On several of our family vacations we discovered a great learning experience that actually proved to be equally fun: visiting presidential libraries. We call it edu-tainment! As a history buff, I knew I would love these libraries, but I discovered my girls also found them fascinating.
Our first visit to a presidential library was when my girls were only 7- and 10-years old. As I was planning our trip to Los Angeles, a well-traveled friend told me that the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in nearby Simi Valley was a “must see” and super kid-friendly. She was spot-on, and this first library left my girls hooked and asking for more.
WHY VISIT PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARIES?
Presidential libraries make history come alive. What could be dry or boring information suddenly becomes three dimensional, tangible fun. Leave your politics at home, every president has a great story to tell.
One of the highlights for my kids was seeing the replicas of the Oval Office from each president’s time in office. As you visit more of these libraries, your children can contrast what the Oval Office looked like at various points in history, including changes in furniture, technology and artwork. The libraries also feature kid-friendly exhibits such as First Ladies’ formal attire and one-of-a-kind gifts that the presidents received from foreign dignitaries.
Here are the presidential libraries we have visited:
RONALD REAGAN PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY AND MUSEUM (SIMI VALLEY, CA)
The Reagan Library has definitely been our favorite presidential library so far, with something to please everyone. (Even staunch Democrats!) The view overlooking Simi Valley is simply breathtaking. And inside one of our favorite places was a really cool glass hangar housing the Presidential Limousine, Secret Service Suburbans, a Marine One Helicopter, and most impressively, a Boeing 707 that served as Air Force One for seven presidents (Nixon, Carter, Ford, Reagan, Clinton and both Bushes). The outdated plane made the children laugh out loud!
Other must-see highlights include a large chunk of the Berlin Wall (you are allowed to touch!), a dramatic depiction of the assassination attempt on Reagan’s life, and a captivating exhibit on America’s battle with Communism. This museum is super high-tech and interactive for kids. There are video games that let them design their own presidential china and select flower arrangements for state dinners. And the girls were thrilled to see a portrait of Reagan…made out of jellybeans! On the more serious side, seeing the infamous “black briefcase” that held the world-threatening nuclear launch codes (also known as “the football”) was sobering.
Tip: This library makes a great stop when driving between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara.
JOHN F. KENNEDY PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY AND MUSEUM (BOSTON, MA)
Teach your children about America’s Kennedy years of “Camelot.” The architecture of the I.M. Pei designed Kennedy Library is magnificent. The waterfront building has a peaceful and inspiring view. Inside, the highlights for us included exhibits on the Kennedy campaign trail (my favorite), the “race for space,” Jacqueline Kennedy and her childhood and interests (my girls’ favorite), and another piece of the Berlin Wall.
Tip: If you are traveling to Boston by car, I recommend stopping here on your way into or out of town since the library is located in the neighborhood of Dorchester on the outskirts of Boston.
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LYNDON BAINES JOHNSON PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY AND MUSEUM (AUSTIN, TX)
While somewhat smaller than the others, the LBJ Library offers some entertaining exhibits that my kids enjoyed. And we loved that it’s located right in the heart of the spirited University of Texas campus in Austin! Highlights included exhibits about the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, and political cartoons. Check their website for special events around President’s Day and during other times of the year.
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JIMMY CARTER PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY AND MUSEUM (ATLANTA, GA)
Set in a beautiful corner of Atlanta with fountains and lush gardens, the Carter Library is a great way to spend a few hours. Highlights include: the story of Carter’s childhood and romance with Rosalynn, a real Nobel Prize Medal, memorabilia from the Camp David Accords, and an exhibit about Carter’s post-presidency humanitarian activities.
Tip: I highly recommend pairing this visit with a trip to the nearby Martin Luther King Jr. National Park Site and a stop for some delicious comfort food at Mary Mac’s Tea Room. Our family loved the authentic southern home cooking!
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SOME HELPFUL HINTS
Whichever library you visit, always watch the brief introductory movie (most are less than 20 minutes). These well-produced films provide excellent backgrounds for children who may know next to nothing about the president and are great refreshers for parents as well. Most libraries offer free admission for children and have cafeterias and really interesting gift shops.
With the 2016 presidential election on the horizon, now is a great time to add a presidential library to your next family vacation. Bring history to life!
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