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Experiencing History: Family Fun in Gettysburg

By Jeff and Stephanie Sylva

Families want to have fun on vacation, but a family holiday can be both enjoyable and educational as well. A perfect choice for a family vacation that can be both fun and a learning experience is a trip to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. This small town in rural Pennsylvania is a few-hours drive from many of the East's major metropolitan areas. It's an easy destination for families looking for a vacation that is filled with as much passion and inspiration as it is with fun and relaxation.

On Hallowed Ground

The events that took place nearly 150 years ago, monumental occasions in our nation's history, are what make this small rural town a national treasure. Visiting Gettysburg and the National Military Park and Museum will give your family an insightful and rewarding experience that will lead you to appreciate why so many visitors have such a passion for this hallowed ground.

The central attraction of a visit to Gettysburg is a tour of the battlefield. Before you go, be aware of the many different ways that touring the battlefield can be done. Our first introduction to the battlefield was a visit to the Visitor Center at the National Military Park and Museum. We found this to be the best way to become familiar with events of July 1-3, 1863.

Start with a viewing of the movie "A New Birth of Freedom," followed by the experience of the Gettysburg Cyclorama. The "Battle of Gettysburg" cyclorama is a sound and light show of the spectacular 377-foot painting by Paul Philppoteaux of Pickett's Charge. Kids and adults will be amazed at the scope and size of this enormous painting and its intricate detail. Then take time to visit the Gettysburg Museum of the American Civil War – twelve exhibit galleries feature artifacts, interactive displays and several films that will further immerse you in the Battle of Gettysburg and its context in American history. A small fee covers admission for all three of these attractions.

The Visitor Center also has a schedule of ranger-conducted programs, which, during the summer months, include walks, talks, and programs at various locations on the battlefield. For more information call the Visitors Center at 717-334-1124 or visit www.nps.gov/gett.

Walking in the Steps of History – Touring the Battlefield

Once your family has become acquainted with the battle, a tour of the battlefield is a must. Much of the battlefield looks as it did in 1863, with many of the fences and cannons placed in the same locations. Stops at the many monuments or specific locations such as Little Round Top, provide a unique opportunity to reflect and comprehend what happened in this very spot – an event that would shape the future of entire nation. Kids as well as adults will enjoy meeting up with people dressed in period clothing and asking them questions about the battle or happenings in town. Many of these enactors will discuss the battle or community life of 1863 while keeping in character. We met a couple of "union soldiers" atop Little Round Hill and enjoyed their explanations of the cannon placements and actions during the battle. We toured the battlefield using the Self-guided Auto Tour map provided by the Visitor Center. At most of the numbered stops, exhibits and tablets describe significant action during the three days of battle.

Other more informative ways of taking the auto tour are by purchasing an audio tour CD, or by hiring a Licensed Battlefield Guide who will ride in your car. Another choice of touring is by a guided bus tour with either an audio presentation or a Licensed Battlefield Guide. All of these options are available at the National Park Visitors Center, as well as various private tour operators in town.

For those families that are a little more adventurous, two other options for touring the battlefield include a guided horseback ride or a guided segway tour. We toured on horseback and loved the authenticity of this means of experiencing the battlefield. We didn't cover the entire battlefield, but we were able to gain a unique and interesting perspective of various parts of the battle from our mounts. Some friends of ours took the segway tour and said it was great. For more on horseback rides call the National Riding Stables at Artillery Ridge Campground at 717-334-1288 or visit www.artilleryridge.com; and for the segway tours call Segway Tours of Gettysburg at 717-253-7987 or visit www.segtours.com.

Another way that families can learn about the battle, and one that kids will enjoy, is the Gettysburg Diorama, a display of over 20,000 hand-painted toy soldiers with a 30-minute light and sound show. The Gettysburg Diorama is located at the Gettysburg History Center on Steinwehr Ave. Call 717-334-6408 or visit www.gettysburgdiorama.com for more information. We enjoyed the presentation, as it gave us a complete picture of the battle; and the host's discussion with a couple of history buffs following the presentation was also very interesting.

"Four score and seven years ago…"

Certainly one reason that has made Gettysburg such a significant event in American history and culture is the impact of the few appropriate remarks spoken by Abraham Lincoln upon the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery on November 19, 1863. Families can walk in the footsteps of President Lincoln, as he made a short – but monumental - visit to this small, war-torn town. Begin your tour at the Historic Gettysburg Railroad Station where Lincoln arrived in town on November 18, 1863. The station also served as a field hospital during the battle, transporting 15,000 wounded soldiers after the battle. The railroad station is free with special exhibits through the year.

Next stop for Lincoln – and your family – was the David Wills House. Here you will experience life with the Wills family as the Battle of Gettysburg threatened their home; learn how a simple invitation from David Wills resulted in a memorable speech; and you will stand in the room where President Lincoln revised the Gettysburg Address (the belief that he wrote it on the back of an envelope is purely fictitious). Call 1-866-486-5735 or visit www.davidwillshouse.org for more information.

Finally a visit to the Soldiers' National Cemetery will take your family to the site of Lincoln's 272-word address, the dedication plaque, and the grave sites of many of the soldiers who perished in the battle. With the proper encouragement children can learn to appreciate the respect warranted at the cemetery as well as all of the "hallowed ground" of this famous site.

Eyewitnesses to History

An important aspect of the Gettysburg story is the impact that the battle had on the townspeople, and the best way to experience this is with a guided walking tour of town by licensed town guides. Walking tours, such as ones with Guided Historic Walking Tours, can be "family-tailored". Kids will be interested to learn how Gettysburg's children had to deal with some of the horrors of the battle that raged around them. For more on the walking tours call 717-339-6161 or visit www.gettysburgpa.org/guidedtour.htm.

We found one particular house tour, the Shriver House Museum, to be especially interesting for children. The Shrivers' story recounts the struggle that Hettie Shriver and her two young daughters had to endure while Mr. Shriver was away at war. Call the Shriver House at 717-337-2800 or visit www.shriverhouse.org for more information.

Children will also be fascinated by the many examples of the physical evidence of the battle – the numerous bullets holes on the sides of some of the original buildings in town. Kids will be fascinated by the cannonball lodged in the side of a building just down the street from the David Wills House.

If your family is still looking for more history, Gettysburg is home to the Eisenhower National Historic Site. President Eisenhower used this home and farm as his retreat during his presidency and then later retired to what he felt was some of the most peaceful countryside in the nation. A Junior Secret Service Agent Program is available for children and Park Rangers present programs seasonally. For more information call 717-338-9114 or visit www.nps.gov/eise.

Away From the Battlefield – Other Family Attractions

Families may enjoy the history and passion of Gettysburg and its battlefield, but most will want to do more on their family vacation in this area. A number of family attractions are available. Families with younger children will love the Land of Little Horses Farm Park. Each day two cycles of events are scheduled, which include an arena performance with various animal performers, close encounters with the little horses, stick horse races, and "something special" (hands-on activities that change daily). Performances by the park's miniature horses and other animals will delight children, as they are often asked to participate or come or the rail to pet the animals. Kids will also enjoy walking the grounds to pet and feed the animals, and they will love the pony rides. For more on the Land of Little Horses Farm Park call 717- 334- 7259 or visit www.landoflittlehorses.com.

The young ones will also enjoy a visit to Boyd's Bear Country, billed as the "world's most humongous teddy bear store." Boyds Bear Country is a large barn-shaped building with four floors of shopping, eating and family fun. Children can build their own bear in the Super Duper Bear Factory or adopt a bear cub in the Teddy Bear Nursery. In addition to Boyds a variety of other products are also available. Boyds also has a restaurant, bakery and fudge shop as well. For more information call 1-866-367-8338 or visit www.boydsbearcountry.com.

If any of the family enjoys model railroads, a visit to the Lincoln Train Museum is a good idea. The museum has a large collection of model trains, two operating model train layouts, and a simulated train ride with President Lincoln.

A very popular activity in Gettysburg is Ghost Walks, and there are a lot of companies conducting them. We took the tour of the Historic Farnsworth House and found it interesting and entertaining – even though we didn't experience any ghosts. Our tour guide recounted a number of instances where she saw what seemed to be apparitions. Some of the various tours have been featured on the History Channel and the Travel Channel, which called the Farnsworth "one of the most haunted inns in America." For more information on the Historic Farnsworth House call 717-334-8838 or visit www.gettysburghauntedaddress.com.

One thing families should consider is taking a drive through some of the beautiful countryside. Adams County, known as Apple Country because it is one of the largest producers of apples in the U.S., boasts the unique Gettysburg Wine and Fruit Trail. This consortium of ten local businesses, three of which are wineries, provide a great opportunity for families to take a scenic drive, taste some local wines and cider, enjoy fresh local produce in season, take a wagon ride through the orchards, pick your own fruit, or even cut down your own Christmas tree. All of these fruit farms, welcome children and have special activities for them. A map and guide can be obtained by visiting www.gettysburgwineandfruittrail.com.

Information about all of the activities mentioned, as well as suggestions for where to dine or where to stay – from the more upscale Gettysburg Hotel to a wide variety of budget hotels, B & B's, and family campgrounds – can be found in the Gettysburg Convention and Visitors Bureau's Official Visitors Guide. Be sure to check the calendar of special events for dates about such activities as historical re-enactments, apple festivals, music festivals, and much more. Call the Convention and Visitors' Bureau at 1-800-337-5015 or visit www.gettysburg.travel.

If more time is available, you can plan to visit other nearby Pennsylvania highlights such as Lancaster and Pennsylvania Dutch Country; York and its interesting factory tours; and the ever-popular Hershey, the Land of Chocolate. Gettysburg is located within a short drive of all of these attractions. For more information about these areas, visit www.dutchcountryroads.com.


Jeff and Stephanie are retired English and Social Studies high school teachers who have been professional travel writers for over 21 years.


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