“Please, I need you to count the bathrooms.” With those words, a colonial guard assigns my grandchildren a task as we line up to enter the house where George lived. Engaged by their mission, Alex (6) and Evie (4) stroll through an elegant parlor, peek into bedrooms, dining rooms and the first president’s library. All very grand, but, as ceramic pots by the beds soon confirm, the answer is “zero.”
So goes a visit to Mount Vernon, encountering the extremes of lives lived in 18th-century America—gentleman planter George entertaining important guests like Lafayette who brings a gift (the key to the Bastille) and wife Martha in precious jewelry ordered from Paris. But the meals are prepared, whiskey distilled and chamber pots removed by slaves. Yes, slave and slave owner co-existed here, more than 300 in bondage when founding father Washington died, and his will freed those bearing his name.
Mount Vernon addresses that era now with compassionate accounts, archaeological digs at slave family quarters and a burial ground turned respectful memorial. This Virginia property, packed with sites of interest, helps visitors see Washington as a man of his time and a hero too. It tells the necessary stories with high-tech education centers as well as with traditional hospitality. The hilltop site makes for dramatic Potomac River views and a sloping front lawn that encourages cartwheels.
July 4th means red, white and blue fireworks in the daytime (1 p.m.), a ceremony swearing in 100 new U.S. citizens and free birthday cake (while it lasts). But every day from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., expect encounters with the first president and original first lady—family portraits (by artists like Stuart and Peale), a terra cotta bust by Houdon and lifelike figures of Washington and his horse Nelson.
George, Martha and her children in bronze welcome visitors to the Ford Orientation Center featuring a one-twelfth scale, exact replica of the mansion. At the Pioneer Farm site, horses tread wheat in the 16-sided barn, mama pig and piglets play around a mud hole, and workers shear sheep that don’t seem to mind.
At the entrance to the interactive world of the Reynolds Center, visitors stop before a vision out of the Wizard of Oz—a six-foot-high, glowing white face that shifts to keep eye-to-eye contact with all who pass by. It’s George Washington, in this case, a genuine good man and truly “the great and powerful,” his life revealed within.
Allow time here for a hands-on playroom for little kids, an animated film of George’s boyhood, Martha’s dress and jewelry plus colonial era guns and swords. Highlight: a film that recounts the Revolutionary War with graphics and actors. Be warned: cannon smoke rises, “artillery fire” rumbles the theater seats, and during the hard winter at Valley Forge, “snow” floats down upon the audience.
Onsite: a food court with burgers, fries, salads and pizza to carry out to patio tables or the Mount Vernon Inn with sit-down service for American fare. Special-ticket tours include gardens, slave life, a Saturday dog walk and “National Treasure: Book of Secrets” movie locations. A shuttle runs to the wharf for Potomac Riverboat cruises, a 45-minute loop to Fort Washington and back, with good camera angles on Mount Vernon. (Mansion and grounds tickets: $17 for adults, $16 for seniors, $9 ages 6-11, free 5 and under.)
For more role-playing activities, read on.
Check out stars like the giant pandas (24/7 on live feed) and Asian elephant Kandula, 13, whose keen intelligence solves problems. Special ticket: Elephant Trails tour of a new barn with suites, sand floor and skylights. National Zoo, www.nationalzoo.si.edu, 3001 Connecticut Ave. NW, 202.673.4888
“Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archaeology”
Thanks to uber-director George Lucas and smart loans, an Archaeology 101 of derring-do film clips, actual movie props and interactive tablets that pull kids into the puzzles and realities of digging the past. Note: Harrison Ford’s battered hat, a “golden” Ark of the Covenant, ancient Egyptian manuscripts and objects from Machu Picchu. National Geographic Museum, www.nationalgeographic.com, 1145 17th St. NW, 202.857.7700
Breaking news, tributes to heroic journalists and the impact of a free press. Pulitzer Prize-winning photos, a slab of the Berlin wall and city panorama from the balcony. Most fun: a selfie-sharing site and a YouTube posting as TV newscaster in front of sports, political, weather map, scenic screens. Up to four kids free with paying adult. Newseum, www.newseum.org, 555 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, 888.639.7386
Boomerang Pirate Ship
The red vessel at Washington Harbour cruising the river with rogues, face painting, music, limbo and a water cannon battle (get misted or stay dry). Snacks and free water plus a bar for older landlubbers. Reserve 888.217.2198 or take a chance. Boomerang Pirate Ship, www.boomerangpirateship.com, 1072 31st St. NW, 202.557.9896
Six-story-high screens, at Air & Space Museum showing "Journey to Space 3D" about life on the International Space Station, its past and future missions, and "Hubble 3D," up-close with space-walking astronauts and treks into distant galaxies; at National Museum of Natural History showing "Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Secret Ocean 3D, Dinosaurs Alive 3D," animated creatures generated by computer, and "Mysteries of the Unseen World 3D," things too small, too fast and too slow to see. See Smithsonian’s events by day: www.si.edu/Events/Calendar. Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, www.nasm.si.edu, 6th St. & Independence Ave. SW, 202.633.2214; National Museum of Natural History, www.mnh.si.edu, Constitution Ave. at 10th St. NW, 202.633.1000
Led by Detective McDevitt, a walking tour past sites related to Lincoln, the assassination and the Civil War. Narrated by NPS rangers: the tragic night, the Petersen House where Lincoln died and museum artifacts like John Wilkes Booth’s compass, its needle pointing south. Ford’s Theatre, www.fords.org, 511 10th St. NW, 202.347.4833
The titular character and Neverland as 360-degree spectacle in a soaring tent with puppets and aerialists 40 feet above the crowd, through August 16. Threesixty Theatre, www.peterpan360.com, Tysons Corner Center, Chain Bridge Road and International Drive, 8200 Watson St., McLean, Va.
Prize-winning production by Imagination Stage of Roald Dahl’s tale, following puppets and orphan Sophie on a mission to save children and visit the Queen. Ages 5+. July 14-25. The National Theatre, www.thenationaldc.org, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, 202.628.6161
10-year-old twins Lottie and Lisa, separated by divorced parents, discovering each other at summer camp and switching places for fun and family’s sake, through August 14. Ages 5+. Imagination Stage, imaginationstage.org, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda, Md., 301.280.1660
World Children’s Festival
This self-described “Olympics of the imagination” happens every four years and now, June 30 through July 4, on The Ellipse or “President’s Park” south of the White House. Selected for their talent, creativity and support of global understanding, children as visual and performing artists on the World Stage. International Child Art Foundation, www.worldchildrensfestival.org, 17th and E sts. NW, visit the website for schedule of events
Friday Night Concerts
From 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., in a grassy open space near Nationals Park, bands (cover, ’90s, pop hits, indie folk rock, country) with “family-friendly lyrics.” Yards Park, www.yardspark.org, 355 Water St. SE, 202.465.7080
In Vienna, Virginia, a daytime show with many acts for ages 2-7, including July 3, 10, 24, 31 at 10:30 a.m., Rocknoceros trio; July 25 at 11 a.m., Baby Loves Disco dance party with DJ, snacks, bubble machine; every Thursday at 10:30 a.m., comedy by The Great Zucchini, Eric “the toddler whisperer” Knaus. Jammin’ Java, www.jamminjava.com, 227 Maple Ave. E., Vienna, Va., 703.255.1566
International Spy Museum
Artifacts, pop culture toys and state-of-the-art espionage plus two missions: Spy in the City, a one-hour, GPS-led walk of the neighborhood with clues and codes (ages 10+), and Operation Spy with other covert players in the back alleys of “Khandar,” seeking a stolen trigger device and evading capture (ages 12+). International Spy Museum, www.spymuseum.org, 800 F St. NW, 202.393.7798
“Eye in the Sky”
For players ages 10+ in a search for a missing aircraft and its pilots. Free, mostly self-guided with a staff briefing. July 10 and some Saturdays through summer. Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center, www.nasm.si.edu/techquest, 14390 Air and Space Museum Pkwy., Chantilly, Va., 703.572.4118
Air Force Memorial
Gracing the Arlington, Virginia skyline, three arcs of stainless steel that symbolize maneuvers of flight. Special: USAF band concerts July 3, 4, 10, 17, 24 and 31 at 8 p.m., Air Force Memorial, www.airforcememorial.org, 1 Air Force Memorial Dr., Arlington, Va., 703.979.0674
In the Rotunda, cases holding the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; in the galleries, treasured papers like The Emancipation Proclamation, the Japanese surrender document, a 1297 Magna Carta and the Apollo 11 Flight plan. National Archives, www.archives.gov, 700 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, 202.357.5000
Peeps & Co.
Marshmallow chicks and more (from socks and lollipops to T-shirts and golf tees) steps from the pier at Maryland’s National Harbor. Peeps & Co., www.peepsandcompany.com, 150 National Plaza, 301.749.5791
Dolls to own, style, dress like and dine beside at Tysons Corner Center, Virginia. Special (ages 8+): July 8, cruise from Georgetown past the monuments, and July 22, brunch and bus to the Smithsonian Castle and its gardens. American Girl, www.americangirl.com, 8090L Tysons Corner Center, McLean, Va., 877.247.5223