I have been to Gettysburg numerous times and the old visitor center- while I fondly remember it- was clearly showing its age. Construction of this new structure was long overdue and the results are outstanding. I have visited dozens of Civil War museums and visitor centers across the country and this is easily the best. The nearby National Museum of the Civil War Soldier in Harrisburg cannot complete with this facility.
First, the location- the old facility was right in the middle of the downtown area. This new center is far removed from the hustle, bustle, and traffic of the business district. It sits south of town in a relatively isolated area easy to access from US 15 south. The center has about 3 huge parking lots (which were all pretty close to full the day we visited- impressive!)
The visitor center itself is huge. Walking into it feels like walking into an airport terminal (complete with the coffee / snack counter, restaurant, and gift shop). We didn't eat at the café so I can't speak to its quality. The gift shop was huge and- in one of the strengths of the entire facility- offered a nice mix of items that would appeal to both the hard core Civil War buff as well as a casual tourist. I was somewhat disappointed in the selection of books. There were many choices about Gettysburg (the campaign, the battle, and aftermath in the town) but less than expected about the units and leaders that fought here. If you are looking to add to your Civil War library, you might not find anything too unique here.
Moving on, the entry price for the museum, film, and cyclorama was $12.50 per person. I believe it was just $8 for the museum alone. If you are a Gettysburg Foundation member, I think there was either a discount or it was free. I had mixed feelings about the cost, it was a little high but considering the quality of everything it gave you access to it was a reasonable investment.
The film "A New Birth of Freedom" was geared a little too much towards the casual tourist for my liking. It was about 22 minutes in length and, instead of concentrating solely on the Battle of Gettysburg, spent about half of that time talking about the causes of the Civil War and the aftermath of the battle, particularly how it contributed to the ending of slavery. The production quality and cinematography of this film was excellent, and I really wished they would have focused more on the actual fighting (its chronology & leaders). Since most visitors are going to take the driving tour after they leave the visitor center, giving more background about what happened on the actual battlefield would have made sense to me.
After the film ends, you move up an escalator to the new Cyclorama gallery (again it feels like being at the airport!). This is such an improvement over the old (and ugly) Cyclorama building. Instead of looking up at the painting, the new facility puts you at ground level with the cyclorama wrapped 360 degrees around you. It's much easier to see the level of detail in the painting from this new vantage point. There is a short program including light and sound effects that uses the painting to dramatize Pickett's Charge. My one minor gripe here was that most of the "action" happens in one area of the painting. If the gallery is crowded, you might struggle to see what is going on. There is, however, time allocated once the presentation ends to allow everyone to walk around the entire gallery and see entire painting.
From there, the next step is the museum itself. This was truly, truly outstanding. I understand the museum was premised on the idea that many people will not visit another Civil War battlefield, so the challenge was to create exhibits that are both general enough to inform the casual tourist while still specific enough to appeal to serious students of the war. The museum absolutely succeeds in those efforts. Rather than starting with the lead-up to the battle, the museum begins with information about the causes of the war, the road to southern succession, and the outbreak of conflict. There is an entire gallery that discusses the fighting in the battles prior to Gettysburg (again giving a broad introduction to the war for those casual visitors) as well as exhibits that chronicle the life and activities of a typical soldier. There were also a lot of very modern computerized interactive exhibits (kids will love these) and short films scattered through the different galleries.
The displays about Gettysburg obviously dominate the museum and these are impressive as well. They leave no stone unturned, as topics range from the cavalry actions at the start of the campaign (Brandy Station) to the march north, the concentration of the armies and Gettysburg, the three days of fighting, and the aftermath of the battle (retreat of the armies, treatment of the wounded, effects on the civilian population, efforts to establish the national cemetery, and the Gettysburg Address). There are three short films about each day of fighting; those who want a good understanding of what they will see on the driving tour should definitely take the time to watch them (echoing what I wrote earlier, I really wish more of that info had been included in the orientation film).
After exploring the battle, the museum has a few final galleries that discuss the final 2 years of battles after Gettysburg, the Confederate surrender, the end of slavery, the after effects of the war, and the creation of the national park. Unfortunately, I felt the galleries about the last 2 years of the war and the aftermath sort of rushed through their topics; they definitely didn't go into as much detail or have the high quality of the galleries at the start of the museum that discussed the causes of the war and the early battles. This is one area where the facility falls a little short in its effort to provide a comprehensive history of the entire war to the casual visitor.
Overall, one can nitpick different aspects of this visitor center for falling a little short of perfection, but the reality is that it is an overall outstanding facility. I think anyone who visits- whether a serious student of the Civil War or a casual tourist- will walk away learning something they didn't know before. That, in itself, is a huge accomplishment!
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC.