Our summer trip to Washington, DC was designed to be an introduction, not a whirlwind tour. We only spent a few days. My thinking, as the girls get older and more and more US history comes their way, DC would be timely.
I knew the trip would be a learning experience, but overall I wanted it to make sure it was fun. When planning the trip, one of the hardest things was figuring out what the kids and I would truly enjoy; I didn’t want the entire trip to come off as a giant history lesson.
Even the average person who’s never been to DC came name more than a handful of worthwhile sites. In So Many Washington DC Museums for Kids to See, So Little Time, I explained how I decided what museums to attack.
Sometimes you don’t know how many are too many until it’s too late. The same can be said for tours. Just like luggage, less is more. A trip is a success in my mind if when it comes time to go home, the family is wishing they had time to do more.
Kid-Friendly DC Tours
Kid-friendly DC tours are everywhere. Choose carefully, and reserve before you go. You do not want to be lining up with the kids at the crack of dawn to get tickets. Lines are long. Think lines that put the most popular ride at Walt Disney World to shame.
Bureau of Engraving and Printing
We arrived at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing early, hoping we might be able to change our tour time. As luck would have it, our request to tour the White House has been approved, but it conflicted with our tour at the money factory. One look at the line and I knew the answer.
Choices had to been made and when next thing you know the kids were standing next to a million dollars, beautifully stacked behind some thick glass in the lobby of the Bureau of Printing and Engraving. (I didn’t give up on the White House though.)
The tour entrance is located around the corner from the long ticket line. Don’t be surprised if the doors are closed. You’re not getting in until employees know you’ve got a reservation or a same day ticket. To get a ticket you have to stand in line. To get a reservation contact your local United States Senator or Representative. Regardless of how you get your foot in the door, the tour is free.
Be ready to go through security. The BEP doesn’t have strict rules in regards to things like water bottles and food, but you will go through a metal detector before entering the lobby. Strollers are allowed in the lobby, but not on the tour. Same thing with cameras. You can take pictures in the lobby area, but have to put them away once you are in motion.
The tour begins with a short opening video. It gives good background information and is short enough to hold kids interest. (There are also large, family-friendly bathrooms to use before you start making your way toward the production floor). The BEP tour is fun and upbeat. You’ll learn great tidbits like some bills removed from circulation by the Federal Reserve System wind up as recycled stationary!
The entire tour takes place on an enclosed, elevated walkway that runs through the production floor. The minute you lay eyes on the production floor it’s pretty clear folks here like their job and have a good sense of humor.
A worker named Hollis was all waves as my girls and I peered down at him examining currency paper. Behind him, on the wall is a sign, “Imagine how I feel, I just printed my lifetime salary in a few minutes.” Another reads, “Free samples tomorrow only.”
During our visit the BEP was printing 100 dollar bills. Bills are printed in large sheets and checked before being cut to the size we know and love. A worker inspecting a fresh stack, picked up a sheet of 100’s and held it up to the glass for us to see. The stacks of finished $100 bills next to her were almost as tall as she was.
I don’t think it matters how old you are, stacks and stacks of hundreds of dollars is a fascinating sight.
The tour is fast, 30 to 40 minutes and ends in the gift shop. Be sure to find the height chart that tells you how much you’re worth in money. Kids will love the shredded money knick knacks for sale. There’s also a useful information desk in the gift shop. It’s not staffed, but I picked up some helpful handouts. Everything from great places to eat, best places for kids and a kids’ crossword puzzle all about money.
Library of Congress
I went back and forth on this one, before I finally decided to go for it and request a tour of the Library of Congress. My kids are big readers, but the tour screamed of a potential for bored, unhappy kids. Just like the BEP, my Representative’s office reserved the tour for my family. That said, the Thomas Jefferson Building Tour seemed considerably easier to get into without a reservation than any other tours we took in DC.
I knew the tour was a good choice when the guide happily informed us the Thomas Jefferson’s recipe for vanilla ice cream is still kept (and made for special events) at the Library of Congress.
Why should you go on the this tour? There are so many reasons.
The building is built to impress. During the Clinton administration, Russian President Boris Yeltsin came to visit and reportedly asked, “How did you build this without a czar?”
The Library of Congress collects everything. Books, maps, the rough drafts of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights and even tweets. They apparently have 3-thousand of them, but haven’t quite figured out what to do with them yet.
The ultimate sign of victory came when my soon to be 8th grader couldn’t get close enough to the Gutenberg Bible. “We spent two weeks on this last year. I can’t wait to tell my teacher I saw this,” she said.
The National Archives is home to the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights. You can wait in line at the general public entrance on the corner of Constitution Avenue and 9th Street and then wait in line again inside, or you can make a reservation.
We were part of the first group of visitors in the door. Sure, it was nice not having to wait in line for security, but the real reward was standing in the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom – in front of the Declaration of Independence – without anyone else around. It took about 10 minutes for the start of the crowd to find their way, but those 10 minutes were incredible.
Did you know there is a hand print on the lower left hand corner of the Declaration of Independence? Once you know it’s there, it’s hard to miss. The docent on duty told us it most likely happened in the 1940’s, before we knew what we know now about handling aging documents.
We spent at least half an hour in the Rotunda, reading, looking and talking to the docent. By the time we left, another long line had formed just outside viewing area. Security limits the number of folks in the room at a time. Another reason to go early.
It’s hard to top the Constitution, Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence, but the Public Vaults are worth a visit. The permanent exhibit is used to display some of the fascinating things that are part of the National Archives. Documents, photographs, maps, drawings, film and audio clips. You can see the patent drawing for the pencil by Orestes Cleveland done in July of 1864, listen to one of FDR’s “fireside chats” or see the Homestead Act form filled out by Charles P. Ingalls. Father of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House book series.
I did tell you I wasn’t giving up on the White House. Being organized is important, but a little luck can go a long way on a trip. Coming soon — what you need to know about visiting the White House with your kids.
Photo Credit: Dana Rebmann