Michael and I had an adventure exploring Cincinnati’s Union Terminal yesterday! It was a two-part adventure. We were able to see what used to be a bustling passenger train station in its original Art Deco style. In addition, we visited the exhibits housed in the Cincinnati Museum Center. Union Terminal has been transformed from a train station into Cincinnati’s library and museum district. What a treat it was to visit this amazing place.
The construction of Union Terminal began in 1929, and its doors opened to the first passengers in 1933. The station accommodated up to 17,000 passengers and 216 trains a day. The number of passengers began to decline in the 1970s, and the terminal closed its doors in 1972. It reopened as an Amtrak station in 1991. The active station lobby is located right next to the museum’s Omnimax Theater. When we were in the museum, we could peak through the glass and see the Amtrak waiting area. Currently, this station hosts over 12,000 passengers a year. It’s a train station and museum all rolled into one!
When we stepped inside the museum, we gazed up in awe at the high ceilings of the half-dome in the rotunda of Union Terminal. The ticket line for the museum is located in the center of the giant dome.
The Art Deco signage that guided train passengers through Union Terminal appears all over the museum.
An ice cream parlor, snack bar, restaurant, gift shops, and exhibit entrances encircle the rotunda. They have plenty of tables for families to bring their own lunches and enjoy a “picnic” in Union Terminal. The Cincinnati Museum Center includes 3 museums: the Cinergy Children’s Museum, The Cincinnati History Museum, and the Museum of Natural History. The center also has an Omnimax theater. The entrances to each are located in the rotunda, and you scan your ticket at a counter each time you visit a specific section.
During the construction of the train station, German artist Winold Reiss beautified the rotunda with two colorful mosaics that we marveled at when we entered the museum. The mosaics continue around the entire upper levels of the rotunda walls and tell the story of Cincinnati’s history.
We visited Union Terminal on a Saturday, and it was very busy. We waited in line for over 20 minutes. The unique and historic rotunda kept us occupied with plenty of things to gaze at while we waited in line. Once we had our tickets in hand, we made our way to the exhibits. We started in the Cincinnati History Museum. The first two rooms showcased 1940s downtown Cincy via an enormous model train exhibit. The streets and businesses lit up intermittently, and detailed signs described the buildings we were looking at. We continued through the different floors of the history exhibits. I made my own bookmark using an old printing press and learned more about Cincinnati’s nickname, “Porkopolis.” This exhibit helped me understand why we keep encountering pig statues and flying pig yard decorations in Cincinnati.
Michael enjoyed learning about Cincinnati’s riverboat history when we boarded a model steamboat. The exhibits on this level consisted of buildings along a cobblestone street that bordered the Ohio River.
The history museum had a train exhibit called Holiday Junction on its traveling displays floor. The exhibit closes on January 3, so we were lucky we got to see it. Holiday Junction consisted of a 3-room Christmas village with numerous trains weaving in and out of the downtown. Two older men in conductor caps and uniforms were manning the train grids.
We also happened upon a statue of our new friend, Cincinnatus.
After we toured the history exhibits, we watched Rocky Mountain Express in the Omnimax. If you plan on watching a show in the theater, be sure to arrive well in advance of the start time. The museum is huge, and the exhibits kind of wind all over the place on multiple levels. We got lost between the history museum and the Omnimax. We arrived at the theater right when the show started and had to sit in the second row. If you’ve ever been in an IMAX, you know that is not where you want to sit!
We ended our visit with the Museum of Natural History. This was my favorite part of our Union Terminal adventure! The natural history and science exhibits included a huge and realistic multi-level cave with waterfalls, stalagmites, “soda straws,” and bats. A superb archaeological exhibit displayed numerous examples of Cincinnatian fossils. The Ice Age exhibit had an ice cave you can walk through as well as a series of life-sized prehistoric mammals, including the saber-toothed cat, giant ground sloth, woolly mammoth, and mastodon. The museum also had skeletons of these Ice Age mammals that were found in Ohio. I had no idea these mammals roamed this area of the U.S.!
I would recommend Union Terminal to visitors of all ages. It is a very kid-friendly museum center, and all three sections provide numerous hands-on activities for children. The Art Deco style of the terminal building and the ever-present reminders of its former function as a railway station are amazing to look at. The history and science exhibits provided me with detailed explanations of Cincinnati’s past. It was a wonderful and educational way to spend our Saturday.