is that there is a working periscope attached to the building that allows you to look out and see things long distances away.

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The church is nearly a mile away

They also make a good use of windows here. There’s a lot of nice natural light, and some nice views of the water. Toledo might not be the prettiest city, but this river view is nice.

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The final exhibit on the top floor is Little Kidspace. A COSI Classic, this area for small children only is the busiest in the place. Since I don’t have kids, I didn’t have a chance to explore the area, but you can see in from the Water area.

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Looks to be lots of fun stuff for the little ones. The last time I was here, the area was themed to the short-lived ZOOM reboot. There were no signs of that anymore. This looked much the same as I recalled it from back in 2003.

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A healthy bit of nostalgia

Heading downstairs, we come to my favorite part. The much beloved Mind Zone. Mind Zone was one of those old COSI traveling exhibits that I clearly recalled from my childhood. And I am happy to say almost nothing has changed. This exhibit is all about perception and optical illusions. All the classics are here from the upside down faces…

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although they have updated the pictures (this actually upset me a bit because they used Angela Lansbury originally, and she’s awesome).

to the tilted room (RIP King’s Throne Room)…

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to this great ladder illusion.

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I honestly think we spent more time in here than in the rest of the museum combined. It’s just such a fun and engaging exhibit PACKED with stuff to do. I wish something like this would permanently return to COSI Columbus.

Around the corner was an exhibit that I love as a board gamer – a series of classic games from around the world.

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Next to this is the Atomic Cafe, yes indeed, another remnant of the COSI days of the past. This cafe is kind of wonderful because it has a nice, almost water level view of the river. It would be a great place to relax, and watch the water flow by. Sadly, we were on a tight schedule this day…so we had to move on.

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The next exhibit was new to me. It was called IDEA Lab, and it’s amazing. This exhibit is all about the confluence of science, art, and creativity. For COSI Columbus people, think the Gadgets Cafe, but bigger. There are three areas to this exhibit. The first is kind of the open play area where you can build rocket cars, build a marble wall, or chill out with a book about inventing.

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The second area is called the Tinkering area, and this is a more directed section where the staff will set up a challenge, and the guests have a wall of materials to choose from. If the guest wants an even more in depth experience, they can sign up for a Workshop. These workshops cost extra, and require registration beforehand, but last for a couple hours.

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This exhibit took over from Life Force. I think it’s a vast improvement.

Finally, there was another new exhibit called Eat It Up! This kind of replaces both Life Force, and the old Science of Sports exhibit that used to live in this section of the building. The whole idea is to try and get kids to make good health choices. The nutrition section was all touchscreens and high tech stuff. Fine for kids, but didn’t have the amount of hands-on engagement I’ve honestly come to expect from the museum up to this point. Also, if they don’t want kids to eat junk food…don’t make it look so dang good!!!!

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The second half of the exhibit was much better, as it was about being more active. There were lots of fun action games including a human hamster wheel, a Tai Chi demonstration video…and THE FLOOR IS LAVA!!!!

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Awesome. Simply, awesome. This half of the exhibit was quite a bit of fun to play in.

Unfortunately, due to time constraints, I did not get a chance to experience any of the live shows, or other attractions. I have seen a show on the Extreme Science Theater stage before, and they do some very fun experiments.

They also have two Mold-A-Matic machines, and a penny press, if you like cheap, kitschy souvenirs.

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As we wrapped up our trip to The Imagination Station, I sat down on a bench to rest a bit, and just take in the ambiance. Even though it was a Sunday, it was not terribly busy. But with a museum this small the building just felt incredibly alive. I suddenly felt an overwhelming sense of nostalgia. Not for the two times I had been here before, but to the dozens of times I went to COSI in Columbus before the newer building opened in 1999.  I’m not one of those that hated the new building, but I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t quite have the same feel the old one did. The Imagination Station has that same feel to it.  I look forward to seeing this museum continue to grow and evolve.

They had just better not mess with Mind Zone. That exhibit is magical and perfect in every way.

I highly recommend The Imagination Station in Toledo. If you’d like to learn more about it, please check out their website.

Next time, we’re going to inject a little culture into the blog as we stay in Toledo, and visit one of the top art museums in the state. Thanks for traveling along.

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