Visiting the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum in New York

Tourists visiting New York City, as well as city-dwellers looking to do something touristy, are not likely to include the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum in a brainstorm of daytime activities. Most people come to New York to see tall buildings, lavish Broadway musicals, Central Park, Ellis Island, and the like. Who comes to New York to tour a World War II battleship?

Scores of people, including a lot of East and Southeast Asians, as we discovered on our first sojourn there this past weekend. In fact, if we were to go back, we’d definitely buy tickets online to pick up at will call, so as not to wait on line in line for general admission. We didn’t wait too long – only about 20 minutes, but there was no line at will call.

The museum, of course, is sheltered mostly within the USS Intrepid, an aircraft carrier that was in service during a period roughly spanning World War II through Vietnam. Its flight deck showcases an assortment of fighter and stealth planes and helicopters, and visitors can take tours of the innards of the great battleship to see the forecastle, barracks, heads, and other amenities the ship offered its seamen. There is also a submarine you can tour, though the line was so long and slow-moving that we passed. Watching the director’s cut of Das Boot was claustrophobic enough for me.

Admission is $24 for adults, with varying discounted rates for youths, children (ages 3-6), seniors, college students, and veterans, with active and retired U.S. military given free admission. For an extra $9 you can enjoy one of three simulators, including a G-Force ride that appeared to be the most popular. (You can do all three for $24.)

We arrived eager not to celebrate warfare, but to at least behold humankind’s engineering ingenuity. Say what you want about our propensity to visit harm to our fellow man, but without the military we probably wouldn’t have a lot of household appliances, to say nothing of satellite television.

Our schoolboy excitement was scotched quickly after starting our visit by viewing an eight minute introductory film, on the recommendation of an employee. The movie opened with a brief history of the Intrepid, and its role in wars both hot and cold before it was decommissioned. In addition, several veterans were interviewed about their experiences, including men who fought and lost friends at Pearl Harbor, were prisoners of war in Vietnam, were John McCain, etc. They even interviewed Japanese Zero pilots in an effort to explain and humanize kamikaze missions. Pretty soon, our throats were lumped as we listened to grown men tell harrowing stories of survival and loss, while fighting back tears of their own. Then the lights came on, the staff cheerily informed us about a free tour, and encouraged us to enjoy the museum!

Needless to say, it put us in a more sober mood as we walked about the carrier, even when we looked at a scale model made of 250,000 Legos. Don’t get me wrong – I’m all about acknowledging the sacrifices made by others in the name of freedom. We just should have waited until the end of our visit.

Despite the heavy context, the museum is a great place to bring children; it features a great interactive children’s section where they (and adults) can climb into a space capsule, test their dexterity in low gravity, and the like. A little advice for those with kids: Don’t bring a stroller. It may seem convenient while you’re rolling down 46th Street, but trust me: World War II battleships were not built for parents with small children. I saw dozens of parents cursing at themselves as they hauled baby-filled strollers up and down the stuffy, narrow staircases. (You can probably forget about bringing them in the submarine.)

My biggest disappointment was the extra charge to take a guided tour of the Concorde ($20 for adults, $15 for kids, by tour only). One of British Airways’ old supersonic jets sits just north of the ship, and while I think it would be pretty cool to see the interior of a plane I’ll never get to ride, I don’t see how the cost can be justified. Which of course is the same reason the Concorde is now a museum piece and not flying across the pond anymore.

There will soon be another exhibit of obsolete aviation at the Intrepid Museum. The Enterprise, a NASA space shuttle prototype (never actually in space) will be arriving at some point – possibly displacing the Concorde – although it remains to be seen when this will happen.

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