If you are like me, you are picturing Baltimore Harbor right now. Let’s get this cleared right up: this is a completely different place.
One we didn’t even know existed! That is possibly because this area was developed just over a decade ago. National Harbor, Maryland, is a 300 acre waterfront development along the Potomac River.
The site has a convention center, six hotels, restaurants, shops, and condominiums. National Harbor hosted Cirque du Soleil in 2008, 2010, 2012, and 2014 and also features outdoor activities such as a culinary festival and outdoor concerts by military bands, an outdoor movie screen facing the river, an annual ice sculpture exhibition, and a Peeps Day with a Peeps eating contest. The national spelling bee competition is held there. The Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center, with 2,000 rooms, is the largest hotel between New Jersey and Florida, and the largest in the Washington area. The site includes a beachfront walking path and a connection to a bike trail on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge that crosses into Alexandria, Virginia. Amusements include a children’s carousel, and the Capital Wheel, a 175-foot Ferris wheel on a pier that extends into the Potomac River.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Harbor,_Maryland
We stumbled upon the National Harbor when trying to make a new plan for Christmas Day. (But it’s vibrant every season!)
Like many of you, our family, and therefore holiday tradition, is in a post child raising/grown families transition. Things worked out for us to celebrate All Together (WAHOO!!) but a week early. We knew that would leave the girls antsy and lonely on Christmas afternoon. Because of this, decided to take them somewhere overnight. Our goal was to check areas within a few hours drive…maybe to swim, see a show, play games, walk. We were willing to entertain any idea!
After many MANY online searches, I found the Gaylord National Hotel offering Christmas shows and festivities right inside! No weather concerns!
So I booked it! I recognized the hotel from photos but never knew it was in the National Harbor. It seemed to fit the bill as it offered plenty to do with or without cooperating weather. The hotel offers an Ice sculpture display, tree lighting, shows, restaurants, indoor tubing and more for the holiday season. (They have year round entertainment for every season.) I printed out the reservations and agenda and added it to a tiny box that matched the other certificate boxes we had given the week prior at our family Christmas. After opening them, the girls were thrilled, relieved even, to find we were packed and headed out that afternoon!
They slept off the excitement for a few hours until we arrived to a beautifully lit town immersed in Christmas spirit…just as I had hoped.
At our arrival we were permitted to pull forward with our large wheelchair van to unload in the valet area. We did not touch the van again until we left and Lady Grey, aka the party bus, remained in that spot in our absence. I should have known we were in for a plot twist when I made my way to check-in through mobs of people.
I thought the place would be a desert land on a holiday, but I was Sorely mistaken!
Turns out LOTS of people are looking to get away on Christmas Day. I.had.no.idea. After check in, we dropped off our things in our room and headed down to the beautiful atrium via the glass elevator. Because we left later than expected that afternoon, and wanting to catch the light shows yet that evening, we drove without stopping. We believed we were STARViNG. Turned out we didn’t realize how much hungrier we were going to get.
We made our way through the throngs and discovered both restaurants had several hours of wait time that took them straight up to closing. Typically there are food stations (think food carts) around the atrium. For whatever reason there were none that evening…I am guessing understaffed on the holiday. Did I mention there were THRONGS of people?? After talking to a few others for advice, we took in the final light show and then claimed a spot to sit down. I took photos of what was left in the Grab ‘n Go cafe and then took the family’s requests. The line to pay wrapped around the shop and took well over a half hour to navigate. Don’t forget, this was GRAB and go. Or even grab and GO. Neither word fit the cafe, partly because only one cashier was working. The other was that there were no other options.
Thankfully our hotel room was comfy and roomy so we settled in for a good rest. We were fully aware we needed to figure out breakfast in the morning.
Once again we waited in the elevator bay to snag an empty one to fit our family with wheelchairs. Once downstairs we grabbed the final muffins and last egg sandwich in the cafe. We were thrilled when we found a table to sit at.
Here is where I have decided on some changes I would make:
- I would NOT arrive and stay on the actual holiday. I had thought our Christmas was so unusual, but apparently not. I wrongly assumed most people spent Christmas day opening gifts and hanging at Grandma’s house! The crowd combined by less staffing on a holiday made a terrible combination. A guest also shared that the town blocks were lined with restaurants, all of which were closed for Christmas. Thankfully most guests maintained the holiday spirit.
- I would check out all the hotels in the neighborhood. In retrospect, I had no idea what a closely developed area the National Harbor is. There are many hotels all within walking distance of each other. One of the hotel staff clued me in that many of the visitors in the atrium were visiting from neighboring hotels. That idea had never even occurred to me. Honestly, the idea of enjoying all the festivities and then walking a block or two to a quieter hotel scene sounds pretty good. It doesn’t cost to come in to the Gaylord National Harbor. Everyone just pays for the extras they want to see.
I wanted to offer a suggestion of a food area serving ONLY hotel guests at check out. When we made our way through the lobby with our bags ready to check out, I discovered another super long line bogged by the new arrivals.
Not wanting to take up more time on our quick getaway, I decided to use the Express Check-out box. I decided I could follow up when I received an email to rate my stay. Sure enough, the email arrived and I shared my thoughts on the long food lines and even lack of food for hotel guests. *Pleasant Surprise: the manager responded and gave us a refund! It definitely lessened the sting, although timely food without stress would still be the best choice!
Making the choice to leave the van in the hotel parking lot, we walked to the other activities for the day! It was ways a great option and simpler plan with two wheelchairs to load/unload.
After checking out the hotel offerings of indoor tubing, gingerbread decorating, Ice sculptures, and outdoor firepits, it was decided that one wanted to build-a-(Christmas)-bear. The other has a strong disdain of stuffed critters! Then we easily headed out the door and down the sidewalks to catch a boat. just a few blocks away It was an unseasonably beautiful day.
The Potomac Riverboat company offers a wonderful and accessible taxi service from the town center.
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I did my best at finding a coupon or Groupon before purchasing our tickets, but no luck at that date. However, we were able to use our receipts for coupons to ride the ferris wheel! The water taxi is not expensive. We did check that it was accessible (It is!) and then backtrack to the ticket window…which promptly closed in our faces.
- Here is where I would make another change. It was just as easy to buy them online and show the tickets on our phone. In fact, it was the water taxi employees who suggested it was the best choice. Just be sure you have plenty of battery life, a charger, or send the link to your fellow travelers.
Because of the time and our plans to drive home that evening, we chose to only take the boat to Alexandria. Another time we would love to use it to it’s fullest!
Because it was winter, they were running on a different schedule. Should we return this spring or summer, I hope to use the service to go to the Wharf and Georgetown! It was just such an easy way to travel the Washington D.C. area without finding handicapped parking! We easily embarked and disembarked in Alexandria. We were able to take in the sights on the water before walking through the town. Once in Alexandria we walked through the Torpedo Arts factory and then down the main shopping district. The girls noted a free trolley and would like to enjoy that next time!
We did encounter one caveat with the town…it’s old. So many buildings were not accessible. It did cut down on our shopping potential, which may have been a good thing..? But on the other hand, it made finding a quick place to eat very difficult. Seems like food accessibility was our theme! We chose to order fabulous mexican take out. The riverfront area had lots of space to eat and enjoy the unseasonable nice weather. Before long, and sooner than we were ready, it was time to load the water taxi for National
Harbor. Fortunately, the dock is where the Capital Wheel is also located!
Time your ride on the Capital Wheel to get some spectacular sunset views!
I had read about the wheel at sunset but didn’t expect to time it right. Turns out we nailed the timing because of the water taxi schedule. We used our taxi receipt to get discounts on our ticket purchase. As of this moment, there is also a Groupon available HERE. Search for Capital Wheel. We were genuinely pleased with the accessibility of the ride The girls could stay in their power chairs, although we needed to split into two groups of two.
I think the ride was a highlight and a perfect way to end our 24 hour stay!
Although the trip had some hiccups, I think they could be easily remedied by packing snacks and avoiding the actual peak days.
When I received a refund it prompted me to begin planning a return trip in warmer weather. Cherry blossom festival? Summer weekend away? I think the relative newness of this developed area is a big piece of what made it such an easily travelled place. Ramps, cut outs, mass transportation, and well thought out design brought lots of ease to our trip.
I’ll update if (when!) we decide to return!