August 2012 Issue  Volume 13  Number 8

Accessibility at Popular Vacation Destinations

Accessibility in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia and the Busch Gardens Amusement Park

If you like American history or amusement park rides, a fun place to visit is the Williamsburg area of Virginia. It's located approximately 150 miles south of Washington, DC. The area is home to Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown Settlement, Yorktown Victory Center, and Busch Gardens. Each of these places has lots of activities, and many are hands-on. Recently, I went with my husband, 16 year-old daughter, and my guide dog, Jack. Everywhere on the trip, people were friendly, and there was absolutely no problem with guide dog access. As usual, many people admired my dog and asked questions about him and guide dog training in general.

Colonial Williamsburg

Williamsburg was the first colonial capital of Virginia. Some buildings have been restored, some have been rebuilt on original foundations, and some have been recreated as close as possible to original plans. There are many scheduled performances where actors recreate historical events, and there are many opportunities to visit with craftsmen, including dressmakers, silversmiths, and bookbinders. There are additional special events during the evening, which are not included with the price of admission.

Accommodations for People with Visual Impairments

The Colonial Williamsburg guide is available in braille at the Visitor's Center. The last person to use it, prior to me, did so in 2005. The book was not written specifically for braille readers since it told the reader to look for printed signs. Colonial Williamsburg offers a 50-percent discount on admission tickets for people who are blind. However, if you plan to visit other area attractions, there are better admission packages available.

Colonial Williamsburg offers a free orientation walk for people with visual impairments, though arrangements must be made at least two weeks in advance.

Things to Do

It's possible to do a quick overview in less than a day, but depending on your level of interest in early American history, there is so much to do that several days can be worthwhile. Be sure to wear comfortable shoes since you probably will be walking a lot. From 9:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., there are free shuttle buses with frequent stops around Colonial Williamsburg. You can get on or off at any stop.

In most places, there are actors dressed in colonial costumes who are very willing to answer questions. Other actors are dressed as specific historical characters and will not answer general questions. For example, our guide at the Governor's Palace would only answer questions about the governor's family and the palace.

Tours are available for many of the buildings, but most original artifacts cannot be touched. A guard was not happy when my husband put my hand on an original musket, but I'm not sure if he saw my guide dog.

At the courthouse, a guide gives a description of how trials were conducted and where the various court personnel sat or stood. The rule is that people are not supposed to walk around and touch furniture, but an exception was made for me. Once others saw me touching things, they too went to do some hands-on exploration.

The reenactments are well done with lots of talking. There is an excellent story called "The Challenge of Independence, 1776-1781," which begins with a woman trying to convince her husband not to join the colonial army and ends with the victory over the British. There are many scenes with each one at a different location, so the audience must walk short distances for each scene. Other vignettes in the reenactment include a slave deciding to join the army and Benedict Arnold trying to convince the colonists to end the revolution and join the British. The finale of the reenactment includes a parade complete with musket and cannon fire. If you have a guide dog that gets startled by loud noises, you might want to skip that part.

There are men and women in costume demonstrating various occupations using the same tools that were used in the 18th century. They were very happy to let me touch the tools and whatever items were being made. At the dressmaker's shop, I felt the textures of various parts of a Colonial woman's attire, including the dress, separate ruffled sleeves, and handkerchief. At the silversmith's shop, I felt objects such as spoons, plates, and a large ladle. I also got to handle pieces in various stages of completion. I was handed several tools, and the silversmith explained the purpose for each. The two men demonstrating book binding seemed to particularly enjoy explaining their craft, giving me different types of book covers to feel and showing me how the books were trimmed and bound together. Some artisans spontaneously gave me materials to feel while I had to ask others.

Evening Activities

Evening activities, such as concerts and special tours, are not included in the admission price. During my stay, I attended three different events. The "Cry Witch" trial is excellent. Actors do a mock trial of a woman accused of witchcraft. There is some audience participation, including deciding if the woman is guilty. Although I could not see the actors, it was easy to follow the plot due to the speaking parts. When we left the trial, the actors were standing outside to chat and answer questions.

The concert "Uncivil Harmony: Music of the Civil War" is an excellent performance. Though not a colonial theme, this is very appropriate as it's the 150th anniversary of the Civil War (2011-2015), and there were major battles nearby, making the town and its citizens very involved. An excellent musician gives a timeline of the war and describes each year with in-character musicians playing and singing. He gives historic information about each song. After the performance, the musicians welcome people to come up and ask questions.

A very popular evening activity at Colonial Williamsburg is a tour called "Ghosts Amongst Us." My husband, daughter, and I all agreed that this tour is disappointing. The ghosts are not related to American history, and one ghost's speech is impossible to understand. We couldn't figure out why the tour is so popular.

There are, of course, shops to visit and places to eat at the Colonial Williamsburg site. In Merchant's Square (which isn't in the actual historic area), there are many mainstream stores and a variety of restaurants. Within the historic area, there are several period taverns and period stores. Reservations are required for dinner at the taverns but not for lunch. I can highly recommend Shield's Tavern. Lunch was so good that we returned for dinner the following evening. The maître d' told the person seating us to remove the extra chair at the table, so the dog would have room. In the tavern's basement, you can feel the original foundation and fireplace bricks. Our waitress explained they were not uniform in size and shape.

Jamestown Settlement

Jamestown Settlement is a recreation of the 17th-century colony of the original settlers from England. It's significantly smaller than Colonial Williamsburg but still worth a visit. It's possible to visit Jamestown Settlement and Yorktown Victory Center on the same day. Although no specific discount is given for people with visual impairments, there is a combination ticket that covers both sites. There are no specific accommodations for people with visual impairments.

Things to Do

At Jamestown Settlement, disappointingly, there is an exhibition gallery which prohibits touching. The outside demonstrations are more interesting. Visitors can go inside several tepees and handle items, including animal skins, utensils, and baskets.

Costumed staff explains the history of the settlement and welcomes questions. On the day we were there, a man was making a dugout canoe from a tree. He explained the technique, and I was able to touch the wood. Another man was demonstrating how bread was baked. He let me touch various tools and the door of the clay oven. Demonstrations and explanations are given throughout the day.

Jamestown Settlement is at the James River, and several full-size ships are open for visits. These recreate the original 17th-century English vessels that settlers used to come to America. You can board and explore the ships, but going below deck requires going down a steep ladder. Everything aboard can be touched, including furniture and personal gear.

As at Colonial Williamsburg, there is a demonstration of cannon fire. The staff explains how cannons are loaded and directs volunteers in the audience in a mock firing, which is followed by staff actors doing actual firing (sans cannonball).

Yorktown Victory Center, a Museum of the American Revolution

The Yorktown Victory Center is a short drive from Jamestown Settlement.

Things to Do

There is an exhibition gallery, but the only touchable items are some musket balls and swords used by the American, English, and French armies.

Outside is the Continental Army encampment. As with Jamestown, everything is hands-on. There are replicas of tents where soldiers lived with touchable items inside of them. Costumed interpreters speak about everyday life for the soldiers.

Events and lectures take place throughout the day. There is a very interesting lecture about medical care for the soldiers. Many replicas of medical equipment are on display and available to touch. The lecturer is pleased to answer questions from the audience. There is, again, loud cannon fire with interpreters answering questions and explaining how the cannon is loaded and fired.

Another part of the Yorktown Victory Center is the 1780s farm with a tobacco barn, a kitchen, crops, and more. Interpreters speak about life on a farm as well as about rural life after the revolution. Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to spend time at the farm, but from all the documentation I reviewed, there are some hands-on activities.

Busch Gardens

Busch Gardens is a large amusement park consisting of rides, animals, shows, shops, and places to eat.

Accommodations for People with Visual Impairments

Busch Gardens works hard to accommodate guests with all kinds of disabilities and has a uniform assessment process.

On your first day visiting Busch Gardens, go to Guest Services. A staff member will ask you questions about your visual impairment and might ask that you squeeze his/her hand to insure your grip is strong enough for rides. Although the questions might seem irrelevant, this is part of their standard assessment process.

After the assessment, your information will be put into the computer, and you will be issued a special wrist band, which allows you and up to three companions to avoid lines for the rides. You will be given a sheet to carry indicating which rides you can use. There are rides for people of all ages. If you come back another day without the wristband, Guest Services can retrieve your information from the computer, and you will receive a new wrist band.

There is a well-maintained service dog relief area fairly close to the park entrance.

Going on Rides

Bush Gardens has a wide variety of rides from the very calm Bush Gardens Railroad to exciting rollercoasters. If you have a guide dog and someone in your party can watch the dog while you're on a ride, make sure to inform Guest Services of this fact. Initially, when I registered with Guest Services, the agent assumed that the dog would be accompanying me on all the rides. When I wanted to go on a rollercoaster, the operator would not let me because the ride was not on the sheet. The operator was very polite and arranged for me to get a new sheet. This one had no limitations because it did not indicate that I'd be taking my dog with me. There are only a few basic rides where service dogs are permitted. Once you come off the ride, the person watching your dog can board without waiting in line.


Busch Gardens is known for its very large Clydesdale horses. Not too far from the entrance are stables with a horse petting area. The horses are very calm.

Jack Hanna's Wild Reserve includes an aviary, a bald eagle exhibit, and a wolf enclosure. Several special animal encounter tours are offered at an additional fee.

Since I love animals, my husband, daughter, and I signed up for the "Ultimate Animal Insider Tour" at $54 per person. Service dogs cannot go on the tour. The on-site kennel is clean, and the staff is very friendly. They did not charge me for boarding.

We thought this would be one continuous tour, but it is actually three separate tours sold as one package. As a result, we wasted almost two hours total waiting in between tours. The first tour starts with learning about and petting the Clydesdales and border collies. Then, there was a half hour break. At the wolf enclosure, we were shown how they are trained. We knew in advance that we wouldn't be allowed near them since it can take months for them to accept strangers. Everyone does get a chance to give a wolf a training command and throw the wolf a piece of food once the command is executed. After another break, we went to touch some other animals, including an alligator, a screech owl, a hedgehog, and an opossum.

I'd recommend taking just the regular Animal Insider tour, which was the part of our tour where animals can be touched. You can pet a Clydesdale without taking an entire tour.

Contact Information

Colonial Williamsburg Call Center (Information about historic attractions, lodging, tickets):

800-HISTORY or 800-447-8679

Colonial Williamsburg
Direct: 757-220-7645
Toll Free: 800-246-2099

Jamestown Settlement and Yorktown Victory Center
Direct: 757-253-4838
Toll Free: 888-593-4682

Busch Gardens Williamsburg
Direct: 757-253-3350
Toll Free: 800-343-7946

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