As families scramble to make the best of what is left of the summer of 2021 — or make plans for future family vacation spots in 2022 and beyond — one New England destination tends to always come up: Colonial Williamsburg. This is one of those educational and historic vacations that seems heavy on learning and light on fun. Do you really want to do this? Isn’t this like live-action roleplaying in Colonial times? Didn’t it really suck back then?
Actually, Colonial Williamsburg can be an awesome and super unique family vacation. You just have to do it right. This doesn’t have to be a fussy, boring trip, as long as you keep in mind a few key details. You can see a lot of Colonial Williamsburg by strolling through the streets without paying for a ticket, though you will need one to enter buildings and access things like tours or performances. Springing for an admission ticket ($45 for an adult; 25 for kids between 6-12) gets you into the art museum too. With over 300 acres there’s a lot to see, so plan to spend a weekend exploring the town and about an hour or two for the museum.
Here’s how to get the best out of your Colonial Williamsburg family vacation, and make sure that you, the parents on the trip, have fun, too.
12. Nail the timing
For vacations with a heavy historic component, it’s helpful if kids already know, or have heard of, the figures you’ll be encountering. At Colonial Williamsburg, you’ll often hear about key American figures like Thomas Jefferson, George Mason, James Madison, and George Washington, along with vital British names. Ideally, the kids are discussing these folks in school around third or fourth grade and know more about them beyond the fact they’re on the money. Visiting during Independence Day means fireworks, a public reading of the Declaration of Independence, an exploration of the African American perspective of the declaration, and the Air Force Band playing.
11. Use tech before the trip
Let’s face it, history can be dull, so it has to work a little harder to engage kids. During the planning phase of your trip, use the site’s multimedia to preview the experiences so they feel more familiar to kids in person. Colonial Williamsburg has 360 virtual tours of key landmarks, which can also help you narrow the list of must-see sites or ones you can skip.
10. Let kids document their trip
Encouraging kids to journal during a vacation is a romantic idea, but in practice, it’s hard to do in a car or in the moment. Instead, loan your kid a decommissioned smartphone. It won’t make calls and you can disable the Wi-Fi leaving them with plenty of memory and an intuitive camera that allows them the chance to record their trip. Sure, this might mean a few gratuitous selfies during the car ride, but it also gives them the chance to snap interesting sites from the back seat. Like a lot of attractions, Colonial Williamsburg has an intuitive app that includes a map, which you can let your kids manage. Turning the digital scrapbook into a movie or a slideshow once you get home helps recap the trip.
9. Dress for success
At over 300 acres, the step counter on your smartwatch is going to get a workout. Keep kids comfortable in sneakers and layers to help with unpredictable Virginia’s unpredictable weather. Pack a bag with consumables like water and snacks, with room to accommodate layers that might need to come off and on.
8. Ask the actors
Most of the folks in costume at Colonial Williamsburg are versed in working with children. Encourage kids to ask questions as you stop into buildings like the courthouse, printing press, and the apothecary. The buildings themselves have replicas in them that kids and actors can interact with. It’s one thing to hear about what a blacksmith does, but it’s more impactful for kids to feel the heat of the forge and hear the sound of the hammer banging steel.
7. Make the museum interactive
If you don’t head into the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg with a plan to keep everyone engaged your crew might last 15 minutes before the whining kicks in. Even if you’re using a digital map, grab a paper one when you get it. Hand it to your kid and ask them to help get the family-oriented. The check-in desk will likely hand your kid a scavenger hunt booklet—kids, like adults, love free stuff—they’ll use to keep focus during the visit. For younger kids, you can always have them count the number of things, like paintings with children or fruit. The reward can be something from the gift shop after—sure, it can be pricey, but the carrot at the end of the stick might get you through most of the museum sans complaints. It can be smart to plan a snack or meal break halfway through at the museum’s café to break up the experience. Any museum website has info on what is on exhibit and they tend to highlight activities geared towards children, like a murder mystery.
6. Grab arms
In the yard of Colonial Williamsburg’s magazine, where arms and munitions were stored, kids can take part in military drills and watch a musket being fired. It’s an opportunity for them to mingle with kids of the same age and watch things go boom, which is always a hit.
5. Show them what a kid’s life was like
Before iPads and Disney+ there were card games and chores like weeding. At the Benjamin Powell House kids can learn what their life would have been like back then, which should immediately make them more grateful for the life they have now. This assumes you don’t make them weed in 2021.
4. Stay outside
The grounds around the Governor’s Palace are an impeccable formal landscape of gardens and a shrub maze you can walkthrough. In fact, while you don’t have access to every building in Colonial Williamsburg (some are hotel rooms for guests and others not open to the public) breezing in and out of backyards is an underrated way to pass the time, especially if kids have a hard time staying put in smaller spaces that can fill quickly.
3. Go to jail
Admittedly, one of the longer presentations you’ll sit through is at the Capitol, one of the many sites with tours that run throughout the day. But it’s worth it to hear how they rounded up and held Blackbeard’s pirate crew in the gaol while they awaited trial—right down to shackles in the floor and walls. The gaol is a short walk from the Capital and a self-guided site so you’ll really appreciate the context from the Capitol.
2. Plan night adventures
It can be too easy to fall into the trap of dinner before heading to the room to unwind. Older kids will love the Haunting Williamsburg tour, which usually starts at 7:00 pm for about an hour. If you’ve visited the sites earlier in the day, seeing them at night by the light of a lantern is a whole new experience. You’ll visit a handful of sites with other guests and listen to odd and borderline creepy stories and legends surrounding Williamsburg’s original tenants.
1. Don’t forget you’re at a modern hotel
There are a few on-property options at Colonial Williamsburg, spread across a wide budget. While staying in a period reproduction house is interesting for you—modern hotels have pools. You don’t have to fill up every minute with history. This is, after all, still a vacation. Take advantage of the pools after a long day.