By Associated Press Writer
updated 12/12/2007 3:26:42 PM ET 2007-12-12T20:26:42

Flashlight. Check. Sleeping bags. Check. Jammies. Hmmmm ... what's appropriate for a night camped out under a whale?

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As I prepared to join a hearty legion of parents and kids on a sleepover at the American Museum of Natural History, I felt my enthusiasm turn lukewarm when my 8-year-old daughter ripped into the confirmation packet that arrived in the mail.

There were copious checklists, maps and FAQs for our much-anticipated, sold out "Night at the Museum," a hot ticket among 8- to 12-year-olds after the blockbuster movie of the same name — filmed at Natural History — hit theaters in 2006.

Our night involved unfurling our sleeping bags on eyeball-to-eyeball rows of cots with 357 of our closest friends under the museum's famed blue whale, while other groups were assigned a mammal diorama room or cots next to big rocks in the Gottesman Hall of Planet Earth.

Score, I thought. We got the whale. But could I hack it? Surely I wasn't the first mom or dad to wonder if the evening would push me to my grumpy place. I decided to take comfort in numbers.

Around the country, from the San Diego Zoo to the Battleship New Jersey, packs of kids and their grown-ups have been scooping up tickets and heading off to their favorite museums, zoos, aquariums and historic sites for sleepovers.

The programs emerged several years ago and appear to be here to stay as the institutions come up with new ways to freshen the evenings and accommodate ever-growing crowds.

"Some people have always dreamed of sneaking away and coming out to explore `their' museum once it was closed up for the night and the crowds had disappeared," said Brad Harris, Natural History's senior director of visitor services. "There's a real sense of ownership of the place when you're looking into dark corners with your flashlight that you don't experience when you're sightseeing with the crowds during the day time."

The cavernous Natural History has offered its sleepovers since January 2007 on the coattails of the Ben Stiller movie. The evenings have grown so popular, the museum opened new rooms to accommodate more people and added craft activities and carts stocked with small artifacts such tortoise shells and stuffed birds for a little touch-and-tell.

"It worked out to be more successful than anyone could have predicted," Harris said. "As soon as we announce a new set of sleepover dates they fill up almost immediately."

My daughter couldn't wait for the after-dark flashlight fossil hunt among the bones of dinosaurs and early man. She couldn't wait to pad around the museum in her slippers. She noted the solar map project in the Cullman Hall of the Universe, a walk through the Butterfly Observatory — a special T-shirt!

I couldn't find the ear plugs I bought three months before, when I made the reservation.

And why, in the whale night in my head, had I envisioned a much more intimate affair? In our information packet was a troubling "snore alert" on bright purple paper warning that marauding museum workers would "relocate" the loudest offenders.

Snore strip. Check.

Not all sleepover programs involve crowds as large as ours.

In Philadelphia, at the smaller Independence Seaport Museum, the minimum sleepover is 80 people, with a maximum of 140. The two-floor, carpeted museum on the Delaware River has been offering sleepovers for four years, changing the themes each year to keep them viable.

This year's theme was pirates. In previous years, the focus was on the famous hunt for the lost Civil War vessel the Alligator, the U.S. Navy's first submarine.

"We feel that getting to sleep in a museum and run around when nobody else is in there demystifies it and focuses the kids so the place isn't quite so boring and stuffy and overwhelming," said spokeswoman Michele DiGirolamo.

The interactive science, technology and art museum Explora in Albuquerque, N.M., has offered sleepovers to schools and organizations such as the Girl/Boy Scouts for about two years. It also sponsors groups for sleepovers from throughout the state, said Emily Jendrek, visitor services program coordinator.

"New Mexico is a big state and for some groups to come and visit the museum, it's more feasible that they stay the night," she said. "It's a really intimate experience. You have access to absolutely everything one on one."

One of Explora's top sleeping spots is a hall of mirrors, a niche fitted with mirrors from floor to ceiling.

"They're completely surrounded by their own reflection, which is kind of fun," Jendrek said.

The museum usually offers two new choices of programming from six picks each year. One of this year's new programs has guests using M&Ms and leaves to delve into how chromatography is used to separate the components of mixtures.

Back in New York, the whale is a mainstay and a huge draw, Harris said.

"It's magical and beloved by so many people," he said.

After check-in at the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life, and after my daughter chose just the right cots, we happily trooped around museum rooms selectively open for the night.

We made moon rubbings and origami, watched an IMAX film on dinosaurs and munched a museum-provided snack before settling down beneath our beloved friend — the whale we had spent many a happy year playing under before third grade, with its crush of soccer games, swimming lessons, homework, birthday parties and playdates.

The whale's tiny eyes looked down on us as soft light moved slowly across its girth, illuminating its white splotches and throat grooves.

Lying in my cot, I remembered my daughter as a baby reaching up to touch its curved tail, at age 3 shouting "Hi Bluey!" as she nearly toppled on the steep stairs. I recalled her sitting with paper and pencil, trying to draw the smiling beast and scolding: "Sit still. I'm almost done."

At midnight, lights out meant whale off — its trademark lighting going dark. The whoosh of institutional climate control sounded like the ocean itself as we hunkered down like some crazy but undiscovered species burrowed into the sandy ocean floor.

My girl slept, alas not long enough. The next morning, after the whale flicked on and we stirred and crowded into a museum cafe for our whale adventure breakfast, I asked my child what she thought.

Her answer was high praise from a sleep-deprived 8-year-old: "Nice."

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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