You don't say how long you have, but if you only have one day, I think I'd do Gettysburg. While many people will tell you that you can't see Gettysburg in a day, and that is true as far as seeing all of it, Williamsburg is that much larger. I can't imagine trying to see it in a day. My kids were 9 and 11 when we took 2 and a half full days at Williamsburg and I felt like we had to plan well and there was still so much more we could have seen. For a single full day trip, I think that Gettysburg is more doable.
If you have multiple days, then it is really a matter of interest. Certainly, they are both historical in nature, but beyond that they couldn't be more different. Gettysburg would be an in depth look at a few extremely important days in American history. And while much of the living history, and all of the reenactment events at Williamsburg focus on it's role during the revolution, the place is really about getting a feel for the entire era of colonial American life.
In Gettysburg, more time will be spent in your car, but you stop at various points along the battlefield tour and roam to your heart's content (or as much as you have time for). Williamsburg will be all on foot inside the historical zone, and is more immersive in nature. But your kids need to be willing to go in and out of buildings all day, ask questions, and interact.
Time of year is another thing to consider. If we are talking March or early April, I'd be inclined to go south rather than north. Later April or May would be a beautiful time to see Gettysburg before the heat and humidity of Summer hits.
They are so very different that it is hard to say. Gettysburg is a battlefield. Williamsburg is a reproduced colonial village with costumed individuals and activities. It all depends are which type of experience you are seeking. Personally, I find Gettysburg a very moving place and prefer it over Williamsburg.
As previously pointed out, Williamsburg and Gettysburg are very different so a lot will depend on your interests. Based purely on my personal interests, I have to cast my vote for Williamsburg. I absolutely love, love, love Williamsburg. I realize a lot of that is based on my preference for the Colonial Era period of history over the Civil War. For the ages of your children, they may find Williamsburg more engaging. My kiddos have never been huge fans of visiting Gettysburg as it isn't real interactive. They have really enjoyed Williamsburg because it is more of a reproduction with a variety of activities, programs, etc. Bottom line is both places are worth visiting, it's purely a matter of personal preference.
Thank you so much for your responses! So helpful. I foresee several dinner table conversations to decide which we will visit, and which we will see next time we are back east.
I would go with the living history aspect of Williamsburg.
If you visit Williamsburg and want a battlefield experience, and have a little extra time, you could visit the nearby Yorktown Battlefield, part of the Colonial National Historical Park. Yorktown is every bit as historic as Gettysburg, although not as celebrated or nor was the siege fought with armies as large as those at Gettysburg.
Petersburg National Battlefield also isn't far from Williamsburg if you want to visit a key Civil War site.
In Newport News, you can see the turret, guns and engine of the U.S.S. Monitor.
Gettysburg would probably be closer and you may also have time to visit Antietam Battlefield near Sharpsburg, Md. depending on how many days you have. (Antietam was such a bloody battle, they say the creek ran red with blood) Both Gettysburg and Williamsburg are nice places to visit but I lean more towards Gettysburg, maybe because it's all about the Civil War. There are many, many things to do in Gettysburg in addition to seeing the battlefield. There are museums, shops, restaurants and more. We have also done a ghost tour there which I think the kids would love.
Gettysburg is free. Williamsburg is @$50.00 for an adult ticket. I 've been to Williamburg a couple of times and Gettysburg @10 times. I find Gettysburg to be more exciting and having many more options for fun. Williamsburg was sort of a snooze.
Gettysburg would be my choice. The visitor center is great. For a tour I really recommned hiring one of the private tour guides. The cost is reasonable and having just a day you get to see, experience, and learn much more about Gettysburg and it's rich history. The stories about what and how things happened on that battlefield ground are fascinating and a part of American history that we all should embrace.