The Touch Tunnel is back!
The Great Explorations staff and board members said they have been pestered by longtime St. Petersburg residents for the hands-on children's museum to bring back the exhibit that freaked them out as kids and young parents.
Before it disappeared in the move eight years ago, the Touch Tunnel was a pitch-black maze you endured on your hands and knees for what felt like 40 minutes — in truth it was about 10 minutes of wide-eyed alarm in 20 feet. It was wildly popular when the museum first opened in 1987.
Chances are you'll get a chance to try it during its soft opening this week before its grand opening on Saturday.
We tested Touch Tunnel 2.0 and found it still has that overwhelming darkness that becomes a challenge as you feel your way on hands and knees to navigate around corners, past obstacles and — spoiler alert — down an incline that feels like you can easily tumble down the stairs.
Exhibit manager Nicole Morelli laughs at the notion. "It's only about 2 feet of an incline," she says, "but it's spaced apart pretty far so it feels a lot farther in the dark than it is."
Morelli used blueprints from the original Touch Tunnel as a guide for the new one.
"Then I went around Home Depot with my eyes closed feeling stuff."
That sense of tactile stimulation is completely different in the dark. A rope hanging from the ceiling feels like a creepy finger down your back, or a wide turn can feel like a chasm.
A new element that may intrude on the Touch Tunnel is technology. Nowadays a 12-year-old with a cell phone in his pocket can shed some light. Kids with light-up tennis shoes can be a godsend. Plus, cameras with infrared lenses are planted in every corner of the journey, which makes for a hilarious show in the lobby as we watched parents and kids blindly feeling their way through the maze.
"We are looking at this as a re-invention of Great Explorations," said Patrick Marston, chairman of the museum's board, who crawled through the maze with his 4-year-old son, Dorsey, on the members' preview.
The museum has been struggling financially and hopes this addition, along with this summer's new hands-on art exhibit with kids making their own busts, sand sculptures and magnetic art work, will bring the crowds and members back.
As for the Touch Tunnel test, we emerged from the maze with one kid with a strawberry on his forehead from smacking it on what he said was a pole (nobody saw it, after all), another one saying it almost hurt how much his eyes were straining to see in the darkness. But they both still thought it was a hoot. And many kids emerged to high-fives like they had just escaped the Forbidden Forest.