The $5 million facility, the largest capital expenditure at McWane since its 1998 opening, welcomed more than 300,000 guests during the past year and put on 1,100 different programs.
Covering 9,300 square feet, Itty Bitty Magic City is dedicated to McWane’s youngest visitors – newborns to kindergartners – and features a miniature Main Street set-up with a diner, grocery store, veterinarian, farm, garage, fire station and more.
There’s also a water play area, climbing structure and a tot spot.
“It has been a huge hit,” said Katie Baasen, McWane’s director of marketing and communications. “They did a really good job with the city scenes, trying to bring in a Birmingham-esque feel, along with dress-up and interactive play. It makes me want to be a little kid again.”
The McWane Science Center is an important component of Birmingham’s quality of life, joining attractions like world-class restaurants, Barber Motorsports Park, award-winning green spaces and the downtown baseball venue Regions Field.
FINDING AN AUDIENCE
When it opened in May 2015, Itty Bitty Magic City had been five years in the making, from concept through construction. McWane staff members researched other children’s museums and also studied their own fan base.
“We found that a lot of our audience is families with younger children,” Baasen said. “We knew we needed to work on a dedicated space for our littlest visitors.”
McWane has had a play area for preschoolers, called Just Mice Size, for quite some time, she added. But this area is not closed off from the rest of the center like Itty Bitty Magic City is.
The City of Birmingham contributed more than $2 million toward Itty Bitty Magic City. The rest came through fundraising efforts from individuals and corporations.
Meanwhile, McWane is looking to the future and recently drafted a new strategic plan to help chart its growth.
The plan, which will be presented to the center’s members this summer, addresses the facility and its programming, as well as the role it plays in its downtown Birmingham location.
Baasen said the neighborhood around McWane is changing, with the rejuvenation of the Theatre District and the upcoming redevelopment of the Pizitz building into new retail, office and residential space.
“We’re going to have neighbors, and we want to make sure we’re still relevant to our current customer,” she said.
At the same time, McWane must remain true to its mission as a science and technology center, with exhibits and programming that embody cutting edge research.
“We do field trips, community outreach, teacher training, and there’s more we could do on the education side,” Baasen said. “Our mission statement is to change lives through science and wonder, and as fun as it is to come out and have a great time, we do not want to forget what our educational responsibility is.”
The new strategic plan will guide McWane for the next five years.
Nothing is certain yet, but there will likely be a revamp of the first floor, with the changing out of some exhibits that have been part of McWane since the beginning. Just Mice Size might be removed since Itty Bitty Magic City is now in place, and a move from film to digital is under consideration for the IMAX Theatre.
“The new plans will offer the opportunity for more community partnerships and sponsorships along with utilizing our current collaborative relationships,” Baasen said.
McWane’s funding is a combination of admission and ticket sales, grants and donations from individuals, corporations and foundations.
The center covers four floors, and it also is home to Alabama’s largest aquarium. In 2015, about 368,000 people visited McWane. Over the years, it has hosted visitors from every county in Alabama, many U.S. states and more than 10 different countries.