Family travelers visit an amazing new branch of Smithsonian's Air & Space Museum in Virginia.
Once the long lines diminished, I took Maddy (11) and Jamie (9) to check out the new Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center. Cut out of a forest at the southern end of Dulles International Airport’s long runway, 25 miles outside Washington, DC, the museum annex is a cavernous series of hangars, chock full of all sorts of objects from the past 100 years of aviation and space flight.
The backbone of the museum is a jaw dropper: the aviation hangar, more than three football fields long, larger than the entire Air and Space Museum on the National Mall in DC. 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.
The “old” Space Shuttle Enterprise (the prototype launched from the top of a 747 that never left the atmosphere) is on display in another massive, adjacent space hangar. My kids insisted it was fake, and I had to agree it looked old and cobbled together. I think I was able to convince them of its authenticity. They enjoyed the Observation Tower for a close-up 360-degree view of “real” airplanes flying in and out of Dulles. Late afternoon is when more of the long-haul jumbo jets fly, and because lines for the Observation Tower elevator can get long, it’s your best bet.
Kids Activities & Learning Tools
There are many activities for preschoolers. The lines are slow for one favorite, The Simulator, a Disneyesque imitation shuttle flight. Sixteen people strap on 3D glasses and pack into a pod that rocks and rolls for seven minutes of “space flight.” My kids were not overly impressed after standing in line for an hour; they claimed it was too short, not terribly exciting and more likely interesting for younger kids.
The Information Desk hands out programs for kids that send them on a scavenger hunt for planes with various wing shapes and air speeds. They can return and have it embossed with a special Smithsonian stamp, which helps provide some structure for small ones wondering around such a massive building.
We also checked out one of the best IMAX movies we’ve seen, “Adrenaline Rush: The Science of Risk,” which ingeniously utilizes the big screen technology to the fullest. Multiple sky divers play catch with a tennis ball filled with lead, daredevils literally fly off cliffs before popping open their parachutes at the last minute and scientists test whether Leonardo DaVinci’s schematic of a parachute could actually work–all while taking your stomach along for the ride. A truly exhilarating and educational film. Other titles on similar topics are shown on a rotating basis.
The museum is open daily from 10am to 5:30pm. Admission is free but parking costs $15 for the day, though public transportation is available to the site.
Despite its magnificent size, the Udvar-Hazy Center is the type of museum where in two hours your kids can actually see everything (except for paid admission features). Once my kids got past the “awe” factor, though, they wished there were more hands-on opportunities. As for me, I’d like to go back and wander much more slowly through the spectacular 100-year history of aviation.
For our family, this really could be the focus of a fun weekend away, and there are dozens of chain motels and inexpensive small hotels in the area, if you’re not planning to base your family in nearby Washington, DC. Note that within the museum, food service consists of a McDonalds and a McCafe. To my mind, the gift shop is positively claustrophobic!
For more information, call 202/633-1000 or visit http://www.nasm.si.edu/udvarhazy/
Photo by Carolyn Russo/NASM, Space Museum c.Smithsonian Institution
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