CONCORD -- If the good people at Disney ever decide to open a New England-themed amusement park in the Bay State, they'll face competition from this unlikeliest of places.
Thrill rides, guided tours, shops, a water park, restaurants, history, spooky places -- the town of Concord, less than 25 miles from downtown Boston, has all this and more.
Concord is an ideal destination for visitors unfamiliar with New England, a sort of local crash course to help them gain a quick appreciation for the area.
"Concord has really played a remarkable role in the history of our nation," said Carol Haines, director of public relations for the Concord Museum, "and when we have visitors from around the country and the world, they get that heightened sense of the past. But even with that history on every corner, Concord is a real town with real residents and real 21st-century issues."
Over the course of just a few hours, folks can stand on the North Bridge , the site of the beginning of the American Revolution , and next to Walden Pond, the beginning of the ecology movement. In between they can squeeze in a cappuccino or two, a couple of guided tours, some serious shopping, and visits to the homes of some of 19th-century America's great literary minds, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Louisa May Alcott.
And they won't see a replica of the North Bridge, or a facsimile of Walden Pond; they'll get an eyeful of the real things. The bridge is still in the same place, even though it has been rebuilt a few times since the day in 1776 when it was the site where Emerson wrote so eloquently of "the shot heard round the world."
That beats singing animatronic bears any day, don't you think?
A few years ago I spent several days entertaining visitors from Arizona, and we did the whole New England Experience thing: Boston, Harvard Square, coastal Maine, and more. Months later, what were they still raving about? The perfect spring afternoon we spent kayaking down the Concord River and under the North Bridge.
Now that's a thrill ride.
It's also easy to do under most conditions. The Concord isn't usually fast flowing , so with a little quick training, even most novices can handle it.
The South Bridge Boat House offers canoe and kayak rentals ranging from $12.45 an hour to $66 a day, depending on the day of the week and the size of the canoe or kayak. The North Bridge is only a mile and a half downstream.
Should you prefer to use your own kayak or canoe, head toward Carlisle on Route 126 out of Concord center, and just before you cross the Concord River there is a path on your left that provides easy river access for most vehicles.
If biking is more your style, Concord Bike Tours offers a variety of packages ranging from a guided two-hour Revolutionary War Tour that follows the battle road on the original Patriots Day to more leisurely scenic tours of Concord and the nearby towns of Lincoln, Carlisle, and Sudbury.
But the best way to experience Concord is to walk it. "One of the special things about Concord," said Stephanie Stillman, executive director of the Concord Chamber of Commerce, "is that you can literally walk to 90 percent of the sites from the center of town. Most are within about a mile, so it's really a comfortable and easy place to visit."
The Chamber offers walking tours from April 1 to the end of October several days a week, tours that focus on the war, the town's famed writers, or just the overall history of the place.
Walking the trails around Walden Pond provides a quick nature fix and makes it easy to understand why Henry David Thoreau, who spent so much time there, was inspired to become one of the fathers of the conservationist movement and urge people to "simplify, simplify" their lives.
If the weather's right and you've brought a change of clothing, a dip in Walden Pond is also a great way to cool off.
Even just meandering around the streets near downtown Concord is an experience. You'll encounter house after house with plaques such as "Wright's Tavern 1747 ," "Benjamin Barron House 1716 ," and the Thomas Pellet House, dating to the 1670s. Though they are closed to the public, those buildings are classic examples of Colonial architecture.
Are you one of those people who just can't imagine spending time away from your cellphone under any circumstances? Not to worry. Minute Man National Historical Park offers three cellphone audio tours of the area. Dial 703-286-2775 , and a $5.99 charge, paid through the phone using a credit card, earns the caller an hour of phone touring, enough time to take in two of the three tours that begin in different parts of the town.
Of course, there are those among us who can take only so much history and culture in a day . . . or as a friend once remarked to me in the middle of Florence's Uffizi Gallery: "Statues, statues, statues . . . I'm sick of statues. Where are the stores?"
Concord has a batch of them. Shoppers can find galleries and antiques shops , a toy store, jewelry shops, bookstores, and apparel shops ranging from very traditional clothing to French lingerie -- all within a couple of blocks on Main and Walden streets.
"There are so many historical sites preserved in Concord and open to the public," said Stillman, "but they're not just in restored areas like a Williamsburg. Concord is a real town with unique flavor and stores and history. There has always been a downtown since the town was formed, and some of the businesses on Main Street are a hundred years old."
While exploring, expect to find some little things that give Concord its unique character. On a recent visit to The Concord Shop , where one can find almost every kitchen gadget in the known world, we were greeted by a friendly, sad-eyed German shepherd. The dog just stood there with a tennis ball in its mouth. Waiting. It's difficult to describe the utter euphoria I generated with just a slight toss down one of the aisles.
Time for a break? There are more dining and imbibing possibilities than you could possibly need in a day, and most are just a few minutes walk from each other.
The Colonial Inn , for example, has been around since 1716 and offers 21st-century convenience with C olonial ambience. Along with a formal dining room and some very contemporary cuisine, the inn has the Village Forge Tavern tucked way in the back, an ideal location for some "enhanced" coffee beverage while you chat in a low-ceilinged, wide-beamed space that conjures up images of Revolution-era watering holes or ancient English pubs. It also offers live (usually acoustic) music most nights.
A brief stroll from the inn will bring you to downtown Concord and its wild mix of stores, shops, and cafes. If you're in the mood for a picnic or food on the run, the Concord Cheese Shop ("The World's Finest Cheese Since 1860") can handle it all: wine, fresh breads, gourmet sandwiches prepared on the premises, soups, gourmet finger foods, and, of course, a veritable avalanche of cheeses.
The Walden Grille offers enticing modern cuisine in a relaxed setting at the site of the town's first firehouse. It also features Sunday brunch and is Wi-Fi friendly.
Main Street s Market & Cafe can handle everything from custom martinis and espresso to panini , soups, great desserts, and daily specials. Dinner and live music are also on the menu several nights a week.
When break time is over, you'll want to get a landlubber's perspective of the North Bridge and walk across it. Just up the hill is the North Bridge Visitors Center with its panoramic views of the battleground and various Revolutionary War exhibits and paraphernalia.
Next, take Lexington Road out of Concord center and head for a little enclave of historic buildings. The Concord Museum has collected an assortment of items ranging from one of the original lanterns hung from Boston's Old North Church that got Paul Revere in so much trouble to the desk on which Thoreau wrote some of his greatest works.
"When people come to the museum and see the lantern," Haines said, "they just stand in front of it and say, 'Is that real?' "
It sure is. Concord doesn't do fake.
Within an easy walk from the museum are another trio of Colonial homes: Alcott's Orchard House , Ralph Waldo Emerson House , and The Wayside, Hawthorne's home that he bought from Bronson Alcott, Louisa May's father.
And once you have seen where many of Concord's authors lived, you might as well see Sleepy Hollow Cemetery on Route 62, the resting place for Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, and the Alcotts .
OK, so Concord does not have a Space Mountain or "It's a Small World" ride. What it does have are enough real-life history and attractions to more than compensate.
And unlike in Orlando , while you're in Concord you won't have to worry about bumping into any oversized, upright mice.
Dean Johnson, a freelance writer in Lowell, can be reached at DCJ Globe@aol.com.