The price for me of touring a replica of Air Force One was spending an hour beforehand learning about National Harbor’s history and plans for its future development. But when the most famous plane in the world (’s doppelganger) appeared in the windows of our shuttle Thursday, all my ambivalence vanished.
The Children’s Democracy Project refurbished and refitted an old cargo plane in Rhode Island, spending a couple years and a good amount of money–how much, no one will say–to get the details of a plane that usually resides 10 miles to the west at Andrews just right. National Harbor’s director of marketing, Deborah Topcik, did say that all this time and money had gone toward “encouraging young people to get involved in politics.”
— Frank Eak (@frank54va) September 30, 2018
The plan for this goal is via the “Air Force One Experience,” an hourlong tour of the replica. And indeed, I felt a patriotic rush of pride while walking toward the plane through a dusty parking lot. Seeing the “United States of America” emblazoned on the side in the distinctive Caslon typeface, those broad blue and white stripes on the wings, the armored Secret Service vehicle tucked away in its armpit—anyone who’s gotten goosebumps watching a president, any president, emerge from this executive Olympus and can claim they didn’t get a little emotional at seeing it up close is a liar.
And that’s before you even get to the red carpet that led to the airstairs. Our chef–this was a press tour, so we were getting lunch–beckoned from the top, a silhouette in all-white that, if you squinted, could almost be Melania Trump on her trip to Africa. It definitely appealed to my sense for the dramatic.
Alas, it was downhill from there. As I made my way down a hallway paneled with photos of presidents from days gone by–my personal favorite was of President Reagan wearing sweatpants, into which he had somehow tucked his immaculately pressed shirt–it slowly dawned on me that all this was was a walk through a plane.
The mobile audio tour is guided by the voice of Air Force Chief Master Sergeant Howie Franklin, who was Air Force One’s head flight attendant for 18 years. I took a gander at photos of ten different presidents, the nose of the plane, and the soon-to-be documentary area where people could watch an overview of presidential travel over the years. The only problem was that most of the “displays” were photo panels about two feet wide.
In fact, the only real historical artifacts on board that I could see were a newspaper from 1791 announcing George Washington’s arrival at Fredericksburg, a seat from the original Air Force One, an Air Force One candy bag, and a couple boxes of historical candy.
Which would be fine if it didn’t cost adults $20 to take in this underwhelming display. (Kids will pay $10; seniors will get in for $18.) Maybe I’m being too harsh. As Topcik kept insisting, they were still putting the finishing touches on the exhibit, and I concede that the actual replicated rooms from the AF1 were pretty cool. With a little imagination and mental photoshopping, it was easy to imagine that the president and his staff had momentarily stepped out and left us to walk around. With voyeuristic glee, I peered into the meeting room, snapped a pic of the office, and broke the rules by running my fingers over one of the blue sheets of the presidential bed (shhh, that’s a secret).
But for the price, I expected more. A lot more. It seemed like a bum deal to ask people to shell out that much money for what was essentially a walk around a fancy plane. After the tour and lunch (at which the power went out and I, embarrassingly, sweated through my shirt), I declined a chance to tour the rest of Gaylord Convention Center and chose instead to walk the waterfront trail back to National Harbor. A paddling of ducks kept me company the entire time after I half-heartedly threw them a handful of the crumbs in my bag. And that, my friends, was the highlight of my trip.
The Air Force One Experience opens its doors on October 19.
Correction: A previous version of this post contained outdated ticket price information.