Busch Gardens Williamsburg
May 28, 2017

copyright Jay Ducharme 2017

The second part of our WNYCC Coasterfestâ„¢ trip was a stop at beautiful Busch Gardens Williamsburg.  We've stayed at various hotels in Williamsburg over the years.  This time we tried the Country Inn & Suites just down the road from the park.  It was raining as we drove in, and the forecast for the next day was thunderstorms.  The room we got was pleasant in a generic hotel chain sort of way.  It did have the largest bathroom I've ever seen in a hotel.  We got a good night's sleep and the next morning went to the hotel's breakfast buffet.  They had a make-your-own-waffle station, along with the usual assortment of cold cereal, eggs, sausage, bagels and pastries.  I think their orange juice was Sunny Delight; it tasted more like an orange popsicle.  The waffle was good, though the timer on the grill wasn't working.  The bagels and pastries were a bit stale.  The home-fried potatoes had the strangest taste, a sort of pungent bitterness as if they were seasoned with rosemary and basil.

After that underwhelming experience, we set out for the park. The sky was heavily overcast, with only occasionally glimpses of sun.  As we pulled into the entrance, the swooping turn of Apollo's Chariot was clearly visible.  The park technically opened at 10:00, so we had a half-hour wait.  As usual, traffic cones had been placed about 100 yards in front of the entrance gates.  Only a few cars were waiting with us, but by the time the traffic cones were removed, cars were backed up as far as the eye could see behind us.  We paid the $30 fee for preferred parking and parked right in front of the entryway under a shady tree (not that we'd see much sun).  We had brought our raincoats with us just in case, but we decided to take a chance without them.  Since we were so close to the entrance, it wouldn't be much of a problem to come back and get them.

We walked over to the Guest Services booth across from the waterfall that ran alongside the entryway.  Some WNYCC members were already waiting there and soon Geff and Noreen Ford arrived and we were given our tickets for the park and the dinner.  We passed through the ticket booths and emerged into the England section of the park.  The last time we visited, the Globe Theater was hosting a performance of London Rocks that we really enjoyed.  This year, the sign for the show was gone.

We decided to head toward the far end of the park to ride the latest attraction.  This season Busch was opening its very first wooden coaster, InvadR.  I don't know what it is lately about parks giving their rides names that are missing vowels.  When we arrived at the entrance to the Scotland area, it was closed off.  In fact, the sign for the area (which used to be Heatherdowns) was replaced with a sign for Virginia, which made no sense.  We stood there for a while and then instead headed down the path that lead to the Festa Italia section.  But it too was blocked off.  Evidently the only area that opened at 10:00 was the England section, which had no rides, only shops (which were also closed).

Eventually the gates were removed and we took the downward sloping path to the right of Heatherdowns (or Virginia) toward the Ireland section.  To our left was a small field with grazing rams and a Clydesdale horse.  We crossed the rustic bridge over a waterfall and entered Ireland.  Like England and Heatherdowns, there wasn't much in this section besides excellent theming.  The one ride was a simulator that apparently was being renovated into a virtual reality experience.  VR seemed to be the latest trend in the amusement business, for better or worse.  We also noticed that Grogan's Grill, an eatery that usually served stereotypical Irish fare like corned beef, now offered a vegetarian option.  That was a welcome addition.  The Ireland section also had two theaters.  The Abbey Stone Theater usually offered Riverdance-styled shows.  The Castle O'Sullivan usually had more kid-oriented shows, like magic acts.  Both appeared to be closed.  As we left the Ireland section, we encountered a kiosk (which was also closed) selling Hawaiian food.  I don't know who made the decision to place Hawaii next to Ireland, but it seemed out of place.  The kiosk was offering that well-known Polynesian delicacy ... Spam?  It turned out that for a limited time, Busch was having a "Food and Wine Festival" with offerings from many different cultures at kiosks scattered throughout the park.

We followed a hilly path through the Lorikeet Glen section where there were various animal exhibits including grey wolves.  As we were leaving Lorikeet, there was a curious display for the Boys & Girls Club.  It sported a closed door in a flower bed, flanked by fences modeled after the club's logo.  A sign at the display mentioned that the flowers were going to be given to people in hospitals and nursing homes.

From there we entered the France section, where the massive steel dive coaster Griffon was running through its course.  I was still really impressed by the massive splash it made near the end of its run.  We passed through France and into the rustic New France (Canada) section where InvadR made its home.  The coaster had been intertwined with the great Le Scoot log flume and the park's railroad.  But from the midway, it was all but invisible.  Once again, Busch did a phenomenal job with the theming (a viking invasion and a sea dragon battle).  The ride's entrance was suitably imposing, with a huge ornate battering ram shaped like a dragon's head that had been impaled with dozens of arrows and spears.  The queue line was deceptively long, winding its way next to the log-cabin styled station.  There weren't many people in line and the park was running two trains, so it wasn't long before we were standing in the station and waiting for the front seat.  The trains themselves were from Gwazi, a huge wood coaster that had recently been removed from Busch Gardens in Tampa.  Like InvadR, that ride had been built by Great Coasters International and they made some of the best coaster trains on the market.  These had been nicely re-themed.  One sported a dragon on the front; the other a bear.  I noticed something unusual in the station: a large screen TV monitor that showed a graphic of each train that was in the station.  It displayed the status of the lap bars in the train, changing color depending upon whether the lap bar was opened or secured.  That was a useful safety feature for the ride operators.

Within a short time we were secured into the heavily padded seats, left the station and rounded the corner up to the lift hill.  At the top of the lift, the track dipped slightly and turned left toward a tunnel.  The drop was steep, and a crossbeam provided a great headchopper illusion as we flew down the hill.  For a brand new coaster, the ride was surprisingly rough and I was thankful for the padded seats.  The rest of the ride was fairly low to the ground, with lots of twists and turns and a few airtime hills.  The train shook quite a bit throughout.  The illusion of speed was well-done, with lots of structures surrounding us as we zigged and zagged.  The ride was fairly short, and we soon cruised back into the station.

Overall it was fun, if a bit jarring.  It fulfilled the park's desire to have a good family ride that was also somewhat thrilling.  It will be interesting to see how the ride ages. The WNYCC had exclusive ride time on the coaster starting at 10:30 that night; I knew we wouldn't last till then, so I was glad we rode when we had the energy for it.  We stopped by the photo booth on the way out and I purchased a digital photo.  The transaction was a bit clunky; I bought the photo and the park gave me a receipt with a QR code, which I couldn't scan.  The attendant then had me go to a website run by the company that vends the photos.  I had to create an account (with a password of course).   They would then send an e-mail to my address requiring me to verify my information through a special link.  I would then have to log in to the site and enter a long numerical code from the receipt to download my photo.  I had to wait until I got home, but I did finally get the photo.

After that we went to the nearby station to board the Busch Gardens Railway for a relaxing ride to the Festa Italia section where we encountered the newest ride in that area, Tempesto.  It wasn't exactly the best theming the park came up with.  In fact, the ride looked a bit awkward, shoehorned onto a sliver of midway in front of the best ride in the park, Apollo's Chariot.  Karen was still a bit woozy after InvadR, so I queued up for the latter and only waited a couple of minutes before I was seated in the front of the spacious train.  I was seated with a family that had never been on it.  And the ride didn't let us down.  It was one powerful airtime hill after another, with insane yet comfortable changes of direction.  Everyone came back to the station cheering.  It's still one of my favorite roller coasters.

We then made our way through the Italy section and across the bridge into the Oktoberfest area where we encountered ... a kiosk for Indian food.  To make it even more incongruous in its location, there was a large purple elephant there as well.  Maybe if they had sold curried bratwurst it would have made sense.  But it was pretty standard Indian fare, which Karen and I love.  So we got the samosa platter and some mattar paneer, and we sat at a nearby cafe table to eat it.  The cost was only $8 for everything, which was a decent price, especially at an amusement park.  And the food was excellent (which we've come to expect at Busch), so of the best Indian food we've ever had.

Nearby was the heavily themed dark ride, Curse of DarKastle.  Neither of us had been on it before.  I had thought it was a simulator ride, not a dark ride, so I hadn't bothered with it.  But I saw an on-ride video, and thought we might enjoy the experience.  So we entered the imposing grey castle structure.  There was a bin where we could take a pair of 3D glasses.  There was also an extensive pre-show playing on a video monitor, but with no one in line we just walked right past it.  The hallways seemed to go on forever, twisting and turning through one corridor after another.  We finally arrived at the loading platform.  Only two other people were in line.  The cars seemed absurdly large, a sort of high rounded wedge shape with two benches, one in front of the other.  As we sat down, heavy lap bars descended.  That wasn't an encouraging sign; it meant we'd be in for a wild ride.  We put on our 3D glasses and rolled out of the station.

Mechanically, the ride was amazing.  Karen was screaming her head off as the car spun and pitched in synch with 3D graphics projected in front of us.  Ghouls attacked us with swords and arrows.  The car seemed to be pushed about by various creepy characters.  We were flung off a precipice.  Wind blew in our faces.  I really couldn't tell what the storyline was supposed to be; it was just a series of excuses to give us a thrill.  The ride movement wasn't as violent as a typical theater simulator, but it was still pretty extreme.  One ride was enough for Karen.

To decompress from that we went over to the giant Festhaus, the largest clearspan eatery in the world.  A few minutes after we arrived, the German music revue show OktoberZest began.  Unlike the fairy tale show we saw here the last time, this content actually matched the venue ... or at least most of it did.  The set was impressive.  On either side of a wide empty platform were two stylized towers that looked like animated Black Forest clocks, complete with bronzed gears that revolved.  The performance opened with a violinist playing Beethoven excerpts against a pre-recorded synthesized backing track.  Then the ensemble appeared and sang ... Eidelweiss.  Really?  The show's creators couldn't find a more authentic German song besides one written by Rogers and Hammerstein for Broadway?  The group continued with some German dancing and then recruited kids to come up onto the stage to join them for the Chicken Dance.  At least that piece originated in Switzerland and had been a staple at Oktoberfest before being co-opted for weddings.  After that piece they asked the audience to join them in singing a song by the great German writer Henry John Deutschendorf, a.k.a. John Denver.  They all then proceeded to sing Country Roads.  It was like cultural whiplash.

It was interesting to observe the audience during all this.  As the performers went out into the audience, guests would just wander by them seemingly oblivious to what was going on, getting in the way of the performers and not paying any attention to the show.  Some audience members seemed to treat the show as an inconvenience, like, "How dare they perform when I'm trying to eat my hamburg!"  Perhaps we're approaching a point in human development where we'll just give each guest a set of virtual reality headsets as they enter the park.  Then people can just absorb themselves with whatever interests them without ever having to engage with reality.

We exited the building under the spectacular stained-glass Budweiser eagle, which also listed the original six themed areas at the park.  Then, since it was right in front of us, I decided to take a ride on Verbolten, the steel coaster that replaced the park's legendary Big Bad Wolf.  I had thought Verbolten was a looping coaster (like so many at the park), so I hadn't bothered riding it in the past.  But when I discovered it didn't have any loops, I was game.  Karen passed on it.  So I walked toward the entrance past a VW Bug on steroids and followed the snaking queue line.  Unlike the others so far, this line had quite a few people in it.  Once again, the park's attention to detail and theming was on display.  I liked the ceiling lights which were constructed out of spherical building vents.  As with other rides, I wasn't sure of the exact storyline, but it was consistent: lots of luggage and TVs.  The trains were wonderfully themed to look like German race cars.

When I arrived at the station, I discovered it was actually two stations; two trains would be stacked and loaded simultaneously from different queues.  I moved to the front seat line for the front train queue.  And at that point the skies opened up.  It was a Virginia storm, with thunder and torrential rain.  The park was still sending out trains and guests were returning to the station completely drenched.  I kept watching the sky as I inched closer to the front of the line.  Just before my train came in, I decided to skip out and come back later.  I turned around and headed for a nearby exit -- just as the rain started to let up.

By then it was about 1:00.  Our banquet wasn't going to be until 5:00.  So I met back up with Karen, who had sheltered herself in a pavilion.  We went back to the Festhaus, which now was mobbed with people.  There were two queues for food, one for German fare like bratwurst and another for pizza.  So we got in the long line for pizza.  We weren't in a hurry, so the wait didn't bother us.  It took about fifteen minutes to get to the serving counter.  By that point they had run out of cheese pizza and were making more as quickly as they could.  So we waited around until our personal pizzas were ready.  Once we had them, the next challenge was finding a place to sit.  The Festhouse used picnic tables for seating.  Karen spotted an empty one at the very back corner of the building.  So we sat there and munched as another performance of OktoberZest began.  The pizza was good, very cheesy.  We ate as the performers once again sang Eidelweiss and Country Roads.

We took our time, and when we were finished we cautiously headed back out onto the midway.  Fortunately, the rain had let up.  So I once again queued up for Verbolten.  Because of the rain, there were fewer people in line.  In a few minutes I was seated in the front of one of the comfortable trains.  On the "dashboard" in front of me was a dark circle which I assumed was an artistic detail that was supposed to be a speedometer or something.  The train rolled out of the station, turned left and down an embankment and then swung around to the right and engaged the magnetic launch track.  In front of us was a mockup of a stone wall with a gaping black hole in it.  We were blasted into the darkness.  All sorts of spooky sounds and rushing noises surrounded us.  There were bright flashes like colored lighting.  I felt some serious G forces and almost greyed out.  Then the ride calmed and we coasted slowly on a straight piece of track, still in the dark.  Far ahead an eerily-lit circular zone looked somewhat like trees and somewhat like a woman's face.  And then all hell broke loose.  Without warning we plummeted straight down into darkness, as if the whole train had been swallowed up by the earth.  Then we were shot out into the daylight, swerving about the snaky track and then climbing up to a bridge-like structure high above the Rhine River.  This was once the famous last drop on the Big Bad Wolf.  We plunged down toward the river and then made a big swooping S-curve back up to the station.

I thought Big Bad Wolf was an intense ride, but Verbolten was much more so.  At the same time, it was relatively smooth and generally comfortable.  I assume if I rode it again and was prepared for the sudden directional shifts in the dark, I'd enjoy it more.  I hated to admit it, but maybe I was just getting too old for this stuff.  My body wasn't handling the forces as well as it used to.

Karen met me at the exit where there were some kiosks set up where you could purchase on onride photo -- or a video.  That was the first time I'd seen a coaster where you could get a video of your ride.  That explained that little circle on the dashboard -- it was a video camera.  So I used the touchscreen to navigate through the lengthy menus.  I got to the payment portion and the screen filled with a Windows error message box listing a string of exception errors.  There were just two clerks running the entire shop, and one next to me was busy helping other guests navigate the menu system.  When she was done, Karen called her over to help me.  She had to reboot the kiosk.  I don't know why so many businesses continue to rely on Windows for this type of intensive stuff.  At any rate, after the kiosk was back up and running, I made my transaction.  The kiosk spit out a little piece of paper with a barcode, which I then had to take up to the clerk at the counter.  So I really don't understand the point of the kiosk in the first place.  It didn't give me anything except a piece of paper stating what I wanted to buy.  I could have just told that to the clerk at the counter.

The video cost $18, which initially seemed a little steep.  But I really wanted it.  The small building was packed with people, and as we stood there the skies opened up again, which drove even more people inside.  Karen noticed that there were attractive Busch Gardens umbrellas for sale, with roller coaster track covering them.  Since our raincoats were in the car (along with two umbrellas), I figured it would make a good souvenir as well as help us get back to our car relatively dry.  So I added that to my purchase.  The clerks were having trouble keeping the orders straight.  At one point, one of them asked me if my video was of two little girls.  I told them no, it was of me.  They apologized.  I had thought they were going to give me a flash drive with an MP4 file on it, or some simple quick thing like that.  But they were actually burning DVDs, a lengthy process.  All in all, it took about 20 minutes to get my DVD.  But I'm glad I did.  The disk itself was printed with Verbolten on it, and it came in an attractive cardboard case.  I was eager to see how it came out.  But that would have to wait until we returned home.  We could see only very brief excerpts on the kiosk.

The rain had let up again so, umbrella and DVD in hand, we made our way back to our car.  Fortunately from the Oktoberfest area it was a pretty direct route to the park entrance.  The winding path out of the Italy section was festively decorated with dozens of large red Japanese lanterns.  By the time we reached our car, a light mist was coming down.  No sooner did we put away the umbrella, don our raincoats and walk back toward the entrance, the sun came out.  And the air heated up.  It was as if nature was playing a little joke on us.  Ha ha.

We still had a while before dinner, so I suggested we take another trip on the train.  We boarded in the Scotland/Virginia station and rode it to New France.  Along the way we passed by the still-domant station of the long-gone Drachen Fire coaster.  The conductor pointed out some grazing deer along the way.  We also passed under and around the hidden structure of InvadR, getting an up-close look at the steel structure and twisting track.

Then we walked through New France and across the bridge over Le Scoot and Alpengeist where we had another brief view of InvadR, and continued on through the small Switzerland section that housed the Alpengeist station.  We headed down to the Land of the Dragons area in Germany and walked down the ramp toward the dock for the Rhine River Cruise.  A boat was just coming back to the dock when we arrived.  We sat next to a woman who had three kids.  She was very friendly and chatty throughout the ride.  We floated past the big drop of Verbolten and drifted under the long bridge between San Marco and Oktoberfest.  It was a pleasant cruise, and when we returned to the dock I checked my meal ticket and discovered that our dinner was at 4:00, not 5:00.  And it was then 4:00.  Fortunately, we were in the Germany section and it was a short walk to Oktoberfest and the Black Forest Picnic Grove next to the Festhaus.

When we arrived at our pavilion, the other WNYCC members were already there for the feast.  There was the usual fare of hamburgs and fried chicken.  But for us vegetarians there was also spaghetti with marinara sauce and pasta salad.  I should have dug down a bit deeper into the pan because my spaghetti was luke-warm.  Karen and I also made ourselves cheese sandwiches with hamburg buns and condiments.  We sat at a table with the Wheelers and the Reaumes.  John Reaume was enthusiastic about the new Planet Coaster computer simulator and showed me a recreation of the Crystal Beach Comet on his smartphone.

By then the sun had come out in full force and we ditched our raincoats.  We bid farewell to the WNYCC group and headed back out onto the midway.  We walked through Germany and browsed in the shops along the way.  What used to be a Bavarian clock shop now offered few clocks.  There were still some German beer steins.  But the gifts seemed to be more generic than in the past.  The glassblower we had seen on our last trip wasn't there.  We looked through the Christmas shop.  Then we moved on toward France.  There had once been a circular stage near the entrance where musicans would play.  That had been replaced by the bronze statue of an angel in armor standing upon and spearing another angel, which used to be located in front of the nearby La Belle wine shop.  I had no idea what that represented.  Maybe it was a metaphor for current world conditions.

There used to be a big amphitheater at that location, but it was blocked off by a wooden fence with a sign claiming "something cool" was coming.  A backhoe was visible behind it.  I wondered if they were building a waterpark there.  They certainly could use one for those hot summer days.

We strolled back through Lorikeet Glen and entered the aviary where various varieties of birds were flitting about, many of them displaying stunning colors.  Nearby at the Shenanigans Theater, an animal show was about to be begin.  We ended up on a bench behind a large tree in the crowded theater.  The show began with an impressive skit: a parrot took math problems from the audience.  The caveat was that the answer had to produce an integer between 1 and 10.  There were ten numbered cards on a rack.  The parrot would then choose the card with the correct answer on it -- and it got it right every time.  I don't know how the trainer managed that one.  It was really impressive to watch.  There were other antics with dogs jumping around and a cat climbing a rope upside-down.  The finale featured all sorts of animals chasing each other around the set in a sort of French farce.

As we passed through the Ireland section, guests were piling into the Abbey Stone Theater.  So we queued up and sat near the back.  The set on the stage looked like a stereotypical rustic pub.  A performer appeared and began setting up chairs cafe-style where people were seated in front of the stage.  He made light banter with an Irish accent.  The theater was packed.  Then the lights dimmed.   Another performer entered and sang a song about being the proprietor of the pub as other characters entered and sang along.  The piece was really well-written and set up the story of an American couple that had come to Ireland for a wedding of their friends.  The production quality was what Busch was known for -- professionally top-notch, what you'd expect to see on Broadway (a big difference from the show we saw in the Festhaus).  The story did eventually devolve into an excuse for dance numbers, especially a lot of Riverdance-style tap.  There was a sort of rivalry between the Irish dancers and the American jazz-style tappers.  There were also lots of references to drinking and other stereotypically Irish things.  But overall it was an enjoyable production and the audience loved it.

After that we called it a day.  Busch Gardens once again demonstrated its charms with plenty of family-friendly ways to occupy our time.  The attention to detail in the park, the theming and the delightful landscaping combined to form an experience unrivaled in the amusement industry (possibly apart from Disney).  It's heartening to see that the park's new owners (Sea World) have allowed the park to continue doing what it does best.  Outside of a few complaints (the out-of-place Tempesto and the seemingly random placement of the extra food kiosks), Busch Gardens is still one of our favorite theme parks.

And by the way -- when we finally arrived home, I watched the Verbolten video.  It amazed me.  The park had created an entire story based on the ride and had incorporated my footage (both onride and offride), along with stock footage and CGI.  I was impressed that they were able to process and burn that DVD so quickly.  It was a clever use of technology and yet another example of what made Busch Gardens so special.

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