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Busy freeze 

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The coatroom at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., doesn't have video surveillance. It doesn't need it: One of the safest places in Washington, it's never had any problems with theft.

That's not to say it—and the whole city, in the middle of a mid-Atlantic deep freeze but poised for an exciting spring—wasn't busy when my family headed north to visit our D.C. daughter two weeks ago. We were but three of scores of wintertime visitors this season. One cabby even volunteered that he'd never seen crowds so thick this early in the year. Parents want to show their kids where history and tough decisions are being made, and in this wintry economy, the free museums don't hurt. Foreign visitors seem more curious than ever about the nation's capitol. Everywhere we went, full lines moved quickly, metro trains ran on time, all with cold winds racing by the windowpanes.

Traveling with the family, especially in these conditions, provides insight into pack mentality. We went with a guidebook agenda, but keeping warm and hitting our mealtimes took priority, meaning we had to be able to change plans instantly. Our LA daughter, after all, is now accustomed to 70-degree weather patterns. She wore two coats, long underwear and a hoodie at all times. We learned to talk about dining through her college-age eyes, too, especially since she was still adjusting to the three-hour time difference. For clarity and convenience, she and her friends have dubbed breakfast "first meal," and lunch is "second meal." Burgers for first meal at Five Guys? Sure: Maybe we'd run into Obama sneaking out for a snack.

Considerate of her guests, our D.C. daughter gave us guided tours of the handy Metro stations, showed us the best place to get pizza and how and when to always get a cab.

From there, we hit the museums with fellow tourists from all over the world—many languages, many strollers, lots of backpacks, lots of coffee. The Spy Museum featured an interactive voyage on par with Disney World's Tower of Terror. On a covert mission with fellow spies to find a nuclear bomb trigger, we squeezed into a rattling service elevator and then dove into a runaway surveillance van.

We kept our scarves and hats on for Paul Nicklen's icy landscape photography in "Polar Obsession" at the National Geographic Society's Explorers Hall. Leaving the building, searching again for gloves and mittens, we half-expected polar bears, leopard seals and penguins in the icy outdoors. Lucky for us, the town is protected by the terracotta warriors next door at the National Geographic Museum.

But the real marvel was the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History—free admission, giant mammals, an Imax theater with round-the-clock shows, that imposing T. rex, cafés and bathrooms on every floor. A logjam became one impressive party, strangers from all around the world shared cameras and made huddled, grinning poses. Our quartet joined the fun—a family gathering in the universal gesture.

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