Aug. 16, 2012 at 10:01 AM ET
Dressed for the evening in leopard-print tights and red heels, Maya Bush starts out her 25th birthday celebration with a beer and a stroll through a simulated Costa Rican rain forest.
"This is the pre-party," she laughs, struggling to talk over electro-funk tunes provided by a DJ group called the Slayers Club.
At the Swamp Bar set up near an albino alligator named Claude, bartenders dispense $9 red-eye martinis to a well-dressed, after-work crowd snacking on steamed pork buns and blueberry tarts.
Just another night at the museum? This is NightLife, a weekly, adults-only Thursday night creatures and cocktails party at the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco.
Part aquarium, planetarium and natural history museum, the academy transforms itself into a hip nightclub, complete with sound and light shows, dancing and changing themes that range from disposable filmmaking to — coming up Aug. 30 — bacon, featuring scientific illustrations of pigs, games, food and a vegan pig roast.
Gin and tonics and cans of Red Bull in hand, museum-goers wander the lobbies listening to volunteers talk about flashlight fish, or set their drinks down and enter a darkened Shake House, part of a new earthquake exhibit that simulates tremors experienced in the city's two biggest quakes.
Stefan Garza, who works in nearby Mountain View, had never been to the museum before and decided that NightLife would be a perfect outing for him and his father, who visiting from Texas.
"A museum with little bars everywhere," he says as they wander past a touch tank filled with sea urchins. "You know that has to be good."
NightLife launched three years ago "as a way to engage a new audience," after the museum, best-known for its 2.5-acre "living roof'' filled with native California plants, moved to a new building, says spokeswoman Helen Taylor.
Weekly attendance averages around 2,000. Lines snake around the outside of the building, starting a half-hour or so before the doors open at 6 p.m., and admission drops from the regular daytime charge of $29.95 to $12. (Tickets can be bought online or at the door.)
"A lot of the people who come are in their 20s and 30s," says Taylor. "It's not your typical group that visits the museum very often, so it's a great opportunity for us to connect with those folks, and hopefully establish what will become a longer-term relationship."
Bush, of San Francisco, says she'll be back. Her only complaint: NightLife ends at 10 p.m., just when the real night life for her and her friends is getting started.
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