The Rader family has passed the giant, gleaming cube of the Taco Bell Discovery Center in Santa Ana dozens of times on the way to Disneyland. So we finally decided to stop by and “discover” it. The two-story building was jammed full of hands-on exhibits — literally everything there could be touched, heard or smelt.

On the first floor, many stations explained earth science from earthquakes to clouds. Dash and Zora made a beeline for the erosion exhibit involving flowing water and lots of wet sand. (How is it the messiest activities always attract my children?) Dash loved the earthquake simulator. Sitting in the machine and feeling the sway of a 5-point on the Richter scale was so exciting that he keeps asking me, “Are we going to have an earthquake today?” Dash also loved a contraption that when pushed created clouds of billowing steam. A short rock-climbing wall allowed children to experience the fun of a climb without all the harnesses and heavy equipment usually required.

We watched a short 3D movie about sea turtles and the trouble humans dish out. The movie was the perfect length, as we have found the regular IMAX movies to be too long or too scary for preschool and toddler-aged children. A movie about dinosaurs is also playing, but I was wary of the fear factor.

Upstairs, a play area dedicated to the under-5 crowd contained a submarine, which my kids immediately filled with foam blocks to create a makeshift bouncy. Zora enjoyed dressing up as various animals, and insisted I take her picture. A green screen TV allowed older kids to perform in front of marine scenes. A few large computer screens also offered video games suitable for preschoolers.

Sports fans were in heaven — virtual heaven, that is. Kids enjoyed ice-skating races and green screen volleyball. You could shoot a hockey puck at a virtual goal, or get suited up and defend a goal against a virtual puck. Many dads flocked to the machine that measures the speed of your baseball pitch. Dash had to beg the very big boys for a turn.

Many of the sports activities were part of the exhibit the Science of Hockey. Did you know that the white paint of the hockey rink is actually painted on layers of ice and then covered with more ice layers? I now know more about hockey than I ever thought I would. Hockey fans can design their own team uniform, broadcast a game, touch ice (which was very cool for my SoCal kids who are deprived of rotten weather), and virtually drive a life-size replica of a zamboni.

The second floor also held music and space exhibits. Dash and Zora loved playing the laser harp so much I considered lessons. A new feature called the Planetary Research Station features a giant globe 6 feet in diameter. Information is projected onto the “planet,” such as real-time infrared satellite images, sea ice concentrations, or the topography of Venus. Visitors can also walk out into the cube, which is covered in solar panels.

As we cruised around the center, it was fun to see everyone, moms and dads included, engaging with the exhibits. I loved making my own computer-animated movie with plastic dinosaurs. Dash and his dad, Rob, enjoyed rolling balls down a giant funnel. Families were dancing in front of the sand shadows screen and laughing in the storm simulator as hurricane strength winds whipped their hair around. As I watched a mom coach her son on the flight simulator, I could picture the driving lessons in their future.

Just when we thought the center had surpassed the coolness limit, we strolled outside to the DinoQuest area. An Argentinosaurus stood disemboweled and two stories tall. Dash immediately ran up to its stomach cavern where he could listen to its heartbeat, watch food balls spin around in its digestive system, and check out exposed muscles and bones. The dino-park also features caves and fossils, which are part of an electronic game for older children. Participants search the park for clues to a puzzle by waving electronic wands at fossils that roar and rocks that magically open. With all the wand waving, I expected the fossils to start levitating.

Even without playing the game, the park held interest for the kids. Zora loved exploring the cave, and was surprised by the video of a T-Rex who stomped around and snarled at her. Once again, the Discovery Center did not forget the preschooler and toddler set. A mini playground featured a dinosaur wall puzzle, a couple of dinos for climbing and a small slide.

After several hours, we felt that we had only scratched the surface of things to do. We didn’t get a chance to lie on the bed of nails or make body impressions in the pinwall. We will definitely return — we only wish it was closer! It was quite a hike to get to the center. Also, Taco Bell is the only food option with sodas as the only beverage. It is the “Taco Bell” Discovery Center after all. In addition, it is right next to the freeway, so the noise pollution was a bit distracting in the DinoQuest area. These are small quibbles, really, for a mostly fantastic place.

The Discovery Center’s next temporary exhibit is Secrets of Circles, which runs from Jan. 16 through May 2. Bubblefest, featuring a Guinness Record winning “bubble artist,” is in April, and a Rubik’s Cube competition is scheduled in May. If you are like me and had to take apart your Rubik’s Cube so you could bring it back to school the next day with its sides perfectly color-matched, you might enjoy seeing the experts at work.

Admission is $12.95 for adults, $9.95 for ages 3-17. The 3D movie is $3 extra, and DinoQuest is $5 extra. There is a discount for members of the California Science Center. www.discoverycube.org

Find a calendar with local events, helpful links, and more adventures of Addison, Zora, and Dash at smatoz.blogspot.com.

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