Interact with the art at WNDR Seattle. Credit: Natasha Dillinger
The phrases “Don’t touch that!” and “Don’t push that button!” cycle on repeat when I take my kids on most museum outings. However, at Seattle’s newly opened WNDR Seattle Museum, the whole point is to touch (almost) everything.
My friend and I brought three kids ages 4–7 to test WNDR’s kid-friendliness and we have zero regrets.
A permanent museum with a pop-up feel
The original WNDR Museum opened in Chicago in 2018. The concept was the brainchild of tech entrepreneur Brad Keywell, who was an early investor in Groupon. Since its debut, WNDR has added locations in San Diego, Boston and now Seattle.
Interactive museums (like the Van Gogh immersive experience and Dinos Alive!) often pop up and then pack up, heading to new digs when community interest wanes.
WNDR, on the other hand, has put down roots, making its locations permanent fixtures and dedicated to showcasing local artists. Case in point, colorful murals highlighting Seattle-based artist Steph Shao’s bold designs marked the way in as we walked from our hard-won street parking spot.
At the entrance
While I fished our timed ticket QR code out of the depths of my email, the older kids spotted the first activity. They kept busy answering a prompt painted on the wall, writing responses with Sharpies on slips of paper. (Curators must not be parents: Don’t they know a Sharpie is a dangerous tool in the hands of a 7-year-old, even on a black wall?)
The prompt question was, “What do you know for sure?” Answers we saw ranged from the funny — “Everyone poops” — to the uplifting — “Inspire a world of good.”
Art and tech collide
After check-in, we ducked through a curtain and walked straight onto a light floor. WNDR doesn’t waste time before plunging you into an interactive space.
Hundreds of pressure-activated lights moved and changed color as we walked, twirled and crawled our way through a mirrored tunnel. Our kids were mesmerized, particularly my 4-year-old. He had fallen asleep during our parking quest and woke up to quite a surreal scene.
Take your time
While it’s hard to resist the impetus to see what’s next, I’ll offer some advice right from the start: Don’t rush. Going backward isn’t technically impossible, but some spaces are harder to return to, and only VIP ticket holders get a second circuit through the exhibition’s designated route.
In the second room, my son’s interaction with artist Andy Arkley’s installation titled “You Can Do Most Anything” created the most heart-warming look of wonder on his young face. The piece’s title could practically be the museum’s motto.
Stand at a podium and push any of the 16 buttons to make colorful shapes light up and play musical elements. My son ecstatically pushed all of them at once and jumped for joy as a club-worthy melodic masterpiece emerged.
In an Instagram post, Arkley shared that even his 86-year-old father transformed into a kid while experiencing the piece.
Crowded days could create quite a line at this showstopper, so busy yourself by tasting the “magic berries” on offer nearby. After dissolving a tiny purple pill in our mouths, lemon juice tasted sweet and hot sauce less spicy. I felt a bit like Alice in Wonderland, minus the frantic rabbit.
Around the corner, push another button to make the “Oracle of WNDR” spit out your fortune while he recites nonsensical incantations. His revelation for my son was shockingly apt: “You don’t smell bad, just loud.”
Mirror, mirror on the wall
WNDR Chicago boasts a permanent installation of one of Yayoi Kusama’s trademark Infinity Rooms. Perhaps because all of the other art here is so interactive, the Kusama-inspired space fell a bit flat for me. Her undeniably beautiful “Starry Pumpkin” (visible from the street) felt more like a traditional art museum that keeps visitors at arm’s length from the art. (Kusama’s work was exhibited at SAM in 2017.)
Don’t worry, mirror room fans. Another reflection opportunity awaits just around the corner. Take off your shoes and channel “The Matrix” as you select a red or blue pill to determine your experience inside Haze’s “Hyper Mirror.”
After some discussion with staff, we ended up trying them both, but the blue pill is more kid-friendly. Spoiler: Phones drift upwards from a field of flowers if you choose the blue pill, whereas the red pill shows a robotic hand grasping a beating human heart. The adults reflected on the deeper meaning of nature juxtaposed with technology, but the two 7-year-olds just loved the immersive experience and the cool “gross” factor of the beating heart.
Don’t skimp on the final exhibits
After admiring rainbow shadows created in the “Dream Sequence” hallway, we got to create our own art with a little artificial intelligence assist in the “Untitled by You” exhibit. Type in a prompt and wait a minute or so as the computer creates a gallery of five digital art pieces inspired by your input.
The directions recommend specificity. I tried “Adventure moms at a playground in the style of Monet.” But even my 4-year-old’s string of random letters generated fascinating results.
If possible, save time to experience the final exhibit twice. “InsideOut” uses light projections and sounds to depict a Scottish rainstorm over a garden shed. We had to wait for a cycle for our turn to enter the shed, and watching from the outside was just as fun. From the intensity of juicy raindrops to swirling winds, I loved both the complete visual of the storm from the shed’s exterior and the hygge-reminiscent feeling of sitting inside as the torrent eased into a sunbreak.
Parents should know
The museum is on a single level and the only area with tight space is the garden shed entrance, so stroller and wheelchair users shouldn’t have too many obstacles.
The heavy audio-visual stimuli would likely feel uncomfortable for anyone with sensory sensitivities. On a busy day, antsy children may have trouble waiting their turn for all of the interactive elements.
Based on only three days of data when we visited, an employee told me that the opening hour and evenings have tended to be busier. Our after-school visit gave us time to enjoy each piece, and we spent about 90 minutes inside — perfect for the two-hour street parking spot we scored.
Whether you’re entertaining your 86-year-old father, a trio of younger kids or an angsty teen, WNDR’s interactive space is a welcome (but pricey) addition to the Seattle waterfront’s list of attractions. Go ahead, book your ticket and touch, get close and push all of the buttons.
If you go …
Find it: WNDR Seattle is located at 904 Alaskan Way in Seattle, right across from the downtown Seattle ferry terminal.
Hours: Open daily, noon–9 p.m.
Cost: This museum is a big splurge, for sure, but different and interactive enough that families may decide to go for it. Purchase your timed tickets online, in advance, for $38 per adult and $28 per child (ages 3–12), plus $3 per ticket in processing fees. Children ages 2 and younger enter free. Visiting before 5 p.m. Monday–Thursday brings the adult price down to $32. Or splurge on a $50 VIP ticket that gets you extra benefits, most notably another lap through the exhibits.
Parking: It’s not much of a secret that multiyear construction has intensified traffic and parking struggles along Seattle’s waterfront. Take public transit if you can (multiple buses, including the C and H lines, stop nearby), but otherwise budget extra time and money for street or garage parking.
Nearby food: Delicious new restaurants have popped up near Pioneer Square, and we were happy to sample a few. Stop for pre-museum coffee and snacks crafted from Indigenous ingredients at ʔálʔal Café. Since our visit was later in the day, we opted for the umami-packed marinated egg and a selection of banchan at Ohsun Banchan Deli and Cafe, followed by a sampler of macarons from Lady Yum and some play time in Occidental Square.
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