Family travelers looking for some “space” away from the crowds should plan a weekend around the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. While all the Smithsonian museums are currently open to the public, the Udvar-Hazy Center should top your list.
This lesser known museum is cut out of a forest at the southern end of Dulles International Airport’s long runway, 25 miles outside Washington, D.C. When the National Air and Space Museum’s flagship building on the National Mall closes for several months of renovations Mar. 28, 2022, it will make the Udvar-Hazy annex even more popular. Yet this cavernous series of hangars, chock full of all sorts of intriguing objects from more than 100 years of aviation and space flight, has room to maintain social distancing for all the aviation fans in your family.
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Space Shuttle Enterprise which opened the museum’s massive, adjacent hangar, has been replaced by Space Shuttle Discovery.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. One favorite, The Simulator, is a Disneyesque imitation shuttle flight that didn’t overly impress my kids after a long wait.
The Information Desk suggests your print out their scavenger hunt programs so the kids can look for planes with various wing shapes and air speeds. This helps provide some structure for small ones wondering around such a massive building. It’s free and if you forget to print one, you can scan a QR code at their front desk.
We also checked out an exciting and educational movie at the Airbus IMAX Theatre. After being closed during the height of the pandemic, it now operates Wednesday to Sunday. Book ahead to catch short films that relate to the Museum’s collection during the day or the latest Hollywood films at night.
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. Just being in this space with these aircraft is exhilirating.
Pilot Your Weekend on the Udvar-Hazy Center
As mentioned, that other mainstay for aviation fans, the National Air and Space Museum on the Mall, is closing from late March to late Fall 2022 to continue work begun in 2018. While the main museum is closed, some of its world-class collection and items related to air and space content can be found in other Smithsonian museums. At this time, the Smithsonian is featuring several meteorites at the National Museum of Natural History, the Tomahawk cruise missile at the National Museum of the American Indian, the PT-13D Stearman Kaydet aircraft at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Huey helicopter at the National Museum of American History and the Goddard 1935 Series-A Rocket in the new “FUTURES” exhibition at the Arts and Industries Building.
Meanwhile, the Udvar-Hazy Center will remain open daily, with free admission. Face masks covering the nose and mouth must be worn by all visitors ages 2 and older. 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 rooms 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 food service is not available yet. Picnic tables are right outside and there are many restaurants for takeout or outdoor dining nearby. Look for my kids’ favorite, Shake Shack, coming to the Udvar-Hazy campus in early 2022.
Parking costs $15 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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