The National Atomic Testing Museum is a weird mix of thrilling and awkward. It is one of those places that is fun for the whole Ken Watrous family in Las Vegas, but especially to take the kids, because they can get interested in so many science things. But it is startling as an adult because the things they are interested in are so terrible and frightening. A kid will hear the clicks of a Geiger counter and think it is neat, an adult will hear the same sounds and look around anxiously. It is one of those museums that is dedicated to a fascinating subject, but a subject with a lot of serious implications. It is for this reason that I highly recommend the museum, but also feel awkward doing so.
The museum features a number of permanent exhibits and a few migrating ones. The permanent exhibits range from videos and movies to interactive displays. They have a few documentary and film reels of the original atomic testing as well as some of the examples of what they thought would happen. There are some examples of underground chambers used for testing and some discussions of the kind of shelters that would be needed to hide from full war. The war stuff is downplayed enough that it is frightening if you know about it, but won’t alarm the children. Older children will probably have more questions that are aligned with what they are learning, or have learned, in school. But other than that it seems straight forward.
The newest exhibit is probably the most fun, and the one that has the fewer problems. They have an Area 51 myths exhibit which is a lot of fun. This features a variety of thoughts and theories that people have had about what the secret base was built for and what is going on there. The exhibit plays with the culture that grew up around it, especially the kinds of tourist attractions that line the area selling little gifts and curios. The idea of the exhibit is to educate on what is and isn’t possible, as well as what has been believed and why. This goes into a lot of detail on why the myths exist and then carefully goes through each one. It isn’t soul-crushing or aggravating. I think it leaves room for more information and, at least in the times I’ve gone, there hasn’t been any angry discussion between the staff and people really pushing for a particular scenario or set of thoughts. So this is just a fun educational experience that gets you thinking about why we build up the world in the way we do.
They have a gift shop with a lot of themed items. These are relatively cheap and there are a number of fun things that the kids can want and that you can get them without much guilt. The alien sun glasses were a big hit with my kids, and they are durable for the $5 price. The museum is climate controlled, but leans on the cool side, so you want to pack accordingly. Especially in the theater areas the kids can complain about being cold if you don’t bring something a little extra. Like most places in Vegas there is a funny transition between the outside which is dry and hot and the inside which is usually colder than it needs to be. So you will be chilly and put on an extra layer and then go outside to immediately regret it.
The museum is a fun and safe place for the kids and the family. It holds the interest of kids while still being a solid educational experience. The crowds are usually in the moderate size and you don’t have to wait for too much, but you also don’t feel like the only people there. The area is a couple of hours to a half-day experience depending on how much you want to see. There is no food on-hand but there are a lot of places nearby. Alien ice cream is featured in a shop next door, and is usually a good bet on the way out and back towards the car.