Travel Tips

Six Flags & the Smithsonian: Visiting Washington, D.C. As A Family

Locations in this article:  New York City, NY

dc 2Family travel is often a challenge—on so many different levels—ranging from budget to the sheer logistics of traveling/transporting children to places and experiences that are meaningful as well as fun. Then there are the challenges of making things meaningful and fun for the parents as well. But what if you’re a single parent family? Contributing writer Lisa Blake has a report:

“We’re going where?” That was the response my 14-year-old son, TJ, offered when I told him we were heading to Washington, D.C. for a family trip. My 15-year-old son Aaron was more specific in his chagrin, “Spending my vacation looking at statues of dead presidents is not exactly my idea of fun. You’ll like it mom, because you’re all artsy, but I’m a kid. I’m a boy! For us it’s just going to be torture!”

This, of course, begs the age-old (and well-worn) question: What’s a mom to do? The kids had time off, I didn’t want to spend a fortune, yet there was no way I was going to let the week come and go with the boys parked at home in front of the Xbox.

We live in Manhattan, and I am often in Washington, D.C. on business. Yes, as my son Aaron correctly reminded me, I do find the memorials and museums there amazing. It’s our nation’s capital. Every American should see D.C., and that includes my kids.

dc 4But their less-than-enthusiastic response was threatening to scuttle the whole idea. I tried extolling the gee-whiz wonders of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. I shared with them the overpowering feeling of awe I have every time I stand inside the Lincoln Memorial. I joked about how tiny the White House actually is compared to how large it appears on TV. My enthusiasm continued to be met with blank stares punctuated with rolling eyes.

Still, I was determined. The heavy sighing and grumbling from the sofa only steeled my resolve. There had to be a way to give the boys what they wanted (fun), and what I wanted for them (education and insight as well as fun), and fitting this all into a budget. Then it hit me: the biggest draw for getting the boys excited about this trip was actually the most basic—transportation.

We had to get there somehow. Flying between New York City and Washington, D.C. was both a budget buster (shuttle airfares can easily top $600 round trip per person), and I don’t have to tell you about delays at LaGuardia. I didn’t want to drive—too tiring for me, and  there was the challenge of parking. The easy answer? Taking the train. The second I told the guys we’d be traveling by train the complaining started to ease.

dc 3As parents, we know the thresholds of our children. I have a niece who will go through virtually any museum item by item, reading every single placard before moving on to the next. That ain’t my boys. Going into this, I knew I was pushing my sports-loving, girl-obsessed teenage boys by expecting them to participate with any sort of interest or excitement.

There were things on my agenda that were mandatory: a White House tour, the Lincoln Memorial, the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. I wanted this trip to be meaningful. But I also wanted it to be fair. I needed to find a middle ground, to do something for them.

I did a quick Google search of theme parks and suddenly, just 15 miles east of D.C. was my saving grace—Six Flags America. The word roller coaster—for starters—produced an instant moratorium on complaining. Then came the fine tuning. We’d spend two days seeing the serious stuff then reward ourselves—or at least the boys—with a day of screaming on the best rides technology, inertia, and gravity had to offer.

On the day of departure, Aaron and TJ actually woke up early because they were so excited. It was vacation, so I booked a late morning train. Amtrak has dozens of departures out of Penn Station daily. The cost is much less expensive than an airline ticket, and the travel experience is substantially less stressful (board in the middle of the city and disembark in the middle of the city). Plus, to make matters better, this was Aaron and TJ’s first serious train ride. (No, Thomas the Tank Engine doesn’t count).

Interestingly, the boys wanted a say in what hotel we’d be staying at as well. Having been to D.C. on business so many times, I know hotels located a block away from the monuments which charge a heavy premium for proximity, and are located in a kind of downtown netherworld with limited dining and shopping options. Instead, I opted for a hotel in the North West area of the city, in Rock Creek Park— home to the National Zoo. This neighborhood is called Woodley Park. It has a charming village with lots of restaurants and shops including my boys’ favorite…Chipotle. There’s a metro stop smack in the heart of it all and the zoo is just steps away.

While there are a few hotels in this area, we chose to stay at the Omni Shoreham because of its pool and in-room refrigerators. The kids could go swimming and I could serve breakfast every morning. (Yep. Marched right across the street to the Duane Reade and I bought a bunch of those cereals already in the bowl, as well as milk and juice. It was a guarantee that every single morning, everyone was happy without me having to buy one more meal out.) Returning to the hotel in the evenings, we had an endless choice of places to try and discovered a real gem in the process—Rocket Ping Pong and Pizza. This was just like it sounds…only better. Ping pong and foosball, excellent pizza, and a full bar.

dc 1I spread the serious stuff out over two days, allowing for plenty of pool time back at the hotel. We saw the White House, the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, and the National Zoo. The monuments we saw on a tip from a friend in the evening. In the setting sun they are even more majestic than during the day. The temperature was also significantly cooler which we all appreciated and the crowds—were gone!

Their reward on day three was a day of E-ticket rides at Six Flags America. (I did rent a car for this portion of the journey which was a breeze, given that Enterprise is located right across the street from the Omni.) The Six Flags experience was even fun for mom….doing the rides with the boys was great. Yes, they talked me into taking the Superman, a “hypercoaster” which boasts speeds up to 73 miles per hour with a height of 215 feet and a drop of 208 feet straight down, not to mention some unbelievable mid-ride twists and rolls.

When our stomachs finally returned to their regular positions, I was treated to a fascinating lecture from Aaron. Ironically,  it was on the basic principles behind what makes a roller coaster go—inertial gravitational forces—which was something he had just learned in school. Because I bought the tickets in advance online, it came to $45 per person.

Returning to Manhattan on the train, the boys crashed out in the seats beside me, and all I could do was smile. I didn’t ruin their lives, or my pocketbook. It was a combination of education and thrills, all packed into three days. But now I have a new challenge…ever since they got back, not a day goes by without them asking where I am taking them next.

The total price tag for our three-day adventure in Washington, D.C. was $2,035. The Amtrak tickets cost $320 per person round trip, our hotel room cost $160 each night, and the total cost of food was $325. The car rental and fuel was $60, taking the metro and taxis cost $75, and our tickets for Six Flags America were $45 per person. All in all, that comes down to less than $700 per person.

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By Lisa Blake for