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Bowling at the White House: What It’s Like & How to Go

It took me sixteen years of living in Washington, DC and four administrations to receive the coveted invite, but 2023 was the year that I finally got to go bowling at the White House. I’ll run through an insider’s look at the history of White House bowling alleys, how I got to go bowling at the White House, the reservations process, and what it was like to go to this hidden gem. So put on your bowling shoes and let’s roll into White House bowling: one of the most iconic things to do in DC.

The History of White House Bowling Alleys

Bowling has a long-standing tradition in the White House, with several presidents enjoying the sport during their time in office. The first bowling alley in the White House was installed during President Truman’s administration in 1947. It was a birthday gift from supporters.

Black and white photo showing the original bowling alley built in the White House
The original bowling alley in the White House, March 19, 1948.
Source: Truman Library

However, Truman himself was not a big fan of bowling, and he rarely used the alley. Eventually, the alley was relocated to the Old Executive Office Building as a gift to the White House staffers in 1955. The room where the bowling alley once was turned into the White House Situation Room in 1961 during the Kennedy Administration. The White House bowling alley became a popular spot for socializing and friendly competition among the staff and guests.

As a side note, I always thought it was a funny idea to give a gift of a bowling alley to someone who doesn’t really like bowling all that much.

President Richard Nixon bowling in the Old Executive Office Building
President Nixon bowling in the Harry S. Truman Bowling Alley in 1970.
Source: White House Historical Association

In contrast, President Nixon was an avid bowler and loved spending time on the lanes when he came into office. He was using Truman’s old bowling alley so much that he decided to have a one-lane bowling alley built within the White House itself in 1973, under the portico. Nixon would spend hours in that bowling alley, perfecting his game. This bowling alley still exists, though it is not open to staffers. Today, when people reference the White House bowling alley, they are usually referring to the Harry S. Truman Bowling Alley in the Old Executive Office Building, not the one in the actual White House.

Reserving the White House Bowling Alley

Now that you know about the history of White House bowling, you might be wondering how you can go bowling at the White House. It’s not like other DC attractions that you need to book ahead of time but that anyone can reserve.

It may be a bit tricky: bowling at the White House is an exclusive perk for White House staffers and their guests. Only individuals working for the administration have the privilege of reserving the bowling alley.

Even for those working in the administration, a reservation can be pretty challenging, as they are in high demand. Reservations are released to staffers so that they can make a reservation, but they’re not release at the same time every day. If you know someone who works at the White House, they’ll need to be on top of the schedule and refreshing it to see when new spots become available. While there may be some randomness to the release times, there is somewhat of a pattern that can be figured out. It’s important to stay vigilant and keep an eye out for reservation openings.

If you are lucky enough to secure a reservation, you can bring up to 20 people bowl at the White House. It’s a great opportunity to gather your friends, family, or colleagues for a unique and memorable experience in Washington, DC. Everyone who wants to attend will need to pass a background check in order to enter the White House complex and go bowling. Your host will send you a link where you can fill out your personal details to submit for the background check. No one in my group of 20 had any issues with the background check; it’s not a security clearance, just a background check.

What to Expect When Bowling at the White House

When the day of your bowling adventure arrives, you will need to go through the security checkpoints at the White House. They’ll check your government ID, and they will give you a badge to wear while you’re insider. Your host will bring you to the Old Executive Office Building, where the bowling alley is located.

Sign for Truman Bowling Alley in the White House basement, showing pipes and conduits in the ceiling

The bowling alley is in the basement of the building, and as is typical of government buildings from that time period, the ceilings are low with exposed cabling that makes you wonder if you’re where you’re supposed to be. It is not a glamorous setting, but it does make you feel like you’re in some hidden spot that no one else can go.

Bowling at the White House: White House Bowling Lanes

Once you reach the bowling alley, you’ll be greeted by a clean and well-maintained facility. I have heard that they have redone it sometime in the past several years. From what people have told me, it used to have a very 1970s vibe. While it’s not luxurious in the general sense, it kind of is for a bowling alley. It was the nicest bowling alley I’ve been to.

Wall of shoes in cubbies at White House bowling alley

They supply everything you need for bowling. You can choose from the wall of shoes in a wide variety of sizes, and they supply the balls as well. Of course, if you are a more serious bowler, you can bring your own equipment. I am barely a bowler, so I used the equipment there and had no problem! When you’re done, they have the shoe spray to clean the used bowling shoes.

Kitchenette with snack and drinks at White House bowling alley

You can bring your own food and drinks (including wine or other alcoholic beverages) and enjoy them in their kitchenette. All food and drinks need to stay in the kitchenette, and cannot be brough out with you bowling. For my group, this meant that people spent a lot of time in the kitchenette. There’s not really a good spot in there to see the bowling alley to see if you’re up next, so you’ll have to help your friends out and let them know when they’re up.

One thing I noticed and thought was cool was that the pins look to be connected to strings that pull them up and set them back into place after each roll. I’ve never seen that before, I’ve only seen bowling alleys where the pins are unconnected and a metal contraption comes out and grabs any standing up bowling pins to lift them up. Instead, these seemed to be lifted up by the string attached to them.

How did I do? I think I bowled about a 32. I only got to do a few frames because of the size of our group, but I did not do well. But it was the best place to be bad at bowling that I could ever think of!

Because we were the last reservation of the day on a Friday night, we had the benefit of not being rushed out. We left on time, but from what my friend said, a lot of times, the next group who is signed up to go bowling at the White House will show up a little early, and there will be a bit of a crowd as both groups try to maneuver in the tight space.

In Summary…

Bowling at the White House is a truly extraordinary experience that allows White House staffers and their guests to enjoy a game in a historic and exclusive setting. While reservations are limited and highly sought after, jump on any opportunity you get. Going bowling at the White House is a once-in-a-lifetime thing to do in DC that you don’t want to miss.

Valerie Moore

Having lived in Washington, DC for the past 16 years, Valerie has a lot of thoughts about the best things to do, eat, and know around the city. She loves doing deep dives into the interesting things she finds, and sharing with the world. You'll often find her dog, Lil Mikey, along for the ride.

Comments (7)

  • L.says:

    March 8, 2024 at 11:21 pm

    Sadly this, although VERY cool, is newer bowling equipment since the renovation. (Yes “string bowling” pinsetting machines are becomming a thing again, as they are cheaper, and easier to maintain for small in home use). I am more curious to know what happened to the “original” 1948 manual lane equipment? Also it is a shame the “other” White House “single lane” 10 pin bowling alley is not able to be on the visit list, or have pics and commentary on it as well (other than the ones on this ones still frame from the video of Nixon on YT). Anyway, very cool trip. I would have taken a lot of pics or video (if allowed), as it is certainly not an easy repeat visit place. Certainly a bucket list checkoff.

    Sadly, the other cool Government made bowling alley was dissassembled (and hopefully stored) due to building structural problems. It was built in 1961 by the US Navy Seabees for the research base at McMurdo Antarctica. It had manually operated Brunsiwick A2 pinsetters. There are pics of a few people taking their turns behind the lanes to set pins. On opening day, the Seabees opened with handmade pins made to look like penguins. They had either 3 or 4 lanes of 10 pin.

    I also hear that one of our aircraft carriers used to have a bowling alley on board. I do not know if this is still done. Probably not, with handheld video games being the thing now.

    Thanks for sharing.

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