Arthur Frommer

Williamsburg a theme park that challenges Disney, Universal Studios

Wesley Greene demonstrates a thumb pot that is used to draw water from a storage barrel for plant watering inside the Colonial Garden in Colonial Williamsburg, Va.
Wesley Greene demonstrates a thumb pot that is used to draw water from a storage barrel for plant watering inside the Colonial Garden in Colonial Williamsburg, Va. Tribune News Service

My daughter and I, and our respective families, spent the Thanksgiving holidays at Colonial Williamsburg in Williamsburg, Va. And because it doesn’t enjoy anywhere near the attendance of the Disney parks or Universal Studios, though it is just as noteworthy, I think it deserves a substantial description.

In a nutshell (and forgive the dogmatism), Colonial Williamsburg is a place that every American and their children should visit at some point in their lives. It is immensely enjoyable and fun, it is memorable, and it provides a lesson in American history that everyone should have.

Colonial Williamsburg is a big tract of land in the very center of Williamsburg that is not fenced off or otherwise separated from the rest of that town. Anyone can walk through Colonial Williamsburg without paying an admission fee. But you need to buy a pass if you want to enter any of its buildings or attractions.

Colonial Williamsburg is the former capital of 18th-century Virginia. It was a planned city, a beautiful place of grand boulevards, squares and parks, and it was constantly visited by every one of the Founding Fathers of the U.S. George Washington went there, as did Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe and just about every other famous figure associated with the events of the American Revolution. They met in its capital building, called upon the British royal governor in his splendid palace, frequented its many taverns and shops, stayed in its lodges, bought their wigs and their handsome clothing there, read the city’s several newspapers and danced at its balls.

But then, when the Virginia capital was moved to Richmond at the time of the Civil War, Williamsburg was virtually abandoned and fell into decline and disrepair.

Until John D. Rockefeller Jr. and the Rockefeller family bought most of it in the late 1920s and began repairing and, in many cases, completely restoring the handsome buildings of that Colonial city to their actual former appearance in the 1700s. They also tore down the less-important buildings that had been thrown up in the 1800s among the stylish Colonial buildings and homes of the 1700s and thus re-created the city of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Into the mix they added many scores of the nearby residents to dress themselves in Colonial clothing, wigs and all, and to conduct themselves like people from a by-gone age.

The Rockefellers rebuilt the many shops, taverns and homes of a broad boulevard known as the Duke of Gloucester’s Avenue, and they made that street and the adjoining streets so enthralling that President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, when he visited in the 1930s, that it was “the most beautiful boulevard in all the United States.”

When you visit that street today, you go into the re-created shops of wigmakers, book binders, printers, silversmiths, milliners, blacksmiths and more, and each of those shops is staffed by people dressed in Colonial costumes and speaking as if they were in the 1700s as they explain to you the functions of their trade. They are fascinating actors.

During our visit, I was so captivated to learn how wearing a wig upon your head, which was shaven, was the fashion of the 1700s, which explains the fact that when you see portraits of the Founding Fathers, they all are in wigs. And we met and conversed with a tailor who created women’s clothing and with a silversmith just like Paul Revere who displayed and explained the tools of his trade.

You also see and hear George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry and a publisher who printed one of the first copies of the Declaration of Independence. And they are all superb actors dressed to play the part. They not only deliver memorable speeches, they also respond to questions from the audience with such skill and dexterity that you are left breathless. They never are at a loss for words and have a remarkable command of the events of the 1700s with which their historical figures are associated.

One of them, playing George Washington, makes such an impressive entrance into the large auditorium at which he speaks that the entire audience stands up instinctively as if they are actually greeting a president of the United States.

All through the grounds re-enactors walk. And their effect upon the children of our party – our four granddaughters, the youngest of which is 8 – was just enormous. They received a lesson in American history that they will never forget.

Some practical concerns: The entire Williamsburg area is filled with countless hotels and motels of every brand, in many low-cost ranges. But if you are willing to pay about $250 a night per room, you can stay in the large Williamsburg Lodge on the very grounds of the Colonial site.

Again, while I don’t want to use overly extravagant language, Colonial Williamsburg really should be visited by every American. In fact, you haven’t really experienced the entirety of American life until you’ve been there. You will greatly enjoy this open-air museum of American history and of the revolution that made us an independent nation.

Arthur Frommer is the founder of the Frommer’s Travel Guide book series. Find more destinations and read his blog at frommers.com.

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