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We spent the night at the American Museum of Natural History

sleepover at AMNH
Photograph: Courtesy American Museum of Natural History

At 3am this past Sunday, I was in the cool darkness of the American Museum of Natural History, illuminating the femur of a massive Titanosaurus with my flashlight.

I’m not a paleontologist or a character from 2006’s Night at the Museum—In fact, I was sleeping over as part of AMNH’s popular Night at the Museum for Grown-Ups.

Many of us have heard about this unique event, but few have actually experienced the full thing from start to finish, so we asked the museum if we could be invited to the party and take in the whole thing with fresh eyes.

Was a full night necessary? Would I be woken up by snoring strangers or would I oversleep and find myself surrounded by school children? Just how much access would we be given? Would tour guides actually stay up all night for us?

These questions and more swirled around my head as I entered the Milstein Family Hall of Ocean Life with my sleeping bag around 7pm.

About 285 people signed up for the lock-in that night. Almost all of them had champagne in hand as they waited for the program to start. A cellist played classical tunes between displays of glowing sea life as a friend and I snagged two cots by the tiger shark diorama in the back corner of the large room. Most of the cots were already taken by then, so we ended up laying our things down next to possibly the most terrifying ocean life scene: a giant squid going tentacle-to-flipper with a sperm whale. 

 

Our sleeping arrangements
Shaye Weaver/Time Out

 

Most of the museum-goers seemed to be in their 20s, 30s or 40s with a few exceptions (and no kids!) Once we were told the game plan for the night, we were released to go to dinner.

8pm. As I chomped down on a buffet of well-seasoned food (chicken, kale salad, potatoes, cheesy grits, and decadent chocolate-covered strawberries), I got to know my tablemates. All millennials, they worked in journalism, nursing, law and design. I don’t think we expected to actually make connections with strangers, but it was easy with the planetarium above us. We took turns weighing ourselves on different planets and discussing the best of our neighborhoods. The open bar was a hit.

9pm. Arlene Katz, the first tour guide, set the tone for the rest of the night. This was no ordinary tour of the museum. It was an insiders’ tour. As her voice echoed through the empty halls, she filled us in on how to deal with a charging elephant, how the dioramas’ animals were made (yes, they were once real but aren’t stuffed), and how some displays need updating because of brand-new research.  

10:15pm. I made a bee-line for the giant-screen film, “Volcanoes: Fires of Creation,” which takes you to the fear-inducing brink of the world’s active volcanoes. The 45-minute film was awe-inspiring and we had the whole theater to ourselves with just about 20 people in the audience. Being able to hop from one attraction to the next without having to have separate tickets was a major perk.

11:30pm. Closer to midnight, I arrived at the museum’s Kaufmann Theater to discover Andrew Simmons, a wildlife expert, and two others gingerly carrying around a ball python, which made some people get up and straight up leave their seats (who could blame them?). 

 

Shaye Weaver/Time Out

 

I watched from the back close to the exit in case things went awry, but of course, Simmons was on the case and carefully put the snake back into its cooler. The museum told me he had also brought out a horned owl, a golden eagle and an alligator or crocodile.

12:30am. It was finally time for a screening of the Hayden Planetarium’s newest space show in six years, “Worlds Beyond Earth.” Narrated by Lupita Nyong'o, it was definitely worth the wait. The graphics depicting planets and moons were jaw-dropping as we “flew” around the solar system. If it hadn’t ended when it did, I might’ve fallen asleep because those planetarium seats sure are cushy.

1am. It seemed like a good place to stop for the night. We had learned a lot, been given an in-depth tour, seen some pretty cool stuff, eaten a few cookies from the snack bar and lounge, but the late night tour tempted the night owls of us looking to scoop up more natural history into our gullets. From about 1:30 to 2:30am, we fed off the words of a tour guide in a pith helmet, who took us around to his favorite exhibits.

2:30am. Having already heard much of the information he was telling us, my friend and I decided to head up to the fourth floor to see the titanosaur and other dinos we had missed by staying downstairs. While the VIP treatment on the other floors was fantastic, being totally alone in the dark with old, massive skeletons was the Night at the Museum experience I had hoped for (minus the moment of pure terror when a mouse skittered across the floor.) These great symbols of what came before us were ours alone to behold for that moment. 

We followed back up with the pith helmet tour guide around 3:30am in the Saurischian Dinosaurs hall for some last minute learning, but we were all dismissed soon thereafter: “OK, it’s 3:45 guys,” he said. He was clearly done with us, and rightly so. We had packed our brains with so much that any more seemed outright ridiculous and excessive. The last 20 of us had taken to sitting on the floor or propping ourselves up on railings. 

Shaye Weaver/Time Out

4am. We got into our pajamas (bring flip flops because you must change in a public restroom) and tiptoed to our cots in the darkness of the Hall of Ocean Life. Some snorers were exiled to the Hall of Biodiversity in the middle of the rainforest diorama–by request–but it seems like many, many didn’t take advantage of that. 

7am. With three hours of sleep under my belt, I woke up to the dulcet tones of a museum staffer telling us that we could lay there for another 20 minutes but that a continental breakfast was served and we’d have until 9am to get out.

Despite feeling as ancient as the bones in the next room that morning, I decided that spending about 12 hours (some of that with strangers in pajamas) indulging my inner child at this sleepover was well worth it because it gave me priceless time to dig deeper than ever before.

Tickets to the adult sleepover are $350 per person. Check the museum's website to find out more.

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