Colonial Williamsburg: Visiting with Kids

Going to Colonial Williamsburg with kids?  Here’s what to do and what to skip.

Colonial Williamsburg
The British are coming… at two o’clock.

When we went to Williamsburg with kids, my son and daughter were 11 and 13.  They were too old and cool to dress up in Colonial Williamsburg garb and participate in the musket firing lessons at the military encampment.  Luckily there were lots of tween and teen things going on which were even better.

A witch trial

In 1706, charges of witchcraft were brought against Grace Sherwood in Williamsburg, Virginia.  As the jury in this evening program reenactment called Cry Witch, we were able to ask questions of the witnesses, weigh evidence, and vote on the Virginia Witch’s guilt or innocence.

(The funniest moment of the trip occurred when my husband voted to convict poor Grace.  When the rest of us gaped at him, he whispered, “Hey, she floated.”)

Don’t bring young children to this — it’s very emotional and intense with lots of shouting and struggling.  Do be one of the first 12 people in line at the Capitol (30 minutes early should be plenty in summer), so you can be seated in the upper seats next to the governor.

Colonial Williamsburg
Arrive early to score seats in the Governor’s circle for Cry Witch.

An 18th-century cup of coffee

The newly opened (and blissfully air conditioned) recreated R. Charlton’s Coffee House takes about a dozen visitors in at a time and explains to them the role of coffeehouses in colonial times.  Afterwards, you are served coffee, tea, or velvety chocolate in dainty china cups.

Colonial Williamsburg

Go for the chocolate, it’s a thick and authentic blend of cocoa, vanilla, cayenne, and surprisingly little sugar (though the recipe has been smoothed out a bit for modern tastes).  It’s very stimulating and just what you need when schlepping around Williamsburg with kids in the heat!

A ghost walk

Another fabulous evening activity is a ghost walk.   We opted for the original Ghosts of Williamsburg Candlelight Tour.  While there were some deliciously creepy anecdotes, there was also lots of good trivia and storytelling too.

Our west coast kids also enjoyed the fireflies, since they’re not indigenous to California.  The mosquitoes… not so much.

Various trade shops

Colonial Williamsburg
Turning cotton into cloth took approximately f-o-r-e-v-e-r in the 18th century.

One of the best parts of visiting Colonial Williamsburg is just wandering into the trade shops and getting an explanation of how things were made.  The wigmaker and gaol are good choices, and we all liked the weaver and brickyard too (it’s worth visiting that last one late in the day, since kids get to participate and brickmaking is messy work).

Historical re-enactments

Costumed characters roam the streets of Colonial Williamsburg all day.  In the morning, the colonists debate whether to revolt or stay loyal to the king.  Around midday, they receive the news that the Declaration of Independence has been signed.  In the afternoon, they go to war.

It’s just awesome.

You can join an angry mob storming the Governor’s Palace, boo Benedict Arnold as he imposes martial law, and join the troops as they muster to march on Yorktown (complete with generals on horseback, drum and fife bands, and cannon fire).

Consult Colonial Williamsburg This Week for details on where and when all this happens.  I don’t recommend trying to catch it all in a single day.

What to skip?

We were all very underwhelmed by our meal at Shields Tavern — it was odd and expensive with exasperated service (though the live entertainment was nice).   On the other hand, the Tavern Ghost Walk meets here, so that’s pretty convenient.

I think the kids might have actually fallen asleep on their feet at the Governor’s Palace.  While it’s one of the top-rated things to see in Williamsburg on TripAdvisor, it was waaaaay too dry for my kids.

I was surprised that they didn’t like RevQuest: The Black Chambers more.  This is an interactive spy vs. spy experience for older kids.  After waiting 20 minutes outside the gateway to give the password to our contact, we were given an extremely confusing briefing and backstory. Using our cell phones, we were supposed to decipher codes, unlock clues, and meet mysterious people in various locations.

“Do you want to do this?” I asked my son afterward.  “Nah,” he replied without hesitating, “too complicated.”

Colonial Williamsburg
How loud are the cannons? You will have to decide whether to take pictures or prevent permanent hearing loss — you can’t do both.

If you go, here’s some general advice

  1. Focus on Williamsburg:  On a 3-day trip, we took a couple hours to visit Historic Jamestown (which was excellent) and Jamestown Settlement (which was not).   Otherwise, we stayed in Williamsburg.  We didn’t even try to see Yorktown.  There is so much to see and do in Williamsburg with kids — I think it’s better to really dig deep than to try to do too much.
  2. Plan out every day:  I know you want to be spontaneous on your vacation; I did too.  But that’s not going to work very well in Williamsburg with kids.  Many of the best things require reservations (usually free, but almost always required).  When you get your tickets at the Visitor Center, you’ll get a copy of Colonial Williamsburg This Week.  That’s your bible for the next few days.
  3. Park at the Visitor Center: The free shuttle that circumnavigates Colonial Williamsburg is quick and easy, and parking in and around Merchant’s Square is a colossal pain in the rear.   The business and college lots will have you towed, and the downtown lots are 2 hour only parking.

Disclosure:  Colonial Williamsburg provided complimentary press passes and evening program tickets for me and my family. They did not request that I express any particular point of view, and all opinions are my own.



  1. anita says

    Thanks for some great tips! Last time we went, we stayed in an on-site historic home (the Lewis house), which was a highlight for the kids as well as the parents–you wake up and walk out your door right into the city, and are really part of things in a new way.

  2. says

    We went a few years ago when my son was 11. He was studying all about the colonial days, so we thought it was perfect timing. Maybe it is because we went in November, but everything seemed more adult oriented than kid-oriented. My son thought it seemed like school. He did like the trade shops, the ghost walk and some of the outdoor re-enactments. He also enjoyed Jamestown, but Yorktown was a snooze for him.I think my husband had the best time of all – I swear he thought he was really listening to Thomas Jefferson! Even though my son complained, I think it was a great family trip.

  3. says

    Amy: I’m totally nodding over here. We called our entire trip (which also featured a week in DC) “The Social Studies Vacation”. We had to nip over to Water Country USA and also finish the trip on Chincoteauge Island at the beach in order to get our kids all bought in.

    That part about your husband made me lol!

  4. Sara says

    I totally agree with your assessment of Shields Tavern. I just wish I had read your blog before going… We went last night and I was so disappointed. We sat in the basement and the staff was gruff at best. The fiddler and story-teller were nice touches, but not enough to recommend this place. We are eating at King’s Arms tonight. Hopefully it will be a better experience.


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