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Cities: Kid-Friendly Washington, D.C. is Capital Fun

Much to my chagrin, my kids are not great museum-goers. They would rather do anything on a holiday than cruise around artifacts placed in glass cases. In fact, on our recent road trip, two of them opted to lie on pillows on the museum lawn outside while we toured a native collection with our eldest. No problem. We're flexible, especially on vacation.

But there is one museum where we've had to drag them out protesting they hadn't seen everything: The Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Last year, we spent a good part of a day there touring such aerodynamic wonders as the Gossamer Albatross, the first human-powered plane to cross the English Channel, and the kids were just as enthralled at the end of it as when we'd come through the giant entry hall. "I could spend a week in here," said my action-loving son. He's not alone. This museum reportedly draws more visitors annually than any other museum in the world.

The Wright brothers' Kitty Hawk Flyer is here as is Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St Louis , a thrill for my husband to see. The kids were more interested in the Apollo 11 Command Module and the Skylab Orbital Workshop which lets them see just how little space astronauts have to work in when they're in orbit. There are exhibits on aerial photography, World War 11 rockets, and a section on women flyers which my daughter and I enjoyed. In all, there are 240 aircraft and 50 missiles in the collection.

A target of stirring controversy is the hall's latest entry - the forward fuselage of the Enola Gay , the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The silvery plane is so huge the curators had to leave the wings off. There it sits with its bomb bay doors still open. Your kids will likely have some hard-to-answer questions. If you've got young kids you may want to steer clear of the crowds here and head instead for the giant IMAX movie To Fly! (the most popular of the 6 Imax movies playing each day) in which viewers are put through the loops and swerves of real flying. Also appealing to kids and on view until September 4 is the exhibit, Flight Time Barbie: which traces Barbie from American Airlines stewardess in 1964 to Air Force Thunderbird in 1994. Ken's there too as co-pilot.

The Einstein Planetarium show takes a look at the mysteries in the history of space exploration. Of course, there are other Smithsonian museums in the complex to visit, such as the National Museum of Natural History with its dinosaur skeletons, the National Museum of American History with its Hands-on Science and Hands-on History rooms (where kids can participate in experiments or practise Morse Code), or the National Zoological Park where visitors can now watch the orangutans travel on the Zoo's new Orangutan Transit System: 400 feet of open cables 40 feet high. All of the 18 galleries and museums that are part of the Smithsonian complex are free. But that's only if you can get your kids out of the huge shops at Air and Space. We left the museum loaded down with postcards of Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, sci-fi books, and a glass world suspended on a string.

The National Air and Space Museum is open every day except Christmas from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. until Labour Day and until 5:30 p.m. thereafter. There's a cafeteria in the building; weather permitting, you can arrange a picnic on the lawn outside. The free tickets for the Enola Gay exhibit are given out starting at 9:45 a.m. each day, giving specific times. There are no reservations. Call (202) 786-2122. For viewing times and admission prices for the six Imax films including the new Destiny in Space, call (202) 357-1686. For information on any of the museums, call (202) 357-2700 between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m.

Good bets for accommodation in Washington are Days Inn at 4400 Washington Ave. which offers a room rate of $49 U.S. for four people including breakfast or the Radisson Barcelo Hotel Washington. We walked from this hotel in Dupont Circle to the Vietnamn Memorial and over to the Smithsonian. Their rooms are the largest in the city (ours slept five people with room to spare) and there's an outdoor pool. A family room costs $89 U.S. until Labour Day. Call 1-800-333-3333.





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