Family travelers looking for some “space” away from the crowds should plan a weekend around the recently reopened, and still amazing, Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. Along with the National Zoo, it is the only part of the Smithsonian Institution currently open to the public.
Cut out of a forest at the southern end of Dulles International Airport’s long runway, 25 miles outside Washington, D.C., the museum annex (the main building is on the National Mall) is a cavernous series of hangars, chock full of all sorts of intriguing objects from more than 100 years of aviation and space flight.
The Udvar-Hazy Center’s Top Aviation Attractions
The backbone of the museum is a jaw dropper: the Boeing Aviation Hangar, more than three football fields long, larger than the entire National Air and Space Museum.
It houses a Concorde (which used to fly into Dulles), the Enola Gay (of Hiroshima fame), the world’s fastest jet, fighter planes lined with deadly guns and scores of other aircraft, suspended overhead on two levels and scattered across the sprawling floor. The exhibits are marked with mercifully brief explanations on placards so kids quickly can get the point without reading a tome.
By the way, some artifacts have been moved or covered as part of the roof project in the Boeing Aviation Hangar, due to be completed in mid-2022.
Space & Subsonic Planes in Action
Space Shuttle Enterprise which opened the museum’s massive, adjacent hangar, has been replaced by Space Shuttle Discovery. This spacecraft is considered the “work horse” of the shuttle fleet, having completed 39 missions and spending a combined total of 365 days in space.
My kids enjoyed the Observation Tower for a close-up 360-degree view of “real” airplanes flying in and out of Dulles. Note that while this part of the facility has been closed in conjunction with other coronavirus prevention protocols, you can still watch aircraft fly past from the parking lot as they take-off and land at Dulles.
Kids Activities & Learning Tools
There are many activities for preschoolers, though few are open at this time. One favorite, The Simulator, is a Disneyesque imitation shuttle flight that didn’t overly impress my kids after a long wait.
The Information Desk — operating remotely now — used to hand out scavenger hunt programs to look for planes with various wing shapes and air speeds, which helped provide some structure for small ones wondering around such a massive building.
We also checked out an exciting and educational movie at the Airbus IMAX Theatre. Several other titles on aeronautics and space topics will be shown on a rotating basis when the theatre reopens.
Udvar-Hazy Trip Planning Details
Despite its magnificent size, the Udvar-Hazy Center is the type of museum where in two hours your kids can actually see everything. Once my kids got past the “awe” factor, though, they wished there were even more hands-on opportunities. As for me, I’m ready to go back and wander much more slowly through the spectacular century plus history of aviation.
I am delighted the museum has reopened to bring an educational experience back to real life for our family. Despite the Airbus IMAX Theatre and four aerial simulators being closed, just being in this space with these aircraft is exhilirating.
Make a Weekend at the Udvar-Hazy Center
The museum is currently open daily from 10am to 5:30pm. Admission is free; visitors must make a reservation for timed entry so that the museum can control capacity and allow for social distancing. Face masks covering the nose and mouth must be worn by all visitors ages 6 and older and are recommended for any visitors over age 2.
For our family, this really could be the focus of a fun weekend away. Our favorite site for hotel bookings is Booking.com and there is a Fairfield Inn and a Home2 Suites nearby. Both are ear-marked for having stated safety policies to cope with the pandemic. Both hotels have indoor pools and have a room with two queen beds, including breakfast, starting at less than $100 per night. Alternatively, you can base your family in nearby Washington, D.C.
Tips: Note that within the museum, food service is currently not available. Picnic tables are right outside and there are many restaurants for takeout or outdoor dining nearby.
Parking costs $10 for the day (free for entry after 4pm), and public transportation is available to the site. For more information, call 703-572-4118 or visit the Udvar-Hazy Center’s website.
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