To hear the whirling sound of a pipe organ is to be transported back to the carefree days of childhood, when the most important thing was to race to your favorite carousel animal — horse, lion, ostrich — and clamber onto its back before anyone else could claim your steed. The bell would clang, the animals began to bound and the music lilted along in time.
The Washington area is home to several carefully restored century-old carousels, which have brought joy to generations of children and kids at heart. Recent years have seen the openings of new carousels to delight even more riders. Whether you prefer a fancifully painted wooden horse from the golden age of carousels, a cuddly panda or a gleaming dragon, one of these wonderful carousels is waiting for you to climb aboard.
Dentzel Carousel at Glen Echo Park
The best-known and most beautiful carousel in the region has been at Glen Echo Park since 1921, where it sits under a 12-sided pavilion. Hand-carved by the renowned Dentzel Carousel Company of Philadelphia, the carousel was meticulously restored between 1983 and 2003, as was its rare 1926 Wurltizer Band Organ that still plays songs from paper rolls. (Everything is cleaned and touched up every year.)
The carousel has some local history, too: In 1960, five Howard University students protesting Glen Echo Amusement Park’s segregation were arrested for trespassing while riding on the carousel. The park was integrated the following year; a memorial near the carousel recounts the story.
Cost per ride: $1.25. (Pro tip: If you buy multiple tickets in advance, you don’t have to get off the carousel between rides.)
What you’ll ride: Like most carousels in the region, Glen Echo is a “menagerie” carousel: Horses predominate among the 52 seating options, but don’t overlook the galloping ostriches and leaping hares. “Little boys like the lion and the tiger,” says longtime carousel operator Bert Kenyon. “Little girls like the giraffe and the deer.” And once people find an animal they love, they tend to stick with it. “One friend of mine — she’s around 30 — she has a favorite horse, and will always ride that same special horse,” Kenyon says.
Interesting fact: It’s not unusual to see three generations of the same family riding the carousel together, but the record probably belongs to “a young lady celebrating her 105th birthday here,” Kenyon says. “There were at least five generations of that family on that carousel.” (The record for the youngest rider: 7 days old.)
7300 MacArthur Blvd., Glen Echo. glenechopark.org. Open daily through August, and weekends through September.
The Chesapeake Carousel at Watkins Regional Park
From 1929 until 1972, this gorgeous and slightly mysterious carousel was a fixture at the Chesapeake Beach Amusement Park in Charles County. What’s so mysterious about it? The animals appear to be from different sources: Some are attributed to the Dentzel Carousel Company, circa 1905, while others appear to have been carved in the late 19th century and added piecemeal by the amusement park’s operators.
When the amusement park closed, the carousel was sold and slated to be broken up until local antiques expert Orva Heissenbuttel persuaded the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission to purchase it. Since 1977, it’s been at Watkins Regional Park, one of the flagships of the Prince George’s County park system.
Cost per ride: $2 Prince George’s County residents, $2.50 nonresidents.
What you’ll ride: Of the 44 animals on the carousel, about two-thirds are painted horses, split between jumping and standing. The rest is a diverse selection of species, including galloping bison (a father and son side-by-side), a leaping rabbit and a brightly restored hippocampus — the carousel name for a horse/sea horse hybrid. The real star, though, is what the National Carousel Association calls “a rare articulated kangaroo.” Its jointed legs provide a sense that it’s bounding along the carousel. “The kangaroo is the most popular and unique,” says Christy Irving, the recreation specialist who oversees the carousel.
Interesting fact: One of the original lions was removed from the outer ring of animals to make the carousel wheelchair accessible; it is now on display in the carousel’s pavilion.
301 Watkins Park Dr., Upper Marlboro, Md. mncppc.org. Open daily through Sept. 3, and weekends through September.
Carousel on the Mall
There has been a carousel on the Mall since 1967, when Smithsonian secretary S. Dillon Ripley decided that the Institution needed to be less dry and more welcoming to families. The current carousel, which is independently operated but overseen by the Smithsonian, was made in 1947 by the Allan Herschell company, and operated at the Gwynn Oak Amusement Park in Baltimore until 1973. It moved to the Mall in 1981, when the previous carousel was relocated to Wheaton Regional Park. It is still wildly popular with children, who race to claim their favorite animals as the gates open.
Cost per ride: $3.50.
What you’ll ride: The carousel’s horses are densely packed: Where most classic carousels have only three rows of animals next to each other, this example has four rows of animals. Also, all of the 57 horses are “jumpers,” meaning they go up and down. Some of the horses have a Washington theme — note the ones painted with cherry blossoms or wearing a saddle blanket covered with presidential signatures.
The most popular animal on the carousel, though, is a rearing hippocampus, painted a showstopping shade of metallic turquoise. It is not an original part of the carousel — it was added in 1996 — but it’s almost always the first animal picked by a young rider.
Interesting fact: Like Glen Echo’s carousel, this carousel played a role in the civil rights movement. The segregated Gwynn Oak park was the subject of organized protests, beginning in 1955. After repeated demonstrations in July 1963 led to hundreds of arrests, the owners finally relented: On Aug. 28, 1963, an 11-month-old girl named Sharon Langley became the first African American child allowed to ride the Gwynn Oak carousel. That day, on the Mall, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. The horse Langley rode is still on the carousel: Look for the one marked “Freedom Riders.”
The Mall, across from the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building (900 Jefferson St. SW). nationalcarousel.com. Open daily, except for Christmas Day and in cases of “extreme weather.”
Speedwell Foundation Conservation Carousel at the National Zoo
Millions of visitors go to the National Zoo to see exotic animals such as giant pandas, Asian elephants and naked mole rats. But do they know they can ride the animals, too? The zoo’s Speedwell Foundation Conservation Carousel, which opened in 2012, is populated with endangered species, many of which have lived at the zoo or the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Va.
A conservation-themed carousel isn’t a novel idea — zoos from Los Angeles to Toronto have similar attractions — but the facts shared about different animals on carousel columns are a fun way to educate visitors and raise awareness.
Cost per ride: $3.50. All proceeds fund the zoo’s conservation and animal care.
What you’ll ride: The 58 hand-carved wooden animals run the gamut from cuddly to just plain weird. The flamingo, lion and tiger are the most popular, zoo officials say, and children also seem to run to the panda. But there’s also the squat armadillo, exotic Komodo dragon and slightly menacing-looking blue crab. The bench is designed to look like coral.
Make sure to look around you: The carousel is divided into different “habitats,” such as savanna or forest, and the panels overhead show birds that migrate to or from those areas.
Interesting fact: The carousel is completely solar-powered, thanks to 162 panels donated by Pepco. If the carousel receives more solar power than it expends, the extra energy is used by the zoo’s general electrical grid.
3001 Connecticut Ave. NW. nationalzoo.si.edu. Open daily, except for Christmas Day.
Chessie’s Carousel at Lee District Park
The newest addition to the regional carousel scene is also the only one with a local focus. Chessie’s Carousel, which adjoins the Chessie’s Big Back Yard playground and Chessie’s Trail nature trail at this Fairfax County park, goes beyond horses with animals found in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, including the whooping crane and sea turtle. And most important, the carousel, like the playground and sprayground, is fully accessible so that children with mobility issues can ride with everyone else.
Cost per ride: $2 weekdays, $3 weekends and holidays.
What you’ll ride: The carousel is small, with only 20 seats, but the fiberglass animals include some not regularly seen on other carousels, such as a hummingbird, a screaming bald eagle, a friendly-looking frog and a sparkling sea turtle. It’s not as large or imposing as some other carousels, making it friendlier for young and potentially apprehensive riders.
Interesting fact: Modeled after the accessible carousel at Clemyjontri Park in McLean, Chessie’s Carousel, which debuted in 2017, sits at ground level, allowing wheelchairs to roll directly on. There are two ADA seating options: a swan-shaped chariot with a bench, and a bench that stretches between two white horses. Unlike most bench seating on carousels, which stay in place, this one goes up and down, giving children the feeling of riding a traditional carousel horse.
6601 Telegraph Rd., Franconia, Va. fairfaxcounty.gov/parks. Open daily through Sept. 3, then weekends through October.