In the spirit of Memorial Day, albeit warily, I paid a visit last weekend to Colonial Williamsburg. That's what they call it. Not just Williamsburg, but Colonial Williamsburg. The addition of the first word means that you're going to be in for a self-consciously historical experience, and they surely don't let you down. I have a lot to say about this odyssey, as you might expect, but I'm going to break it up into manageable chunks, so that you won't be subjected to pages and pages of something that only I might consider interesting, because, you know, why would I do that?
I should tell you that I wasn't quite going entirely of my own accord. I have friends with small children who are increasingly interested in history (the children, I mean), and this seemed to be an ideal venue for them to experience such a thing. I was going along because they're really cool little kids, and because I'm kind of fascinated in the way that history is marketed to the masses as a cultural and a consumer experience. So I was kind of a double agent, but in an honestly pretty geeky way.
The first thing you notice about CW is the big entrance. The Visitor Center is enormous, shuffling and funnelling all of its many thousands of visitors through the initial consumer screening process with frightening efficiency.
First stop: Information. It is here that you explain to your docent what kind of experience you are looking for. Docent tries to match you with an historical package (no titters, please) that will best suit your needs. In our case it went something like this:
Docent: Help you?
Friend: Yes, I'm here with my wife and two children and they're getting into history...
Docent: Boys or girls?
Friend: One of each. The eldest one is more interested in ...
Docent: Boy or girl?
Friend: The eldest is a girl.
And so it went on, the ruthless diagnosis of our particular historical requirements, tailored to the particular profile of a seven-year old girl from Baltimore with a burgeoning interest in "history," although we didn't open that particular can of worms at Information. I stood to the side and listened in, as unobtrusively as possible.
Having been profiled, of course, everyone has to go to the restroom (I learned this, again, about the small child experience this weekend: they have to go the bathroom ALL THE TIME, like old people, but smaller and, for the most part, cuter, but there are obviously some exceptions to this huge generalization). But before you can go to the restroom, you have to go past the costume rental desk. This is very very sneaky, because of course kids are going so say, "Can we rent a costume, mom, can we rent a costume, can we can we can we can we?" And of course, most parents, who may also need to go the bathroom in a pretty bad way after a three or four hour drive from Baltimore, will probably say, "Oh, what they hell, I need to piss so bad, I'll buy you a tank if it will get us into the stall any quicker," so the kids get hats. OK, so they're not full-on costumes, but the colonial tri-corner hats for the boys and the white bonnets for girls are very fetching, and also, by the way, you kind of don't rent them, you buy them, because, obviously, it wouldn't be sanitary to rent hats to all kinds of louse-ridden rugrats and then pass them onto the clean kids next time around. That would be irresponsible.
Of course what it all really comes down to is this: how much money are you prepared to spend at Colonial Williamsburg? And the answer is: Somewhere between $34 and $72, depending on what kind of ticket you buy. So anyway, there are several levels of historical experience available to the cultural consumer at CW, and in a really fascinating way they seem to be connected to some kind of index of how much you really really love freedom, especially American freedom. I will explain. The cheapskates who want to get in on the ground floor can buy a "Colonial Sampler" (really, that's what it's called). Sadly, this particular ticket does not include any chicken wings or indeed any other product from KFC, although you might expect such with that name. This can be had for the bargain price of $34, and gets you what is called a "Colonist Pass." So, more or less, it gets you into the colony, with more or less (actually, less) opportunity to be as free as everyone else. If you're feeling a little friskier about your freedom, you can buy a "Governor's Key-to-the-City Pass," which is $48. Feeling any more free yet? The difference between the Colonist Pass and the Governor's Key-to-the-City Pass is not only the trifle of $14 (really, you cheap bastard, you're just a colonist? I'm totally rolling up into CW with my GKTTCP, on account of how I'm, like, $14 more free than you, THAT'S how much I love freedom on this Memorial Day weekend), but also, and as you might expect, a significant shift in the level of access on can obtain to some of the more exclusive historical experiences. So, as a colonist, you can see most of the regular stuff, but you can't be going into the Capitol building, the Governor's Palace or some other places. The GKTTCP gets you into those joints, but nevertheless excludes you from such totally free experiences as the Colonial Explorer Activities, whatever those are.
Now, if you really really want to be getting your Freedom on, and I mean Freedom with a capital F, then you might want to consider buying a Freedom Pass (I'm starting to feel lightheaded at this point, obviously, because this kind of liberty is just intoxicating, as you might imagine). The Freedom pass is, ironically, and as if you hadn't already guessed, pretty damn expensive, coming in at $59 (that's fifty nine US dollars, in case you thought that was perhaps a typographical error on my part). Now, this is where things start to get pretty seriously "free," although in a way that some of us might perhaps find slightly counter-intuitive. However, to be scrupulously fair to the Freedom Pass, your $59 clams do get you the right to go come back as many times as you want, but ONLY AT THE LEVEL OF THE GOVERNOR'S KEY-TO-THE-CITY PASS. I know. It's a bait and switch. But, on your first visit, you do get to enjoy the Colonial Explorer Activities, which first-time GKTTCP-ers totally don't get.
Now, you would think, wouldn't you, that you couldn't be getting much more free than Freedom? But I have to tell you that you would be wrong. Because there is, indeed, a level of freedom that is more desirable than Freedom its damn self. And that level, my friends, would be Independence. Yes, for the bargain price of $72 (that's seventy two US dollars), you can buy an Independence Pass. The Independence Pass gets you all the benefits of the Freedom Pass, PLUS (can you stand it?) free tickets to all evening performances (offered seasonally), AND express entrance to the Governor's Palace and the Capitol (just so you don't have to be waiting around with all the people who are so much less free than you, because that would be tacky). But I'm guessing that since the Independence Pass accrues to itself all of the benefits of the Freedom Pass, it also means that when you come back a second time, you're just a lowly GKTTCP-er again. It's like getting busted down to Corporal or something.
So, that's the Freedom Spectrum at Colonial Williamsburg. In a strange trajectory of paradox and irony, the most free you can be is independent, and independence is really really expensive. It makes me wonder how the marketers came up with the Liberty Gamut, though. Did they think we wouldn't notice that Independence was more desirable and more expensive than Freedom? Did they have a philosophical conversation about the experiential distinction between the two? What does it mean that one is more expensive than the other? Which ideas didn't make it off the drawing board?
Historical Experience Planner: Hey, I've got one, let's have a Liberty Pass, between Freedom and Independence. You get all the benefits of Freedom, but you also get a hat, and it's only $65.
Historial Experience Director: You mean, we're giving them a hat for $6?
HEP: I guess.
HED: Are you out of your mind? We'll be out of business in six months.
HEP: But Liberty, though, doesn't it have, excuse the pun, some kind of a ring to it?
HED: Forget the ring, we're not giving away $6 hats, mister. I didn't spend twenty years in the historical experience business to throw it all away on $6 hats, all in the name of, what was it, Liberty? I've never heard anything like it. We're adjourned.