The Vacation Kingdom of the World: Extending the Magic of Liberty Square

by Tom Richards, contributing writer

Liberty Square is one of the Magic Kingdom's overlooked gems. This land is unique to Walt Disney World; no other "castle" park has a Liberty Square. Because this area blends so seamlessly with Frontierland, it is much too easy to take its quaint charm for granted.

Liberty Square showcases one of Walt Disney's original intentions for Disneyland. This goal, which can still be found on the dedication plaque at the base of the flagpole on Main Street U.S.A. at Disneyland, reads in part:

"Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America… with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world."

Sixteen years later when Roy O. Disney opened Walt Disney World, his words, which can be found near the flagpole on Main Street U.S.A. in the Magic Kingdom, echoed those of Walt Disney in 1955:

"May Walt Disney World bring joy and inspiration and New Knowledge to all who come to this happy place… a Magic Kingdom where the young at heart of all ages can laugh and play and learn—together."

There are several key words in these dedications—ideals, hard facts, America, inspiration, new knowledge, laugh, play, and learn—that are realized to perfection in Liberty Square. There's the historical design of the area to inspire an interest in American history, there's the Hall of Presidents to instruct and introduce new knowledge, the Liberty Tree Tavern and the a Liberty Square Riverboat ride on the Rivers of America to savor, and the iconic Haunted Mansion to entertain.

My friends and colleagues often question my family's frequent visits to Walt Disney World. I like to remind them that not only is the Vacation Kingdom of the World a wonderful place to visit in and of itself, it is also a place that inspires curiosity and a desire to extend the wonder beyond the Disney created berms. It was this very spirit of adventure and wonder that lead us to Colonial Williamsburg this summer.

Virginia is a lovely state, and its beauty and charm is particularly splendid in Colonial Williamsburg. This unique area combines an authentic attention to historical accuracy with the conveniences of a resort destination. There are several "official" Colonial Williamsburg resorts; these destinations offer benefits that are not unlike those offered by Walt Disney World's "official" hotels near the Disney Village Marketplace. There are many reasons to stay at the Williamsburg Inn, the Colonial Houses, the Williamsburg Lodge, the Williamsburg Woodlands, or the Providence Hall Guesthouses: complimentary transportation via buses to area attractions; amenities like spas, pools, tennis courts, horseback riding, and golf; and discounted admission tickets for the many sites in the area.

The other benefit, of course, is location. Some of the resorts are within walking distance of many of Williamsburg's most interesting historical sites.

The heart of Colonial Williamsburg is the town itself, a sprawling, unspoiled area that looks and feels like a page right out of a history book. There is much more to see and do right here in the village itself than we had imagined. There are tours of many of the buildings, most of which have been carefully restored to the appropriate historical time period.

The Governor's Palace is particularly impressive. Our guide stayed "in character" as a servant in the governor's household and provided just the right amount of information to keep the tour interesting without overloading us with uninteresting facts. The building itself is splendid, and the warm brick exterior, the balanced proportions, the decorative cupola, and the decorative interior woodwork reminded us of the architectural styles of both the American Adventure and the Hall of Presidents.

A visit to the Burton Parish Church was a highlight; sitting in one of the pews with its high back and handmade kneeler brought us back to visits of small country churches throughout England. The village area is charming as well.

Highlights included the many shops, including the McKenzie Apothecary, the Wheelwright, the Basketmaker, the Silversmith, and the Milliner & Tailor. Because Colonial Williamsburg is designed as a living museum, the staff at each shop plays a character and actually works the shop. These interactions were a highlight of our visit; the basketmaker and the blacksmith were particularly good and invited guest participation and some hands-on time that the kids loved.

The Silversmith was my personal favorite; the beautiful Williamsburg pewter lining the shelves brought back fond memories of the little Silversmith shop that once graced the Magic Kingdom's Liberty Square (it's still there, by the way, but now stocks Christmas merchandise as well as Haunted Mansion mementos). The architectural style of the shops in Williamsburg was perfectly re-created by the Imagineers at the Magic Kingdom's Liberty Square.

The colors, the exterior and interior woodwork, the cozy scale of the buildings, even the glass in the windows look and feel like those at Colonial Williamsburg. The charming buildings throughout Liberty Square owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the builders of the original Williamsburg.

There are several options for dining within the historical district: The King's Arms Tavern, Shield's Tavern, Chownings Tavern, and Christina Campbell's Tavern. We thoroughly enjoyed our meal at the King's Arms Tavern. The fare was hearty and tasty, the desserts—especially Thomas Jefferson's bread pudding—were outstanding, and the service and ambiance unique and memorable.

Another highlight was a ride on the Stagewagon, an authentic vehicle pulled by two engaging horses named Luke and Amos. This ride offered a nice overview of the grounds, and reinforced the expansiveness of the village. Another advantage of taking the coach ride—which was a steep $15.00 per person—was the perspective it provided. Colonial Williamsburg is a living community.

In addition to the historical sites, the recreations of dwellings and shops, the costumed employees, and the many tourists, the village is interspersed with private residences and small businesses. This unique blend provides a framework for a very convincing feeling of visiting the past. We saw many visitors wearing period costumes (available for rental at the Visitor's Center). My boys settled for tri-corned hats (which we had purchased at the Heritage House at the Magic Kingdom last summer).

It was next to impossible not to mimic the authentic language of the employees, and we found ourselves referring to the bathroom as the "necessary room" and telling time the "Williamsburg way" long after our visit. (When asked the time, employees consistently say things like, "The shop is open until six of the clock.")

At the edge of the original village, there is a charming area called Merchants Square that caters to the needs of both visitors and locals. Built in the style of the original Williamsburg, this area boasts shops, intimate dining, and entertainment options after Colonial Williamsburg closes for the evening. This area could have felt commercial and out of place; thanks to careful planning and a consistent architectural style, this tourist area compliments, rather than competes with, Colonial Williamsburg.

At the edge of town, there's the stunning College of William and Mary. As the second oldest college in the nation, the College of William and Mary boasts an impressive list of alumni including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Tyler, and James Monroe. The lush, green campus looks just like a college should look. As an incredible bonus, the campus of William and Mary features a building designed by Sir Christopher Wren, the architect of St. Paul's Cathedral, London—the very one upon whose steps the "little old Bird Woman" sits in the beloved Mary Poppins stories. According to literature proved by William and Mary, "construction on the… College Building began in 1695." Even though it burned, three times, it was "re-built inside the original walls."

Colonial Williamsburg deserves the title of an American treasure. Along with nearby Jamestown and Yorktown, Williamsburg is definitively worth the trip. For those who appreciate the Disney details and authenticity of some of the most accomplished Imagineers, there is an extra layer of enjoyment and satisfaction in making those ever-present connections to the Vacation Kingdom of the World.


  1. By mkelm44

    As a Virginian, welcome to our Commonwealth.

    I agree with you that Williamsburg is a great place to visit and I am always impressed with the details that they go through. It greatly benefitted from the "Revolutionary City" program- the scenes performed by the re-enactors debating and arguing over events that happened on that day during the Revolutionary era. The program, started in 2007 (coinciding with the 400th Anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, the first British city in the Colonies and a short drive from Williamsburg) has greatly enhanced the flavor of Williamsburg and helped make it far more interactive. It is definitely worth a 2 or 3 day visit (more if you include the Jamestown site, the Battle of Yorktown site, Busch Gardens Williamsburg, and a host of other t hings to do in the Tidewater such as Virginia Beach and the Northern neck).

    One thing to mention is that Williamsburg was an inspiration of Michael Eisner's failed "Disney's America" theme park, which would have been in Haymarket, VA, three hours north in Prince William County. One of the lands of the Disney America would have been Revolutionary America, as well as a Civil War, Native American, 1930's Coney Island, Ellis Island, a 19th Century family farm and the Industrial Revolution. Several of the concepts first thought of for the park were moved to California Adventure including: the Bountiful Farm (19th Century family farm), California Screamin (Coney Island/State Fair), Grizzly River Run (would have been part of the Native American section) and Soarin' (which was developed from a concept about Biplanes during World War I). Unfortunately due to local pressures, the park never was realized and Eisner in his own book said it was one of his biggest regrets as it was the project he was most passionate about.

  2. By heatherya

    Thanks for this article . We're spending the week between Christmas and New Years down there this year. I'll come back and read this again before we go

  3. By Klutch

    I lived near Colonial Williamsburg for almost twenty years. It's nice that the author pointed out all the positives about it. But there are other sides to Colonial Williamsburg. I will say up front that I don't like the place. I will let people decide for themselves, but they should have more information to do so. A few points...

    - They like to market Colonial Williamsburg (CW) as this idealistic, Colonial village isolated deep in the woods. If you go to the Visitor Center, the bus will take you on a route promoting this illusion. However, CW is actually located right inside the very modern city of Williamsburg. If you take two steps outside Merchant's Square, you're in town.

    - There are multiple, small parking lots directly around Colonial Williamsburg. You can park there, for a limited time, and wander the area completely free of charge. I encourage anyone considering a visit to do this first, then decide if you want to pony up some serious dollars for the paid admission exhibits. You can always just drive to the Visitor Center, buy tickets and ride the bus back. If you don't need a long term parking space, you can buy tickets at windows throughout CW and not bother with the Visitor Center. Some the buildings, such as the Bruton Parish Church and cemetary, do not require admission tickets.

    - All but a tiny few buildings in CW are twentieth century "recreations". Some of the original buildings are private residences which guests cannot visit. Many of the recreated buildings are also private homes. So, if you show up and look around, it appears there are a lot of buildings to explore. Once you cross off the private residences, which typically have modern cars parked out front, there's not so much to see.

    - CW keeps museum hours. Everything but the restaurants and hotels close at 5:00 PM.

    - If you visit CW at any time other than the busiest season, you will find many of the buildings and exhibits closed even during regular operating hours. It's not uncommon to visit the trade shops and find nothing going on. Thus, you pay full price to see a static display. Some of the buildings will be closed off altogether and you can't even go inside.

    - I'm glad the writer enjoyed the CW restaurants. Most people are disappointed and find them to be tiny, crowded and astronomically overpriced. Definitely check online reviews before booking. And yes, you will likely need a reservation.

    - Be very careful when buying the expensive and heavily-promoted local wares. When I lived nearby, they got busted for selling pewter from China.

    - Around the village, you'll find small food stands. The cookies are very good! I would recommend buying those. The cider is also good. :-)

    - Your experience will very greatly depending on who is working at the time. Some the "characters" are very good. Others pretty much phone it in. For a while, some of them were downright hostile. (Labor issues, or something.) Hopefully, things are better now, but if you come across and lackluster employee, just move on and find someone else.

    - I once did a Ghost Tour through Colonial Williamsburg. It was at night, after hours and not operated by CW. (This drives them nuts, but as I said, you can walk through the place any time. It's not gated.) The ghost tour was a lot of fun and I highly recommend it. The guide wore a Colonial costume and carried a lantern. My ghost tour was through Maximum Guided Tours.

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