OXON HILL, Md. — Elmo, Cookie Monster and Grover have a new home near Washington as the National Children’s Museum is set to open in suburban Maryland — though initial plans have been scaled down considerably.
The museum, featuring characters from “Sesame Street,” will open its doors Friday in the National Harbor development along the Potomac River — a short drive for visitors from Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia — after years of planning and struggles with fundraising. Its predecessor, the Capitol Children’s Museum, closed in 2004 on Capitol Hill. At the time, Congress called for it to be a national museum with a wider reach but did not fund the project.
Fundraising for the new museum fell dramatically short, and the budget was scaled back by nearly 90 percent from original plans. Project leaders refocused on opening the museum’s first phase as soon as possible with what they could afford. They hope to open a larger outdoor play area in 2014, but officials have dropped plans for a bigger indoor facility.
“We have adjusted the scale of what we’ve done, but not the scope,” museum President Willard Whitson said. “It is an adjustment, yes, to the economic realities, but we feel we are best serving our audience to be open as soon as we can.”
The museum has kept all its major thematic areas spanning the arts, health, the environment and global citizenship, he said.
“I’d say we’ve actually come pretty darn close to realizing our aspirations,” Whitson said.
Big Bird stands 8-feet, 2-inches tall — a statue matching the character’s actual height — outside the main entrance, welcoming visitors. Three other costumed characters, including Elmo, will be featured at special times. The $6.5 million, 18,000-square-foot exhibit space includes a 130-seat theater, three exhibit galleries and activity rooms for learning.
Last year, officials were envisioning a $182 million facility with an indoor river and replica of the Oval Office. An architect was designing a four-story structure with a glass atrium, a wind turbine and rooftop garden. Corporate and private funding fell far short, though, due to the sluggish economy, Whitson said.
Prince George’s County was the museum’s biggest funder, giving $4.25 million. A $15 million commitment from Maryland was scaled back when the museum changed the scope of the project.
The project was reduced to about $20 million. Gone is the wind turbine, the Oval Office and the indoor river. Fundraising continues for the $14 million outdoor space that could include a water play area, a climbing mountain and vegetable gardens.
With about half the exhibit space of its old home, the facility opens as a midsize children’s museum, Whitson said. It could grow to one of the largest such museums if it adds 60,000 square feet in outdoor activities. But “it’s quality, not quantity” that matters, Whitson said.
“Sesame Street” is the star attraction in the 3-and-under gallery where Cookie Monster has a food truck for children to play.
A section called “My Town” features a crane loading products, a pizza parlor, a fire engine and a town hall where it’s always Election Day. Children choose between two candidates running for mayor. Exhibit designer Bob Evans said planners used real issues to create child-friendly political platforms: Can you keep a lion in the house? Should students have to wear school uniforms?
A huge map and touch screens showing “Sesame Street” variations around the world introduce a gallery on world cultures. A central marketplace features a single country — currently Tanzania — and an audio section features common phrases in eight languages.
The theater offers interactive shows called “Who’s Who at the Zoo?” for younger children and “Election Fever” with mock political debates for school-age groups.
“We are dedicated to the assumption that play, particularly child-directed, open-ended play, is a necessary component for the development of any healthy individual,” Whitson said. “It’s not a luxury.”
The museum could see a boost in visitors if MGM Resorts International wins approval to build an $800 million luxury Las Vegas-style casino at National Harbor. Voters approved a referendum last month to expand gambling.
Museum admission is $10 per person, with discounts for groups. The museum also will host birthday parties beginning in January. It expects to attract as many as 250,000 visitors a year initially and up to half a million when its outdoor space opens.
Some early visitors are already giving the museum good reviews. Barbara Burr of Clinton, Md., brought her four children for a preview and said they all loved it.
“I like everything in there,” said 5-year-old Stephen Burr. His older sister, 10-year-old Sarah, was more specific: “I liked the kitchen because there’s four different stoves.”
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