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Tommy Barker, 7, looks around wide-eyed at all the colorful displays and busy activity and, in three words, sums up what visitors to The Magic House have been saying in varying ways for 30 years:

"This is awesome."

Tommy and his family, who traveled from Dallas to spend part of their vacation in the St. Louis area, are among the 300,000 visitors this year who already have made the Kirkwood children's museum one of their summer destination musts. More than 50 percent of visitors to The Magic House come from outside the St. Louis area.

By year's end, museum staff anticipate a record attendance of about 600,000 - a fitting tribute in a year when The Magic House celebrates its 30th birthday.

"It's heart warming to know that people throughout all the years have loved coming to The Magic House, from the beginning, when we were small, all the way up to today," said Beth Fitzgerald, museum president. "We've become a tradition for many families. We hear all the time from people who came here as a kid or brought their young kids here, and now are bringing their own children or grandchildren because they want them to have the same experiences they did."

Fitzgerald has headed the museum since 1979, when The Magic House first opened its doors and invited children and their families to play, experiment and learn.

The Magic House was founded by two St. Louis women, Jody Newman and Barbie Freund, with a vision of a hands-on museum that would encourage learning through creative and enjoyable activities and displays.

"Our mission has remained the same over the years," Fitzgerald said. "Our focus has always been on the same core educational values."

The museum offers several educational programs to school and Scouting groups and continues to be a popular field trip destination.

What has changed in three decades is the size of the museum and the scope of programs.

In 1979 the museum was limited to a 5,500-square-foot 1901 Victorian mansion. When the doors opened Oct. 16, 1979, Fitzgerald said the staff expected about 30,000 visitors; that first year, 165,000 guests came through the doors.

Since then, the museum has expanded to about 52,000 square feet, most recently in December 2008 with the completion of a 25,000-square-foot addition that includes a new education center.

Expansion of the facilities has allowed exhibits that are old favorites such as the giant ball that uses static electricity to make your hair stand on end and the shadow wall to remain side by side with new and innovative exhibits. Those new exhibits include an outdoor construction zone and play garden, and the Star-Spangled Center, an area for learning about American history and government that includes a replica courtroom, legislative chamber and Oval Office.

"It's still affordable, and families can spend the whole day here," Fitzgerald said.

Although the look of the museum has changed, one thing that hasn't is the kid appeal. There may not be any videos or electronic games, but kids seem just as eager to explore the museum's offerings.

"Kids aren't that much different than they were 30 years ago," Fitzgerald said. "One of the first activities we had was painting with easels. It's still as popular now as it was then, I think, because it's something that many kids don't get a chance to do outside the museum. That goes for many of our displays and activities, and that's why I think they remain favorites today."

Up until now, Fitzgerald said The Magic House has appealed most to the 10-and-younger crowd. But she said new additions at the museum have been designed to appeal to the "tweeners" — 11-to-13-year-olds, who may be coming to the museum with younger siblings.

The museum also has an active volunteer program for teens ages 13 through 16, who work side by side with older teens and college-age student staff members.

"Yes, in many ways we've changed and grown," Fitzgerald said. "But in all the ways kids and their families love, we've also stayed the same. And that's probably the biggest secret of our success."

Got photos? Send them in

The Magic House has been helping families make memories for 30 years, and now staff members want those memories back.

The staff is collecting memories and photos for a special memory wall to be put on display throughout the museum's birthday year. The memories can be 30 years old or as recent as yesterday.

Submit photos and memories to: The Magic House, 516 S. Kirkwood Road, St. Louis, MO 63122 or e-mail them to info@magichouse.org. Deadline for submission is Wednesday, Sept. 16.

If you would like photos or other important items returned at the end of the year, include your name and address on the back.

For more information, contact Vicki Muhs at (314) 822-8900, ext. 16.

The Magic House

516 S. Kirkwood Road, Kirkwood

(314) 822-8900

Admission: $8.50 (ages 1 and above); group rates available for 15 or more with an adult supervisor for every 5 children. No reservations required during public hours. School groups visiting before 12 p.m. must have a reservation. Free parking.

Public hours:

School Year

Tuesday through Thursday, 12 to 5:30 p.m.

Friday, 12 to 9 p.m.

Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Summer

Monday through Thursday, 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

The Picnic Basket Cafe is open daily year-round from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.