Budding astronauts love Auckland's Stardome, writes Alex Tully.
Five, four, three, two, one - blast off! I lay back in my seat as a loud roar fills my ears; the room begins to move and suddenly we are up in space and heading for Mars.
I reach down to tighten my seatbelt - then realise I'm not in a Nasa spacecraft but at the Stardome Observatory and Planetarium in Auckland's Cornwall Park, watching a show about the solar system.
My two boys and I had visited the Stardome almost exactly a year ago but since then the place has had a major upgrade.
Entering the revamped building may have only been one small step for us but it was a giant technological leap for visitors to the centre.
New cutting-edge interactive displays now fill the exhibit area, which is free to visit and attractive to youngsters.
My children, and lots of others, raced eagerly from one exhibit to another, exploring and learning at their own pace.
The displays are divided into four areas but it was the large digital video globe, known as the Magic Planet, that grabbed our attention first. The easy-to-use touch-screen control panel allows users to change the globe from the blue and green of Earth to the swirling cloud surface of Jupiter, the crater-pocked Moon or the dusty red surface of Mars.
My younger son, Liam, headed next to Our Place in Space. He has a thing about rocks and stared longingly at New Zealand's most diverse display of meteorites, including pieces of the Moon and Mars.
Our older boy, Jamie, loves gadgets so Looking into the Universe was right up his alley. In this section he was able to explore telescopes and other instruments.
Nearby was a parabolic mirror, once the key part of a big reflecting telescope. These days instead of focusing light from space it does duty as a joke mirror, making faces look hugely fat.
In the Getting off Earth area we looked at Nasa spacesuits and model rockets, and discovered that April was the 50th anniversary of the first human in space. On April 12, 1961, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin blasted off from Kazakhstan in the Vostok 1, made a single orbit of the Earth and touched back down safely 108 minutes later.
Jamie stood on a special set of scales. These told him that while he weighed 25kg on Earth he would weigh 96kg if he travelled to Jupiter, which he was keen to do.
Before we knew it, it was time for Secrets of the Cardboard Rocket in the planetarium theatre.
This took us on an informative exploration of the solar system with some great pictures of the planets. The theatre has been upgraded with a state-of-the-art projection system and the 360-degree view and surround-sound experience was so realistic that at times I felt the room was moving. After the cardboard rocket landed we were taken on a tour of the night sky and introduced to the constellations and planets that are visible at this time of year. I felt disappointed to walk outside afterwards and find it was daylight - we had to wait several hours before the chance to look for Orion, the Southern Cross and Saturn for ourselves.
Further information: The Stardome Observatory and Planetarium is situated below One Tree Hill in Cornwall Park. To book a show or find out what is on, phone (09) 624 1246.
The shows at Stardome, which change every month, run every night and weekend afternoons. The topics range from the solar system to black holes and astronauts to Pink Floyd. Telescope sessions are available as part of the evening shows with one of the most beautiful planets, Saturn and its with rings and two moons, visible during April.
The Easter school holiday programme includes the Legends of the Night Sky: Orion screening in the planetarium theatre, followed by an arts session making constellations and finally launching model rockets in the park outside (weather permitting). This suits children 5-12 years and costs $10 for children and $7 for adults.
The Tully family were guests of Stardome.By Jim Eagles Email Jim