Friday, March 27, 2009
Here's the obvious travel tip for Las Vegas: You don't have to stay at the fanciest hotels to see the fanciest hotels. You are more than welcome to stroll the ornate lobbies and look around. And if you happen to wander into the casino and leave a little money behind, well, you'll hear no objections.
The Bellagio definitely is one of the most upscale places on the strip. The old joke probably applies: this is what God would have done if He had had the money. It's a spectacular place. And the atrium is a great place for a wedding reception. As the photo shows, we sort of stumbled upon one during our visit, passing up the chance to get line for a free drink.
Make sure you pay a visit.
Yes, it's another magical Las Vegas hotel. As you might have guessed, this theme dates back to the days of castles and knights, and makes quite an impression in terms of architecture.
As you might expect, Excaliber probably appeals to families with children a little more than some of the other places in Las Vegas. When we were there on a Memorial Day weekend, it was not exactly a restful place for adults. (It wasn't up to the noisy standards of Circus Circus, but you get the idea.) So keep that in mind when you are booking a room.
I know, I know. But you really should have gone anyway.
The AAA Guidebook rated this as a gem of an attraction, as this tribute to the late pianist's flamboyant lifestyle and career continues to pack in the tourists. It was located in the middle of a residential district, a ways from the Strip on Tropicana Ave. There are plenty of Liberace's gawdy outfits and a car, pianos owned by Gershwin and Chopin, and lots and lots of jewelry.
It's a little difficult to explain Liberace to today's young people, but that's OK -- their parents didn't quite understand him either. Still, there's no doubt that he packed them in for years, and was one of the most caring guys in the business.
Sadly, the recession of around 2008 doomed this museum, which closed a couple of years after that. With luck, everything is in storage somewhere, waiting for someone to take a chance and bring it back to life.
Where's my mummy? That's one big entrance to the Luxor at the south end of the strip in Las Vegas. I think you can figure out the theme of the place.
And in the background is the Mandalay Bay, which has staged plenty of televised boxing matches over the years. You just don't see this stuff in other parts of the country, which is why you should visit Las Vegas even if you don't gamble.
Casinos and hotels aren't the only thing to see in Las Vegas. The Red Rock Canyon Conservation Area certainly is worth a drive (maybe 20 miles west from the strip) if you are interested in interesting landforms, as the limestone and sandstone combine in unique ways. The rock shown at left almost looks a little gross, but that's what several centuries will do to a rock.
There's a 13-mile scenic drive in the area that has several interesting stops. Just remember that flash floods can take place in low-lying areas, and that it can get really, really hot. So bring plenty of water if you are visiting in the warmer months (it was 99 degrees in May when we were there).
Now this is a mall.
The Venetian spent lots and lots of money on its facility on the strip in Las Vegas, and it shows. The mall has ceilings painted to look like a sky, and there are many expensive stores. Plus, there are gondola rides around a man-made stream. It's a little more expensive to ride the gondola than it does to go on the swan boats in Boston, but the tourists line up just the same.
We didn't buy anything, but someone certainly is doing exactly that. And it's a great place to gawk.
There goes the Cog Railway, up to the top of Mount Washington. There are other ways of getting to the top, of course. There is driving, which is a little tough on the brakes, and walking, which is a little tough on the feet. So this isn't a bad alternative. Then again, it's kind of smelly and slow.
Here's a little travel tip for Mount Washington -- the weather at the bottom has little to do with the weather at the top. On our trip, it took only minutes before the train headed into a bank of fog. This led to a long train ride in which everyone looked at, well, nothing. It also was cold on the top -- no surprise there, since the place is famous for the nation's worst weather -- so we all ran inside as soon as possible and explored the gift shop.
The railroad has been going since 1869, and you can imagine how tough it was to build. The three-hour trip might be tough for kids, but it's worthwhile ... on a clear day.
This was one of the best surprises in our travels -- the USGA Golf House is quite nice. It makes a fine first impression, with a well-maintained, spreading lawn that looks something like a fairway. In addition to the administrative buildings, there is a museum that's open to the public.
The museum has a variety of exhibits, including this one of Alan Shepard's golf club used on the Moon. He got good distance with no atmosphere and one-sixth of Earth's gravity. There are tributes to golfers like Bobby Jones and Ben Hogan, and displays of the USGA trophies. In addition, they give out test golf balls sent in by manufacturers.
Even non-golfers in the group enjoyed this stop, and the expansion program will make it even better in the future.
Words rarely fail me, but they do here.
Northlandz can do that to a person.
Picture a building about as big as a football field, three stories high. Then put miles and miles of model railroads in it, going over little bridges, chugging through towns, and going along carved-out mountains. Put a walking tour along it.
Then add a doll collection. And a music hall, complete with several church-style organs. Mix and stir for the two hours it takes to go through the place.
That's Northlandz. It was constructed by a software designer who loves model railroads and the church organ (he'll even play a song or two if you are lucky).
There is a larger train outside that can be ridden by visitors for an extra fee, but we found that to be a letdown after the inside of the place.
It's unique. You must go see it if you are in the area of Central New Jersey, period.
General George Washington spent a couple of winters in the Morristown, New Jersey, area during the Revolutionary War. The Ford Mansion is available for guided tours to see where he lived in that time. Of course, you have to get there before closing time (we didn't). Therefore, we had to be happy with seeing this spiffy if shady statue of Washington across the street. There is an historical part a few miles away from the headquarters where the troops stayed; it's worth a visit if you want to learn more about the Continental Army.
Sure there are all sorts of celebrities buried in Princeton Cemetery. The biggest is President Grover Cleveland.
More important to candy-eaters is the fact that Grover's daughter, Ruth, was laid to rest by her father. That's right -- as in Baby Ruth. (You'll have to look carefully.) The confection was named after her, and not after baseball star Babe Ruth.
Aaron Burr isn't far from the Clevelands, and neither is the George Gallup and his family. You might remember Gallup as a pollster.
Obviously, if you are in Princeton, New Jersey, you must see Princeton University. I haven't been to all of the Ivy League colleges, but this one feels the most like what an ancient European university must be like. The buildings are fabulous, although I would bet heating them can be expensive. The original building dates back to 1756 and was used during the Revolutionary War.
The surrounding town is lovely as well. If you want to call it the most attractive college campus in America, I won't argue.
It's called the Center for the Performing Arts, officially. Most people just call it the Egg. It's part of Empire State Plaza, a giant complex built during the Rockefeller years. As you can see, it was not an era of small projects in state government. It took 12 years to build, and its support goes six stories underground. The Egg hosts a variety of cultural events during the year, and you can rent it out for your next wedding.
As part of the Empire State Plaza complex, the State has set up a museum to give a crash course in all things New York. Now, New York is a pretty big, diverse state, and the museum is pretty small. Most of it is devoted to two exhibits: New York City and the Adirondacks. Those who go through it probably will feel a little left out if they are from, say, Buffalo.
While most of the museum isn't particularly interesting, the exhibit devoted to Sept. 11, 2001 does jump out at the visitor. Here is what's left of a fire truck that was called into service in New York on that fateful day. There are other remains as part of the exhibit, which is moving.
By the way, there is no admission charge.
There really are a thousand islands in the Thousand Islands area of New York State/Ontario. In fact, there are about 1,700 such islands, a few of which are pictured above. This is taken at Alexandria Bay.
What was striking about the region is that there is much around the river itself; the terrain is rather boring. That makes the initial view that much more spectacular. You can take boat tours of the region, which is probably the best way to see it.
The Boldt Castle might be the most famous structure in the region. The mansion was never quite completed or occupied, but restoration efforts continue.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, Thousand Islands salad dressing really was invented up here as a treat for a party.
Any baby boomer will want to make a trip to the site of the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair, held in 1969 on Max Yasger's farm. Visitors should know, for starters, that Woodstock was held in Bethel, due to a last-minute switch in location. The farm forms something of a natural amphitheater, and it's pretty easy to imagine 30,000 to 40,000 people there. But 400,000? The traffic must have let up in about, oh, 1988.
By the way, Max is gone, but his dairy farm survives. You can still buy Max Yasger milk in the Catskills.
Millard Fillmore doesn't get a great deal of respect. He took over the Presidency after Zachary Taylor died; perhaps being the 13th President was unlucky.
Then Fillmore signed the Fugitive Slave Act, as America continued to wrestle with the issue of slavery. Fillmore's actions didn't go over well in his own party, and he didn't even get the Whigs' nomination in 1852. Oops.
Fillmore refused to join the Republicans when the Whigs went into the ash heap of history. He opposed Abraham Lincoln but supported Andrew Johnson's Reconstruction policies, a sure way to get on the wrong side of history.
Fillmore was from upstate New York, and was a Congressman from Buffalo. That's where he is buried. Once a year, a ceremony to honor him is held.
For those who are paying a visit to Millard Fillmore's grave in Forest Lawn Cemetary in Buffalo, there's a far different type of celebrity only a few hundred yards away. And this isn't a plug for the grave site of musician Rick James, although it could be.
Meet Al Boasberg, one of the funniest men in show business in the 1930's. Let's put it this way. Remember the stateroom scene in the Marx Brothers' movie, "Night at the Opera"? Boasberg wrote it.
The marker at left is correct. We're still laughing at one of the great comic minds of his generation. He'd like that.
Few were funkier than Rick James, one of Buffalo's top contribution to the music world. He's best known for the hit "Super Freak," but had several other top-selling albums and even played in a band with Neil Young for a while. James died of a heart attack in Los Angeles in 2004.
We still remember you, Rick.
ou can't be a small town in upstate New York without having your own Hall of Fame. Cooperstown, Oneonta, Utica ... they all have one.
Canastota didn't want to be left out of the fun, so it created the Boxing Hall of Fame. The little town is known in boxing circles for producing two champions, Carmen Basillo and Billy Backus. So it seemed like a natural.
There had been other attempts at boxing Halls, but this one caught on. The building itself is about as big as a typical house, so it's kind of cute. An extra hall has been added next door. It's mostly used on induction weekends, but the Hall sells memorabilia in there the rest of the year.
The Boxing Hall is right off the Thruway. It's not a big-budget production, and it doesn't take long to see, but it gives off a warm feeling in its own way. It might be worth a rest stop to look around and see who is inducted (exhibit pictured) if you have an interest in the sport.
Letchworth State Park obviously is a different place in the winter than the summer. For one thing, most of it is closed. The only accessible area is from the west, around Castile, and most of the road to the north and south is blocked off.
However, there is a nice hill for winter sledding with a warm lodge (big fireplace) at the bottom. There is cross-country skiing. And a few of the scenic outlooks are open to tourists, if you don't mind a little snow. Just walk carefully. The one above is from Big Bend; the ice on the sides of the rock is pretty impressive.
Every state, it seems, would like to have its own Grand Canyon. Of course, there's only one, but that doesn't stop anyone. Pennsylvania has the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania, Hawaii has the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, and New York has the Grand Canyon of the East.
Here is New York's canyon, generally known as Letchworth State Park. The Genesee River did some nice carving in the region over the years, and the area was turned into park in 1907 by Governor Charles Evans Hughes. William Letchworth donated the land.
There are three major waterfalls in the park. There is an iron bridge a short distance from the Upper Falls, complete with a great view and a no trespassing sign. The view is shown here.
This is a particularly great spot to visit in the fall, as you'd imagine.
All was right with the world, at least with Red Sox Nation, when Cooperstown opened a display on a Boston championship in November, 2004. This contains bats, gloves, uniforms, dirt, etc. from the Red Sox championship.
The Hall of Fame is an almost magical place for fans, and it's easy to spend a day there. In addition, Cooperstown itself is quite quaint and has plenty of baseball-related stores on its main street. Every baseball fan should go here at least once, and the non-fans will not be bored either.
Sometimes, you have to visit a town that you once lived in to see one of its tourist attractions.
Here's a tribute to General John Sullivan in the form of Sullivan's Monument at Newtown Battlefield. It's located just east of Elmira, right off Route 17, up the hill.
During the Revolutionary War, several soldiers fought the British and Indians in the Chemung Valley area. After the battle, some of the soldiers essentially decided they liked the place so much that they stayed there.
The momument has a nice view of the valley below on a good day, and there are some picnic grounds on the site. Too bad I don't remember going there when I attended five years of school there while I was growing up.
Everyone wants to write the Great American Novel, but Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens probably already did it. Twain's Huckleberry Finn certainly ranks with the all-time greats, dealing with such issues as the frontier, escape, racism and regionalism.
Twain wrote several other books, and had a rather unique career otherwise. He worked for a newspaper, spoke about travel, etc. Could he be compared to Garrison Keillor? Dave Barry? Probably. A unique American by any standard.
Twain married a woman from Elmira, and spent some time there with her and her family. The two are buried in Elmira's Woodlawn Cemetery. It's pretty well marked once you find the cemetery, which by the way also has the grave of Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis.
Elmira has heavily promoted Twain in its tourism literature, in spite of the fact that Twain lived all over the place. His study, built for work during those summer visits, is still standing. It was moved to Elmira College's campus several decades ago.
Baseball fans have been paying a visit to the Cemetery of the Gate of Heaven in Hawthorne for years. That's because Babe Ruth is buried there. A woman at the office estimated that more than half of the people who come to the cemetery (and who aren't there for personal reasons) are there to see the Babe. His gravestone is shown, with plenty of baseball trinkets left behind in tribute.
Interestingly enough, if you walk less than 100 feet from the Babe, you'll bump into Billy Martin's grave. More baseball objects have been left there; more Yankee fans apparently leave something for Martin than for the Babe based on that unscientific method.
The office has a map of the other celebrities there -- Fred Allen, Dorothy Kilgallen, Jimmy Cagney, Sal Mineo, Mayor Jimmy Walker, Fred Allen. Many people who had funerals at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York are here, leaving the cemetery beautiful but very crowded. And it's a little tough to find some of the big names, since the map is a bit general. Still, an interesting place to visit.
Thursday, March 26, 2009
One of the problems of visiting caves involves photographs. There's no real up in a cave, so when a picture is taken it is difficult to know which way to turn the photo for display. The shot is a good example of that theory; you probably could look at it from any direction and it would have a similar effect.
Howe Caverns is part of a large complex southeast of Utica in Upstate New York. There's actually a lake in these caves, and visitors take a boat ride on it, which is rather unusual. It's always in the low 50's underground, so dress appropriately.
The Franklin Roosevelt National Historic Site has plenty of attractions connected to it. There's a museum/library, complete with a review of FDR's life. There's an adjoining tribute to Eleanor Roosevelt, as she lived on the grounds for the final 17 years of her life. Their graves are here as well.
The best part for me, though, was the house tour. The place is essentially the way it was when Franklin died in 1945. It seems that Franklin was something of a mama's boy at heart, and mom didn't like the idea of a wife stealing attention from her. No wonder Eleanor set up Val-Kill -- she was given the smallest room in the place. And it's fun to picture Winston Churchill wandering the halls at night during World War II.
It's a great place to learn about the personal side of history.
Care to guess who was the first President to be born under the United States flag?
Martin Van Buren, of course. If you knew that, head directly to "Jeopardy."
Van Buren's house, shown above, is in Kinderhook. It became known as Old Kinderhook, and clubs that supported Van Buren became known as O.K. Clubs. Somewhere along the way, O.K. became a way of expressing approval.
That's one of the facts that you'll learn on the tour of the facility. It's a nice old house, complete with indoor plumbing -- rather rare for that point in our history (mid-19th century). Be sure to check out the nicely painted toilet seats -- honest. During our tour, the guide to the building made it sound like Van Buren had just gone out for a minute but was due back so please don't touch anything.
The site is located right off Interstate 90, east of Albany and close to the Massachusetts border. His birthplace and grave site are also nearby, so it's practically one-stop shopping for all things Van Buren.
If you can go in person, take a tour this way:
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Tuesday, March 24, 2009
For those who grew up on ABC's "Wide World of Sports" in the 1960's and 70's, there's only one place to stay when visiting Lake Placid: Art Devlin's Olympic Motor Inn. It's a cozy little place right on the main street of Lake Placid.
Devlin was ABC's expect on ski jumping, and he was known for his intelligent, informed and candid comments. That's not surprising, since he was one of the best ski jumpers in American history.
Devlin passed away a while ago, but his trophies are still on display in the lobby. And he had a bunch of them.
We still remember you, Art.
Most people have at least heard of John Brown, the relatively famous pre-Civil War abolitionist. They just don't know much about him. A trip to his farm in Lake Placid, then, is instructive. Friendly guides (you get the idea they appreciate the company) are happy to tell Brown's life story. It's easy to conclude after hearing it that Brown was something of a nut.
Well, what would you call someone who heard about a fight in Kansas over the slavery issue, so he packed up a few belongings and headed west ... leaving his wife behind to run the farm? Maybe nut is extreme. Maybe "bad husband" works better. Brown was killed around Harper's Ferry, WV, in a celebrated incident (he apparently wrote some major newspapers and told his story while he was waiting for the court case) and he is buried by the farm here.
You don't get that many chances to go down a bobsled run, unless you live in an Olympic city. Lake Placid, luckily, is an Olympic city, and tourists can go for a ride in the winter or summer.
In the summer, the facility essentially puts a bobsled on wheels and sends customers down a small course. Left is part of that track.
One warning: If you want to try this, check in advance. The course is only open on certain days of the week, and we showed up on the wrong day. Oops.
Tours of the complex are available. It probably has a few more visitors in the winter, so we beat the crowds.
Here's the view from the top of the ski jumping tower in Lake Placid. The picture was taken in September, so there's no snow. It's a year-round tourist attraction, although it's easier to get to this position for a photo in the non-snow months.
One look, and a question should come to your mind: How does anyone do this jump for the first time? I suppose "start on a smaller hill" would be an answer, but this is still an intimidating sight.
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There's always room for Jell-O during a vacation.
The dessert was invented in Leroy, exit 47 on the New York State Thruway near Rochester. The Jell-O Museum is part of a small little historical complex on the main street of the town. Jell-O was invented in LeRoy back in the 19th century, and this is a nice little tribute to the stuff. There are old boxes and ads on display. Yes, Bill Cosby has been there.
Oh, and make sure you walk on the brick road that's in front of the building, shown.
That's right -- the Jell-O brick road.
There aren't many chances to drive under a canal. This is one of them.
The Culvert Road is about two miles east of Medina on Route 31 in Niagara County of upstate New York. I'm not sure how I stumbled on it, probably a sign, but I did indeed drive under the canal, took a picture, drove under the canal the other way, and headed on my way. As the sign reads, the place was written up in Ripley's Believe It or Not. I now believe it.
By the way, those fascinated by the concept of driving under a canal can head west to Canada. It's possible to drive under the Welland Canal, which is the easy way for boats to go from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario. The hard way is over Niagara Falls.
This isn't the most impressive Presidential grave in the country, but it's not the least impressive either. It looks a little like an angel is watching over a piano, if you glance from a distance.
President Chester A. Arthur is buried in Albany Rural Cemetery in Menands, NY. The area children learn how Arthur's father moved to Albany when Chester was a small boy. It's a classic big old cemetery, with plenty of important state and local officials buried there.
By the way, why is it always Chester A. Arthur? How many Chester Arthurs are out there? Did he get a tip from Rutherford B. Hayes?
Anyone can take a picture of the front of the Statue of Liberty in New York. But how often have you seen the back?
Now you have.
The Statue has been welcoming people to New York since 1884. The story of its construction is pretty familiar -- donated by France to mark the centennial of the two countries' alliance in the American Revolution, unfinished until fund-raising generated enough funds to complete it.
Access to the facility may depend on where we are in terms of security at a given moment, but it's still worth the ferry ride to see -- if only to view the front.
Perhaps one of your relatives passed through here. If not, someone you know certainly had some relatives see this building when they first arrived in America.
Millions came through Ellis Island from 1892 to 1954, and the facility has been turned into a historic site. There's a list of people that came through, and you can add your relatives to it, plus there is an ongoing oral history project.
The ferry stops here and at the Statue of Liberty. That's a pretty good crash course in American history on one trip, and the view in New York Harbor is spectacular.
For those of you who collected passbook savings accounts instead of baseball cards or dolls, this is your kind of place. The New York Stock Exchange makes an great first impression from its location on Wall Street, as billions of dollars change hands here.
The Stock Exchange used to have a short tour available to visitors, and it included a view of the trading floor from above. However, those tours have been canceled in the post-9/11 world. You'll just have to settle for watching live reports on CNBC.
Shhhh. Can you keep a secret?
Niagara Falls has all sorts of interesting sites, but this is one that doesn't get much attention. The hiking trail actually goes into the gorge north of the Falls, eventually passing under the Whirlpool Bridge about two-thirds of the way down to the Niagara River. There are a few kiosks set up for views like the one shown. The trail goes for about a mile and one-half, which makes it great for running. Just be prepared to stop a couple of times to look around.
Monday, March 23, 2009
Ever seen a penguin with a red eye? Here's your chance.
No, he wasn't out bending a few the night before. It's just the flash, although few probably knew it could to happen to animals.
The penguins are one of the attractions of the Aquarium of Niagara, located only a few blocks from the Falls in the downtown area. The sea lions are suitably cute and entertaining, seals greet you on the way in, and there are plenty of fish on display as well.
It's a nice little place to visit when you've seen enough water going off a cliff. Tell 'em Sidney Crosby sent you.
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Let's go on a little hike.
Devil's Hole State Park is a little place tucked just south of Niagara University. A river once came out here and fed into the Niagara River, but only the remains are left now. If you go down a couple of hundred steps, you can touch the waters of the Great Lakes. There's a nice trail along the river's edge.
Of course, after a while you have to go back up. Same number of steps.
Sure, you can stay on top of the Niagara Gorge and take in the view for a while -- maybe even have a picnic. But if you can, you really should go for a little walk.
There are steps leading down to the edge of the Niagara River. They haven't received a great deal of maintainence over the years, and I wouldn't do it after a rainstorm without hiking boots, but the steps (as shown) are pretty in a 1930's sort of way.
But it's a heck of a view once you get there. You can look up and see the gondola that goes over a portion of the gorge caused by a river that dried up a long, long time ago. The car actually goes from Canada to Canada. It's pretty breaktaking just to watch it cross.
When visiting the Niagara Falls area, be sure to cross over the small bridge from Goat Island to tiny Luna Island. It's a great way to get up close to the American Falls, and you walk over Bridal Veil Falls in order to reach it.
Everyone's heard of the Maid of the Mist, but not everyone has been on it. Well, here it is, heading toward the Falls again. If you are in the area, you definitely should go. The American entrance is located near the Observation Tower on the mainland.
As you can see, everyone dresses up in rain slickers, and then hops on board. The boat seems to get impossibly close to the Horseshoe Falls -- you really need to see it from a distance to realize you aren't as close as you think you are -- and it's a great way to get a sense of how powerful the water is.
The ride only costs $12.50 for adults, and it's well worth it.
It's easier than you think to find places of quiet around Niagara Falls. It's also easy to take some interesting pictures.
This picture was taken at the east end of Goat Island, away from the falls with only a parking lot for company looking back up the Niagara River. The birds seem to be sitting on water, thanks to the rocks sticking out of the rapids.
New York State's farms sponsor an "open house" in the early spring to show off the area's maple syrup industry. City slickers don't get many chances to visit a working farm any more, so it's fun to visit places like this -- the Day Brothers Daily and Maple Farm in Phelps (near Geneva). The sap is carried by tubes to this shed, where it is heated, filtered and placed in barrels for bottling. The staff couldn't be nicer, and products are for sale.
It smells mighty good too. Yum.
If you were one of the great inventors of your time, wouldn't you want a nice house? George Eastman did. Eastman is linked to work in photography; you might have heard of Eastman Kodak.
You can see the entry into his mansion in Rochester, which has nicely landscaped grounds. The house itself isn't that huge, although there is room for guests and servants. The star of the show is the Conservatory. It has a nice, airy feel to it.
Attached to the house is a museum of photography and film. There's a theater for the showing of old films -- good idea.
Attention kids of all ages: this is a definite must-see stop for those visiting the Rochester area.
The Strong National Museum of Play has a rather ponderous title, but once inside visitors discover this is definitely a first-class attraction. There are all sorts of sections designed to stimulate children, including a tribute to Sesame Street, a reading area, doll collection, etc. An aquarium and butterfly garden are also on the grounds. That's not to mention exhibits designed to answer questions about, um, bodily functions ... like the one pictured above.
The National Toy Hall of Fame was brought in from another museum but fits in well. Some of the inductees are Barbie, Etch-A-Sketch, Lego, etc.