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What’s New at Mt. Vernon

New buildings and activities at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home, has made Mount Vernon more fun and educational for kids. Kids can now visit Mount Vernon and find plenty of educational activities that are also fun and help kids learn about Mount Vernon and George Washington.

Growing up in Northern Virginia, it seemed we visited Mount Vernon, every other week. My younger sister could, at age six, tell you about the verdigris paint in the first room and how it was expensive because it had to be imported. After years of taking visiting relatives through the house, I decided I had enough of the Father of Our Country, thank you, and did not return for probably 20 years.


Boy, was I missing out.

In 2006, Mount Vernon opened the Ford Orientation Center and the and Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center. The light-filled orientation center, located just inside the gate, houses a small gift shop, as well as a movie theater showing “We Fight to Be Free,” a 20-minute biographical film. The movie gives a good overview of Washington’s life, although it does have some battle scenes that, while not particularly gory, might be a  bit too much for kids under six. There is also a dollhouse-sized exact replica of Mount Vernon; walls raise and lower mechanically so you can see inside.

Also in the orientation center, you can pick up an audio tour (for an extra cost); some of the stories on the tour are specifically for children, including one on the faux finish of the house and another on food at Mount Vernon.

A short walk leads to the house and, thankfully, the new buildings are completely hidden from the historic mansion. The paths are solid and strollers shouldn’t be a problem; however, strollers in the house are not allowed.

I can attest that the verdigris paint my sister knew so well is as green as ever. The house tour is relatively short, and the personable guides are good at including kids in the tours (my tour included a five-year-old girl and the tour guide encouraged her questions and made sure she was involved.) The tour goes through the downstairs, up to the bedrooms, then back down to take in Washington’s private study and, in an outbuilding, the kitchen.

Once outside, there are other buildings to see, such as the smokehouse, and gardens to wander through. Many times during the day costumed actors interpret living in Washington’s times.

After the house, the path almost naturally leads you to the Education Center. Interactivity is big at the Center, so there are lots of buttons for little hands to touch. There are also a number of small theaters where you can watch movies on Washington’s religion, his relationship with Martha Washington, and other topics. The most impressive is the film in the Elizabeth and David Bruce Smith Theater—lights, sound effects and even snow immerse you in the Revolutionary experience. Like the other major film, there are some battle scenes, so keep an eye on young ones.

There’s a special room in the education center for kids ages 3-10 where they can color, read books, or even get more hands-on with a Mount Vernon dollhouse and colonial clothing.

The museum section of the center houses over 500 objects, including art, jewelry and other personal objects. There are no concessions to small children, so they might get a bit bored. You can also take a short drive (and pay a small additional charge) to see Washington’s grist mill and whiskey distillery; from April to October costumed distillers demonstrate the process of making whiskey.

I’ll admit I was surprised to see how much there was to do at Mount Vernon: My childhood bane had turned out to be much more interesting and more engaging than I remembered. The newest buildings shine an innovative light on a place I thought I knew everything about.

    • Celebrate Presidents’ Day at Mount Vernon.
    • This year would have been George Washington’s 277th birthday, and Mount Vernon is rolling out the red carpet all weekend. On Feb. 14 and 15, you can join the Father of Our Country himself as he enjoys his favorite breakfast—hoecakes with butter and honey—from 9am to noon. At 1:30, a parade, complete with fife and drum cops, marches past the mansion.
    • On Feb. 16, admission is free. At 10am there will be a special wreath-laying ceremony at Washington’s tomb, followed by a performance and battle demonstrations by the fife and drum corps and Revolutionary War re-enactors. There’s a parade at 1:30.
    • On Feb. 22—Washington’s real birthday—anyone named George or anyone whose birthday is also on the 22nd receives free admission; just present your ID.

    By Kristen Page-Kirby

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