On Saturday, the giant panda cub Bei Bei makes its public debut, meaning the National Zoo and its surrounding area likely will morph into a vortex of traffic jams and winding lines.
But let’s start with the good news: Those who venture inside the panda house this weekend will probably get to see Bei Bei in the flesh. Panda keeper Marty Dearie says the nearly 5-month-old cub spends a lot of his time in a visible area rather than concealed in the den, which can be seen only through the Panda Cam. (His sister, Bao Bao, on the other hand, was more of a den dweller at that age.)
The bad news? Bei Bei sleeps about 90 percent of the day, Dearie says, so most visitors will catch him slumbering — unless they stop by between noon and 2 p.m., when the cub tends to be most active. Of course, Dearie warns, nothing is guaranteed. Pandas can get tired, and pandas can get carried by their mothers into hidden dens.
Arriving within that two-hour time frame might not be easy this weekend, anyway. The first day of Bao Bao’s debut attracted about 5,400 visitors in 2014, some of whom lined up before daybreak or waited for more than four hours. “I would bet this weekend would be roughly the same,” Dearie says.
Or perhaps even worse. With Saturday’s high forecast to peak at about 50 degrees — unlike Bao Bao’s chillier debut in January 2014 — a larger turnout wouldn’t come as a surprise. Consider that on busy days, only 50 to 75 visitors are allowed in the panda house for 10 minutes or so at a time. So you should be prepared to wait.
As for how to get there, taking Metro will probably be easier — and cheaper — than finding parking near the zoo. For those traveling with kids or strollers, opt for the Cleveland Park station to avoid the uphill trek from Woodley Park-Zoo; both stations sit roughly a half-mile walk from the zoo. If you have to drive, arrive early to score one of the zoo’s $22 parking spots, or pay a little extra to reserve a space in advance through Parking Panda for $30. (Parking lots A and B are closest to the panda house.)
And if you want an insider’s advice on how to get the best experience when meeting Bei Bei, here it is: “I would suggest waiting a couple of weeks,” Dearie says.
The panda house will be open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. National Zoo, 3001 Connecticut Ave. NW. nationalzoo.si.edu. Free.