Portraits Alive! Smithsonian Teen Program

Portraits Alive!
Portraits Alive!

Summer vacation is almost upon us, but it’s not too late to think about fun activities for that awkward age:  teenagers 14 to 16 years old.  They are too old to go to summer camp, and too young to get a job.  Or something like that.

Here’s a novel idea for a practically free three-week summer program offered by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.

Portraits Alive! is a museum theater program based on people in the National Portrait Gallery’s collection.

Students create a collaborative museum-theater piece after choosing a portrait from the museum’s collection.  Each program participant writes and performs an original vignette to accompany the portrait.

Okay, so my kid wouldn’t be interested in this program in a million years, but maybe you know someone who would!  Some of the students are actors, others are writers or have an interest in history.  Check out this short video of last year’s performers on You Tube.

The fee for the three-week program is just $100, which defrays the costs for costuming, dry-cleaning, workshops, and supplies.  Teens can earn community service hours for their participation.  

There are two sessions this year:

  • Session 1: June 30 through July 18, 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
  • Session 2: July 22 through August 8, 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The National Portrait Gallery has just extended the application deadline for the program until June 6, 2014.  E-mail ProvostG@si.edu to request an application.  Applicants will be notified of their acceptance by Monday, June 9 2014.

The National Portrait Gallery is not the stuffy museum you might imagine.

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Free Summer Saturdays at the Corcoran Gallery

Salon Dore
Salon Dore at the Corcoran Gallery

This summer may be your last opportunity to visit the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., as it is slated to close in the fall.

The art museum offers free admission every Saturday from now until Labor Day weekend, as part of their free Summer Saturdays program, including gallery tours, workshops, demonstrations, and performances.

Admission is on other days is $10 per adult, $8 per student, and free for children under 12.

Below are a few highlights of the family programs:

Saturday, May 31:  Botanical Collages Workshop
10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.
Inspired by Aaron Douglas’ painting Into Bondage, from the Corcoran’s collection, create your own tropical landscape.

Saturday, June 28:  Haiku Mistress

10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.
Working with Haiku Mistress Caley Vickerman create haikus inspired by the works in the collection. Share your literary works of art in a collaborative sidewalk chalk display!

Saturday, July 19:  The Ultimate Urban Safari 

10 a.m.-12 noon
Join us for a wild summer day dedicated to the animal kingdom! Spurred on by the American Metal: The Art of Albert Paley exhibition, discover how creatures big and small can inspire through workshop activities, book readings, and a live performance.

Saturday, August 2:  Family Workshop: Animal Maquettes
10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.
Inspired by Albert Paley’s maquettes, families work together to create their own animal displays.

You can find the complete schedule of tours, performances, and activities here:   www.corcoran.org/freesummersaturdays.


The Most Family Fun You Can Have in Vegas for Under Ten Bucks

Pinball Hall of Fame in Las VegasI
Wall to Wall Pinball Machines at the
Pinball Hall of Fame, Las Vegas

The Pinball Hall of Fame in Las Vegas houses the world’s largest pinball collection, with over 200 vintage games available for play.  

The games are from the 1950s to the 1990s, and have been meticously restored and maintained by pinball maven Tim Arnold.  

We met with Arnold when we were in Vegas in 2012, and he graciously  explained everything that goes into running such an enormous operation.

The Pinball Hall of Fame

There’s no admission charge, and all the older pinballs are set to 25 cents per play, with newer 1990s models set to 50 cents per play.

You and your family can have a lot of fun here for a roll of quarters!

The museum is a nonprofit, and all proceeds go to local charities, such as the Salvation Army.

Arnold says:

I like the Salvation Army a lot because they’re kinda like us. They’re downtown on the cheap side, and they put all their emphasis on the areas that need emphasis, and not a lot on hierarchy and organization.

The Pinball Hall of Fame is located about 2.4 miles east of the strip at:  1610 E Tropicana Ave, Las Vegas, NV.  The museum is open every day from 11 am to 11 pm, except Friday and Saturday, when it stays open until midnight.

Fantasia at the Neon Boneyard in Las Vegas
Fantasia at the Neon Boneyard in Las Vegas
Photo by Joel Shprentz

The Neon Museum Family Activities

Another Las Vegas Institution well worth a visit is the Neon Museum and its boneyard of discarded signs from casinos from days gone by.

Our family greatly enjoyed our visit to the boneyard.

If you are looking for some family friendly activities in Las Vegas, the Neon Museum has expanded its educational programming to include a series of events for kids and families. 

Here are a couple of noteworthy events for kids coming up:

  • Saturday, April 19, 10 a.m. to noon – Orienteering in the Boneyard.  Families will use compasses to participate in a maze-version scavenger hunt in the famous Neon Boneyard.  Appropriate for people of all ages
  • Saturday, May 24, 2 to 4 p.m. – Drawing History in 3D.  Children will learn how to draw their own 3D/anaglyph sign based on historic signs in the Neon Museum’s collection and make their own 3D-viewing glasses.  Recommended for kindergartners through sixth graders.

Family drop-in events are free and open to the public.  All children must be accompanied by an adult. Register by sending an email to education@neonmuseum.org.

Sign Design: Past, Present and Future

On Tuesday, April 22, the Neon Museum will host its next PRISM Times of the Signs event, a panel discussion:  “Sign Design: Past, Present and Future.”

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Half Price Tickets to the National Building Museum

National Building Museum Great Hall
The Great Hall
National Building Museum

My favorite museum gift shop in all of Washington, DC is the bookstore and gift shop at the National Building Museum.

The shop features books on architecture, design and city planning, but you can also find a large selection of fun and funky stationary items, jewelry, accessories, kitchenware, and more.  The selection of children’s toys is especially terrific!

When my daughter was an active toddler, the National Building Museum was one of my favorite places to visit on a rainy day.  There are lots of stairs to climb, and long corridors to explore, and even an indoor fountain.

These days, there is an ongoing Play, Work, Build exhibit for kids aged 2 to 6 years old.

Half Price Tickets to the National Building Museum

You don’t have to pay admission to visit the museum gift shop, cafe, or the colossal Great Hall, but if you want to see the exhibits, you must buy a ticket.

National Building Museum
National Building Museum
The Pension Building

Admission is normally $8 per adult, $5 for youth, students and seniors, or $3 per person if you only want to visit the kids’ Building Zone.

TravelZoo is offering half priced tickets to visit the exhibitions at National Building Museum.

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Discounted Admission to the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC

Discount Tickets to International Spy MuseumWith so many free museums in Washington DC, it is easy to overlook those attractions that charge admission.

That’s why the International Spy Museum, which has one of the most creative marketing departments out there, has partnered with Metro to provide transit users a discount on admission.

Spy Museum Discount Admission

Just show your Metro SmarTrip® card and receive $7 off  the normal admission price of $21.

The offer is valid through March 21, 2014, and cannot be combined with other promotions.

Metro Smart Spy Twitter Contest

While you’re at it:

Every week @intlspymuseum and @wmata will tweet a clue about a cloak and dagger site on the rail system.Spy Museum Tweet Up Contest

Once you find the secret site, tweet a selfie with the photo clue and #metrosmartspy.

This will officially enter you in a contest, with a chance to win an unspecified spy prize.

Hey folks, I could not find any actual entrants into this contest.  It sounds like fun and it looks like you’d have a great chance at winning!

Family Days at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum

Open House at the Udvar-Hazy Center
Open House at the Udvar-Hazy Center

Residents of  Washington, DC and visitors alike have access to the vast cultural opportunities of the Smithsonian Institution, most of which are free.  Last month, we took part in the first ever open house of the restoration hangar at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center.

This was a really fun event that is likely to be repeated every January henceforth.  Not only did we get to see areas of the museum that are normally off-limits to visitors, but we also got to catch up on newer features of the museum like the space hangar.

My favorite part was going up in the control tower, which offers a fantastic view of the runways at Dulles International Airport (IAD).  It was a blast!

The second Saturday of each month at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center from 10 am – 3 pm. is Super Science Saturday!

African American Pioneers in Aviation Family Day


The museum has also scheduled a series of Heritage Family Days at their downtown location on the National Mall, as well as at the Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.   Family Days offer a wide variety of hands-on activities, presentations, and opportunities to meet pilots, astronauts, and scientists.

Here is the line-up of upcoming programs:

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Behind-the-Scenes at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum: The Udvar-Hazy Open House

Smithsonian Air and Space Museum
Smithsonian Air and Space Museum

I love behind-the-scenes tours at museums and was lucky enough to visit the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum’s Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration, and Storage Facility in Silver Hill, Maryland many years ago.

Specialists were in the process of preparing the Enola Gay for exhibit and it was really fascinating to hear their take on the controversial exhibit and to observe them working.

Much of the museum’s restoration work has now moved to the Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, near Dulles International Airport.

This Saturday, January 25, 2014, in honor of the tenth anniversary of the Udvar-Hazy Center of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, there will be the first ever open house.

The highlight of the open house will be a tour of the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hanger, where the Curtiss SB2C-5 Helldiver, flown in World War II, is undergoing restoration.

Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar
Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar

Museum curators and other specialists will offer a behind-the scenes look at the Udvar-Hazy Center through presentations, hands-on activities, stories, and special tours about the collection and restoration projects.

The open house will showcase historic artifacts, documents, and works of art that are not on public display.  You will have the chance to see what it takes to collect, preserve, and restore historic aircraft and spaceships.

Here are the details:

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Busting the Myths: New York City at Holiday Time

2013 Thanksgiving Day Parade
2013 Thanksgiving Day Parade

The holidays are the best time of the year to visit New York.  There’s extra energy in the city, and the holiday lights and decorations can be magical.  Not to mention the shopping!

We visited our family in New York over Thanksgiving — and took in the best of the holiday season.

Over the course of our visit, we managed to bust several pervasive myths about holiday time in New York City.

1.  You have to arrive at 6 a.m. to see the Thanksgiving Day parade

Everyone warned us that the parade route would be packed and if we wanted to get a spot we’d have to arrive very early.  We sauntered over to 6th avenue at 50th Street at 10 a.m. and had a great vantage point with Radio City Music Hall in the background.  We weren’t in the front row, but back where there was space to move around.

2.  The best shopping deals are on Black Friday

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Free Spielberg Films at the National Archives; Plus: Guastavino Vaulting

Steven Spielberg Film FestivalOne of the things I love best about living in Washington is easy access to cultural institutions — museums, embassies, parks, monuments, and libraries — all of which offer a plethora of free programs.In many Smithsonian museums and government buildings, there are beautiful auditoriums that present concerts, lectures, and film — often free to the public.

The William G. McGowen Theater, deep inside the National Archives building on Constitution Ave., is a leading venue for the screening of documentary films.

This coming weekend, the National Archives will screen a number of Steven Spielberg films in a mini film festival honoring the director’s work, that runs November 15-18, 2013.  This free, public film festival will showcase four of Spielberg’s critically acclaimed films.

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Springtime in Hershey

Hershey Gardens Photo by Joel Shprentz
Hershey Gardens 

In April, we stopped in Hershey, Pennsylvania for a day to break up a road trip from New England to Virginia.  We had visited the amusement park ten years ago, and wanted to explore other three different attractions on this trip.

First up was the free tour of the fake “Chocolate Factory,” because we love corny rides, factory tours, and chocolate!

The Chocolate Factory is a Disney-style animated ride that tells the story of how chocolate is produced from the growing the cocoa beans to producing Hershey Kisses.  On a Saturday morning, we were able to walk right in without a wait. The ride in little carts through the “factory” was lots of fun. The ride ended with a free sample and let us off in a gigantic chocolate gift shop with all manner of Hershey candy.

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