Almost every child’s toy collection at one time or another consists of a submarine or some similar submersible. At the Submarine Force Museum in Groton, Conn., kids can experience what life was like onboard the USS Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear powered vessel launched in 1954. Operated by the U.S. Navy, the museum is a straightforward drive west on Interstate 95 and is easily found off Exit 86.
The museum is a sleek, silver building on the shore of the Thames River. On its front lawn are four smaller submersibles, including a two-man vessel. These can be inspected up close but cannot be toured. Directly inside the museum is a replica of the Nautilus used in the 1954 Disney movie 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which was based on Jules Verne’s novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea: A Tour of the Underwater World published in 1870. Two floors exhibit artifacts, documents and photographs of submarine construction, operation and history, which might interest the adults more than the children. Yet everyone will be in awe of the full-size replica of Bushnell’s Turtle, an early submersible used during the American Revolution. Also of interest is the submarine model wall displaying major U.S. submarines built since 1900.
The massive Nautilus sits partially submerged in the Thames River, with the tower and deck poking above the water. Visitors cross active railroad tracks and then a ramp to reach the sub. Steep stairs lead down into the submarine so younger kids might need help while holding onto the railings. Tours are self-guided and begin at one end of the craft and move slowly but continuously through narrow corridors to the other end. Audio wands – which adults and older kids like my 11-year-old niece found helpful – describe the exhibits, which are behind glass partitions.
The vessel appears as if lived in, which helps children better imagine how the crew lived and worked aboard the sub. At many stations, mannequins portray the crew at work. The officers’ dining room and crew’s mess hall are set for a meal. In the galley, a mannequin chef grills hamburgers. The crew’s bunks have sheets and blankets, and my niece tried to figure out how the crew could fit into and sleep in such tight spaces. Toothpaste, a brush, and a towel sit by the sink in the bathroom.
The torpedo room shows where the missiles were stored and how they were launched from the attack center. Below the attack center is the control room from which the sub was steered and directed to dive or surface. This room really let the kids feel what it’s like to run a sub. Throughout the tour, the kids enjoyed climbing through the hatches from section to section and they particularly got a kick out of the onboard accommodations and meal service.
The museum gift shop sells a large selection of souvenirs and all things submarine from apparel to books. There are items that appeal to both children and adults, including pens shaped like a submarine, magnets, postcards, and model kits of ships such as the Titanic. My niece, who likes gift shops, dubbed the museum shop “the best and fun, with really cool stuff like a submarine squishy.”
No dining opportunities are available at the museum. Vending machines onsite can provide a quick snack for the kids. Three miles south on Rte. 12, there are several fast food restaurants. Or, visitors can pack a picnic lunch to enjoy near the sub at the riverside picnic area.
There are no restrooms on the Nautilus so it’s probably best to use the facilities at the museum before going aboard. There is also no stroller access on the sub. Touring the sub takes from 45 minutes to an hour. However, the narrow and tight spaces onboard the Nautilus might propel some people through the hatches faster if they start to feel claustrophobic.
If there’s still time in the day, stop at the Pez Visitor Center in Orange, Conn., off I-95 on the way home. Kids can view the production floor to see how Pez candies are made and then buy some at the factory store. Adults will enjoy the display of vintage Pez dispensers.
Henrietta Toth writes middle-grade nonfiction and enjoys visiting historic places in and near Westchester.
Submarine Force Museum
Home of Historic Ship Nautilus
1 Crystal Lake Road
• Hours: Wednesday through Monday, 9 to 5 p.m.; closed Tuesdays and one week in November and in April for maintenance.
• Admission: Free