Squinting to get a better view of the Declaration of Independence, the kids said, "You can't even read it!" Never mind that they were staring at the original, 220-year-old document displayed in the majestic National Archives Rotunda, along with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
Admittedly, the text was washed out. So precious to the nation's heart are these faded parchments that they're lowered each night in their cases 22 feet below the Rotunda floor to a 55-ton concrete vault.
The kids -- I had four with me ranging from 5 to 12 years old -- had gotten more excited earlier seeing the most-requested picture in the Archives: Richard Nixon shaking Elvis Presley's hand.
They also liked getting a look at the original patent for the Super Soaker water gun. All records of the nation's civil, military and diplomatic activities are kept by the National Archives, from the Emancipation Proclamation to draft records to a rambling letter Elvis wrote to the president offering his help to fight the war on drugs. That adds up to hundreds of thousands of movie reels, recordings and millions of engineering plans and photographs. (To arrange a guided tour call (202) 501-5205. Visit the Home Page at http: //www.nara.gov)
Maybe seeing the Constitution isn't as much of a thrill as riding a giant water slide, I conceded, but it's still worth waiting in line, and a lot cheaper than a water park, too.
The National Archives, like most other sites in Washington, is free. And what better time than around the nation's birthday to get a first-hand civics lesson, not to mention plenty of fodder for next year's social-studies projects.
The kids were good sports. Especially when we headed to Planet Hollywood for burgers and made time for the pool and TV after a long day of seeing history.
A plus to visiting now: Hotel prices are as low as $59 a night during summer months. There are evening concerts on the National Mall and no better view than from the top of the Washington Monument. Even the kids got excited when they saw all of those familiar buildings "for real": the White House, the monuments, the Capitol. They got drenched in the fountains and rode the old-fashioned carousel on the National Mall. Don't forget the Smithsonian's 150th Birthday Party in August.
(Call the Smithsonian at  357-2700 or take a virtual tour before your visit on its enormously popular Home Page at http: //www.si.edu. Rather than wait for hours at the Washington Monument, make reservations for your ride to the top by calling TicketMaster at  505-5040. The charge is $1.50 a ticket and 50 cents handling fee per order -- worth paying to avoid a long, hot line. TicketMaster also distributes timed, same-day tickets from the 15th Street Ticket Kiosk, which opens at 7: 30 a.m. Call the Washington Convention and Visitors Association at  422-8644. Remember to ask about summer deals when you visit its Web Site at http: //www.washington.org. Request the Washington, D.C., Prefers Visa Value Pack with coupons for hotels and attractions.)
Our first stop in Washington this trip was the Capitol. Congress was still in session during our visit, so we were able to watch a bit of a Senate debate.
"I couldn't figure out what was going on," confessed 12-year-old Matt, who had been studying the Constitution in sixth grade.
"That's true for a lot of people around here," joked Brian Hanley, the young aide to Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, who showed us around after we had visited our senator's office. There are regular tours of the Capitol (they meet in the Rotunda), but it doesn't hurt to request a personal one from your representative.
If they have a staffer available, your visit will be more kid-friendly. Ask your congressman or senator for gallery passes, if Congress is in session. (Call the Capitol at  224-3121. Visit the Senate Web site at http: //www.senate.gov or the House at http: //www.house.gov. See if you can find your representatives' page.)
When the kids have had enough history and need some food or souvenirs, there's no better place than the Old Post Office Pavilion on Pennsylvania Avenue between 11th and 12th streets. There are toy stores, book stores, free entertainment and fast-food eateries.
Equally entertaining was Union Station, the restored train station on Massachusetts Avenue Northeast that houses 125 stores and restaurants, as well as a movie complex. If you've got stamp collectors in your house, stop in across the street at the Smithsonian's newest museum, where you can try delivering mail (via computer game) or sorting it.
Another tip from local parents: Take the Metro instead of driving. It's safe, clean and will easily take you to all major attractions. The Tourmobile stops at all the major attractions. Look for red-and-white Tourmobile signs along the Mall. Pay once and get off wherever you want; you reboard free. (Call  554-7950).
Five-year-old Melanie wanted to see Socks, the presidential cat. I tried to oblige with a tour of the White House, giving the older kids a quick lesson on the different branches of government. (Call your representative to arrange tickets for the White House Tour. Get a preview on the Web at http: //www.whitehouse.gov.)
Melanie, of course, paid no attention to the historic paintings, the furniture or the massive chandelier in the East Room that takes 14 hours to clean. Of course, Socks was nowhere to be seen, to Melanie's great disappointment.
"If we can't see Socks," she declared as we were leaving, "let's go find the president." Maybe next time.
Send your questions and comments about family travel to Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, Calif. 90053 or e-mail to eogintol.com. While every letter cannot be answered, some of your stories may be used in coming columns.
Pub Date: 6/30/96