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Entries in White House (19)

Wednesday
May272009

What is "On Time"?

A good dozen of us in the DC area have been watching the latest pseudo-controversy about White House access regarding the cancellation of a tour is elementary school kids attempting to visit the White House, supposedly for a photo op with the Steelers. On the surface, it appears as the story of a callous government bureaucracy not bending a bit to help out with kindergartners.

But, once you dig through the shoddy reporting of the local news, it turns out the kids were over an hour late to the appointment. To the White House. I'm not sure what they thought was going to happen, but let me assure you, on the near impossible chance you get White House tickets, they will be unbending on rescheduling. I'm no fan of the White House's visitor policy, but on this one, I'll cut them some slack.

Which brings me to the point of this post. Not to prolong a ridiculous non-story, but to explore what an appointment time "means" when you have one. So let me run down the list of likely ticket venues and my experiences with being late. Obviously, I should lead in with the usual caveats that this is simply my experience, your's may be different, and I don't speak for any of these organizations. That aside, let's assume you have 12:30 pm tickets to all of these places:

Bureau of Engraving and Printing: I don't know why they even have tickets for this one anymore. Personally, I think their schtick has gotten stale, but if you have tickets, be on time. They're pretty good working with you if you are five to ten minutes late, but no guarantees.

Capitol Visitors Center: 12:30 is the time you line up to enter the movie theater, inside the Visitor's Center. This means you have already passed through security, which you should allow 20 minutes for, although it's routinely less (and occasionally more). Also, you will want to give yourself a few minutes to orient yourself to the new Visitors Center. So, I would plan on being in line to enter the CVC thirty minutes prior to your ticket time and use the spare time, if any, to take a break in the cafeteria and/or explore its excellent museum. The good news; although I don't recommend it, the folks at the Visitor's Center have proven to be very helpful with me in the last few months with late/delayed visitors. It's worth asking them if you miss your ticket time.

Ford's Theater: The ticket time is when the presentation starts. You want to be in line 10 minutes or so before it. You might be able to squeeze in a minute or two after, but don't plan on it. Fortunatly, you can still use the ticket to visit the Peterson House across the street, even if you miss the ranger presentation. Once the museum opens, I'll be posting on ticketing procedures for that.

Holocaust Memorial Museum: Great news here! Ticket times are good for any time after their stated time. So, you could use the 12:30 ticket at 4 pm with no problem. Also, the ticket is only for the Permanent Exhibit. If you arrive early, take the time to check out Danial's Story (if you have kids) on the first floor, or the temporary exhibits in the basement. I strongly recommend one of the current ones, State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda.

National Archives: Officially, you have to be on time, but I've had luck with just handing the security guard the appointment sheet and bluffing your way in. Not that I recommend it, but it can be done.

Tours: If you have a tour scheduled at a museum, Library of Congress, Cathedral, bike/segway etc. you're going to want to be on time. The tour will start on time and they may or may not allow you to catch up.

Washington Monument: You have about a thirty minute window to use this ticket. If you're ticket is 12:30, I'd be there right about then, but if you are a few minutes late, you'd just get in the 12:30 line and no one would be the wiser. You might be pushing it if you arrived at 12:59 and they were already taking the 1:00's in. Throw yourself on the mercy of the Park Ranger, and you might get lucky.

White House: Yeah, right. Don't be late.

I hope this highly subjective look helps. Not that I ever advocate being late, but.....

Tuesday
Apr212009

Mr Obama, tear down this wall!

Recently, Shandra in Michigan wrote us and asked:

"I read your entry about enjoying sites like the Washington Monument without tickets but I didn't see anything specific to the White House. Any advice on how to visit the President's pad without scoring a coveted ticket?"

I'm afraid my lack of advice about the White House wasn't due to an oversight on my part. Despite the protestations of Laura Bush, the White House is, sadly, closed to just about all comers. Theoretically, it's possible. According to the White House website:

"Public tours of the White House are available for groups of 10 or more people. Requests must be submitted through one's Member of Congress and are accepted up to six months in advance. These self-guided tours are available from 7:30 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. Tuesday through Saturday (excluding federal holidays)."

That all sounds very nice, but it presupposes you have a Congressman that gives a damn. Many do, and I can personally vouch for the New York Seventh and the Texas Fifteenth. But even if you do, the chances are still pretty long. I can't really blame Congressmen for just giving you a "sorry, can't be done.". The White House is pretty disingenuous on it's website; they've very neatly made it look as if your Congressman can't get tickets. "Hey, we've got an open system! You just need to call your Congressman!" Ha! You might as well call them up and ask for a ride on the Space Shuttle.

And frankly, I'd say don't even bother even if you do get them. The "tour" is mostly just a self guided cattle call through a few rooms before it dumps you out on Pennsylvania Avenue. About once a year, I get a group that has actually scored an appointment here. I kid you not, by the time the last kid gets through the security facility and I walk around the building, the first group is coming out. The overwhelmingly most heard comment: "That was it?"

And to add insult to injury, no cameras are allowed, at all. So unless you're staying at a hotel across the street, you've got to leave your camera back at the hotel and head back later if you want a picture of the White House. Very convenient. Perversely enough, cell phones are allowed.

So what to do? Buy a copy of The West Wing, swing by the worthwhile White House Visitors Center, take your pictures, and spend your valuable touring time on something more worthwhile.

Tuesday
Mar242009

Extra! Extra! White House discovers internet!

Normally, if an attraction is valued and people are lining up to see it, prices will simply rise until some sort of harmony between supply and demand is reached. Unfortunately, at least from the perspective of managing demand, this is impossible for most of Washington. People will, quite understandably, rebel if forced to pay $25 a head to go up the Washington Monument, or worse yet, see Congress in action. We end up relying on some sort of hybrid system where a certain amount of tickets are available on-line and the rest reserved for the day of, resulting in the time honored tourist tradition of lining up early in the morning to get tickets to the Washington Monument, the Capitol, Holocaust Memorial Museum, Ford's Theater, and, like some vestigial organ that nobody cares about any more, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.

So it is with nervous excitement that I learned yesterday that the White House Easter Egg roll will distribute tickets online this year. The idea is that you will no longer have to wait overnight in line on the Ellipse to get a chance to get tickets. By getting them online, this might very well open the experience up to visitors from around the country who plan to be in DC at this time. Previously, tickets were handed out the weekend prior, meaning you were taking a big risk if you tried to plan a visit around the Egg Roll. This should bring some certainty to the process.

The Egg Roll will be Monday, April 13th from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. on the South Lawn. Tickets will be distributed this Thursday, the 26th. No time yet as to when they go online. As before, up to six tickets per person will be distributed, with no more than two adults per group. So you got to bring some kids to get in. Anyone want to borrow mine?

On the downside, for us locals, we're used to having a bit of a monopoly with the Egg Roll. The pool of people able to come from afar to wait in line on a chance is limited, and while it was a madhouse, it was our madhouse. So it goes, and I don't see that we have any right to complain. It's the nation's White House, not ours.

More importantly, by lowering the cost from standing in line for hours to getting lucky online, is the possibility that people might get tickets and not use them. I'd hate for tickets to go unused when this is so popular. Also, at least the line was transparent. If the tickets all go in the first few seconds, how do we know the process was fair? Although I have to say that the White House's credibility is better than Ticketmaster's. For that matter, AIG's credibility may be better than Ticketmaster's.

But I applaud the White House for trying something new this year. I'm eager to see how it goes and hope they continue to build upon this. After all, they can't screw it up any more than Congress did for the Inauguration...

Thursday
Mar052009

Thanksgiving: a Day of Reckoning

Those of us who live in DC are used to the ebb and flow of tourists coming to our fair city. I, for one, welcome it, and not just because of the dozens of dollars I earn from showing folks around. It's easy for us to get jaded at the grandeur of the buildings and the hustle and bustle of government going on around us as we go about our daily lives. I truly enjoy the enthusiasm and fresh perspective of visitors, and not just to chuckle at when they gaze upon the Capitol and ask "do you think the President is home?" My visitors often teach me as much as I show them.

But that being said, if you live around here, get your Mall time in now. With the cherry blossoms coming at us like a freight train, we're in for six months of tourist season. Maybe the economy will keep some of them at home, but I've got to warn you: I'm not seeing a drop off in my bookings for the spring. So after we hunker down for half the year, fall is a great time for us locals to get reacquainted with our home town. The humidity has lifted and we can actually stop and look at an exhibit or two without being crushed. Except for one day...

As my good friend Susan L asks:

We have the whole family here for Thanksgiving. We swear that we will not go shopping on the Friday after T-day. Therefore, we have to come up with an event to do all together. I have a large family… probably 15+ adults. And, then there are kids too. But, sometimes the kids are not included. So the question is, what is fun to do the day after Thanksgiving that not 1 million others will be doing. This can include kids or not.

I feel your pain, Susan. We've done our part and welcomed the hordes. Now we just want to show our relatives the freaking Hope diamond. So I'm going to throw out a few ideas but this is really a topic where I could use some audience participation. Please post some ideas in the comments or send them to me. Please! If I don't get a good answer Susan might hurt me. She scares me.

1. Obviously, you've got no business being at the Natural History, Air and Space, or American History museums on this day. But this can be a good day to check out the Freer, the Sackler, the National Museum of African Art, or some of the less loved museums. And someone out there should show some love for the Hirshhorn, but even I have my limits.

2. Avoid the Mall entirely and head to the White House. Beyond showing the folks the obligatory White House, there are three excellent museums right there: the Renwick Gallery, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and the Decatur House. And not a terribly far walk away is the White House Visitors Center and the Daughters of the American Revolution Museum. So, while there might not be something for everyone, you can at least take the crowd to Lafeyette Square and let them see whatever interests them.

So folks, I need your help on this one. Enough freeloading, send me your suggestions. Because if Susan shows up on my doorstep with 15 relatives on Black Friday, I'm blaming you.

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