MOOLAH METER: $, free after 4 p.m.
GOOD FOR: All ages
One of the coolest things you’ll ever see in a museum are the airplanes suspended upside down from the ceiling at the Steven F. Udvar Hazy Center, sister facility to the National Air and Space Museum in D.C. The airplane and spacecraft exhibits are housed in a huge airplane hangar, with the area’s nearest IMAX theater, which occasionally screens commercial movies (Transformers was awesome, but read my post about purchasing tickets). The gift shop has cool items such as freeze dried Astronaut Ice Cream; you’ll find kiosks sprinkled throughout the exhibit area as well.
WHAT TO DO FIRST: Before you go, download maps of the center as well as guides to the exhibits here. That will help direct your visit if you’re not going to take one of the daily docent tours. Once there, if you’re bringing any kind of handbag or backpack, be prepared to have your items checked by security upon entering the center. After clearing security, if you’re going to see an IMAX movie, head over to the right and purchase or pick up your tickets. Otherwise, the hangar is straight ahead, and you’ll immediately see the planes hanging suspended from the ceiling. The entrance is the second floor of the building, so you’ll walk down the stairs or ramp down to most of the exhibits below.
HIGHLIGHTS: Watch planes taking off and landing at Dulles airport from the Observation Tower, which you get to from an elevator on the first floor. Also on the first floor, kids who are 42 inches or taller can hop on the ride and flight simulators; the rides are 5-6 minutes long and cost $7 and $8. You’ll also find touch-screen computer kiosks that you can manipulate to get a pilot’s 360-degree view of the interiors of some of the aircraft and spacecraft on display.
Although admission to the center is free, they do charge $12 for parking. If you plan on going often, you can buy an annual parking pass for $65; members of the National Air and Space Museum Society pay $50. Here’s an insider secret, though: you can park for free after 4 p.m.; the museum is open until 5:30 p.m., which is plenty of time unless your kids are real aerospace fans. But you can check it out for free at least for the first time, then determine whether it’s worth shelling out $12 for parking.
WHAT TO BRING
More like what NOT to bring: handbags or backpacks. It’s not a problem when it’s not crowded but at events such as last year’s Air and Scare Halloween event, it paid to be able to scoot past the line of people waiting to have their bags perused by security.
WHERE TO PARK
It’s a huge lot, but if you have another adult with you, you can drop your family off at the entrance, then park the car.
WHERE TO EAT
The Golden Arches has the only food outlet here, so Happy Meals are it for the McKids.
WHERE TO GET CASH
There’s an ATM machine located near the IMAX ticket counter.
Check their calendar for monthly Family Day themes such as women in aviation and African American pioneers in aviation. One of the most popular events is Become a Pilot Family Day, when the public can walk out onto the tarmac to talk to the pilots who have parked their aircraft just outside the center. This year the event takes place on June 14.