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.