A Family Vacation to Williamsburg:  The Non-Colonial Activities

By Lisa Tucker McElroy

If you think of Williamsburg, VA, you might think of colonial history.  When my family of four headed there for a family vacation this summer, we enjoyed the colonial activities, but we learned that Williamsburg is about so much more!

When you’re looking for a break from history, head to Busch Gardens, a theme park with rides, entertainment, shows and model European countries. Visit exhibits in 17th-century England, France, Germany and Italy or ride Alpengeist, the world's tallest, fastest, most twisted inverted roller coaster. The Royal Preserve Petting Zoo will be a favorite of the whole family, and the park has won tons of awards for its amazing landscaping.  Even better, Busch Gardens is committed to adopting animals from local shelters for its fabulous animal shows – our family couldn’t stop laughing and cheering at the Pet Shenanigans show, where dogs, cats, pigs, and ducks showed off their tricks. For more information, visit www.buschgardens.com.

Want to cool off in the hot Williamsburg weather?  Head to Water Country USA!  This forty-acre waterpark, with its wide variety of pools, rides and slides, is a perfect alternative activity on hot Williamsburg days. There is a children's play area called Kid's Kingdom for younger tykes, which includes small water slides, a land-based play area, and an outdoor theater. Older kids will love the awesome water slides and chutes, as well as riding Big Daddy Falls, a lazy river ride.  We all loved the Hubba Hubba Highway, a 3.5-acre free-floating river ride that spills out of a 2,000 square foot to-the-moon lagoon, and Surfer’s Bay, Virginia’s biggest wave pool with four-foot waves. Check them out at www.watercountryusa.com.

To round out your week, check out the Williamsburg Doll Factory, where you can watch the porcelain Lady Anne dolls being made at the Williamsburg Doll Factory. You can also buy porcelain dolls, doll supplies & stuffed animals. It is a fun learning experience. www.dollfactory.com. At the Williamsburg Pottery Factory, you’ll find great prices on a huge selection of pottery, tableware, silk flower arrangements, fine china, glassware, or other household items. With one stop, you'll be able to browse over 200 acres of home products. Don't miss the other outlet stores also located in this complex.  For more information, visit www.williamsburgpottery.com.

Williamsburg is a great shopping locale, with tons of outlets and amazing boutiques in Merchant’s Square. Prime Outlets Williamsburg features more than 90 stores and the Williamsburg Outlet Mall has over 60 shops. The Merchant’s Square shopping area adjacent to the Colonial Williamsburg historic district includes 30 shops and services such as bookstores, apparel stores and fine dining venues.

Where To Stay

If you’d like to stay in Williamsburg but want to be away from the colonial area, consider one of the many chain hotels that are within a couple of miles of the historical area.  We stayed for two nights at the Homewood Suites, about 2 miles away and boasting a free full breakfast, free Internet, an indoor saltwater pool, and a manager’s reception with a full dinner during the week.  We loved the ability to spread out – every room had its own living room and kitchen, plus a sofa sleeper for the kids – and the kids couldn’t get enough of the pool.  For more information, visit www.homewoodsuites.com.

Great Wolf Lodge is another excellent choice for a family vacation home base in the Williamsburg area. The resort features a variety of themed family suites, an extensive indoor waterpark, the Elements spa for adults and Scooops spa for children ages 4-12, as well as a variety of dining options and activities for kids and families. Don’t miss the waterpark’s Fort Mackenzie, a four-story interactive treehouse water fort with 12 levels of family fun, and make sure to watch out for the splash from the signature 1,000-gallon bucket sitting atop the Fort. You’ll be sure to get soaked! For more information, visit www.greatwolf.com.

Kingsmill Resort & Spa, a AAA four-diamond resort located minutes away from Busch Gardens and Water Country USA, is another good place for families to stay in the Williamsburg area. The property sprawls over 2,900 acres along the historic James River and features 63 holes of world-class golf, a spa offering a menu of more than 100 treatments, 15 tennis courts, a full-service marina, a 2,200 square-foot fitness center, indoor racquetball and basketball courts, six restaurants and much more. A variety of children’s programs for kids ages 5-12 are also available, including Spa Kamp, Kid’s Kamp, and Kid’s Night Out. The resort was named as one of the best for family trips by Travel + Leisure Golf magazine. For more information, visit www.kingsmill.com.

Where To Eat

Outside of the colonial area, try Food for Thought, recently rated best new restaurant in Williamsburg.  I couldn’t get enough of the homemade sweet potato cornbread (we went through three baskets!), and we all fought over the shrimp remoulade.  Also recommended?  Second Street Bistro, a more upscale but still family friendly restaurant offering fabulous shrimp and grits, steaks, and seafood.   Definitely order the flatbread pizza – we gobbled up two for appetizers! 

A Chef’s Kitchen is an interactive restaurant that your kids will love – the chefs teach you to cook as they do it in front of your eyes!  And at the Haunted Dinner Theater, see a show that brings your favorite board game to life by adding live characters, spooky locations and assorted weapons. Was it Mrs. Off-White with a glow stick in the kitchen? Special effects, magic, thunder, lightning...all in a family-friendly atmosphere! Guests dine from Captain George’s legendary all-you-can-eat 71-Item buffet complete with crab legs, prime rib, chicken, shrimp, clams, pasta and more!   Purchase tickets online at www.haunteddinnertheater.com.

Hungry for barbeque? Don’t miss Pierce’s Pitt Bar-B-Que located at 447 E Rochambeau Drive right off Highway 64. Considered to be one of the top 100 barbeque restaurants in the United States, Pierce’s Pitt Bar-B-Que has been visited by celebrities including Colin Farrell, Al Roker and Willard Scott. Launched as a small stand in 1971, Pierce’s hickory smoked barbeque is a true local favorite. The pulled-pork barbeque is cooked out back and there are plenty of tables inside, but take-out is also available. For more information, visit www.pierces.com.

If You Go:

  • Make it at least a three-day trip.  We spent a day at each theme park and then a day enjoying the rest of the sites.

  • Wear walking shoes!  Busch Gardens is especially hilly, so older and younger family members will need to take it slow.

  • Bring lots of sunscreen. Even in early summer, we got a little bit of sunburn.  Summer comes early in the South!

  • Leave plenty of time for colonial activities. For more information and helpful tips, read A Family Vacation To Colonial Williamsburg.

Lisa Tucker McElroy is an attorney, writer, law professor, and mom. Lisa is the author of nine children's books, and she regularly publishes articles and essays about travel, marriage, parenting and family in national magazines such as Parenting, Mary Engelbreit’s Home Companion, FamilyFun, Cooking with Paula Deen, and Golf Vacations. She lives in the Philadelphia area with her husband and two travel-loving daughters.


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