As Washingtonians, my daughter and I have been escaping to Virginia for years. One of our favorite let's-have-fun forays starts at Colonial Williamsburg, leads to the James and York rivers, and continues to Hampton before ending, about 50 miles later, at the sandy shores of Virginia Beach.
Because of the abundance of family attractions, this region, home also to Busch Gardens Williamsburg and its sister theme park, Water Country USA, as well as the Virginia Air and Space Center, Hampton, is sometimes referred to as Virginia's "kids' corner."
A long weekend here is how we like our Colonial history — spiced by roller coasters, lightened by water parks, sprinkled with science and salted with sea spray. Water Country and Busch Gardens close in the fall, but the other attractions are open all year long.
Colonial Williamsburg to Start
We always start at Colonial Williamsburg, about a three-hour drive from Washington, D.C. The 173-acre historic area recreates Virginia life in the 1770s, a time when this capital bred independent politics and drew revolutionaries such as Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry. Time travel is lively here. Depending on when you visit, you might witness Mr. Henry arguing for liberty from British tyranny, participate as a juror in a witchcraft trial, watch the Fife and Drum Corps march down the Duke of Gloucester Street, or have your children join the locals at hoop rolling, lawn bowling or quoits (the colonial version of horseshoes). With many costumed interpreters and scores of original and reconstructed 18th century homes, shops and buildings, including the imposing Governor's Palace and Capitol, Colonial Williamsburg (www.history.org) makes history anything but boring.
At 6 years old, what my daughter Alissa liked best were the horse-drawn carriage ride and her chats with a bewigged townsman about stocking up on candles. At 12, she "signed up" for a stint in the 2nd Virginia Regiment: practicing drills, mastering a bayonet lunge and assisting with canon cleaning like the other new "recruits." At 15, Alissa focuses on the art, lingering at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, admiring the whimsical hog and cow weather vanes, the childlike lines of landscapes and the simple portraits of children with fat cats and flower baskets.
On to Jamestown
From Williamsburg, the Colonial Parkway leads to Jamestown. The windy road cuts through groves of oaks and elms, over creeks, past marshes thick with cattails and green reeds before opening to sweeping river views. While it's only about a 10-mile drive, you "go back" to 1607 when the first permanent English settlement in the New World was established.
Adjacent to the actual site where the settlers lived, Jamestown Settlement is a living history museum. The facility depicts the early 17th century by recreating a Powhatan Indian hamlet, the ships that carried the pioneers, as well as the fort they built. Watching a brave dressed in buckskin weave storage bags from plant fibers, we wonder if Pocahontas, a Powhatan maiden, ever wove a similar sack. Onboard the vessel Susan Constant we try on "slops," the baggy pants worn by sailors; examine the "hanging cabins," benches that unfold to become beds; and try deducing latitude with an astrolabe, an early navigational tool. Despite the lively interpreters at Jamestown Settlement, we find the quiet of the National Historical Park more compelling. The park encompasses the actual site of the settlement, although only modern bricks mark the footprints of the first buildings.
Sitting along the windblown riverbank, listening to the lapping of the gray waters, Alissa and I find it easy to imagine the hopeful people who landed here and the hearty few who survived. The visitor's center displays pottery shards, bits of buckles and other period artifacts, and the rangers lead interpretive programs.
Revolutionary War Battle, Amusement Park
At the other end of the Colonial Parkway, 23 miles away, the Yorktown Victory Center commemorates the 1781 defeat of the British along the banks of the York River. This was the last significant battle of the Revolutionary War. Amid the static displays of maps and timelines, "Witness to the Revolution" captures our interest with its real war stories. We hear Jeremiah Greenman, a Rhode Island American soldier, complain about the deep snow and the constant hunger and Tigoransera, a Mohawk chief, counsel his people to stay out of this white man's war. Despite his neutrality, he is captured by the British and dies in prison.
But "kids' corner" isn't all history and hard facts. When we've had enough of Redcoats and revolution, we head to Busch Gardens Williamsburg to get tossed, twirled, spun and dunked. This theme park with its German, Italian and French burgs, features whirling rides, musical shows, crafts, kids' areas and five coasters. In Land of the Dragons, preschoolers climb tree houses, cross rope bridges and get happily squirted by purple sea serpents.
One of the mega-monsters to tame at Busch Gardens is the Alpengeist, billed as the world's tallest, fastest, most twisted, inverted steel coaster. It hurtles riders at top speeds of 67 mph, flipping them six times and dropping them a dizzying 170 feet. The riders' delighted screams echo in waves throughout the park. By comparison, the Big Bad Wolf seems tame, whizzing us through an ersatz alpine village at a top clip of 48 mph before descending a stomach-wrenching (for us) 76 feet. Drachen Fire twists us through corkscrew shaped turns, and on Loch Ness Monster's two serpentine loops Alissa discovers the delights of being tossed upside down. To calm down after the coasters, we take in the shows.
Something else not to miss, especially when the Old Dominion's afternoons get particularly steamy, is Water Country USA, a 40-acre water park. Our favorites include floating in an inner tube on a river ride, and sliding down water flumes into a splash pool.
Getting and Staying There
Packages and Lodging
Two packages cater to families. The Family Fun Package to the Virginia Waterfront, a typical five-day/four-night vacation for two adults and two kids, depending on the hotel selected, includes accommodations, complimentary breakfast daily and unlimited admission to Busch Gardens Williamsburg and Water Country USA, both in Williamsburg; the Virginia Marine Science Museum, Virginia Beach; Nautilus, the National Marine Science Center, Norfolk; and the Virginia Air and Space Center, Hampton. Call the Vacation Store, 800-VA-TRIPS.
The Williamsburg area has a wide variety of lodging. Within minutes of both the Historic area and Busch Gardens, Kingsmill Resort (www.kingsmill.com) 1010 Kingsmill Road, Williamsburg, offers resort facilities — golf, tennis, a fitness center with indoor swimming pool, exercise facilities, racquetball and spa services — and is scenically situated along the James river. The property offers rooms, as well as one-to-three-bedroom units with complete kitchens. In summer, the property offers a supervised, half-day or full-day children's program, the Kingsmill Kampers. Call 800-832-5665.
Among the facilities located within Colonial Williamsburg are the Williamsburg Woodlands, generally the least expensive; the Williamsburg Lodge, the Williamsburg Inn and, just outside the historic area, the Governor's Inn. Call 800-HISTORY. For additional lodging, call the Williamsburg, Virginia, Hotel and Motel Association, 800-446-9244.
There are many hotels in the Virginia Beach area. The Ramada Plaza Resort, Oceanfront at 57th Street, is in the quieter north end of town and has an indoor and an outdoor pool. Call 800-365-3032. The Holiday Inn Sunspree Resort, 39th and Oceanfront, has indoor and outdoor pools and children's activities in the summertime. Call 800-942-3224. For additional lodging, reservations and information, call 800-VA-BEACH.
Colonial Williamsburg (www.history.org): The Basic admission includes one-day admission to the historic area but no access to Bassett Hall, Carter's Grove, the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum and the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Gallery. The Colonist's Pass admission is valid for two days to all historic area buildings and museums except for Bassett Hall. The Patriot's Pass permits unlimited admission to all buildings and museums for one year.
Colonial National Historical Park (www.nps.gov/colo): 757-898-3400.
Jamestown Settlement (www.nps.gov/colo): 757-229-1607.
Yorktown Victory Center: 757-887-1776. Combination ticket with Jamestown Settlement is available.
Busch Gardens (www.buschgardens.com/buschgardens/va/o): 800-4-ADVENTURE. Busch Gardens Williamsburg traditionally opens late March to mid-May on weekends, and daily during Easter week. From mid-May through Labor Day the park is open daily. After Labor Day the park is open Friday through Tuesday, through late October.
Water Country USA (www.watercountryusa.com): 800-4-ADVENTURE. Water Country USA is open daily from mid-May until Labor Day. After Labor Day the park is open on weekends through mid-September. Virginia Air and Space Center, Hampton: 757-727-0900. Combination ticket with IMAX Theater also available.
Virginia Marine Science Museum www.vmsm.com: Virginia Beach: 757-437-4949.
Please note that phone numbers, addresses, and prices are subject to change.