- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 3, 2008

The plan was supposed to be to head down to the Mall, meet up with neighbors at the National Museum of Natural History by 10 a.m. and have a good time.

By noon on that sultry Sunday, though, Tracy Hirsch of Cockeysville, Md., had seen the Smithsonian only from the car’s windows as her husband circled the blocks looking for a parking spot. Eventually, he let the rest of the family out while he kept circling.

“We’d love to go into a museum,” she says as her 5- and 7-year-old sons play in the grass. “But we haven’t gotten to that point.”

More than 15 million people visit the District annually, making it the No. 2 U.S. city destination (behind New York), according to Destination DC, Washington’s tourism consortium. One-third of those visitors arrive here with young children and good intentions in tow.

While the Natural History Museum’s Hall of Mammals and steps of the U.S. Capitol make for dandy photo ops, it is the intangibles that often get overlooked. Among them: the summer heat, the miles of Mall to cover on foot, the hills at the National Zoo, pricey food options that are kept squarely inside the museums, and, as the Hirsches discovered, parking.

For Americans used to driving their air-conditioned cars to the climate-controlled shopping mall in suburban Detroit or Atlanta, it can come as a shock that the National Mall is absolutely devoid of that other American treasure, the parking garage. Throw in some oppressive humidity and the 1.9-mile walk from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, and you have the makings of a monumental meltdown.

That is why Kathryn Hanley and Tim Wright of Las Cruces, N.M., have devised a strategy: divide and conquer. Ms. Hanley and Mr. Wright, as well as their children, used to live in the area. They were back for a visit recently, and said they sometimes split up while sightseeing because their 4-year-old can’t walk as much as their 10-year-old.

Ms. Hanley says if the Mall was designed by a parent, it would have more bathrooms, more drinking water, and shuttles back and forth to various monuments. She says her family is all about taking public transportation, but her only criticism is that the Smithsonian Metro stop seems too small to handle so many visitors.

“It is usually ridiculously crowded,” she says.

Cheryl Warner of Northwest agrees, and says she recommends getting on and off at Metro’s nearby Federal Triangle stop. Ms. Warner brings her children, ages 3 and 1, downtown as much as once a week to ride the carousel, fly a kite or just play in the grass. She has devised a well-crafted battle plan.

The first item of business is to know where the bathrooms are, she says. Nothing spoils the fun like a gotta-go situation with a half-mile and a museum security guard between your preschooler and the potty.

Second, Ms. Warner always brings her own food.

“Tourists should know that the food in the museums is dreadfully expensive,” she says.

Packing a couple of sandwiches, snacks and cold drinks means your kids can eat when they want to, and you will save money as well, Ms. Warner says.

“The Mall can be a great place for kids,” she says. “It is a big, big open place to run.”

If the kids have had enough running, there are very cool places to cool off. The cafeteria that runs between the National Gallery of Art’s east and west wings is a good spot to get ice cream or a cold drink, with a water sculpture that runs on one wall. There is a gelato stand just outside the cafeteria at the Natural History Museum, not to mention an Imax theater where you can cool your heels while watching a movie.

Just across Independence Avenue, L’Enfant Plaza is another place to run for cover and a food court. The National Air and Space Museum’s food court features McDonald’s.

When the National Museum of American History reopens this fall after a two-year closure for extensive remodeling, it will have families in mind, with an expanded retail operation and several new restrooms, including “family” restrooms.

Maria Stanco of Baltimore is a frequent visitor to the District. When she and her family, which includes boys ages 5, 3 and 6 months, lived on Capitol Hill, it undoubtedly was easier to take in what the District has to offer. Now that they live an hour away, they face typical tourist challenges.

On a recent Sunday, Ms. Stanco unloaded the older boys, the baby and his stroller on the sidewalk in front of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery while her husband cruised off in the minivan looking - and looking and looking - for a parking spot.

“Parking a little car used to be hard,” she says. “With a minivan, it is even harder. Usually, we try to come down here on a Monday or a Friday. We try to get to the zoo early, before the crowds start.”

Ms. Stanco’s motto, though, is to be flexible. Her kids can sometimes walk the length of the Mall, but sometimes there is just no predicting.

“We get by with strollers and carrying,” she says. “And we have to be willing to call it quits.”

Kirsten and Alex Thorne of Burke, Va., are officially Washington-area residents. However, since they just moved here from Denver in May, they are still exploring the city - their 3- and 4-year-old daughters in tow - with tourists’ eyes.

They have ventured downtown twice, and say that taking in the city in small bites is the best way to go.

“We did the American Indian museum one day, and today we went to Natural History,” Mrs. Thorne says, boarding a Blue Line train to return home. “The only complaint I have is that it is very expensive to eat. We know that they need to subsidize the museums, because they have free admission, but there really aren’t any other options.

“That’s why we plan ahead,” she says, patting a large tote. “We bring our own food.”

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