Guest contributor Laura E. Kelly visits a unique miniature museum in NYC and winds up taking an interesting trip around the world.
For a recent outing in New York City, my husband and I had to figure out a way to fill 90 minutes between brunch and our 3 pm Sunday Broadway matinee. It was too frigid to just wander around and he’s not a big shopper. So, I searched “museums near Times Square,” and was bemused to see an unbeknownst-to-me exhibit called Gulliver’s Gate pop up on my screen. Now here was something different.
“It’s a museum of miniature worlds,” I explained to my dubious husband. “And it’s on the same street as our matinée. How bad could it be?”
Then I added the closing argument: “And I found online discount coupons for entry.”
So, one December Sunday around 1 pm, we found ourselves at the entrance to Gulliver’s Gate, located in a reconfigured office building swathed in typical Manhattan scaffolding on tourist-thronged 44th Street, between Bowlmor and Carmine’s restaurant. With our pre-printed coupon we breezed past the line of full-price ticket buyers. We were handed a 4-page brochure that listed more than 40 “hidden” holiday touches—from an ancient Winter Solstice celebration and a Santa stuck in a chimney to a Diwali celebration and a Krampus devil figurine—to keep an eye out for throughout the museum. Then we took the escalator up to the vast 2nd floor (you can also take an elevator or stairs).
To be honest, we didn’t know what to expect. “Miniature worlds” hold some basic interest for a lot of people, going back to childhood—but was it going to be just a cutesy attraction for children? And how many miniature worlds could they fit on that second floor?
The answers are: “It’s for everybody, especially people interested in other lands and people” and “A LOT”!
Scoping out the exhibit
This $40 million permanent attraction opened in spring 2017 and boasts 300 miniature scenes from 50 world nations in a 49,000-square-foot self-guided tour space. Besides the cities and towns, the meticulous models include dozens of UNESCO World Heritage sites such as Angkor Wat, the Taj Mahal, Mecca, the Kremlin, and the Panama Canal (featuring the locks system with freighters going through it both ways). As we wandered past the ancient landmarks and modern cities, all beautifully detailed and packed in one after another, our heads swiveled right and left while our mouths hung open in incredulity.
My husband said, “This is like Epcot on steroids,” while at the same time I gasped, “I feel like I’m piloting a superdrone.” We wondered who the heck put all this together?
Turns out Gulliver’s Gate is inspired by the popular Miniatur Wunderland in Hamburg, Germany. This particular Times Square twist on miniatures was the brainchild of Eiran Gazit, a former officer in the Israeli military and creator of Mini Israel. Three years in the making, it was created by seven design teams working in workshops around the world before being assembled in New York City. The build-out continues today.
Throughout the museum you notice the glass-fronted workshops of the venture’s onsite designers, engineers, and miniaturist geeks, allowing you to view the craftspeople at work. We noticed only a few workers at their big computer screens on the Sunday we were there, but during the week it must be a beehive of activity in those workshops, which include a 3D model scanner and a control room.
Employees called “navigators” also wander around the exhibition answering questions and showing visitors how to turn the “interactivity keys” in front of many exhibits. The keys put various things in motion, such as ski lifts zooming up mountains, trains going through tunnels, bridges raising, Santa’s sleigh sailing past the Northern Lights of Siberia, and even the brief emergence of Nessie of Loch Ness fame in the British Isles Scottish diorama.
Various non-diorama activities include a photo booth that takes your photo and sends it over Niagara Falls and the ability to have a 3D replica of yourself created (in various sizes and not-cheap prices) to take home, or add to the museum among thousands of tiny people, cars, boats and trains. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to do that.
The good and the bad
The list of multimedia and artistic features is too long to list here (and should remain surprises anyway), but two overall touches I appreciated throughout were the beautiful landscape paintings serving as the dioramas’ backdrops and the constantly rotating sunrise/sunset aspect of the lighting throughout the Gulliver’s Gate space. Under cloak of night the famously serpentine glass towers of East Asia became glittering obelisks, and a sunrise brought into high relief a painted replica of the Rainbow Mountains of China (a destination I had first learned about in a travel article the very day before).
Two big highlights (literally) for me were the massive New York City model you see when you first walk in and the sprawling Middle East/Jerusalem diorama in the far back corner (its size is not surprising consider this museum was set in motion by an Israeli businessman). They may be polar opposites in their look and feel but are both stunning creations. In the case of NYC, craftspeople with a sense of humor must have put it together, with its jostling crowds, traffic collisions, and profusion of inside NY jokes. Yes, you’ll even see King Kong climbing the Empire State building (which is so tall the crown of the skyscraper disappears through the room’s high ceiling).
One thing I give the museum lower marks for is the paucity of explanatory signs. There were many sites (and sights) that demanded identification or some explanatory background/history, and only the most informed of world travelers would have been able to name everything they were seeing. As far as I can tell there wasn’t a phone app you could download with explanations, either.
Another potential negative is that if you come on a weekend afternoon, you may get elbowed aside by eager little tykes now and again. (Amazing how many of them were determined to reach over the barriers to try to pry off the little figurines while their parents looked the other way.)
So how does Gulliver’s Gate fare with well-traveled visitors, like the readers of this website? If you have a tolerance for kitsch (and you have to admit that miniatures are the height of kitsch) you may well find it quite engrossing and engaging. As we perused the U.S. and European scenes my husband and I found ourselves pointing at the colorful plazas and buildings saying, “I’ve been there,” and “Remember that?” At other, more exotic points we said, “Why haven’t we been there yet?” or “Wow, maybe that’s worth checking out,” and made notes for our travel lists. In that way, it was like walking through a 3D travel highlights brochure for the well-heeled luxury traveler. (Afterwards, when counting continents, we realized that Africa and Australia/New Zealand weren’t represented… yet.)
As our time at Gulliver’s Gate ran out, we buzzed through the large space between the gift shop and the restrooms that was filled with stately white 3-D replicas of the Washington, D.C., monuments and buildings, and beyond that a huge hangar area devoted to a fictional Alaskan airport, surrounded by tundra and icebergs, where we watched a model jetliner take off. Whew!
All in all, it was a surprisingly pleasurable 90 minutes of engagement and wonder in the midst of Times Square. You come away with a renewed appreciation of how vast, varied and extraordinary both nature and human engineering can be. I predict I’ll return another day to spend more time at Gulliver’s Gate talking to the craftspeople and taking my time to peer closer at all their amazing models when it’s a little less crowded than on a holiday Sunday afternoon.
A glimpse of a neverending film of Niagara Falls right next to an idealized New England mountain village. Only at Gulliver’s Gate…
All photo credits: Laura E. Kelly
IF YOU GO:
Gulliver’s Gate Website (with plenty of videos and photos, but I would watch them AFTER seeing the real thing):
Location and hours: Times Square, 216 W. 44th Street, New York
Open every day from 10 am – 8 pm (last entry at 7 pm)
- Adult: $36 ($23 with a coupon from Goldstar)
- Senior: $27
- Children: $27 (free under age 4)
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