It’s one of the zaniest ideas to come to town. By now, you may have heard of the BEACH exhibit in Washington, D.C. It’s a sea of white plastic balls where you can swim in the climate-controlled, shark-free, and architecturally magnificent National Building Museum.
This temporary installation has received rave reviews from the press. After comparing my experience to their photos, it seems clear to me that those journalists visited during off hours. Allow me to tell you what this exhibit is like for the general population on a normal day.
The National Building Museum is located in a beautiful, red brick building located near Chinatown and the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. The museum specializes in exhibits about architecture, engineering, and design.
When you enter the museum, you step into the spectacular Great Hall, which is one of my favorite museum spaces in town. This summer the Great Hall is filled with a temporary walled-in area that they are calling the BEACH.
My family and I arrived at 2:45pm on a weekday. There were two lines at the entrance to the exhibit: one to purchase tickets, and then one to enter the BEACH. The ticketing line was relatively short, but the wait to enter the exhibit took us about 15 minutes. (I have heard that this wait can last as much as an hour at times.) We had purchased tickets online, which enabled us to skip the ticketing line and saved us a few minutes.
When we finally entered the BEACH, we discovered a white space with soft flooring, several beach chairs, and almost one million translucent plastic balls.
I visited the exhibit with four adults and seven kids, ranging in age from almost-two to almost-twelve. The kids unanimously loved it. The adults had mixed reviews and some concerns. Here’s what we thought.
1. It’s ridiculous fun.
I dare you not to laugh as you sink into thousands of plastic balls. The absurdity transports you right back to your favorite childhood birthday party. The pool is deep, and the balls are squishy. You can leap into them without even touching the ground when you land.
2. It’s not just for kids.
Adults and teens were enjoying the BEACH just as much as the children were. I saw lots of adults arrive without any kids, and the exhibit even offers extended hours on Wednesday nights to accommodate an older crowd. I think that would be a brilliant idea for a date night or a girls’ night out.
3. But kids love it.
This really goes without saying. It was a huge hit with the kids.
4. It’s a good reason to visit the rest of the National Building Museum.
Right now the museum has a fascinating display of architectural models. I also loved their collection of large-scale photographs called “Scaling Washington,” and their hands-on activities for children are among the best in the city. You can read more about their exhibits on their website.
1. It’s smaller than I expected.
From the photos I’d seen, I was under the impression that most of the open space of the Great Hall would be filled with the balls. But the ball pool took up only about half of the BEACH exhibit area, and it didn’t seem as nearly big as I’d imagined, especially with all the people crammed into that space.
2. It’s easy to get stuck.
The ball pit is designed like a zero-entry swimming pool, with a small shallow end that deepens to about three feet. About two-thirds of the pool is three feet deep. In the deep parts, you can easily get stuck. I’m a reasonably fit person, but I had difficulty pulling myself out of the pool on multiple occasions. The balls close in on you, and it’s hard to get your feet steady on the ground. It would have helped to have ladders or steps available.
3. It’s easy to lose stuff.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the bottom of the pool is lined with lost phones and car keys. Don’t go in there with anything loose in your pockets, because they will vanish. To make matters more complicated, there is no good place to store valuables outside the pool area. There are cubbies for your belongings, but I recommend that you carry anything important in a zipped backpack or cross-body bag that you wear the whole time.
4. It’s easy to jump on someone or get jumped on.
The ball pool is deep enough that people vanish in it. And since it’s sometimes hard to get out, people can be hidden under there for long enough to get squished by someone else.
5. The snack bar is cool but limited.
Union Kitchen is hosting a snack bar inside the BEACH exhibit. It offers a tasty variety of unusual candies, popsicles, and other treats. My problem was that at the time, what I really needed was something usual. The kids were hot and sweaty after jumping all over the ball pool, and they were desperately thirsty. The snack bar offered no water other than Perrier, and no juice drinks other than kombucha.
I recommend that you bring water with you. If you don’t mind leaving the BEACH exhibit, there is also a water fountain and a coffee shop within the museum’s Great Hall.
1. It is much too crowded.
There are far too many people in there. The pictures I’ve seen online show a vast, relaxing space like the white sands of tropical island, where you can stretch out and swim peacefully. Take a look at this picture from Washingtonian Magazine — enticing, right? I couldn’t wait to see it for myself.
The problem is that many of the press photos of the BEACH were taken before the exhibit opened. Here’s what it looked like on a recent Tuesday afternoon:
Ouch. This beach is less like a tropical island, and more like the traffic on the way to Ocean City on Labor Day weekend.
It was chaos, with people leaping around and bumping into each other. The craziest part is that a museum employee said to us, regarding the crowd size, “Oh, this is nothing compared to the weekend.”
The museum needs to let in fewer people at a time, even if that means selling tickets with scheduled time slots. I would pay more money to have more space and safety. It was noisy, difficult to move around, and easy to lose a kid. Which brings me to my next point:
2. It’s easy to lose a kid.
This was the hardest part for me. Kids are understandably exuberant at the BEACH. I don’t blame them for wanting to run around instead of sitting calmly by a parent’s side. That excitement is the whole point of the exhibit, after all. But the crowds made it impossible to keep an eye on kids. They would run off, leap into the pools, disappear under balls, and not necessarily be able to get out without help.
Another problem is that it’s easy for a kid to run out of the exhibit. The BEACH is surrounded by tall walls, but there is no gate, so a kid could run out of there without a parent knowing. The exhibit is best for kids and teens who are old enough to a) help themselves out of the ball pool, and b) know better than to run away or walk off with a stranger.
3. The balls smell bad.
They smell like the flesh of thousands of people who have been walking around in DC’s July heat. The museum claims that the balls are made of antimicrobial material that help to prevent disease transmission. I can’t verify any of that, but I can say that they smelled like sweat. I’m no germaphobe, but that’s icky.
It was fun but stressful and exhausting. Here’s my advice:
- Skip it for little kids. It’s best for ages 10+. If you have young children, take them to a less crowded place with a ball pool, like Kidz Plaza in Ashburn.
- Go with adult friends or a date on Wednesday nights.
- If you do bring kids, come with at least one adult per kid, to help you keep an eye on everyone.
- The crowds began to thin out to more comfortable levels at 4pm, so arrive then if you don’t mind having only one hour to play.
- Buy tickets online to skip one of the two lines.
- Secure your valuables in a zipped bag that you can carry in the pool.
- Bring water.
- Try a belly flop.
Just for fun, I asked everyone in my group to give two words that described their experience with the BEACH:
- Adult #1: “Fabulous phenomenon”
- Adult #2: “Good exercise”
- Adult #3: “Squishy and ‘friend-zy'” (a word she invented to describe the fun social element)
- Adult #4: “Stressfully cool”
- 12-year-old girl: “Fluffily awesome”
- 10-year-old boy: “Spontaneously fun”
- 9-year-old boy: “Greatly difficult” (to move around)
- 8-year-old boy: “Hundred percent!”
- 4-year-old boy: “Good awesome”
- 4-year-old boy: “So much fun to run around and jump into the balls and disappear into the balls and get pulled out, and I also loved the trucks in the gift shop” (He didn’t understand the assignment.)
- Almost-2-year-old-girl: “jump fun” (She probably didn’t understand the assignment, either, but it worked out because she doesn’t know many words.)
Have you been to the BEACH? What two words would you use to describe it?
The National Building Museum is located at 401 F Street NW, Washington, D.C. It is open open Monday through Saturday, 10am–5pm, and Sunday, 11am–5pm. The BEACH exhibit is also open late on Wednesday evenings. The BEACH is a temporary installation that will be available through the summer of 2015 until Labor Day. Tickets for the BEACH are $13-$16, and can be purchased online. Children 2 and under are free, and discounts are available for seniors and students.
Photo credit: Charlotte Geary