Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center (map it)
201 Waterfront St
National Harbor, MD 20745
Year Opened: 2008
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Official Review by Gary Butterworth, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
The Scripps National Spelling Bee has managed to carve out a place in America's national consciousness. Beyond its impressive TV deal on ESPN, the Bee has managed to inspire Saturday Night live sketches (Mary Katherine Gallagher), a Broadway musical ("The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee"), and even a major motion picture (2006's "Akeelah and the Bee"). But beyond stage and screen, the National Spelling Bee is an often-overlooked spectator event as well. Every May, hundreds of young spellers and their families pack the ballroom of a resort hotel in suburban Washington, DC, to watch the final rounds live on a high-tech stage. A handful unaffiliated spelling enthusiasts also attend the final rounds. Almost all come away impressed by the high-quality production on the final night of this unique and drama-filled event.
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Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
In 2011, the Scripps National Spelling Bee decamped from downtown Washington, DC, and set up shop in the planned suburban community of National Harbor, Maryland. Though the Bee based itself in hotels in both locales, the current setting is a true resort that wouldn't be particularly out of place in Las Vegas. And neither would the food offerings.
Half-a-dozen dining options exist at various price points within the Gaylord National Resort. Not much eating goes on in the ballroom during the final televised rounds of the Bee itself. Instead, given the sheer size of this massive complex, most fans will head out to eat well-before the cameras roll on the final rounds.
This is a tourist center in an expensive city, so food is pricey, but quality is good. Fans hoping to save a few bucks can head out of the hotel and take a short walk through the streets of downtown National Harbor. But the whole town caters largely to tourists and day-trippers, so true bargains are hard to find. Those in a real pinch won't have any trouble carrying in a candy bar or two.
Bee sponsor and media conglomerate E.W. Scripps partners well with ESPN and the Gaylord National Resort to temporarily turn a hotel ballroom into a venue that feels special.
The stage at the Scripps National Spelling Bee vaguely resembles something you might see at a large auto show with sleek lighting, video boards, and its trademark beehive backdrop drawing you in. Seating is on banquet chairs that give a comfort that's more common at a wedding reception than a stadium. Aisles are wide, and there is an abundance of legroom for everyone.
High quality video display boards flank the stage and do a good job at keeping fans engaged. During competition, one screen displays information about the competition; the other shows the live video feed. Before and after commercial breaks, attendees see the same quirky video interstitials as fans watching at home.
Out in the hallway, Bee sponsors create a mini Hall of Fame with historical displays and banners commemorating previous champions. A few sponsors set up booths that change a bit from year to year. Recent years have seen photo ops for fans to post on social media.
Despite being a free event that draws very respectable crowds, you don't need to arrive too early to get inside. Pairs of seats together are generally available throughout the Bee. Of course, early birds are more likely to have their choice. Parties of three or more should consider arriving at least 30 minutes early. Similarly, keep in mind that this is a ballroom, not a stadium. Everyone is seated at ground level. As such, the vertically challenged might also want to show up early to grab a spot closer to the front to avoid peering through a sea of heads.
The whole of National Harbor is new, and it's immediately clear that the site for this planned community was well-thought out. This place feels like a destination, first when arriving in the waterfront town and again when entering the Gaylord Resort under its trademark glass atrium. Complaints that the neighborhood feels artificial aren't entirely off-base, but it does a good job in creating a place that feels a little different from everyday life. It's a good destination for an event kids will talk about for the rest of their lives.
The Scripps National Spelling Bee actually lasts for several days--not just the two hours or so that make it onto TV. Families of the children competing will likely want to step out for some air at some point, and National Harbor is a good place to take a stroll and maybe find something to eat. Since this town was built as a place to spend a day or night out, there is no shortage of options. Elevation Burger (about a quarter mile from the Gaylord) and National Pastime Sports Bar and Grill (inside the hotel) offer higher-end versions of typical stadium fare, but an assortment of nicer options also exist for those looking for something a bit more memorable.
Of course, with a hotel the size of the Gaylord, you never really need to go outside, even to spend the night. The Bee takes place just a short walk from the Gaylord's hotel rooms. Other lodging options also exist in National Harbor. Those looking for something a bit more economical are likely to look across the river in Alexandria, Virginia. Surprising bargains can sometimes be found in downtown DC, though rarely the spring tourist season that corresponds with Bee week.
Most of those in attendance at the Scripps National Spelling Bee are in some way part of the Bee community -- families of spellers, past spellers, sponsors, or organizers. But more than a few people come out who are simply interested in checking out the event.
One thing virtually all Bee attendees have in common is that they are there for the kids. Every speller gets applause, whether they're correct or incorrect in their attempt. Fans are polite and engaged, but not overly-competitive in the way that youth sports are often stereotyped. In fact, a large portion of the crowd consists of the children who were eliminated at earlier stages of the competition. They circulate through the hall signing each other's autograph books and cheering the other competitors.
In terms of access, National Harbor, Maryland manages to combine both the best and worst of a city with the best and worst of the suburbs. Traffic is a concern, but shouldn't be too bad since the Bee mostly avoids DC's notorious rush hour. Parking is available, but expensive. Public transportation is available, but inconvenient.
Despite being located less than 10 miles from the White House, National Harbor is linked with the U.S. Capital's extensive public transport system by only the twice-hourly NH1 Metrobus, which takes about 30 minutes to connect riders with Southern Avenue Station on Washington's Metrorail (subway) Green Line.
A water taxi service provides sporadic, but expensive service to various points around Washington. Hotel staff can provide up-to-date information on this service.
Most people will find that driving (or Ubering) is the best way to get to National Harbor from other parts of the DC area. Free parking is virtually nonexistent, but lots and garages are always available. We paid $14 to park for the 2016 Bee.
The Gaylord National Resort's glass atrium is something of a tourist attraction, so people come and go freely from the hotel at all hours. To enter the ballroom that hosts the Bee itself, tickets are not required, but spectators do pass through a metal detector, and wands are used on those who set it off. Security is polite, and used to families packed with laptops and other things to keep busy for long competition days. Lines are non-existent at most times.
Wide aisles and hallways make moving around the National Spelling Bee a breeze. Fans should have little difficulty when getting up to explore the Bee, grab a bite, or use the facilities. The restrooms are not only among the cleanest you'll find anywhere, they're also plentiful and stylish.
After years of charging for tickets (up to $40 as recently as 2013), the Scripps National Spelling Bee went free and ticket-free for 2014 and remains so as of 2016. In addition to a free night out, most years offer some sort of free souvenir in the form of a program or a promotional item.
The Scripps National Spelling has become an American institution for a reason. TV viewers see an innocent but suspense-filled competition. But what you don't see on TV is the experience that the Bee provides for its preteen contestants. Banners that would fit in at a pro sports Hall of Fame, a top notch souvenir program, a professional stage, press coverage, and a big crowd in a gorgeous setting combine to make this something that these young spellers will never forget. It also makes an extremely memorable visit for a spectator.
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201 Waterfront St
National Harbor, MD 20745
201 Waterfront St
National Harbor, MD 20745