Night at the Museum, Part 1: Penguins & Pajamas


Renegade Tours

Ever since we saw Night at the Museum, we’ve dreamt of being able to spend a night in our favorite museums.  And now, we can!  Many museums are experimenting with holding fun sleepovers in their spaces.  

We’re taking an in-depth look at these innovative museum experiences.  Our 3-part series features interviews with museums holding awesome sleepovers.  We discuss what their sleepovers include, how visitors are responding, and best practices for museums who want to develop this experience.

Our first interview features Brendan Papciak, Specialty Tours and Sleepover Manager at the California Academy of Sciences.  During their Penguins & Pajamas experience, visitors spend the night exploring the museum after-hours, with special programs just for them, before falling asleep next to some of the Academy’s resident animals.

Read on to find out how the Academy developed their sleepover program, and Brendan’s advice for starting your own.

Children watching fish at night in the California Academy of Sciences
What do fish do at night?

MH: What is your role in the Academy, Brendan, and your experience of developing and managing the sleepovers?

Brendan: I’m the Academy’s Specialty Tours and Sleepover Manager. My team oversees daily behind-the-scenes tours and sleepover events. My role is unique in that it requires me to develop programming that is both educational and engaging while also understanding business trends and the market for our programs. While it can sometimes be a challenge to combine these two mindsets, I feel it makes me a stronger manager. Before joining the Academy, I worked in programming at the Oakland Zoo.

MH: Tell me a bit about the Penguins & Pajamas experience.  What can participants expect from their night at the museum?

Brendan: They can expect to have a total blast! The great thing about the California Academy of Sciences is that we house an aquarium, planetarium, natural history museum, and a four-story rainforest all under one roof. In just one night, kids can see what it’s like to dive into a Philippine Coral Reef, and then skyrocket to the stars in our planetarium. During our Penguins+Pajamas sleepovers, kids get to experience the museum after dark during a fun-filled evening of special programs. At the end of the night, they can choose to roll out their sleeping bags in front of our African penguin exhibit, next to the swamp, or underneath a flooded Amazon tank with giant fish swimming in a tunnel overhead. It’s an experience unlike any other!

Children sleeping under fish tanks at California Academy of Sciences

MH: What was the inspiration for doing sleepovers in the Academy?

Brendan: The Academy’s mission is to explore, explain, and sustain life. As part of our mission, we’re always looking for new ways to engage guests of all ages in the wonders of the natural world. By providing kids and families the opportunity to spend a night at the museum, they are able to see fascinating live animals and exhibits in a whole new way. We hope that everyone who attends our sleepover events leaves with a truly memorable experience, and most importantly, having learned something new.

MH: How would sleepovers enhance the visitor’s experience of the Academy? Do you think it provides a deeper engagement than a normal tour?  

Brendan: For one, it allows kids and families to explore the museum after we’ve closed for the day, so the setting is much more intimate. We provide special programming and themes for each event, making every sleepover unique. We also partner with Academy scientists to arrange interactive talks and science demonstrations. While we plan a detailed schedule of events for the night, each sleepover guest is free to decide what they’ll see and do, whether it’s catching a late night planetarium show, wondering around our four-story rainforest after dark, or stargazing on our living roof.

MH: What was your greatest challenge in implementing this program?  How did you address it?

Brendan: Each sleepover event requires coordination and participation from just about every department at the Academy—from aquarium biologists and planetarium presenters to guest services, security, and operations—so communication and planning across the institution is key. With so many parts of the Academy contributing to the event, it also helps us provide the best possible experience for our guests.

MH: I’ve noticed that you do special topics each month, like the anthropology focus for November.  Can you talk about some of the topics that sleepovers have covered, and whether this helps to draw in repeat attendees? 

Brendan: This is actually a newer strategy for us. While our sleepover events have always included programming elements like planetarium shows and live animal encounters, we’ve experimented with thematic programming this year, and it has proven to be something that our guests enjoy. For this month’s event, we are exploring the fall season and concepts around food. We’ve worked closely with our anthropology department to source interesting artifacts for the event, which I think visitors will find fascinating. In October, a teacher attended with her class for the fourth year in a row. She was really appreciative of the varied programming because it provides something new and exciting for this group year after year.

California Academy of Sciences sleepover guests explore exhibits after hours.
Sleepovers enable intimate museum experiences.

MH: How do you address the challenge of underserved museum audiences, such as low-income visitors who may not have the funds?

Brendan: The Academy offers a number of opportunities to visit for free or at discounted rates, including free and discounted school field trips, free weekends twice a year for SF residents, and four Sundays a year where the museum is free for everyone. We’re continually working to expand the reach and impact of these important accessibility programs so that all kids have a chance to experience the museum.

MH: How did you address the challenge of having attendees staying in the museum all night — with things like security, not touching the exhibits, and personal safety of your attendees?

Brendan: The safety of our guests is a top priority for us. In addition to the clear, concise rules guests receive when booking their sleepover tickets, we also have security and guest experience staff supervising the event the entire time.

MH: How have your attendees responded?

Brendan: Response to our sleepover events has been overwhelmingly positive. We’ve found that even after an entire night at the museum, kids are eager to continue exploring. We provide each sleepover guest with breakfast and complimentary tickets to visit the museum the following day.

Family in penguin hats during California Academy of Sciences sleepover

MH: What advice would you give to museums that are looking to develop similar sleepover programs?

Brendan: I think it’s important to understand your museum’s unique offerings, as well as your audience and the experiences they are most interested in. At the Academy, we aim to develop programming and events that engage kids and families with science in a fun way, and sleepover programs are an extension of those efforts.

Thank you to Brendan from the California Academy of Sciences for talking with us and sharing fresh new ideas.

Do you work for a museum? Do you have a program that is successfully engaging new audiences? We’d love to hear about it! Send us an email.

Click this link if you’d like to read more about our workshops, presentations, and museum consulting work.

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