Like at Williamsburg, Conner Prairie's costumed interpreters demonstrate history, never stepping out of character. But they also involve visitors in their daily chores and activities. A character driving oxen might hand the reins to an interested youth. In more intensive sessions, visitors can stay overnight and experience a weekend on a late 19th-century farm or play the role of a runaway slave on the Underground Railroad. They can learn beginning blacksmithing, basic pottery, partake in a candlelight tea, or sit on a jury judging a white man for the murder of a Seneca Indian. During the day, interpreters involve visitors in "spontaneous" acts like robbing the general store and fighting fires.

To more effectively captivate visitors, the museum's 150 interpreters undergo improvisation training, much as actors and comedians do.

"What we found is that if the visitor is engaged and brought into the experience, that serves as a catalyst not only for enjoyment but also for a learning conversation," says Rosenthal. Engaging children often serves to begin a discussion among the entire family as they walk through the site. At Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Massachusetts, executives have added hands-on activities in a village where each day corresponds to a day in 1627. One day they can bake bread and another they can complete a soldier's chores.

"We wanted to try and engage the visitor more," says Christopher Merrow, the plantation's public-relations manager. "They can watch a role-player grind corn and say, 'This makes one corn cake and so to feed a family of four you need eight,' but for visitors to sit there and try and grind a cake for 20 minutes, then know they'd need to grind for two hours to make dinner, brings a whole new appreciation to the way people lived in the 1620s."