Dear Mr. Reality TV Executive: Have I got a show for you — imagine the best elements of "Survivor," "The Amazing Race" and "Fear Factor," plus golden demographics, rich American...

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Dear Mr. Reality TV Executive: Have I got a show for you — imagine the best elements of “Survivor,” “The Amazing Race” and “Fear Factor,” plus golden demographics, rich American culture and spectacular dramatic potential. Imagine a pure reality show, where every twist, every turn, is completely unscripted and unstaged — and documented by an actual journalist who lived through it herself.


THE SETUP: A group of parents decides to organize the field trip of all field trips for students in one elementary school’s gifted program — a Spring Break “learning adventure” in Washington, D.C. Since the school can’t sanction such a thing, the parents form a nonprofit organization and set about planning.

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Just as in “American Idol,” our “Tour Bus” cameras follow the whole, sometimes-ugly “getting-there” process — monthly planning meetings, fund-raising events, e-mail flurries and more.

We’ll establish character profiles by focusing on early interactions, including an almost algebraic debate over how to divide the money earned by selling Krispy Kreme donuts; a lively discussion over whether all the kids should have matching T-shirts, matching windbreakers or matching backpacks; and a rousing dialogue over how, when and where the Easter Bunny should visit the traveling kids.

The cast

Fast facts

Ten things only a tour guide (or a talkative cabbie) would tell you about Washington, D.C.:

1. The justices’ chairs in the U.S. Supreme Court chambers are adjusted so that all the justices’ heads are at the same level.

2. No statue in Washington, D.C., can be taller than the 19-foot, 6-inch Statue of Freedom atop the U.S. Capitol Building.

3. No building in Washington, D.C., can be taller than the U.S. Capitol Building (288 feet high from the base line on the east front to the top of the Statue of Freedom).

4. Older $20 bills feature the Ellipse (south) side of the White House; newer ones feature Lafayette Park (north side).

5. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president, he asked that his memorial be no larger than his desk. He got that, in the form of a plaque in front of the National Archives Building. But in 1997, he got a little bit more: in an elaborate 7½ -acre memorial of sculptures, plants, pools, waterfalls and fountains.

6. George Washington died from a throat infection — or, more precisely, from bleeding to death during a “leeching” treatment to cure it.

7. The stones of the Washington Monument are two different colors. Construction stopped during the Civil War, and when it continued, stone was taken from another part of the quarry.

8. Constitution Avenue, which runs past the White House, once was The Washington City canal.

9. The words “Mr. President” became commonplace after someone raised a toast to George Washington that way in a tavern in Alexandria, Va.

10. George Washington was not the country’s first president — technically. Several men (accounts vary from seven to 10) served before him under The Articles of Confederation. (The first? John Hanson.)

— Sandy Dunham

It might sound hefty, but you do have a bus to fill: Sixteen kids and 19 grown-ups, ranging from one 5-year-old to four assorted grandparents. Most of the kids are third- or fourth-graders, and most are boys. There are dad-and-son pairs, mom-and-son pairs, multi-generational families, entire nuclear families, three preteen girls and the broadest representation of personality types since “Gilligan’s Island.”

The host

A beleaguered group-tour organizer, who from Day One is bombarded with calls about families who’d like to add a jaunt to New York City, a family who’d like to go on to Florida, a family who’d like to meet Grandma at the D.C. airport — and anyone else with a question and her phone number. She’ll perform as a voice-over only, since the group never actually meets her.

The guest stars

To spice up the action, we’ll throw in several unpredictable guests:

• The third-/fourth-grade teacher, who will decide to come at nearly the last minute.

• Good cop Sherri, the bus driver. Sherri is persistently pleasant and amazingly easygoing. She cross-stitches and listens to smooth jazz while waiting for the group to return to the tour bus.

• Bad cop Kenny, the tour guide. Kenny seems to turn against the group almost immediately. He is bright and knowledgeable, in a professorial kind of way, but he seems to bristle at the sight of children, and his monotone delivery lulls them to distractions.

• In one particularly lighthearted episode, a guest tour guide named Al will substitute for Kenny the curmudgeon. Al is a Vietnam Vet who wears bright yellow socks in defiance of the Chinese protocol that reserves that color for royalty (or so he says). He bonds with the kids immediately, marching up and down the bus aisle as far as his microphone cord will let him, bellowing quiz questions and laughing, laughing, laughing. One evening, in response to “Hire Al” cheers from the boisterous back of the bus, each family coughs up an additional $10 to keep him around for another tour stop.

The Challenges

The beauty of “Extreme Field Trip” is that you couldn’t stage these challenges if you tried.

Kindly Sherri

The travel element. The trip begins with a 6:30 a.m. flight from Sea-Tac, which means everyone needs to be at the airport by 5 in the morning. Will everyone make it? Will anyone forget the required child identification (the subject of a last-minute e-mail and telephone frenzy)? Will kids screech if they don’t get to sit next to their friends?

In a twist no one could have predicted, imagine how our travelers will handle a four-hour layover delay in Denver when their incoming plane is diverted because of dangerous fog and snow. Cellphone batteries die and nerves fry as travelers try to alert the tour organizer, the tour guide, the restaurant where they have reservations that evening — and the Grandma waiting at the D.C. airport.

Speaking of weather: Everyone knows Washington, D.C., is glorious in April — sunshine on the cherry blossoms, monuments rising into blue skies, snazzy shorts at the White House Easter Egg Roll. Ha-ha! Another twist! This week turns out to be the coldest, wettest week of spring that Al the happy tour guide ever has seen! Rain plunges in buckets, sideways! Nighttime temperatures dip into the 30s! Some travelers have plenty of capris and sandals, but no socks! Others have no umbrellas! (So as not to imperil the kids, they are provided those matching hooded windbreakers, but they keep only the top half dry. One boy’s jeans get so heavy with rain in Arlington National Cemetery, he has to hoist them up with one hand while battling his umbrella with the other.)

Eating en masse. This aspect is a bit reminiscent of “The Restaurant,” except there are no good tables in group dining. Wait till you see the reactions at the Hard Rock Cafe, where the soaking group (straight from the dousing at Arlington) gathers near a gift shop, only to be herded and corralled back out the door. Have your “bleeper” button ready when the restaurant host tells everyone to leave and come back in the group entrance, a wet half-block away, and wait to be summoned. And then, once summoned, led to exactly the same spot near the gift shop — and told to hurry up and eat because now they are late. (You also won’t want to miss the looks on some of the boys’ faces when the huge-screen music video in the group dining area switches to closeups of bikini-clad buttocks. Priceless!)

Bad cop Kenny

The hotel. Although our travelers are surrounded by water and humidity, this is no “Temptation Island,” Mr. Reality TV Executive. Instead, our group is based in a two-star hotel in College Park, Md., that seems to specialize in group accommodations and odd smells. It boasts “recent remodeling,” which would appear to involve wiring all appliances to the wall. Imagine our travelers actually trying to sleep, when one side of the hotel faces the town’s main drag, which roars through the night with traffic, and the other is just quiet enough for cockroaches to snooze in the tub. Bordering on cruelty, “continental breakfast” is served in the lobby every morning, but the coffee is so watery, the only “continent” it possibly could represent is the undersea land of Atlantis. The hotel does have an outdoor swimming pool but,
in another demented twist, it is covered with plastic — which itself is covered with freezing rain.

The germ factor. What better hardship than disease — and do we ever have the perfect conditions: a gaggle of kids exchanging Game Boys, drinks and snorty giggles; the claustrophobic confines of an airless airplane and a fogged-up bus; freezing wet feet, heads and butts; and exhaustion. Ah! Bring on the bugs! We’ll introduce some on the first plane, even — a couple colds here, a barf or two there. We’ll time the germs just right, so that some people are getting it just as others are getting better.

Series drama and humor

Even among all these gut-wrenching challenges, you can expect our group to find humor, sometimes in the most unlikely places. Amid the awe-inspiring chamber of the Supreme Court of the United States, for example, the teacher raises his hand three times, asking whether there is a secret getaway, whether sessions start with The Pledge of Allegiance and what’s behind those lavish curtains, anyway. (For extra laughs, insert a shot of “The Wizard of Oz” here, as well as the clip from “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure,” when Pee-Wee asks when they’ll visit the basement of the Alamo.) Add a ceremonial riff from “Hail to the Chief” as four figures silently emerge single-file from a side door. Could they be the justices? Imagine! Then zoom in on their janitorial uniforms.

Follow the teacher onto the bus, where he suggests renaming “The Illumination Tour” of memorials and monuments “The Precipitation Tour,” and don’t miss the closeups in Sen. Maria Cantwell’s comfy office, where two kids conk out and another asks a couple of aides — repeatedly and futilely — for clues to the WASL.

Surprise guest Al

Capture a bit of unscripted drama, too, when the group learns that flight attendants really do ask whether there’s a doctor on board during a medical emergency. Watch a hero in action as one of the dads on the trip, an Auburn firefighter, answers the call and cares for an elderly woman until the plane lands.

Then cash in on earlier foreshadowing when a bit of “holiday spirit” erupts after the Easter Bunny decides to scatter eggs in the hallowed halls of The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, at the end of the night, after more than 12 hours of touring.

And witness all sides of The Kenny Incident, the day the surly tour guide instructs the group to board the bus at an abnormally early 7:30 a.m. to meet at The Bureau of Engraving and Printing. After getting trapped in traffic and arriving late, the group learns that only a couple of people needed to arrive that early — to collect tickets for a tour the doesn’t begin until 12:15 p.m., which only 25 people can attend! Watch Kenny scold, tourists seethe and a secret plan evolve to dock Kenny’s tip.

(The sneaky plan steamrolls when Kenny later directs the group to the Pentagon City Mall for a late lunch, and nearly everyone has a differing opinion — many expressed over the bus microphone — over a) whether the kids should “snack” or “eat lunch,” b) how much time to spend on either and c) why Kenny would waste the group’s precious sightseeing time at a mall in the first place.)

Series longevity

Trust me, Mr. Reality TV Executive, “Extreme Field Trip” will leave your audience — and even these tourists — wanting more. In addition to the locales already mentioned, the first season also visits such stunning backdrops as the Lincoln and Roosevelt memorials; Union Station; the Korean War Veterans and Vietnam Veterans memorials; the Smithsonian; the National Archives; the Ford Theatre; the haunted houses of Alexandria, Va.; and the International Spy Museum. A full plate, yes, but not nearly all-encompassing. Imagine another season, with the U.S. Capitol Building, the White House, the new World War II Memorial, Georgetown, the Washington Monument. Imagine the potential “all-star” return of some of this season’s favorite characters.


Sandy Dunham: 206-464-3140 or