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Doing the Federal Shuffle

By John Kelly and Craig Stoltz
From the book "Kid-O-Rama"
Copyright 1998


Federal Buildings | White House Ticketing Explained

We may be raising our families in or near the Nation's Capital, the Seat of Democracy, the Center of Power of the Free World, but let's face it: When it comes to entertaining most children, a little bit of the Federalist Papers goes a long way.

While you certainly should expose your offspring to the unique opportunities of federal Washington, we have found that this goes over best in small, occasional and age-appropriate doses. An Oklahoma family making its first visit to our nation's capital can be forgiven for sweltering in a summer line with a 5-year-old while awaiting a three-minute glimpse of the Supreme Court. A resident of Burke, Oxon Hill or Gaithersburg cannot (except when required to escort out-of-town visitors and their offspring).

That said, appropriate visits to sites in this chapter can convey some of the greatest benefits of D.C.-area residency: de-mystification of federal institutions, a heightened appreciation of the benefits and complexities of a democracy, and awareness of the striking range of the government's reach.

Two rules are in order here:

  • Try not to do federal Washington on summer days or major school vacations, when prime sites and comfort amenities are overwhelmed. The best times: weekends from October through March. Exception: summer evenings, between 7 and 8, when the heat and the crowds have dissipated.
  • Match the activity to the age. A 3-year-old is better suited to a romp on the Ellipse than to a tour of the White House. A 5-year-old will be underwhelmed by the gilded copy of the Magna Carta on display in the Capitol's Rotunda but may get a kick out of the Rotunda itself.

Following are highlights and appropriate age ranges for visiting major government institutions (for attractions on historic figures, such as presidential memorials, see the Living History section). It's a relatively brief list, picked because the sites are most accommodating to children.

Federal Buildings | White House Ticketing Explained

Federal Buildings

The District
The White House The Capitol
White House Visitors Center Federal Bureau of Investigation
Bureau of Engraving and Printing National Archives
Library of Congress National Postal Museum
Department of the Interior Museum  

White House Ticketing Explained

Who needs tickets?

In general, anyone who wants to visit between mid-March and Labor Day (though you should call the information number for specific dates when tickets are required). If you visit from Labor Day to early March (which we recommend) you won't have to bother with passes.

If I'm visiting when we need tickets, how do I get them?

Same-day tickets are available at the White House Visitors Center on a first-come, first-served basis. (For advance VIP tickets, see White House entry.) During high season, the line begins to form as early as 6 in the morning, and if you're not in line when the center opens at 7:30, you may be out of luck. If you arrive at 7, expect to wait an hour or so to get tickets. Each person can get up to four tickets, so if you're in a party of five, six or more, at least two of you will have to stand in line. The tickets are timed for tours that begin at 10 and end no later than noon. (Note that you may emerge at 8:30 with tickets for an 11:30 tour, so it's wise to have plans about how to use that time. The White House Visitors Center itself can happily consume 30 minute to an hour.) Before your tour, you'll assemble on bleachers set up on the Ellipse and wait for your number and time to be called; from there, a Park Service ranger will lead you to the White House. If the gods are smiling, a marching band will entertain you while you wait. There's nothing quite as inspiring, or heart breaking, as the sight of a hulking tuba player from San Antonio playing his heart out on Sousa marches in the capital's sweltering midday heat.

And if I'm going in the off-season, as you suggest?

It's still no walk in the park. You assemble at the Southeast Gate of the White House (on the right as you face the mansion from the Ellipse) as early as you can bear. The line often forms by 8. We recommend arriving no later than 9, but you're assured entry if you're in line by noon. An adult can hold a place for a family, who can run off some steam on the Ellipse or grab a snack from a vendor.

I'm still confused.

Call the recording phone number or hit the Web site; both are detailed and anticipate most questions.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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