The Reagan Presidential Library: 10 Reasons My Kids Love this Place
The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley doesn't seem like your typical destination for the under 10 crowd. After all, there's no bouncy house on campus, no playground, and no ball pit. And some of the material contained within this museum dedicated to our 40th president is pretty serious and likely to go over your little one's head. So why do my 4-year-old and 7-year-old love coming here so much? It turns out, there are plenty of hands-on activities for kids at the Reagan Library, as well as exhibits to pique a child's curiosity. Plus the grounds at the 100-acre museum are expansive and beautiful, and the Reagan Library is a great place to visit when the grandparents are in town. Here are 10 things my family especially enjoys at this SoCal institution.
Air Force One Pavilion
Who isn't impressed by a giant airplane that flew seven US presidents around the world? Families are invited to tour Air Force One, getting an up close look at all the special gadgets on board. See where the press corps sat, where President Reagan wrote his speeches, and where he and the First Lady slept while in flight. Guides have plenty of fun facts to share, too. Did you know that Reagan always kept a chocolate cake on board in case someone was having a birthday? Kids are encouraged to look for it during their tour. But it's not just about the plane. Air Force One is housed in a 40,000 square foot building that also features an exhibition on presidential motorcades. Kids can climb aboard the Marine One helicopter that flew President Lyndon Johnson, and take photos next to a presidential limo and a secret service Suburban.
Berlin Wall Segment
"Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" Much to the chagrin of my daughters, I can't help but say it every time we see the piece of the Berlin Wall on display at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Seriously though, standing next to that chunk of concrete that divided Berlin for more than 25 years is powerful. It led to some heartfelt conversations with my kids about freedom and feelings of appreciation for our lives in America. The Berlin Wall is the centerpiece of the museum's West Lawn, which is designed to look like the White House's South Lawn. There is a small replica of the White House Rose Garden here, too. Everything is kept clean and in stunning condition. Adjacent to the lawn is also the burial site of President Reagan and his wife Nancy.
Picnics on Campus
The West Lawn patio is the perfect place to have a picnic. I don't use this word lightly, but the view (which stretches out over the Santa Rosa Valley to the Pacific Ocean) is truly breathtaking. Bring your own lunch or pick up something at Reagan's Country Cafe, which features kid-friendly items like burgers, hot dogs, pizza, and ice cream. There is ample seating, both inside and out on the patio. Visitors can also get food at the Ronald Reagan Pub, which is located on the first floor of the Air Force One Pavilion. It's an actual pub from Reagan's ancestral home in Ireland that was dismantled and shipped to the US to be featured in the museum's collection.
The museum worked with some of Hollywood special effects heavyweights to create a hologram of President Reagan, which made its debut last year and is featured in the theater visitors first see upon arrival. Depending on which day you visit, you will be greeted by "the Gipper" in one of three scenarios: in the Oval Office, during a campaign known as the Whistlestop Tour, or one in which Reagan has just returned from a horseback ride on his ranch. My family has only seen the Oval Office version, but we all agreed that it looked and sounded very real. The presentations were created using portions of actual Reagan speeches and audio recordings.
Amid the 60 million pages of documents and other archives at the Reagan Library, there are several hands-on elements that appeal to children. Using green screen technology, kids get to be the co-star in a Ronald Reagan movie and can call a Chicago Cubs game for WHO Radio. My daughters loved pretending to hold press conferences at a replica of the presidential podium. Note to parents: this podium is next door to a display where visitors can watch TV footage of the attempted assassination of President Reagan. Some families may want to steer clear of this.
Photo courtesy of the Reagan Foundation
There is a full-scale replica of the Oval Office at the Reagan Library, decorated as it was during his presidency. That means lots of western inspired art, including a collection of bronze saddles. See if your kids can spot the jar of jelly beans in here, famously known to have been Reagan's favorite sweet treat. Also be sure to point out what's called the Resolute Desk, which has been used by every president since Rutherford Hayes in 1880 (with the exceptions of Johnson, Nixon and Ford). "Mom, this is where the important decisions are made," my 7 year-old informed me. Kudos to her second grade teacher!
Presidential Gifts Exhibits
How would you like to receive a baby elephant as a present? Ronald Reagan received one as a gift from the country of Sri Lanka. Visitors can see a pic of the elephant, along with other exotic, historical, and downright bizarre gifts presented to President Reagan during his time in office. Other notable items include a 60-million-year-old piece of amber from the Dominican Republic and a portrait of Ronald Reagan made entirely out of butterfly wings from the Central African Republic. This room also features a fun, interactive computer game in which visitors design their own place settings at a fancy White House party (I had to pry my children away from this!). And you can check out actual menus from dinners with world leaders such as Margaret Thatcher.
Patriotic holidays are taken to a whole new level at the Reagan Library. On President's Day and Fourth of July, the museum holds celebrations that include band performances, crafts, face painting, and old-school carnival games like potato sack races and water ballon tosses. Presidential and First Lady lookalikes are also on campus for photo ops. Think you know your US history? Try playing presidential bingo for prizes. The museum also hosts a more serious Veterans Day event with live music and a military vehicle display. These outdoor programs are free to the public, though visitors still have to pay for admission into the museum.
Twice a year, the museum hosts special exhibitions—some more family-friendly than others. Last summer, my daughters really enjoyed seeing the Leonardo da Vinci collection, which included reconstructions of his innovative machines. I know they will want to see the Christmas Around the World exhibit, which opens in November features 26 decked-out Christmas trees representing the 26 countries Reagan visited while in office. Also on display for the holidays is a collection of hand-crafted menorahs that were given to President Reagan. Currently, visitors can check out an exhibit on Egypt's Lost Cities (something older kids may be more into). Many of these special exhibits require an additional fee, though the Christmas tree display is included with museum admission.
No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, it can feel refreshing to visit the Ronald Reagan Library with your kids and reflect on history, and a simpler time before Twitter and 24-hour news. While touring Air Force One, one of my daughters actually asked me "What's that?" when we came across a typewriter. As a parent, it's fun to explain these relics of the past that I remember from my own childhood. (I also enjoyed explaining to my kids that yes, this was the fashion in the '80s while viewing the First Lady's designer duds.) So go ahead and take the kids to the Reagan Library; they will learn something new, and your family may walk away with a new appreciation for history.
The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library is open seven days a week from 10am to 5pm (excluding New Year's Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.) Parking is free and plentiful. General admission for adults is $29.95, for kids 3 to 10 $19.95, and those ages 11 to 17 $22.95. Children under 2 are admitted free.
Photos by author, unless otherwise noted