By Nancy Coleman
The Mission: One parent, five boys (one chronically ill) and one girl test drive area day trips so you don't have to. Here's the lowdown on three summer activities that range from free to pricy ... and appeal to kids from preschool to high school.
$, not for preschoolers or sensitive children
The National Museum of the Marine Corps
The Marine Corps Museum's website is informative and easy to navigate. If you plan to visit with a group, they request that you provide them with advance notice so they can ensure that there are not numerous large groups arriving simultaneously. Open from 9-5 every day but Christmas Day, the museum and parking are free. The day we visited, the parking lot was fairly empty. Educational information and handouts are available upon request at the front desk.
We walked in and were warmly greeted by the security guard as well as by the Marine at the information desk, who handed us a map of the museum. We were clearly informed no food or beverages are allowed in the museum. Food is available for purchase in the Mess Hall, a cafeteria style eatery, and their restaurant, the Tun Tavern, but food is restricted to the restaurants only. The Tun Tavern is modeled after the 18th Century Philadelphia public tavern from which the first Marines were recruited.
The museum itself is set up in galleries from the early Marines and progresses through each of the armed conflicts. There is a running timeline along the right hand wall (The Legacy Walk) and the majority of the galleries' entrances and exits occur from the left wall. The timeline itself is an amazing walk through the history of not just the Marine Corps but also of the United States. In the Leatherneck Gallery, my sons were especially enthralled with the detailed engravings on the ceremonial swords. While my youngest was less than interested in that particular gallery, her attention was held firmly throughout the majority of the museum...at least until she got hungry.
There are "full immersive, interactive combat environments that may frighten very young children" scattered throughout the museum, specifically from the World War II galleries and beyond. In the WWII gallery, there is an interactive video set in Belleau Wood where you feel like you are in the woods and the video depicts actors who sacrificed themselves in an effort to control the Wood, a pivotal battle of massive sacrifice. While the movie isn't gory, it is a realistic depiction of the battle from a personal perspective.
In my opinion, from the World War II gallery on, the museum could be extremely unsettling to young children. My eight-year-old was sobered by the latter galleries. While she was able to manage them because they weren't gory, the realization of the sacrifice that the Marines make for our country was upsetting for her. In retrospect, it might have been wise to have waited a year or two before taking her because of the mature theme.
Eating at the Museum
We had intended to eat lunch in the museum so we could provide better information, but unfortunately, a medical crisis with my son occurred while we were in the Vietnam War gallery, so we ended up beating a hasty retreat.
If you do wish to eat in their restaurants, it would be best to eat at off hours. The day we attended, there were 250 Marines who all chose to eat at the same time we needed food. The Mess Hall line was insanely long and the wait for the Tun Tavern was extensive. I did ask if this was normal, and the guard stated that it isn't generally this bad but that they had had numerous large groups that week.
You can order box lunches if you provide at least three days notice. The box lunches cost about $6 each and they offer lunches that accommodate various food allergies. These lunches are made before the others so no cross contamination occurs. There is a grassy park outside of the museum where you can eat your packed or box lunch.
Overall, this is a museum that you really don't want to miss. While our family was unable to finish our tour, I plan to return (without my youngest) so that we can finish. It was definitely worth the time and effort involved. In the midst of the crisis with our son, the security guard was not only compassionate but also helped us find the closest exit and stayed with us until we were able to safely depart. My older children were not only appreciative of the museum, but my oldest son went so far as to say it is the best museum he had ever attended. I would have to agree.
Since continuing our marathon field trip day wasn't possible, we headed home and revamped the grand plan...and I asked for an extension on my deadline. William was tanked up on IV fluids, and I decided that staying a little closer to home for the next few days was wiser for all concerned.
$$$ all ages
Fredericksburg Trolley Tour
The Trolley website, www.fredericksburgtrolley.com, is manageable and gives a brief overview of what to expect. At $17 for anyone 13 and older and $8 for children 5-12, it isn't an outing that my family would do very often. Granted, our family size is a little larger than the average, but even if you have two small children, the hour and fifteen minute tour would cost $50 for a family of four.
The tour was enjoyable. John Gaston was our driver/tour guide and he was not only entertaining but knowledgeable. I've lived in Fredericksburg for more than thirty years, and my children are heavily involved with George Washington's Young Friends, yet we learned things about the area we didn't know. Do you know why Caroline Street is named Caroline and not Main? Or why Sophia Street has its name? We know now.
Tickets for the trolley are available for purchase online for an additional fee of $2 per ticket. Tickets are non-refundable, so in the event my son became ill overnight, I chose to purchase our tickets at the Fredericksburg Visitor Center just prior to departure. Tours depart from the Visitor Center at 10:30, 12:00, 1:30, and 3:30. Friday and Saturday evenings, there is a 7 pm tour as well. If you choose to wait to purchase your tickets, remember that tourist season is upon us. The Trolley Tours are very popular and may sell out. If you choose to purchase your tickets online, you will have the opportunity to post a review after your tour. Of all of the reviews I read, only positive feedback was given. To me, that speaks highly of not only the tours in general, but of the consistency of the tour guides. There is a box at the front of the trolley in which you may place a gratuity for the driver. Please note that the trolley does receive advertising dollars from local businesses, so there is a brief drive down Caroline Street that feels like a rolling commercial. That being said, there are a couple of new stores that I didn't realize existed, so it wasn't necessarily annoying.
The trolleys are not air conditioned so be aware of that as you choose your tour time. They had the sides of the trolley open for our tour, so we were comfortable. However, due to my son's illness, we also chose the 10:30 am tour so we would not have to contend with the afternoon heat.
After getting off the trolley, my children decided they needed nourishment again. We headed across the street to the Trolley Stop Deli which had opened just that day, and we ordered sandwiches. The deli sandwiches my children ordered cost about $5.50 each and were of remarkable size. For $2 additionally, we were able to purchase a small bag of chips and a fountain drink. Refills on the drinks were free. My children requested multiple refills, and the ladies were incredibly pleasant each time. So, for about $7.50 per person, the mutinous masses were calmed and we were then able to peacefully head to the library for an afternoon of free reading.
$$ 3 and up
Kids Bowl Free
Many AMF Bowling Alleys are hosting the Kids Bowl Free summer event again this summer. If you have children 15 and younger, you can sign them up for two free games per person every Monday through Friday for the summer. For $24.95, you may enroll up to four people, aged 16 and older, to bowl with the children. So, basically, for $24.95, our family can bowl two games a day per person, every Monday through Friday. The only additional cost is shoes that you either need to purchase or rent. Currently, they are also running a special that would allow you to purchase kids meals for $2.99 each. We ordered the chicken tenders meal which came with two small tenders, a handful of fries, and a drink. If you choose to order the kids meal, make sure you tell them that you are with the kids bowling special or you will be charged the full price.
How the program works: Once you sign up, you will receive an email every Sunday morning. You will need to open the email and print that week's coupons. Each person will have a coupon, and those on the family pass will have one combined coupon. The coupons must be submitted in order to bowl that day. When you sign up, you sign up for a specific alley. Your coupons are good at that alley only.
While I do not bowl well, I have to say that we have a blast when we go. I always come in dead last, but I have a great time losing. Last year, when we discovered the program, I bought bowling shoes online for about $20 per pair. It was well worth the money because it enabled us to bowl frequently without bankrupting us with shoe rentals. However, out of respect for the business, we did occasionally order drinks or a snack. The alley makes very little on the bowling program, and we would like to continue utilizing the program, so we try to respect their bottom line by occasionally contributing to it.
That being said, my kids discovered their love of bowling and we benefited from an economically manageable, air-conditioned, fun summer activity. We may not be the best bowlers in the alley at any given time, but we do have a great time when we go.
Nancy Coleman is the mother of eight children and meets our definition of an intrepid parent any day. She lives and home schools in the Fredericksburg area.