March 2024

Birthday Battle Royale at the Children’s Museum

We’ve had a lot of the usual birthday parties for our 8-year-old son—bowling, the Boardwalk, Blue Ball Park— but nothing topped going to a local museum with Nerf guns locked and loaded to shoot your guests.

Think Night at the Museum meets Terminator and you’ve made a lot of boys’ dreams come true.

It sounds crazy, right? But the Children’s Museum of Discovery in the Capitola Mall has stretched the boundaries of what a museum can be and has come up with a party like none other.

For two hours, kids get to run amok with Nerf blasters. They can bring their own guns or the museum supplies them. It also supplies safety glasses and training. Some might think it’s a pacifist’s nightmare, but museum director Rhiannon Crain, the mother of two boys, knows that toy guns are inescapable and don’t necessarily lead to future violence.

“Some parents might think that if kids are never exposed to guns it will reduce the amount of violence in schools, but I don’t think there’s evidence to support that” she said. “Guns have been around forever.”

Crain doesn’t have Nerf guns in her home—they are too messy and the dogs will chew them up. But, she says, the Nerf battles are a great way
for kids to release energy and go home tired.

And so many Santa Cruz families live in smaller homes without the 6,000-square-feet of space the museum has, it’s one of the few places kids can hide and run and shoot indoors.

The museum has plenty of other party ideas. It’s closed to the public on Sundays for private parties and has smaller parties on Saturdays while open to other people. No guns then.

There are parties with fun science studies, ice cream making, slime making, volcano exploding, art creating and disco ball dance partying. But the inspiration for the Nerf wars came after a long Covid closure as a way to get kids excited again.

The museum celebrates its 10th year in November and is a wonderful story of a community coming together to create something inspirational. It’s the most-visited museum in the county, says Crain, with anywhere from 120 to 530 guests a day trying out its hands-on exhibits.

Kids can race cars, build giant castles, learn about the environment, play with light-up blocks, snake around in slimy sand, play with model railroads and lots more.

We spent many, many days there when Parker was a toddler and he still likes it as an older kid.

Before the museum found a home, it had a van with traveling exhibits. Then, Patrice Keet, a former Montessori school director and psychologist, was offered the lease on the old Abercrombie and Fitch store. She and a group of friends assembled exhibits in three months. Her husband, Bob, a doctor, built many of them himself.

“Something like that can take years,” Crain said. “A lot of people worked very hard. People built stuff in their garages and made it happen.”

The non-profit spends about $350,000 to stay open, paying part-time staff, buying art supplies, building exhibits and paying for insurance (you know, with all that gunfire!).

Annual passes cost $85. A day’s entry fee is $10 and people with WIC or EBT can get in for $3. “We do it on a shoestring,” said Crain, who has a Ph.D in Science Education from UCSC and has headed the museum since 2019.

The Sunday birthday parties cost around $500, money that helps fund the rest of the museum’s low-cost activities. Reservations are made months in advance. Some upcoming activities include children’s yoga, a Pi Day Bake Off, a Teddy Bear Clinic, Mystery Box Monday and a March 23 Summer Camp Festival. See more at

They are also seeking donations of cash and costumes, which they go through quickly. Have you been there? What do you think of it? What’s the wildest birthday party you’ve thrown? Drop us a line at [email protected]

By Brad Kava

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