I have been to Gettysburg one other time, when Ranger was 4 and Lemon was 2. It was crowded, and is remembered by us for being the first place we ever lost a kid in public, swallowed by the 150th Anniversary crowds. But this year we have been going to Civil War sites, doing a Civil War unit AND it is conveniently located midway between my parents home and ours! So we hoped for the best and put it on the schedule. I still recommend avoiding it with a two year old though, do-able but not fully enjoyable!
We arrived around 10:30 and headed for the information booth, where we got our Junior Ranger book. I asked for two and was told that they would need to share. This lasted about 25 minutes before Ranger decided to take off his jacket and go by himself to ask for another one because he was sick of fighting with Lemon over who does what. I assume they ask them to share because it is a busy site and it helps cut costs and the information volunteer did assure them that they would each receive a patch regardless of how many books were turned in. Wild Thing was pretty much being wild this whole time and here are some action shots of him trying to get us kicked out by climbing all over the history, but at least he minded the “Keep off Grass” signs.
There are many ways to see Gettysburg, walking tours, horseback tours, drive your own car CD tours, no tours, practically limitless ways to explore this large historic area. We decided that a bus tour was probably the most practical given the age span of our crowd. Gettysburg is not run by the National Park Service, but by the Gettysburg Foundation so neither the 4th Grade Pass nor your annual membership will get you in here. Entering the building and walking the battlefields absolutely free. However anything else is an additional charge. We decided to do the whole shebang, and bought tickets for the 2 hour bus tour, the Museum, the Cyclorama and the film at the price of $42 per adult and $27 per child with Wild Thing being free. You can just do the Film, Cyclorama and Museum for $15 per adult and $10 per kid. The counter people were very helpful and sold us tickets for the 11:30 bus tour, and the 2:15 film and Cyclorama. I think the package price including the bus tour is well worth it, but I know last time we visited some of our family chose to buy an audio CD that you played specific tracks as you drove to certain points and they enjoyed that as well, slightly more cost effective and definitely a more flexible way to see everything.
Our licensed battlefield guide was awesome, she was incredibly knowledgeable and truly passionate about the Civil War, (she is pictured above giving us the details from Little Round Top.) I can imagine repeating the same stories could get old but I couldn’t tell from her delivery at all. She stopped the bus 3 times for us to get out and walk around sites. I missed the first one because Wild Thing decided a bus nap was great, but I chatted with our delightful bus driver while the kids hiked around a monument. Lemon was able to complete a lot of drawing activities and the scavenger hunt from the bus, earning enough points for her to get her patch. I learned a lot more about the the specific battles of the Gettysburg and some delightfully scandalous history of Daniel Sickles, ruffian and Civil War General, who settled post war just 5 blocks away from the apartment I grew up in! The tour was an interesting way for the kids to listen to history and was lively enough to keep them from fidgeting.
Upon our return we had time for a quick lunch in the cafeteria before filing into the movie, I would recommend more than an hour break between the end of the bus tour and the film time, as we were a bit pressed for time eating and panicked to make the kids take a restroom break. The film is narrated by Morgan Freeman and provides a solid overview of the Battle of Gettysburg. While he mentioned many of the same things that our guide did, I did not find it to be repetitive of the bus tour. The film is short and after they usher you to the escalators for the “Cyclorama Experience.” This was by far my favorite thing. While I understood that a Cyclorama is a a large round painting popular in the late 1800s I didn’t really have scope for what that meant. This painting is 377 feet long (in circumference) and 42 feet high and was painted in 1883. They have full size battlefield wreckage laid out in front of it to add to the illusion of depth and a light show that enhances the battle narration. The narration includes explosive sounds and gunfire which I really appreciated because Wild Thing stopped running from me and started running toward me. The reddened image below is the sunrise effect, the image with silhouettes is during the battle narration. Below that is the same image with the diorama portion visible, but it is hard differentiate it from the painting. When you exit the cyclorama, be sure to stop on the mezzanine before the staircase and do the relevant pages in the Junior Ranger book because you need the display for some of the answers.
The final stop of our day was the Museum. Last time we went this was pretty much the only part I did, and I ended up chasing Ranger through most of it while my husband chased then two year old Lemon. Did I mention that two year olds are a drag? I remember the museum short films being exceptional and I loved how they were progressively through the exhibits because I got see them before my 4 year old ran away. This time I was chasing Wild Thing and barely saw any of them, but he did insist on a number of pictures in front of things so I got to see those exhibits. To be honest we were exhausted by this point. I think maybe we should have done the museum on another day. If you arrived in the afternoon and see the museum as kind of a half day thing, then do the other activities I think it would be perfect. The highlights of the museum for me was the uniform/gear displays and the campsite mock up. You can see that officer kit in the front and to the left is the enlisted man’s set up. It was very detailed and interesting to see.
Overall this was a really great experience. I think I was more moved by Antietam, and I’m not particularly sure why, but there were a lot more personal stories referenced in the exhibits which certainly helps inspire sympathy. Maybe because Antietam had less scope than Gettysburg, or possibly because Gettysburg has become a monolithic pivot point in history it just felt vast and less personal. We returned to the information desk where the first question the Park Ranger asked was “How did you get two books?” Which inspired my Ranger to squirm and look uncomfortable (lol), so I quickly answered “Well after 25 minutes of fighting he simply walked up and asked for another one, can we make a donation to cover it?” The Ranger promptly laughed and said no. He carefully and thoroughly looked through their books and asked them questions, even though there was a line behind us. He then swore them in and gave them their patches, no badges here!