The Los Angeles area has some grown-up attractions to let your imagination — and those of your kids — take flight. And I’m not talking about the rides at Disneyland.
Ever notice how often our rhetoric connects imagination with flying? We speak of it as if it has wings. We talk of letting our imagination “take flight,” of letting it “soar.”
There are lots of travel destinations that will let your imagination take wing, or that of your kids.
The Smithsonian Institution has two great museums in the Washington DC area devoted to flight. The US Air Force has one of its own in Dayton, OH. And you can find spectacular air shows all over the world, far too many to list here.
But the place I have in mind is one you might not expect: Los Angeles.
LA will never be a sentimental favorite destination of mine in the manner of, say, San Francisco or New Orleans or Vancouver or Paris. Too big, too sprawling, not enough green, too much concrete, have to drive just about everywhere.
But that doesn’t mean that the place doesn’t have more than its share of cool things to check out. And when it comes to aviation and air travel, here are a few of the best.
LAX THEME BUILDING
A flight-oriented tour of Los Angeles begins at the city’s international airport, LAX, in the airport’s Theme Building. It’s been designated a cultural and historic landmark of the city, and you’ll have no trouble finding it.
It’s that ultra-futuristic, flying saucer-like, George Jetson-looking structure squarely in the middle of the facility.
Short of the old TWA terminal at JFK International Airport in New York City, there’s really nothing else like it.
The restaurant, sadly, is closed, but the observation deck remains open on weekends from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. You can watch the steady stream of jumbo jets landing on LAX’s two pairs of parallel runways from all over the world.
And who knows? The building itself could just might inspire dreams in your kids of designing iconic landmarks for a living.
SPACE SHUTTLE ENDEAVOUR
The California Science Center is close to the old LA Memorial Coliseum in Exposition Park, so it’s easy to find. It works to make science and technology a hands-on experience, so kids and adults alike can get something out a visit here. And admission is free.
It’s got some fascinating exhibits, everything from an old-school Douglas DC-8 jetliner to a Gemini space capsule and robotic probes sent to distant planets.
But the star of the center, easily, is the Space Shuttle Endeavour.
This is not a mock-up, like the Enterprise shuttle. This one flew 25 missions into orbit around the Earth. Endeavour also has a sometimes overlooked emotional importance: She was the shuttle built to replace the ill-fated Challenger, which blew up on launch in 1986.
If seeing a Space Shuttle up close doesn’t ignite your imagination, you may not have one.
Just getting this ship to her new home at the center was a show in itself, from her arrival at LAX on the back of a Boeing 747 to the creeping procession over city streets to Exposition Park. Traffic had to be detoured for hours around the route and some 400 trees cut down along the way. Even then, it was still a tight fit.
The trek covered 12 miles, and took two days.
California Science Center
700 Exposition Park Drive
Los Angeles, CA 90037
Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s
Parking: $10 cars, $25 oversized vehicles. Cash only.
Phone: (323)-SCIENCE (323-724-3623)
NOTE: As long as you’re in Exposition Park, especially if you’re there on a Tuesday through Sunday, why not stop by the California African American Museum right nearby. Plenty of exhibits, plenty of history, much if not most of which, you will not have been taught in school. And like the science center, admission is free.
JUMBO JET DINNER
After a day at the science center, let the kids chill out with pizza and video games on the hotel TV. This one’s for the grown-ups — a tasty, pricey trip back in time.
You’re probably all too familiar by now with the cattle-car feel of today’s air travel. But there was a time when flying on an airliner wasn’t just an experience. It was an occasion, something to dress up for, to look forward to. That was especially true back in the 1970s, when the Boeing 747 introduced the jumbo jet era.
And the airline that most epitomized that era was Pan American World Airways. Just hearing the name “Pan Am” was enough to send images of glamorous, romantic globetrotting flying around in your head.
Pan Am is long gone, but Air Hollywood, a film studio that specializes in building airport terminal sets and aircraft mockups for movies and television, has created an exact replica of the First Class section of a Pan Am 747 interior — complete with its signature upper-deck lounge.
There, you can watch movies and be served a gourmet dinner, on real china with real glassware, by waitresses dressed as 1970 Pan Am stewardesses. A tour of actual film production sets and aircraft mock-ups is part of the package.
It definitely is not cheap — $267 for dinner in the First Class main cabin downstairs and $297 for the upstairs lounge — and yes, those prices are per person. On the other hand, not even Disneyland can take you back in time like this, and have you seen what Disneyland costs lately?
These dinner tours are conducted only a few evenings a month, you have to reserve this dinner at least a week in advance, and despite the high price tag, October and November are already sold out.
13240 Weidner Street
Pacoima, CA 91331
NOTE: If you have autistic children, Air Hollywood has a special simulation program designed to acclimate them to the process of air travel, from getting through airport security to boarding to a simulated flight and leaving the airplane. It’s called Open Sky for Autism. Seating is limited, but it’s free. Lunch is included.
For this one, you’ll need to drive out to Simi Valley to the Reagan Presidential Library.
If Ronald Reagan was one of your favorite presidents, you’ll enjoy the entire exhibit, but try to save the best of it for last. If he wasn’t, skip the rest and go straight to the star of this show.
To my knowledge, there are only two places in the world where an ordinary citizen can tour the inside of Air Force One, a President’s flying White House. The US Force Museum in Dayton, OH is one. The Reagan Library is the other.
Like its Dayton counterpart, the Reagan Air Force One is a Boeing 707, painted in the now-familiar Presidential livery and specially equipped and fitted out inside to accommodate the President and First Lady, top staff members and White House press corps. And like the one in Dayton, it’s not a mock-up.
It’s the actual Presidential aircraft that Reagan flew during his two Presidential terms, including the flight to Berlin in 1987, where he famously challenged then-Soviet secretary Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall!”
(The citizens of Berlin, East and West, did it for him two years later.)
You’ll also get a close-up look at the vehicles used in a Presidential motorcade, including an actual Presidential limo, as well as Marine One, the Presidential helicopter, though you won’t allowed inside either of those.
Take your kids on board and let them imagine what it might be like to travel as the President of the United States.
Ronald Reagan Foundation and Library
40 Presidential Dr
Simi Valley, CA 93065
Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s
Phone: (805) 522-2977
DID YOU KNOW?
Air Force One is really just a designation. Any US Air Force plane on which a President of the United States sets foot — whether a fully fitted-out jumbo jet or the tiniest, most basic Cessna — automatically becomes Air Force One. No aircraft can use that call sign, not even the jets officially built for the White House, unless the President is actually on board.