While I love living in an area with so many big museums, it’s sometimes nice to take my kids on a lower-key outing. That’s exactly what has drawn me back to the College Park Aviation Museum a half dozen times since having kids.
There’s no parking hassle, with a large lot just steps from the museum’s door. There’s rarely a crowd, including on an April 2011 Sunday afternoon (though I remember a December visit to the holiday train display that was busier but still not mobbed).
I managed to get in and out without spending a lot of money. And the museum is small enough that we can spend just an hour or two, then head out without worrying about missing out on anything.
The friendly staff and volunteers who greet you can give you the rundown of the museum, but there’s no need for a map since you can’t really get lost here. Strollers (if you really need to bring one) can be parked outside the main exhibit area, and there’s a rack for hanging coats.
Unfortunately, the first thing you come to as you enter the exhibits is a spooky animatronic Wilbur Wright. He’s motion activated and starts his jerky movements and speaking via a recording when you walk in.
My kids are usually petrified of this at first but also mesmerized. They are also happy to move on to the main room, a bright space with a half-dozen small planes hanging from the ceiling and another four roped off on the floor.
You’re not going to find huge jets here, but the propeller planes certainly impressed my 20 month old son. It’s worth a trip up to the balcony to see the aircraft from above.
There is one designated plane (circa 1939) to climb in and an enormous amount of hands-on activities to capture kids’ attention.
The main play area isn’t huge but packs a lot in. A well-stocked dress up area features flight goggles, helmets, scarves and jackets next to a mirror. One computer station runs a basic (free) flight simulator game, while another has an (also free) game to drop bombs from an airplane.
There are books, puzzles, pattern blocks, and a few crafts to do in this area. Make sure your kids decorate a goodie bag here since they can get it filled up with small toys at the lobby desk on their way out.
Among all the attractions in the play area, a fail-safe favorite is the velocity demo; kids push buttons to pump air from tubes, then throw small and large beach balls above the tubes, making them float in the air. My kids can play with this for quite a while.
Other hands-on things throughout the museum include a wooden propeller to spin around, a place to make a rubbing of an airplane, postcards to decorate with stamps, a play mat with Duplo blocks and another flight simulator ($1).
The museum is right next to College Park Airport, which is still in operation. If you’re lucky you might catch a small propeller plane taking off or landing on the runway just outside the museum’s floor-to-ceiling windows. But flights don’t seem to be frequent so there’s no guarantee of seeing a plane in action.
Older kids can learn quite a bit about the history of flight here. College Park Airport is the world’s oldest continuously operating airport. The collection focuses on early World War I-era flight. The airport has been around since 1909, when Wilbur Wright trained military pilots here.
Computer kiosks and printed signs throughout the museum educate those who are interested in more than playing. Throughout the year, the museum also offers a good range of special events – from a holiday train display and Santa fly-in, to movies and an egg drop contest (most events are free with admission).
If it’s a nice day, exit through the gift shop to get to an outdoor area with ride-on and rocking toy planes. (If you’re not going to play on the mini planes and want to avoid gift shop meltdown, exit back the way you came in.) The gift shop is small but does have a good range of inexpensive items as well as model planes.
Don’t forget to ask for your goodie bags to be filled up on the way out – this is always a good lure to get the kids out the door of the museum.
The College Park Aviation Museum is open daily from 10 am to 5 pm (closed major holidays). Admission is $4/adults; $2 children ages 2 to 18; free for children under 2.
- There’s no cafeteria (but there is dried astronaut ice cream in the gift shop). There are umbrella tables on an outdoor balcony, which overlooks the airport runway. When I visited, some other museumgoers were able to eat at tables upstairs inside, so it’s worth asking.
- Paint Branch Community Park, The Herbert W. Wells Ice Rink, and the Ellen E. Linson Swimming Pool are nearby.
- Restaurants that are a short drive include Jungle Grille (1.5 miles), Food Factory 2 (1.5 miles), Tommy Marcos Ledo Restaurant (2 miles), Potbelly (2 miles), Mamma Lucia (6 miles), and Hard Times Cafe (6 miles). And there’s also IKEA’s cafe (6 miles).
- There’s a Metro stop at College Park – U of MD (green line) that is a quick walk from the museum.
Photo by Kathleen Seiler Neary.