Virginia Road Trip for Spring Break
Over spring break we took a Road Trip through Virginia. The main purpose of our trip was to visit Colonial Williamsburg and Busch Gardens Williamsburg. The default route from Ann Arbor to Williamsburg takes you through the D.C. area. We decided to take a longer route on our way to Williamsburg and visit Shenandoah National Park and spend a couple days in the DC area on our way home.
We had a great time on our Virginia Road Trip over spring break this year. At 10, my daughter was the perfect age for a Virginia Road Trip. She had the stamina to last all day, enjoys the history, and there were lots of age appropriate activities for her to do. Other than visiting family in Pennsylvania, this was the first big road trip that we have done as a family. Our other trips have involved flying and staying in one location more than touring a larger area.
Although, after this trip, I think my daughter will be done with Colonial era history vacations for awhile. In the last year she has visited Boston, Philadelphia, and Colonial Williamsburg.
On the Trip Down
On our way to Williamsburg, we decided to detour through Shenandoah National Park and then visit Kings Dominion north of Richmond. We started our drive on Friday night after work and school, driving as far as Youngstown, Ohio.
Shenandoah National Park
From Youngstown, we were able to reach the north entrance to Shenandoah National Park in early afternoon. Between the highway and the northern park entrance, there are several fast food places and gas stations. I suggest making sure you’ve eaten, used the restroom, and filled the gas tank before entering the park.
We drove the northernmost segment of Skyline Drive stopping at numerous lookouts. We also stopped for a brief hike which included part of the Appalachian Trail. Because of our remaining drive to the Richmond area that evening, we selected a short, easy hike.
Cost saving tip – The Every Kid in a Park program provides free park admission to families that have a fourth grader, admission to National Parks are free.
If your schedule allows, I suggest spending a full day driving to just outside the park and spending more time in the park.
The visitors center operates seasonally and was not open in early April when we visited. Restrooms were open, but we had the misfortune to arrive right after a bus tour.
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When we left the park, we were in a fairly rural area and drove for about an hour before stopping for dinner at Shawn’s Smokehouse BBQ in Culpeper. We happened to drive by, looked at reviews on Yelp, and enjoyed our meal so I wanted to share.
Our family loves roller coasters, so we when we heard that Kings Dominion was open on the weekends, we immediately added it to our itinerary. Kings Dominion is a Cedar Fair amusement park like Cedar Point. While Cedar Point has more roller coasters, we still had a great time at Kings Dominion.
My daughter is a daredevil on the rides, and we thought we’d finally found one to intimidate her – The Crypt. After some initial hesitation (and some teasing about being intimidated), she decided we should try it. Of course she loved it – but once was enough for all of us.
My husband and I had previously been to Kings Dominion so it was nice for us to return and to get a chance to ride Volcano. Our last trip was the season it opened and it had 4 hour lines.
Busch Gardens was one of the main activities of our visit. We bought a Spring Bounce Pass that included up to 7 days at Colonial Williamsburg and Busch Gardens Williamsburg. They are offering a Summer Bounce Pass this season that also includes Water Country USA.
Busch Gardens Williamsburg
Busch Gardens Williamsburg was open for several weeks in late March through mid-April for spring breaks before reverting to a weekend only schedule until summer. In fall, they will return to weekends only through October. They also offer Christmas Town from Thanksgiving through December.
Busch Gardens Williamsburg has a European theme with different areas themed for different countries many of which feature a roller coaster. The park has a number of roller coasters which we enjoyed riding. My personal favorite was Griffon, a drop coaster similar to Valravn which just opened at Cedar Point.
Busch Gardens does not allow bags or personal items on any of the coasters. We had a backpack with us containing ponchos since there was a chance of rain later in the afternoon. Busch Gardens offers lockers near each coaster. We opted for an all-day movable locker pass for $5. There are also all-day lockers available the front of the park. The movable pass was perfect for us since it meant that our bag was always near us in the park.
They do offer some non-coaster rides including the Sesame Street Forest of Fun. There are also shows although the performances were limited during the spring. We enjoyed the rides in the Italy section as well as the Sky Ride. One warning, is that Busch Gardens Williamsburg is not flat. There are stairs and steep hills which are noted on the map.
Personally, as much as I love roller coasters, the number one item on my to-do list was lunch and the Oktoberfest show at the Das Festhuas restaurant. Unfortunately the show was closed on our first day visit and one of the coasters was closed most of the day so we made plans to return for a second half-day visit. We ended up only catching a small portion of the show since we were finally able to get on the ride that had been closed.
We spent a fun day and a half at Colonial Williamsburg. Our first day we spent touring the shops, homes, and worksites at Colonial Williamsburg. My daughter’s favorite sites to visit where the workshops. She loved hearing about how furniture, candles, barrels, and more were made.
We joined free tours of the Governors mansion, the courthouse where audience volunteers played the role of various citizens appearing before the court, and the armory. Be sure to check the events guide for a list of free tours and performances.
Colonial Williamsburg also offers dining experiences and add-on tours. Our first day we had lunch at Chownings Tavern which was available for walk-in dining or by reservation. We enjoyed our Colonial inspired dishes: Cheese Plate, Shepherd’s Pie, and Turkey Trencher (flatbread sandwich). They also offer a basic kids menu. We were joined for part of our meal by a Colonial poet who was working on his poems. Our second night we had dinner at Shields Tavern where we were entertained by a storyteller during our dinner in the wine cellar. Reservations are suggested.
When we were making our plans for Colonial Williamsburg, there were two activities that jumped out as “must-do” activities for our family. Years ago when we were in London, my husband and I did a ghost walk pub tour. My husband is always telling our daughter about it, so the Official Colonial Williamsburg Ghost Walk was on our must-do list. We definitely enjoyed the ghost walk. There were plenty of kids on the tour with us and the stories were not too creepy. My 10 year old enjoyed the tour.
Colonial Williamsburg offers kids the chance to be an archaeologist at DIG! Kids, Dirt, & Discovery. The kids (ages 5-16) have a chance to participate in a real archaeological dig and uncover artifacts. My daughter loved getting the chance to work at the dig site and see what she and the other kids uncovered. The dig is free, but you need to get a ticket that morning at the Visitor Center. Digs occur throughout the day. Each dig is 50 minutes long.
We planned to spend a couple of days in the DC area on our way home. When we visited DC a few years ago, we had arrived by airplane and used the Metro to get around DC. On this trip, we decided to visit sights that aren’t easily accessible by the Metro. We opted to visit Mount Vernon and the Udvar-Hazy branch of the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum.
Thanks to the spring break snow storm at home and in Pennsylvania, we decided to delay and drive home on Sunday instead of our original plan of Saturday. We took a bonus day in Washington, DC.
Mount Vernon is George Washington’s home. It is located on the Potomac River south of Alexandria. Your admission includes a tour of the house and you can wander the grounds. When I was planning our visit, two things stood out for me – The National Treasure Tour (my husband and daughter love that movie) and Agent 711: Revolutionary Spy Adventure App (available in the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store).
The Agent 711: Revolutionary Spy Adventure App was a fun way for kids to explore the grounds at Mount Vernon. It took us to various locations around the estate. At the end, my daughter received a bracelet for completing the mission. The game takes about 45 minutes to complete. We used my daughter’s iPod, but next time I would try it with my phone since the iPod had trouble connecting to some of the activities. The game is free with your admission to Mount Vernon.
The National Treasure Tour is a guided tour of locations that were filmed for National Treasure 2. You get to visit the cellar of the house, and learn more about both the filming and the history of Mount Vernon. We really enjoyed the tour and learning more about the movie’s filming. They first started the tour the summer that the movie opened (2007) and figured that it would run for a few months. Nine years later, the tour is one of their most popular tours offered several times each day. The tour costs $7/person in addition to admission to Mount Vernon.
National Air & Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center
The National Air & Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center is located near Dulles Airport and houses many more airplanes and space vehicles than can fit at the location in Washington, D.C. Admission is free although there is a $15 parking fee.
Exhibit highlights at the Udvar-Hazy Center are the Space Shuttle Discovery, a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, the Donald D. Engen Tower that overlooks the Dulles flightpath, and more.
While at the museum, my daughter participated in Astronaut Academy. Astronaut Academy offers kids ages 10-14 a chance to experiment with different space tasks and learning assignments. You can track your Astronaut Academy progress on your phone (or my daughter’s iPod) with the Astronaut Academy Game.
One Day in DC
The weather in DC was only marginally better than at home on our bonus day. It was cold (barely 40F) and damp/rainy. We started with a trip to the National Archives since my daughter has been studying the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and presidential elections this year. We then visited the Natural History Museum and the American History Museum. Washington, DC and the museums were very crowded when we were there with entry lines that went down the street in some cases. Our visit was at the tail end of the Cherry Blossom Festival and with the cold weather, everyone was looking for indoor activities which contributed to the crowds.
We wrapped up our day with a trip to Tysons Corner Shopping Center in Virginia. My husband and I moved to Ann Arbor from northern Virginia, so we just had to try the new Silver Metro line that runs to Tysons Corner and will eventually reach Dulles Airport.
When looking for hotel rooms for my family, we put a premium on hotels that offer free WiFi and include breakfast. We frequently stay at Hampton Inns and Fairfield Inns.
Our first night, we stayed at the Hampton Inn in Youngstown, OH. While it is on I-80 and not the Ohio Turnpike, it is easy to get back on the Ohio Turnpike using I-680. The hotel was fine and I would consider returning there again. We have also previously stayed at the Fairfield Inn at this exit and would make a decision based on the price of the room.
Our second night we stayed at the La Quinta Inn in Doswell, VA since it was right across the street from Kings Dominion. There is a shuttle that runs between the hotel and Kings Dominion. Unfortunately, it was a chilly morning and we were waiting inside the lobby for the shuttle. It rolled through and was gone before we could catch it. In the end, we drove over to Kings Dominion which was more convenient when we went to leave. The hotel also sells discounted tickets for Kings Dominion. While the rate was not quite as good as the internet rate, it does offer thirty minute early entry for two rides. We decided to take advantage of this ticket package.
While in Williamsburg we stayed at the Hampton Inn & Suites Williamsburg Historic District which was an excellent value. We were able to upgrade to a Studio Suite for less than $10 a night. The studio suite gave us a kitchenette area, a sitting area, and a larger room. It did make it a little easier for my husband and I to work on our laptops after our daughter went to bed. The breakfast room was a little small, but they opened a meeting room for overflow seating where we had breakfast the one day. Our major complaint with the hotel is that each room is allowed to connect 3 Wi-Fi devices. My husband and I each connected our laptops and we allowed our daughter to connect her iPad. Usually this is not a problem since we have data access on our phones. However, this hotel is in a spot with poor cellphone coverage (Verizon network). Our phones barely had an LTE signal and at times even the 3G connection was spotty. For big internet users like us, this was a definite inconvenience.
Our final hotel was the Residence Inn in the Fair Lakes area of Fairfax, Virginia. While it was between Mount Vernon and Udvar-Hazy Center, we selected the hotel because we used to live in the area and we wanted the chance to drive by our old house and visit some of our old shopping centers and restaurants. We were also able to get a great rate on a 1 bedroom suite and they were able to accommodate us for an extra night at our hotel once the weather turned bad.