Picture this. The evening is a comfortable 79 degrees. There is not a cloud in the sky. You have just spent a relaxing and fun-filled day playing on the National Mall and indulging in the gourmet picnic food you packed for your family. Now, as the sun sets, you and your kids are comfortably seated for the main event: fireworks on the National Mall in Washington DC. You arrived early enough to get a prime spot, and as the U.S. Army Band finishes playing Stars and Stripes, you smile, knowing that in a few moments the sky will be filled with the most iconic 4th of July fireworks you have ever seen.
Yeah, right. I don’t think that scenario is realistic either.
Actually, if you are a parent with young kids, the idea of fireworks on the National Mall sounds like the coolest, scrapbook-worthy, family memory-making event ever. That is, until you consider the 700,000 other people who will show up. Or, the fact that it is likely to be muggy, buggy, and quite hot. Or, maybe the lack of easily accessible port-a-potties, the heavy security, the nightmare parking and public transit situation, the fact that there is no shade on the lawn of the National Mall, or the fact that if you spent all day playing outside, by 8 or 9PM your kids are going to be cranky, whiny, and completely done.
That sounds like a recipe for disaster to me.
How to Plan an Iconic DC 4th of July With Young Kids: Part III- The Fireworks
Recently, when I discovered that the 4th of July would fall on a Saturday (2015), my husband and I quickly realized that this would be the best time to take our 2 1/2 year old to see the DC fireworks. So, I researched the snot out of the DC 4th of July celebrations so that we could maximize the fun and minimize the chaos. I knew I wouldn’t be able to control everything. However, I didn’t want to regret dragging the family to our nation’s capital for fireworks. I wanted it to be an iconic 4th of July. And guess what? Our experience was a smashing success! Here is how we did it:
- We arrived in DC on July 3rd and stayed until July 5th. This turned out to be the best decision ever because it gave us a home base, a place to chill in the heat of the afternoon, and it was just really convenient. Read more about why you should consider staying in DC for the 4th and other great general advice for the celebration here.
- Our 2 year old had a refreshing swim, and she took a nap. Actually, we ate a nice dinner at the hotel around 6PM, and didn’t start walking towards the security checkpoint for the fireworks until close to 645PM. Originally, I had picked our hotel based on its proximity to the National Mall and the fact that there was a toddler-fail safe option. We reasoned that if Sweet Pea was super ornery, we would just wheel her out to the National Mall lawn about 1/4 mile from the hotel, watch the fireworks and then promptly return to the hotel for bedtime. I will say that we did hit a snag though– the National Mall lawn is undergoing major renovations. The section near our hotel (and honestly, a large part of the lawn) was closed for construction. Oops. As it turned out, it didn’t matter. We agreed to meet friends in front of the Washington Monument. So, we had a good 45 minute walk ahead of us.
- Let me repeat that… we walked about 45 minutes to get to the security checkpoint (we used a checkpoint at 14th street). If your kids are too young to walk for that long, or you are worried they would get lost in the crowd (of 700,000 people), USE THE STROLLER! Seriously, I know a lot of folks think the stroller is a cop-out. Perhaps it is. It is also a Godsend. We packed the stroller with everything we would need so the only thing we carried were the lawn chairs. Sweet Pea was safe and relatively content watching the hordes of humanity walk with us.
- We packed for success. Even if you leave as late as we did, you should count on being away from anything convenient for at least 4 hours. I would highly recommend you bring the following items with you (packed mostly in the stroller):
- A few different varieties of snacks, not just for your kids.. but for you too. You will get hungry.
- More water than you think you need.
- Bug Spray. May I remind you that DC was built on a swamp?
- Something to occupy your kids’ time while you wait for the fireworks to begin. Simple toys from the Dollar Store, the iPad (?), a ball or frisbee?
- Rain gear. If there is even a hint of rain, you might want to pack at least one umbrella.
- At least one change of clothes for your kid. Also, pick extra diapers and wipes.
- Your camera and/or fully charged smart phone. You are going to want to take pictures and video. These fireworks are amazing!
- Glow in the dark bracelets and necklaces. You know, the cheapy kind you can pick up at Target or the Dollar Store. As the sun starts setting, but before the fireworks begin, your kids will love messing around with them.
- Bring lawn chairs, not a blanket. Ok, this one really is personal preference. Let me just give you one word of caution: It rains a lot in DC. For us, it had been a very wet weekend. We had actually gotten drenched before the parade. By the evening, the ground was perfectly dry in some places but in others, it was a huge mud pit. There was very little separation between dry and muddy. For us, bringing lawn chairs (we even brought a kiddie lawn chair for Sweet Pea) gave us a great vantage point for the fireworks, and kept our bums dry. If you prefer a blanket, I would suggest bringing one with a waterproof side to it.
Best Place to See the Fireworks
- Where is the best place to see the fireworks? Yeah, I am not even going to pretend to be an expert on this. I can only give you our experience and what I learned about the process from that. Here is what I learned:
- The fireworks launch from the Reflecting Pools and WWII Memorial Area. If you sit in front of the Washington Monument, you will literally have a front row seat to the fireworks, and the sound of the fireworks. You will not hear the live band play (that band plays at the other end of the Mall in front of the US Capitol) but there is patriotic music piped in. Possible downside? Because of your close proximity to the fireworks, you will not be able to take any iconic shot of fireworks with either the Lincoln Memorial or Washington Monument in the background. However, this is about as close to the fireworks as you are going to get. So, your view of the fireworks themselves will be near perfect.
- If you want great shot of the fireworks with the Washington Monument in the background, you should try and sit on the far side of Washington Monument hill/lawn area. Just remember, there is major construction in that area, so seating is super limited.
- Another great front row seat to the fireworks would be the steps/area around the Lincoln Memorial. This would give you a great vantage point for a front row for the fireworks and that iconic photo of the fireworks with the Washington Monument in the background. Possible downside? This seems like the most popular place to try and get a fireworks viewing spot. So, if this is important to you, you will likely need to show up wayyy before 7pm. This option might be more feasible if your kids are older.. or you have the best behaved kids in the world. Ha!
- A less stressful, but still great, view of the fireworks is on the part of the lawn that is directly in front of the U.S. Capitol Building. This is further away (about a mile) but honestly, these fireworks are pretty impressive. You will still have a phenomenal experience.
- You could also try and get a seat in the U.S. Capitol viewing area. The cool thing about this area is that you will get to hear the U.S. Army Band 4th of July concert while the fireworks go off. Possible downside? The seats in this viewing area are likely hard to come by as well. Also, the fireworks are a little further away.
- There are other places outside of the National Mall that are known to be great fireworks viewing areas. If the National Mall is not on your fun list, check out these venues:
- The Tidal Basin in the area of the Jefferson or FDR Memorials
- Arlington Cemetery near the Iwo Jima Memorial
- East Potomac Park
- After the fireworks were over, the beauty of our decision to stay local became very evident. We took our time, waited for the crowds to clear, and then took a leisurely walk back to the hotel. The crowds dispersed quickly and on the way back to the hotel, we passed the impossibly long lines of folks waiting to board the DC Metro. I am sooo glad we didn’t do that. Also, after a full day of fun, Sweet Pea quickly crashed out in the stroller and snoozed the entire walk back to the hotel.
By 1030PM we were all cleaned up, in our pajamas, and relaxing. Our 4th of July Adventure was truly iconic.
The Next Day
Another advantage of spending the 3rd and 4th in a hotel is that you get to enjoy a more sleepy version of Washington DC the day after the chaos. Granted, there are still tons of people in town. This is not the time to try and get an unobstructed shot of the the National Mall from the steps of Lincoln Memorial. However, if you want to round out your Iconic DC 4th of July experience, you could easily visit a few memorial or monuments before heading home.
All in all we could not have asked for a better weekend (monsoon rains not withstanding). If you are considering a trip to DC for Independence Day, my advice to you is… Go For It! I hope this Iconic DC 4th of July series will prove helpful to you as you plan and I hope your family creates memories you will be talking about for years to come!
Thank you for reading!
Would you like more ideas for Fun Things to Do With Kids in the DC Area? Check out these posts!