I would recommend Colonial Williamsburg as a great place for a family vacation, regardless of the age of your kids. I do think, however, that it’s ideal for families with school-aged children, especially if those children have spent some time studying the American Revolution in school. And although it is a lot of fun, it also takes a bit of work to visit a place like this, which is spread out and asks the visitors to listen and think and interact with both the spaces and people they encounter. Here are some tips for making the most of your family’s visit.
Give yourself plenty of time
We arrived in Williamsburg in the middle of Friday afternoon and left at the same time on Monday. Since we spent Sunday at Water Country USA, this meant we had about two day’s worth of time to spend. A weekend trip like this is definitely worthwhile, but we could also easily have spent several more days in the historic area.
To get the most out of your visit, it’s important to use your time in Colonial Williamsburg well. I recommend spending some time each evening thinking about what you will do the next day – this is especially important since different sites are closed on different days and some have only partial hours. You can do your planning on the excellent Colonial Williamsburg website or using the This Week fold-out map (available at the Visitor Center and at the Colonial Williamsburg hotels). Both also list each day’s special activities and tours. This will ensure that you don’t miss anything you really want to see.
Of course, you’ll also want to leave yourself some time just to wander around and explore. We spent our first few hours in town doing just that, and it was a great way to get a sense of how big the area was and what things might interest us later. Thirty-minute orientation tours also run regularly between 9 and 1 every day, including a special tour aimed at families at 10:30 and 11:30. I’d recommend going on whatever tour works best in your schedule – we didn’t find the family tour to be particularly tailored to children, although it did provide a decent overview.
And while it’s OK to be ambitious about what you’ll get done, I suggest you also be realistic. In general, we found that each of the individual sites we visited was likely to take more time to explore than we had expected – it’s almost like every site is its own individual museum. Some of them include a guided tour, and these tended to take at least a half an hour. And since you’ll continually stumble across performances or interpreters who really engage the kids, getting from point A to point B is likely to take you longer than you might thing as well.
Engage with the interpreters
You can’t miss the museum workers at Colonial Williamsburg – all of them are in costume, and many actually assume a character as well. I’ve never visited a museum where the staff was better informed or more inclined to interact with the people visiting. Take advantage of this by asking lots of questions – or by stepping back and letting the kids do the asking. In many of the shops children can handle the tools or even try their hand at a trade.
Everyone in the family will find themselves gathering new information. Among the facts we learned? In the 18th century, 52 percent of Williamsburg’s population was slaves. Women regularly entered into trade – in fact there were no restrictions to keep them from doing so. Plantation owners often didn’t build a house to live in first, but focused on the money-making outbuildings like the barn; in fact, some families might have a permanent home on their own property for several generations.
One thing I found interesting was that the interpreters regularly ask visitors to silence their cell phones and pagers when you enter the sites. I’m not sure if it’s their good influence, but I saw and heard very few people on phones during our visit, which definitely contributes to the feeling of stepping back in time.
Prepare to do some walking
The historic area of Williamsburg is about ¾ of a mile from end to end, and is eminently walkable. We also usually walked from the Visitor Center into town, which took us about 8 minutes. There is a shuttle that will take you to stops from all the Colonial Williamsburg hotels around town and the colonial area. This was definitely handy, especially when we were finished with a late dinner and ready to go back to our hotel and go to bed. The shuttle is free for hotel guests and admission ticket holders.
Once you’re in the colonial area, you will be walking from one site to the next, and if you want to have lunch in Merchant Square or visit the College of William and Mary campus, you’ll likely be walking over there as well. Since you also will be walking inside the houses and other sites, this can add up to a lot of time on your feet; I’d say we easily covered several miles each day. The paths in the colonial area are a mix of pavement and gravel and we saw lots of people with strollers.
Williamsburg can be very hot and muggy. Happily, there are many places where you can sit down in the shade and also buy drinks (purchase a $10 plastic mug and you can get free refills at all of the restaurants and beverage stands). If it’s going to be a warm day, you’ll want to plan on some rest stops.
Mix it up a little
The nature of this living museum makes it easy for you to vary your pace and activities throughout the day. You can move from a house or building tour to a live demonstration of a trade, often complete with an interactive component for the kids, to a stroll through a colonial garden or a visit to a chicken coop. Other diversions that kids might enjoy are a visit to the Kid’s Corner where they can play colonial games, carriage and wagon rides (book these early in the day if the weather is nice, as they tend to sell out), and costume rentals.
But I’d also recommend maintaining your children’s interest in the historical side of things by including a few 21st-century amusements as well. This is easy enough to do – you might walk into the Merchants Square area where there is both a candy and a toy store. The Visitor Center has a large bookstore with a generous children’s section. We were staying in the Woodlands Hotel, which has both an outdoor pool and a small mini-golf course. And of course the nearby water park as well as Busch Gardens offer a chance for modern fun.
And after a day of walking around the historic area, I highly recommend a pedicure at the Spa of Colonial Williamsburg. Because who says that adults can’t mix it up a little too?
Driving from the Philadelphia/Baltimore/Washington DC area
Since it was Labor Day weekend, we decided to avoid Interstate 95 as much as possible, especially in the very congested area between Baltimore and Richmond. It wasn’t hard to do this – we just got on Route 301 south of Baltimore. Although parts of this road are a bit pokey and have traffic lights, I recommend it as a great alternative to sitting in gridlock.
Once you’re in Williamsburg, you probably won’t need your car very much, but with all of the routing around the historical area (they have it set up so that you really don’t see or hear cars when you are visiting the colonial part of town) it’s handy to have a GPS when you do need to drive around. In fact, Matt developed a big crush on the built-in GPS in our loaner Acura MDX, claiming that she is “much more polite and gives better directions” than the Garmin that we usually use. It was very funny to listen to him talk to her using his deepest voice to give commands. You can also turn the temperature up or down or change the song you’re listening to by pushing a button and talking to the dashboard. We had a lot of fun playing with that feature, let me tell you!
I did discover this weekend that having a really comfortable car to drive down in definitely minimized unhappiness on the part of my children and made a long drive for a shorter visit very doable. An hour into the five-hour drive Teddy asked the dreaded “Are we almost there?” question. When we told him no, he said “Good!” and settled back happily to watch a movie with his brother.
Thanks to Acura, who paid all our expenses and loaned us the luxurious MDX, this weekend road trip was a perfect mix of education and relaxation for the kids.
Do you have your own tips for visiting Williamsburg? I’d love to read them in the comments!