Steve Hajjar

A Night IN the Museum: Overnight Adventures

Made popular by the 2006 movie “Night at the Museum” – where statues come to life when the sun sets – overnight adventures provide experiences that both parents and children carry with them throughout their lives. “Kids often ask me, ‘Do things really come alive?'” says Brigitte Blachere, program manager with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. “I tell them, ‘You let me know in the morning.'”

That sense of mystery and excitement, combined with the opportunity to go behind the scenes and take part in hands-on activities, are what make museum sleepovers memorable. “How many people do you know who can say they slept on the floor of the National Archives rotunda?” says David S. Ferriero, the 10th Archivist of the United States. That’s where the Declaration of Independence, Constitution of the United States and Bill of Rights reside.

The Mission

Whether it’s hooking kids on science, promoting environmental stewardship or connecting kids with the past, museum overnight programs blend education and entertainment. “Our goal is to allow participants to travel back in time and explore what life was like for lighthouse keepers,” says Allison Speight, volunteer and education program manager for the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michael’s, Maryland.

Through Historic Ships in Baltimore “kids get a hands-on experience and learn what it was like to live and work on these vessels,” says Sarah Rauscher, education coordinator. The group runs overnight programs on the USS Constellation, a Civil War sloop-of-war; USS Torsk, a World War II submarine; and USCGC Taney, a World War II Coast Guard cutter.

An overnight at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. helps families hone their problem-solving, observation and team-work skills, says Jacqueline Eyl, youth education director. They leave understanding that “spying is a game of intellect and observation, not leaping from buildings in flames and killing people.”

At the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore, the idea is for campers “to have fun and leave feeling that science is engaging and truly relates to their lives,” says Karen Via, supervisor of group programs.

The National Aquarium, also in Baltimore, strives “to help guests understand how we care for different animals,” says Candice Canady, manager of tours and experiences. “What we want our guests to take away is a sense of wonder, wanting to learn more about animals.”

The Smithsonian National Zoo’s mission includes giving families the opportunity to spend time together with few distractions, says Alice Kapp, an education programs specialist with Friends of the National Zoo (FONZ). “It also gives them a chance to get a little nature while still being smack dab in the middle of the city.”

The Experience

Overnight programs generally include a behind-the-scenes tour and several themed activities. Some are highly structured, while others provide some down time. When it comes time to hit the hay, some facilities have more creature comforts than others. “It may not be the most comfortable night, but it will be the most exciting night. You’re trading comfort for cool,” says the Spy Museum’s Eyl.

During KidSpy Overnight, guests take on a cover name and disguise, make and break secret codes, uncover important secrets, interrogate real spies and hunt for a mole. A morning mission gives kids the last piece of intelligence to find the mole. “The conclusion is very dramatic,” Eyl says, “with the security team locking down the room, arresting the suspect and carrying him away.”

Overnights at the Museum of Natural History and Museum of American History in Washington, D.C, and the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, feature activities designed to highlight and complement the evening’s theme. Kids become a junior explorer, detective or pilot, depending on the adventure.

The National Archives sleepover includes a scavenger hunt and the opportunity to write to the U.S. President. “We deliver those letters to the White House on Monday morning,” says Ferriero, the archivist. The evening features a space exploration theme and a chance for kids to don space suits. Come morning, there are pancakes – blueberry or chocolate chip – flipped by the archivist himself.

Great Cats, Small Mammals and Cheetah Conservation Station are among seven themed experiences offered through Snore and Roar at the National Zoo. Visits with keepers, who the FONZ’s Kapp describes as rock stars and leaders in their fields, are the highlight. The zoo overnight is an outdoor adventure, with guests pitching and sleeping in tents, which are provided.

Sleeping accommodations on Historic Ships in Baltimore include hammocks on the Constellation and berths on the Taney and Torsk. Activities reflect what the ships’ crews might have experienced, and so does dinner. For example, beef stew and hardtack are served on the Constellation.

Campers may sleep beneath the watchful eyes of sharks or help keepers awaken the dolphins in the morning as part of the National Aquarium’s three sleepovers, all of which include a 4-D movie. “There’s no substitute to being here at night and seeing what happens when the lights go out and the staff goes home,” says Canady.

A highlight of the evening is “climbing to the top of the lighthouse to see the Miles River and City of St. Michael’s,” says the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum’s Speight. Sleeping in the 1879 Hooper Strait Lighthouse is an authentic experience. “You can hear the wind as it blows and ships as they bounce over the waves,” she says.

The Cost

Overnights range from $40 to $135 per person. Factors that influence cost include meals – some offer both dinner and breakfast, others offer just breakfast, and still others offer only evening snacks – and staffing levels.

Things to Know

Some overnight programs cater to families and others to youth groups. Programs have a minimum age for participation. Some operate year-round and others seasonally. The adult-to-child ratio varies, as does the minimum age for chaperones. Some facilities are handicapped accessible. Some programs can accommodate food allergies. Air mattresses are allowed at some programs. Inquire before confirming a reservation.

Whether your child would prefer to spend the night in a battleship, submarine, lighthouse, aquarium, zoo or museum, there’s a sleepover with his name on it somewhere in or around the National Capital region. There’s no need to watch the movie when you can experience a dusk-to-dawn adventure for yourself.


  • Battleship Wisconsin
    One Waterside Dr., Norfolk, VA
    Families and Youth Groups

  • Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum
    213 N Talbot St., St. Michaels, MD
    Youth Groups

  • Historic Ships in Baltimore
    Pier 1, 301 East Pratt St., Baltimore, MD
    Youth Groups

  • International Spy Museum
    800 F St. NW, Washington, DC
    Families and Youth Groups

  • Maryland Science Center
    601 Light St., Baltimore, MD
    Youth Groups

  • National Aquarium
    501 E Pratt St., Baltimore, MD
    Families and Youth Groups
    $120 General, $105 Groups, $100 Member

  • National Archives Museum
    700 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, DC
    Families and Youth Groups
    $100 Foundation Member, $125 Non-Members

  • Smithsonian Museums

  • Smithsonian’s National Zoo
    3001 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, DC
    Families and Youth Groups

  • Virginia Zoo
    3500 Granby St., Norfolk, VA
    Youth Groups