Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Thursday XIII:9 13 Things I Hate to Do in DC During Student Tour Season


Yes, it's that time of year! I shouldn't really complain since this is what gets my rent paid and dinner on the table! But if you must travel during this period, there are some caveats and certainly better ways of spending your time than standing in long lines or being engulfed by screaming crowds of clueless students:

  1. Touring the Memorials at Night: It is pleasurable off season, but the mobs and the disrespectful behavior of the student groups turn them into a circus. The most disgraceful conduct has been at the Lincoln Memorial and the FDR Memorial. It's almost impossible to keep a large group together; talk to them about the memorial, stressing respect, and give them a time and place to meet at each stop. Trying to talk to them at each site is too difficult. I sometimes opt to visit some memorials during the day or before 7:30 PM. 8:00PM is when everybody else starts the tour and bus dropoff, parking, and pickup is a competitive business.
  2. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing: -It is a long tour and the ink affects my asthma. Most groups get up early and stand in line for two-three hours to get timed tickets for later in the day. What a waste of precious time! The group appointments are during lunchtime, which is awkward. Visit this on your family holiday and write well in advance (at least six months or more) to get an appointment through your US Representative and/or US Senator's office. The sheets of money etc. offered at the shop can be purchased online at their website. I have yet to conduct a group that has requested this, that has done any study on the history of our currency or Federal Reserve. The only reason they come here is to see money being printed and to shop.
  3. The Washington Monument: Even with a timed ticket secured online (through in advance, this can be a long wait, especially in iffy weather. there's not much room at the top, and the windows are small and scratchy. If this is a priority for your group, book the first appointment available in the morning or the last one of the day, althought most of the availability is during lunch hours.
  4. The US Capitol Tour: This may surprise you because it is one of my favorite places, but again, even with the timed ticket through your Representative or Senator (see my posting), it is a difficult process and once you get the group through all the security, the noise of the groups packed into the rotunda and old House chamber. is deafening. The lines to get into the House and Senate chambers (additional passes required) are extremely long. The tours have become fast-paced and perfunctory to accomodate the crowds.Some of the tours one can get through a Representative's or Senator's office might be given by an intern reading off 3x5 cards! . Additionally, the current construction of the visitors' center has limited accessibility.
  5. Eating at any of the food courts around town: I'm not a fast food fan, but many tour operators give meal vouchers with specific selections (no substitutions) to the students. The worst food is at the National Museum of Air and Space and by far, the worst crowd experience is Union Station. I avoid both! Pentagon City in Virginia, although crowded, is better than most other food court choices.
  6. The White House: If a group is 'fortunate' enough to get an appointment (see my posting), the security is tight and there is zero tolerance. Most, if not all, personal belongings should stay on the bus. If not, the tour guide (me) has to remain outside the White House guarding cameras, perfume, water bottles, IPODS, etc. Even if it is raining, umbrellas are not allowed in! All group members need to have given personal information/vital statistics regarding place of birth, day of birth, social security number etc. in advance. Any student or adult not on the list, or whose name is misspelled (for whatever reason) is not permitted in. I cannot tell you how many students (especially a couple of my Armenian students from Glendale) stayed outside with me because of an administrative spelling error. One cannot argue with the Secret Service! Oh. You should also find out who your tour guide will be and get the vital statistics from him/her to be included with your group.) Unless you give the students specific things to look for and questions to ask of the Secret Service posted in each room, they will usually rush through with a, "Is that all there is?"
  7. Ford's Theatre: Another wonderful stop which can have the longest lines. The modest museum downstairs is excellent, but cramped. I usually add in a performance there (this year it's the premiere of a new musical, Meet John Doe) so I don't have to stand in line! The students can visit the museum before the show and during intermission.
  8. The International Spy Museum: Overrated, overpriced, over crowded. 'Nuff said.
  9. Mount Vernon: I haven't checked out their new educational center, but the lines to the mansion in the past have been horrific. Once the group gets inside the mansion, you are practically pushed through. In fact, they're downright rude! Again, I choose alternate historic homes to visit that give tours and respect appointments.
  10. Dinner dance cruises for students. It's packed to the gills with several different types of groups, frenetic, and the picnic-type food is nothing less than awful. The music can be of the objectionable type (x-rated rap) and at a high decibel level. I have to constantly monitor girl/boy dynamics and dancing. If you really crave a dinner dance cruise, spend more money for something civilized (like the Dandy out of Old Town Alexandria, Virginia )where you have better food (sit down meals) and control over the type of music being played. Better still, arrange for your own DJ at your hotel or a restaurant.
  11. Dinner Theatre: There are not many left, but even for the most professional one, (Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia MD showing the blockbuster biographical musical, George M) you need to cut your touring day for the students to change and then suffer through beltway traffic. Normally, you won't see your hotel until after midnight. There is also a good dinner theatre way down in Fredericksburg, VA but the worst is in Woodbridge, VA. Think beyond the box here and try for some real (kid-friendly) theatre experiences at Ford's, National, Warner, Kennedy Center, Shakespeare, Folger, Arena Stage, Signature etc.
  12. Cruise to Mount Vernon: This gets you to Mount Vernon after the crowds from the 60+ buses are already in line for the mansion. You start from the bottom of the hill and need to climb it (passing the farm (excellent, especially the barn), tomb, and dependencies to get to the mansion. The new museum, modest food court, and gift shop are still further on. If you are meeting your bus, it's a long walk down the line of buses to find yours but much better than the logistics of being stressed out to go all the way past the house, down the hill, and back onto the boat for the trip back. Many groups have not even been able to get into the house before they have to catch the boat! Lunch at the Mount Vernon Inn is good and more expensive (book in advance), but they have a Martha Washington character interpreter one can engage for an additional fee.
  13. Wreath-laying at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers: Your jaw just dropped! If you have read my recent post Bringing Cemeteries to Life, you'll know my deep feelings for and connection to Arlington National Cemetery. However, with the difficulty of getting the appointment (sometimes during a bad time -like noon or 8:30 AM), the stress of trudging up the hill to get to the Tomb a half hour before the wreath-laying, making sure the wreath-layers (students) are dressed properly, the placement of the students in order to see the changing of the Guard and their own wreath-laying in the midst of a packed crowd, the fact that there may be two wreath-layings per half hour, the ceremony takes place in all weather and you are expected to be there, the reconfirmation of the wreath etc. , and then the possibility yours wreath-laying might be delayed because of an official event, make this a stressful situation for all. It takes away from the dignity of the ceremony. My groups arrange to have their wreath-laying at another memorial or statue during the trip; and one can be arranged at Mount Vernon at the Tomb of George Washington, if you are stubborn and still insist on going there!
Note: my new Thursday 13 banner is courtesy of Bradbury and Bradbury Art Wallpaper


elementaryhistoryteacher said...

You are a very brave woman. I can't even begin to imagine going on a trip like this with my students.:)

The Tour Marm said...

Happy to see you!

This, in a nutshell, is why I left the other tour companies and went off on my own to develop saner and more civilized programs, utilizing alternate venues and stressing travel 'off season'.

NONE of my groups will have these experiences!

I don't have one group in Washington, DC during Cherry blossom/ Easter vacation.

However 95% of school groups and families go through this because they don't know any better and they all follow the exact same standard itineraries!

The other problem is poor leadership amongst teachers, parents, and tour guides who allow their children to run amuck.

It's downright pitiful.

Jennie W said...

I have to admit that I always avoid the touristy spots like this because I absolutely can't stand the crowds! I can't imagine doing it with a horde of students!

Michael - Lover of Amy said...

Wow, is about all I can say. I love visiting historical sites when travelling, and when Amy and I had our anniversary trip back to Williamsburg we took a day trip to DC. Our only target was the National Zoo which we loved! I wanted to go to the museum of american history, but it had just closed in late September and even the partial exhibits sharing space at the Air and Space Museum would not have started by the time we got there. Sigh.

BTW - you have been blogrolled on my blog.

The Educational Tour Marm said...


And thanks for including me on your blogroll! (I have to figure out how to reciprocate - I'm still new to this!)

It's too bad you and your wife did not know about the National Portrait Gallery and American Art that opened during July 4th weekend. It's actually quite fascinating.

The Renwick Gallery, near the White House' is also a great place for American Art and history.

Next time, when the pandas are sleeping, you'll know about alternate sights. But by then, the American History Museum will be open again!