Learning history the easy way
Restored Colonial Williamsburg brings the past to life
Wednesday, May 24, 2006
Williamsburg is a national treasure. It’s the restored 18th century capital of Virginia, the nation’s oldest, largest and wealthiest colony. The buildings look much as they did in pre-Revolutionary War times and the main streets are jammed with costumed historical figures who are happy to stop and exchange pleasantries as they stroll along.
Grab "This Week," a map and schedule of the week’s activities, when you buy your passes to the Colonial Village. The map carries the schedule of events for the week. You’ll need it to plan your day so you can catch the reenactment of the proceeding in an 18th century courtroom and still make it to the wig shop before it closes. (We did both and neither should be missed.)
If you start at the Visitor Center you can walk to the village across the bridge that takes you back in time. The plaques along the way tell you where you are in history—years when it was legal to own another person, when there were no computers or television and when women couldn’t vote.
Theater in the streets
Revolutionary City, the newest attraction at Williamsburg, opened in March. It features a series of theatrical vignettes, ranging from the Brits disbanding the colonial government to the pain of families being ripped apart by the politics of the revolution or devastated by the poverty and hunger that accompanied the war. The vignettes seem to break out spontaneously along the street (although those who have picked up a guide can predict just where the next session will happen).
I thought these were wonderfully engaging, although my 10-year-old daughter and most of the other kids grew bored after the first hour or so. Most of them spent their time drawing with sticks in the dirt or picking at the cobblestones. It was, I suspect, much the same reaction their 18th century counterparts had when the adults started talking politics and war.
Revolutionary City is staged from 2:30-4:30 p.m. each day. The Day One session covers the years from 1774 (beginning with dissolution of the colonial government) to 1776 (ending with the colonists passing a resolution of independence from Britain). The next day’s show opens with the reading of the Declaration of Independence and ends in 1781 with General George Washington addressing the citizens of Williamsburg as he prepares to leave for Yorktown.
There are rooms for every budget—our room in the lower end Woodlands Hotel was fine, although not as "colonial" as the rooms in the Lodge and not as opulent as the highest end Colonial Inn.
Five hotels and colonial houses owned and operated by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation are an easy walk from the historic city sites, or accessible by the free shuttle buses that run every few minutes all day long. And, if you stay in one of the properties managed by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, you get a break on the passes to the village: $29, $14.50 for kids ages 6-16 for the entire stay vs. $34, $15 for kids ages 6-16 daily if you don’t stay on site.
The summer is the kid-friendliest time to visit Colonial Williamsburg. Many of the hands-on programs—making bricks, tending the crops and animals or playing 18th century games—operate from mid-June to mid-August.
Whenever you go, you can rent a costume for younger kids. The aprons, dresses and bonnets (which must be purchased, per health department rules) seemed to get the kids into the spirit of the place. Those who don’t want wear costumes can get into the spirit with a short stay in the stocks outside the courthouse.
And don’t miss "Martha Washington speaks with the Children" at the Kimball Theatre. The show isn’t included in the daily pass, but the extra $5 per adults and $4 per seniors and students was worth the money. She had every child under 10 entranced.
The main drag is stroller friendly, but some areas are cobblestone, which can make for rough going with strollers and toddlers.
This year marks the 225th Anniversary of the victory at Yorktown, the battle that achieved independence for the colonies and next year marks the 400th anniversary of the founding of America at nearby Jamestown.
Sadly, we had less than 48 hours to explore Williamsburg, sample the wares at the taverns, learn the history of life in the homes, stores and shops and generally enjoy the rarified air of Colonial America. I could have stayed several more days. Tess and I both are looking forward to a return trip—and we plan to bring the non-history lover along to test our theory that no one can resist loving history when it’s presented like this.
Cindy Richards is the senior editor and travel editor for Chicago Parent and the mom of Tess, who loves history, and Evan, who doesn’t.