main reason for our trip down south was to visit with our son, who was
stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. We arrived at the Landmark Inn at the huge military base on Friday, June 13. We also made a trip into Fayetteville to see the Airborne Museum, an impressive homage to U.S. airmen and special forces throughout history. It was Flag Day, and there was a vast sea of flags planted on the lawn in front of the museum. We also went next door to the Veteran's Park, which featured many large sculptures including an eerie display of the hands of veterans from counties across the state.
We said goodbye to our son on Sunday and drove north into Virginia for the last leg of our trip, a two-day stay at Busch Gardens Williamsburg. It had been a decade since we last visited this massive theme park, and there had been many changes. The biggest one is that Anheuser-Busch no longer owned it; it was purchased by a consortium called Sea World Parks (which, obviously, also owned Sea World). Busch Gardens Williamsburg was known for a time as The Old Country. It was designed to replicate old world European countries, and did so masterfully. It featured some of the most spectacular landscaping at any park. It also offered some of the best dining experiences, with delicious food native to each of the countries represented. So we were excited to be returning.
We arrived on Sunday afternoon and checked in at the Days Hotel next to Busch's Water Country USA waterpark. I chose that hotel because it had a great package deal for the room and the park, plus meals. The hotel's entrance hall gave the appearance of high-end luxury. But that illusion didn't last very long. When we arrived in our room, we discovered holes punched into the walls and poorly functioning plumbing. But it certainly was a bargain....
With some time to kill, we ventured out to Yorktown Beach, one of the many historic locations in the area. The beach area wasn't too inviting for swimmers; signs warned of jellyfish and what to do if stung. But it seemed popular with fishermen. We stopped for dinner at the bustling Island Cafe in the Duke of York hotel along the beach. Then we went back to our hotel to rest up.
On our last trip to Busch Gardens, the weather was blistering hot. This trip proved similar. Although we were grateful for the sunny skies, temperatures hovered in the 90s with high humidity. So we slathered on the sunblock and drove over to the park entrance at 9:30, a half-hour before the park opened. Since it was a Monday, I figured that attendance would be light, but we didn't even reach the gates: traffic was backed up four lanes across about a quarter-mile back. As we inched toward the entrance, the road eventually widened to ten lanes. But even that didn't speed things up much.
We opted for the $25 "preferred" parking area. Even though Busch had a fleet of trams to take you from the other parking lots that were $10 cheaper, because of the heat we wanted the convenience of having our car close by. We parked a few rows back from the ticket gates. I had printed out our tickets vouchers online. There was a row of kiosks so that we could print out our own tickets. The machines were balky, many of them non-functional and others simply refusing to scan the vouchers. It seemed to be a common problem for all the guests. We finally found a kiosk that worked. It printed out a series of small paper tickets, about the size of a credit card, one set for each of us. One ticket was for our entry (good for up to five visits), one was a dining card and the other a buy-one-get-one-free coupon for any midway game. We then walked down toward the park entry. As at Hersheypark, there was a shady winding path that led down toward the entrance gates. A small waterfall with a babbling stream ran along the left side. It was a great way to set the mood for the park.
Bag inspectors were set up in front of the gates, which was a good idea. Many other parks have baggage inspection immediately after the gates, which tended to clog up the flow of guests into the park. Instead, guests here could walk out onto an unobstructed midway. Well ... sort of.... There were no ticket takers. There were machines instead, similar to the ones that redeemed our vouchers. I placed my ticket under the scanner and ... nothing happened. There were little red laser marks for where to place my ticket. I had it lined up correctly, I thought. I flipped the ticket around, and still nothing. I looked over at other guests, and they were having problems as well. It was then that I noticed a separate machine next to the ticket scanner. It was a fingerprint scanner. I had to place my ticket under the ticket scanner and then place my finger on the fingerprint scanner. But still no luck. I fiddled with the ticket position some more, and finally the machine beeped and the gate opened. Half as many human ticket takers could have done the job twice as efficiently. The whole process felt oddly impersonal and sterile.
From there we walked onto the bright and colorful entry point for the park, England (aka Banbury Cross). Union Jacks were everywhere, suspended in the air from one building across to another. A little further up on the left was the Globe Theater, which formerly presented a 4D movie about pirates. It had been entirely re-themed to the heavily-promoted London Rocks show. The stereotypical '60s psychedelia clashed with the Tudor style in the rest of the area, including the giant clock tower. Next to the Globe Theater was a merchandise kiosk shaped like a bright red London bus. There were also the familiar British telephone booths in various locations, including a set that was cleverly used for checking children's height. Normally the music playing in this area would be trumpet fanfares and Ralph Vaughn Williams, evoking British formalism. The entire park had a well-executed sound system that gradually eased you from one section of the park into another with music evoking the culture of each particular section. But to promote the London Rocks production, the Banbury Cross soundtrack was changed to British rock and pop, leaning heavily on the Beatles. It created a sort of culture clash with the architecture, but maybe that was the point.
Karen and I both wanted to see the London Rocks show. The first performance was at 12:30 and we had read online that because of overwhelming demand, guests had to get tickets on a first-come-first-serve basis. Karen asked a nearby attendant where she could get tickets. She was told that the park did away with reservations; it was too much of a hassle. So guests just showed up when the doors opened and the doors closed when the theater was filled. We had two hours before the first show, but we didn't want to rush through the park or simply hang around, so we planned on catching the 2:30 show.
The park was divided into nine themed areas: England, Scotland (Heatherdowns), Ireland (Killarney), France (Aquitaine), New France (Canada), Germany (Rhineland), Oktoberfest (Bavaria), Italy (San Marco) and Festa Italia. In addition, there was a sort of nature walk between Ireland and France; it was home to Lorikeet Glen. The park was shady, but it was also very hilly. There were two other ways to get around besides walking: the Aeronaut skyride and the big steam railroad. Since it was still early in the day and not too hot, we chose to walk. We turned left out of England and headed toward Italy. We walked passed the Tweedside rail station where the beautiful blue Balmoral Castle engine was awaiting passengers. On our right was Escape from Pompeii, the heavily-themed shoot-the-chutes ride. People were already standing on the platform that jutted out into the pool where the boats splashed down. Children especially loved getting hit with the wall of water the boats produced. There were hardly any people in line, so Karen and I queued up and in a minute or two were seated in the front of one of the boats. It was pulled up the lift directly in front of us. At the top, the boat kept its nose precariously up as the back continued climbing. Then the nose tipped down and dove under the water, flooding the boat and then bobbing back up. We were already drenched. We floated around a trough in darkness. Scenes appeared on either side. There were warnings of tremors. There were huge statues that began falling over, one just over our heads. Fire shot up out of the water, climbed the walls and covered the ceiling. The heat was extremely intense. Eventually we rounded a corner and doors opened up onto a steep drop. We plunged down the chute and hit the pool, sending up the wall of water. It wasn't a particularly large one, but it got us wet enough to cool down.
After that we walked up the picturesque winding path toward the Festa Italia section which was home to our favorite ride in the park, Apollo's Chariot. We crossed the stone bridge over train tracks and spotted the Pegasus gift shop, which had some great Apollo's Chariot souvenirs the last time we were there. We took a look inside. I was surprised to find that most of the gifts there were generic Busch Gardens gifts. There were just two coaster-themed t-shirts, and one of them was for girls. And there was just one refrigerator magnet. Perhaps the coaster's novelty had worn off, so the park no longer saw a need to advertise it. But I had been looking forward to some Apollo's Chariot merchandise since the only thing I had, a lone t-shirt, was wearing out.
So we walked over to the ride entrance. The two attendants there greeted us warmly, and that would be a common occurrence at the park: all of the employees seemed genuinely happy to see us and always asked us how we were doing and if we were enjoying ourselves. That continued even through the extreme heat, when everyone looked like they were about to melt. The queue was nearly empty and we lined up for the front seat. We were able to board the next train, which looked as sleek as I remembered it, almost like a bird in flight. We each sat in a comfortable molded seat and pulled in the big cushioned lap bar, our legs dangling off the floor of the train. We were dispatched up the hill into the blinding sunshine. We crested the lift and flew down the first drop. The second hill had us floating off our seats. And then we soared into the ride's signature maneuvers: on the next hill the track sharply dropped off to the left, which had us flying out of our seats and floating to the right. We were negotiating a knot of track at high speed, flying every which way. Then we headed back toward the station, with one last sharp drop-off to the right and some speed bumps. Apollo's Chariot was still a phenomenal coaster, a rare family thrill ride that was smooth and enjoyable for all ages.
Next we headed over to the Festa train station. The train made three stops in the park; the other was where we were heading, to the Canada section. This was the longest stretch of track between stations, stopping at the opposite end of the park. There were three steam engines at the park. Only one was running today, and I understood why. Even though it seemed like millions of people were waiting to get in at the parking gates, it translated to a fairly light attendance in such a massive park. The engine glided into the station, puffing clouds of steam and pulling a seemingly endless string of passenger cars. We climbed aboard and were soon on our way. The train passed the stables and corrals where the famous Anheuser-Busch Clydesdales once roamed. We crossed the long trestle over the Rhine River. And then we passed a construction area at the site of what used to be the infamous Drachen Fire steel roller coaster which had been torn down in 2002. Oddly, the queue line and station had remained, blocked off from public access. There were backhoes, bulldozers and dump trucks digging up the property around the station which was showing its age and abandonment.
We arrived in New France, which was themed like an old woodsy settlement complete with numerous log cabins. The air was thick will the smell of barbequed food coming from Trapper's Smokehouse, the area's large eatery. All of the restaurants at Busch Gardens were cafeteria-style, where you'd get a tray and walk through a line choosing which food you wanted. And most of the seating was outdoors.
Nearby was the park's lengthy log flume, Le Scoot. The ride was mostly hidden by trees and intertwined with Alpengeist, the giant steel inverted looping rollercoaster nearby. It also had one of the longest waits of any ride in the park. Fortunately the queue was enclosed, and watching Alpengeist blast through its course at such close proximity was entertaining. After about 20 minutes we were seated in our log, which appeared to have received new upholstery and was very comfortable. As with most flumes, the drops didn't produce much of a splash. But the ride was long, shady and refreshing.
Afterward, we made our way toward France. There was a nod to the France with which most people are familiar in the form of a small sort of half-replica of the Eiffel Tower. But most of the architecture evoked less of Paris and more of Provence. There were lots of little shops there selling everything from crepes and wine to nachos. There was also the big stage of the Royal Palace Theater, an amphitheater where we had seen a Cirque du Soleil performance on our last visit. It didn't appear to be open.
For coaster enthusiasts, France was home to Griffon, the floorless dive coaster from renowned Swiss firm B&M. At 205 feet high with a completely vertical drop and two looping elements, I wasn't sure if I could handle it. But ever since I heard about this type of coaster, I'd wanted to try one, and this was the only model I had ever seen. There were just eight in the world, and only one other in the U.S. (at Busch Gardens in Tampa, Florida). The trains looked somewhat ridiculous, three cars with ten seats each! Most of the riders were hanging off either end of the track. The trains were also equipped with unique fins underneath. Near the end of the ride, the train would skim across the surface of a pool and the fins would send up a huge blast of water behind them. It was stunning to watch, and the park had created an observation deck where guests could get soaked much as with Escape from Pompeii.
I watched the ride run through its course a few times. I had to do it. Karen decided to pass, unsure of how extreme it would be. I walked over to the nicely themed station. As had become typical, the queue was empty. When I got to the loading area, however, there were quite a few guests there, most of whom were in line for the front seat. The queuing area was a bit confusing, so I asked an attendant standing there if the line in front of me was for the front seat. He seemed extremely bored and uninterested in my question. He pointed to the back of the train and blandly said, "Line three." I replied that I wanted the front seat. He pointed again and with the same deadpan intoned, "Line three." I told him I was sorry but I really wanted to ride in the front. He threw up his hands and slumped back against the wall. Thankfully, he was the only unfriendly employee I encountered all day. The ride operators, on the other hand, seemed to be having a great time getting the crowd excited about riding.
Because of the ride's high capacity, it didn't take me long to advance in the queue. I was the last in a group of ten, so I sat in the very last seat on the left side of the train. I was as far from the track as one could get. The molded seats were like those on Apollo's Chariot and were very comfortable. The over-the-shoulder harness was thick but also comfortable. In front of me was a thick stainless steel gate to prevent guests from toppling off the edge of the ride platform. Once we were all secured, the floor dropped out from under us, the gate opened and the huge train rolled forward, turning 180 degrees to the right and heading up the steep lift hill. As with Apollo's Chariot, we were staring right into the sun. We crested the top and very slowly rolled through another 180-degree right-hand turn. We came to the edge of the 90-degree drop where there was another chain. This one caught the train and held it. I was hanging there, suspended 200 feet above the midway looking straight down. I had a moment to wave to Karen far below, then the chain released and forcefully plummeted downwards below the ground level. We rose up higher and higher, and right before we completely inverted the track straightened out smoothly and we were upright flying down the next hill. That was B&M's "Immelman" element, and it was sort of a reverse of the twisting dive on Apollo's Chariot. We sped up and then rose into a left-hand turn where the track flattened out. We slowed to a crawl as we approached another 90-degree drop. The second half of the ride was a repeat of the first, only smaller: we crept to the edge, flew down the drop and then rose up into another Immelman. After that we flew over a little speed bump and then dove down across the pool. Even with the huge splash, no one on the train seemed to get wet. Then a quick 180-degree left hand turn led to another speed bump and we glided into the brakes.
What a great ride! I was seated next to a man who was older than I, and he wanted to get back on and do it again. Busch Gardens and B&M had somehow created a major thrill machine that was also a family ride. There were no extreme G forces, no greying out, no discomfort. It definitely got my heart pumping though. Plus, the ride was lots of fun to watch from the ground. The only regret I had about the ride was landscaping. Griffon replaced the Le Mans Raceway, a four-abreast car ride that wound through a forested area. Griffon was so compact, there was room for little else except steel and concrete. And that seemed out-of-character for the park.
Nearby was Aeronaut, the skyride. We queued up and were soon dangling high above the park on our way to Germany. My musings about the steel and concrete became blatantly obvious; our trip on the skyride seemed to be passing through a heavy construction zone, not a theme park (unless the theme was the industrial age). We were completely surrounded by steel from Griffon and Alpengeist. It felt like we were traveling between telephone poles. Gradually the trees returned and we were deposited in Germany, next to the Land of the Dragons, a whimsically-themed children's play area. Nearby was the park's Kinder Karousel, a 1919 Allan Hershell ride that was well-paired with the children's play area. I had first visited this carousel when I was at a National Carousel Association Technical Conference in 1995. (That was my first-ever visit to Busch Gardens.) The ride didn't have the grandeur of a 4-abreast PTC machine, but it was a good fit for the park and a fine piece of historical preservation.
We walked up the hill to the plaza in front of the Wilkommenhaus, which sported a large elaborate mechanical clock with moving figures that emerged every fifteen minutes. The Wilkommenhaus also featured a gift shop and an ice cream parlor. I got vanilla ice cream on a waffle cone that had been dipped in white chocolate and peanuts. It was delicious and refreshing. Then we walked through the Germany section, which featured small and ornately decorated shops, some with stained glass windows. One of my favorite shops in the park was Father Time. It featured dozens of hand-crafted timepieces from the Black Forest in Germany. We entered the air-conditioned shop and I immediately noticed that all the clocks were gone. In their place were shelves of various glass art pieces. Against one wall was a glass blower hard at work.
The shop had three rooms though. One opposite the glass blower was filled with Christmas gifts. The one to the side of the glass blower was filled with authentic German beer steins. When I entered that room, I spotted a small area next to the steins where a handful of non-functioning clocks hung. On the wall opposite the steins were a few more clocks that also weren't functioning. I did spot a small battery-powered clock that was a tiny version of the large cuckoo clock I had purchased at Busch Gardens on our last trip. I made a mental note of it.
From Germany, we walked under the ornate iron arches leading to the Oktoberfest section, one of the largest areas in the park (understandable, since Anheuser-Busch created the park). To our right was the imposing structure of Curse of DarKastle, an elaborately-themed motion simulator. Directly in front of us was the Festhaus, the largest indoor beer garden in the world. In front of the Festhaus was a curious piece of landscaping, a circular area with a big sort of Maypole in the middle and four giant colorful metal butterflies poised around it.
The area featured an assortment of fairly standard flat rides: a Wave Swinger, a drop tower, bumper cars. The big draw (besides DarKastle) was Verbolten, a mostly indoor launched coaster. It took the place of one of my favorite rides in the park, the legendary Big Bad Wolf. There was the usual attention to detail in the theming. Though the same Big Bad Wolf station was used, there was a smoking smashed-up sports car outside. The trains were beautifully detailed to look like long sports cars. But the ride didn't appear to be running. One empty train was sitting in the station, and another on the brake run. The ride followed much of the same terrain that was covered by Big Bad Wolf, including the drop over the Rhine River. The main difference was a giant green metal building where much of the ride took place. Maybe I was just bitter over the loss of one of my favorite roller coasters, but I had no interest in riding Verbolten.
We walked across the long bridge toward the Italy section of the park. Canopies along the bridge had ceiling fans and misters to keep guests cool. The bridge offered distant views of Loch Ness Monster's famous interlocking loops as well as Verbolten's long drop over the Rhine River. We crossed over and were transported into San Marco, possible the best themed area in the entire park. It really felt like we were walking down a rustic street in old Italy. There was the beautifully decorated Il Teatro di San Marco, where you could dine and take in a musical show. There was the Ristorante Della Piazza that offered Italian-style foods. There was the picturesque central area that featured several well-themed flat rides surrounded by deep green hedges and tall Romanesque columns.
By then it was about 2:00, so we walked back down the winding shady path toward the Globe Theater. Along the way, we passed by an area we didn't notice before. It was located across from Escape from Pompeii: Sesame Street's Forest of Fun. It was a small children's park themed to the Sesame Street characters. There was a large water play area with a cartoonish castle at the back. And there were a few rides, including the kiddie coaster Grover's Alpine Express. Though small, the area was generally well designed. But I didn't understand why it was there in the first place. There was already Land of the Dragons, which had theming that better fit Busch Gardens. Perhaps management wanted a kids area closer to the front of the park. But why Sesame Street? In the context of everything else in the park, it made no sense. At least it was tucked away in a corner and wasn't too intrusive. And the kids there seemed to like it.
When we arrived at the Globe Theater, the doors were just opening for the 2:30 show. The cast of the show appeared in full flower-power regalia to greet the guests as the enter. Karen paused for a photo op. We entered the air-conditioned building. Karen and I got drinks at the concession stand and we walked into the mostly empty theater. We sat near the back in the center and took in the view before us. The pre-show setup was an entertainment all by itself. It was difficult to tell exactly what we were looking at. It was physically part scenery and part curtain. But it was completely lit by animated projections, turning it into a Terry-Gilliamesque black-and-white cartoon of 1960s London. (It amuses me that the work of Gilliam, an American, has become synonymous with the U.S. perception of British comedy.) Two men on the left were waiting for a bus, periodically looking around and checking their watches. Characters walked down the sidewalks and disappeared into the distance. Birds landed on the tops of the buildings and flew off. A bobby walked by whistling a tune, notes floating from his mouth up into the air.
A building at the center had three "windows" that were LCD screens. Every few minutes they would come to life with an animated Queen Elizabeth, who would give pointers on drinking tea. Or she would tell people to move to the center of the theater or admonish people for listening to that awful rock and roll music. A small red briefcase sat center stage with a spotlight on it. The theater gradually filled to capacity. The Queen made one final announcement and the show began. A girl appeared onstage wearing a pink 1950s dress adorned with images of vinyl records. She picked up the briefcase and carried it to the upstage right area as the curtain rose and the stage was transformed into her bedroom. She began singing and opened the briefcase. It was a record player. She placed a record on it and sang about how much she loved the music.
What followed has remained a complete jumble in my mind. The songs swung wildly from one era to another, from early Beatles to '90s David Bowie, from Queen to Eric Clapton. There was no plot that I could discern. There were situations that culminated into two of the characters getting married. But I had no idea why.
What kept my jaw dropping through the entire show, though, were those projections. The physical set was a series of irregular white arches that progressively got smaller toward the back of the stage. Those formed the "screen" onto which the projections played out. The scene could instantly morph from abstract swirling psychedelic colors and patterns to the inside of a London cab racing down the city streets. It was visually mind-blowing and that alone made the show worth seeing. There were also some of the old 4D gimmicks leftover from the Pirates show: the seats vibrated at certain points, air blew in our faces. Those gimmicks were unessential. The visuals carried the show.
But I didn't like how the songs were done. It was as if three decades of British music had been stuffed into a high-speed blender, mashed together nearly beyond recognition. I think it would have been much more interesting to hear the music evolve from its skiffle roots up to the New Wave era with Thompson Twins and Eurythmics. But instead we were subjected to a mash-up that didn't do justice to any of the genres. Perhaps to the current generation, everything pre-1990 is "oldies" and sounds the same. But having lived through it, I know that's not true. I found the audience reaction interesting. The show couldn't have had more energy; the performers were terrific and ended on a high -- and loud -- note (though I can't remember what the song was), and yet the audience reaction was not nearly as enthusiastic as I would have thought. The applause was more polite than enthused, and the audience flocked for the exits as soon as the curtain came down. So overall, London Rocks was an impressive technical achievement if not an artistic one.
We visited the gift shop next door, Union Jax, which was filled wall-to-wall with British-themed souvenirs. One entire wall was dedicated to Beatles memorabilia, understandable considering the number of Beatles songs that were featured in the show. From there we decided to find a place to eat (with our free dinner coupons). We settled on Trapper's Smokehouse back in the New France section. We followed the winding paths back toward that area. In the Lorikeet Glen section just past Ireland, we passed by a habitat for two bald eagles. Busch rescued animals that had been injured and nursed them back to health. But because of their injuries, the animals wouldn't have survived in the wild. So the park kept them in as humane a condition as they could. Just past the eagles, a woman greeted us near an overpass. Below us was a caged-off area that was home to two grey wolves. She was throwing them raw meatballs from a pail. The wolves were accurate catchers. She told us about the wolves, that one was male and one female. To make sure they didn't compete over the food, she would send them off with a command to another trainer at the other end of their vast pen. They would run like the wind and disappear out of sight. Then one would come running back and catch a meatball, followed by the other.
We continued on and finally arrived in New France. We walked over to Trapper's Smokehouse and looked at the menu. The last time we ate there, it was a new building and they served phenomenal smoked salmon. But that was nowhere to be found on the menu. Instead it was beans, corn on the cob and the usual barbequed chicken and pork. So we passed on that. Plus, we wanted to catch the 4:30 show at the Teatro di San Marco. So we decided to dine Italian. But that meant we would have had to walk to the opposite end of the park, and we were running out of steam. So we hopped on the nearby Aeronaut, took it to the Germany station where we had to get off and then get back on. When we arrived at the England station, it was a (relatively) short walk to San Marco.
The Ristorante Della Piazza was nearly empty. We walked over to the cafeteria line and checked out the offerings. There was eggplant parmesian and spaghetti with marinara sauce. Everything else was meat, but at least we had some choices. So I picked the spaghetti, a salad and a drink. Karen got a salad, a fruit cup, some mozarella sticks and a drink. We went over to the cashier with our trays and presented our coupons. "This is good only for one entree," she said to Karen. "You need to have an entree." Karen said she didn't want an entree, that this was plenty of food. But the cashier was insistent. "This coupon is just for an entree. You have to pay for all your sides separately. Everything you have is a side." So my spaghetti was so far the only thing that was free. Reluctantly, Karen went back and got an eggplant parmesan. The cashier then took our coupons and scratched them out.
"Excuse me," I said hesitantly. "Aren't we supposed to get those back? They're supposed to be good for two meals."
"No," she said adamantly. "They're only good for one entree. If you want to talk to my supervisor, you'll have to wait because I don't know where he is."
Karen and I looked at each other. "Never mind," I said. Our "free" meal totalled over $18.
We took our trays over to the Teatro and sat down in the shady center section to eat. My spaghetti was pretty good. The pasta was thick and rich and the sauce was tangy. Karen nibbled on her eggplant, which was okay but not what she wanted. My salad was good, with a nice mix of different greens. The stage in front of us was picturesque, with a painted background depicting an idyllic Roman countryside. Water poured from slots in the walls on either side. On the stage were two racks filled with pots and pans. One of our favorite acts on our last visit to the park were the Rhythm Chefs, four percussionists who improvised humorous routines on kitchenware. It looked like this show would be a variation on that.
We heard some noise behind us. Sure enough, four performers were out on the midway warming up the crowd with improvised percussion. The water features suddenly fell silent, which meant the show was about to begin. A sizeable crowd had drifted in to listen. The percussionists ran up to the stage and pulled the covers off of some percussion sets that were there. They banged a bit on the pots and pans. Then a trumpeter in colorful chef's clothing walked out on stage and played a fanfare. He was followed by other brass players in equally colorful costumes who harmonized with him. It sounded lush and inspiring. The show was called Mix It Up, and it alternated between brass pieces and percussion pieces. Also thrown into the mix were two dancers with swords and streamers. The musicians were all excellent and the combination worked well. It didn't have much to do with Italy, but it was by far the best show we saw at Busch Gardens.
After that, we called it a day and headed back to our hotel. On the way out, an elderly employee near the entrance asked us if we enjoyed our stay. We chatted with him for a while, and he invited us to take a survey about our experience. We agreed and were ushered into a small room near the height check stations. The room had six desks with PCs. Two guests were already there clicking away. An attendant had us sit at two of the terminals and explained how to navigate the system. It was similar to online satisfaction forms that many companies use. It took us about ten minutes to get through all the questions, and afterward the attendant gave us a coupon that was good for $5 off any $25 online purchase. So we couldn't use it in the park. I guess that made sense since the survey was done as people were leaving the park.
The next morning, we left earlier and arrived at the parking gates shortly after 9:00. There were already cars lining up, kept back from the gates by traffic cones in the road. We were second in one of the lines. Within a few minutes, cars and buses were lined up far behind us and out of view. The weather forecast for the day was for even more extreme heat, so we planned on taking it easy. A few minutes before 10:00, an attendant removed the cones and cars surged forward to the gates. We paid for the preferred parking again, and were the first ones in the lot, right at the front.
We had no particular agenda for the day. We had ridden the rides we wanted to and had seen the shows that interested us. So day two was more about relaxing and soaking up the park atmosphere. We once again had difficulty with the ticket scanners, but no one was behind us waiting to get in. So we fiddled with it until it beeped and let us in. Karen poked around in the Emporium gift shop to see if there were any souvenirs that interested her. She made note of a few for later.
Passing through the Scotland area, we stopped at the stable to look at the Clydesdales in their cages. One horse was asleep, lying down with its head propped up on the side of the cage. An attendant was busy rearranging the nameplates above the cages. She commented she had never seen a horse sleeping like that. Outside in the corral, another Clydesdale was having breakfast.
We then passed through the Ireland section. It seemed like we were the only people in the park. Most everything was still closed. The Emerald Isle gift shop was open, so we browsed around. Across from the gift shop was Europe in the Air, a new motion simulator attraction that replaced Confusion Hill. I assumed the only difference was the theming; Confusion Hill was a CGI leprechaun tale. The story was fun, but the motion simulator cars moved too violently for me. So we passed on this one. Nearby was the Abbey Stone Theater, where on our last visit we saw the pretty good Riverdance show. A similar show was still playing, but unfortunately there was only one performance at 6:30. We were pretty sure we wouldn't be staying for it.
We continued along down toward Lorikeet Glen with its intertwined paths. It was a sort of miniature zoo, housing not only birds, but lemurs, lizards, snakes and tortoises. An attendant stood nearby showing off a kestrel, the smallest predatory bird. Another attendant stood next to a talkative macaw. All the attendants were friendly and very informative, eager to talk about their companions. We entered the aviary and were surrounded by dozens of colorful birds. There were warnings posted not to try to handle the birds because they might bite. A family had entered after us, and when we looked over at them a young girl had two birds perched on her arm and another on her head.
From there we strolled through rustic New France. Karen bought a bag of popcorn there and said it was delicious. Then we headed across to the whimsically themed Alpine area where Alpengeist was. There were many whimsical structures there, including a statue of an off-balance skier and a clock tower made out of skis. We passed under the big archway through the gates to Germany. Although the row of game booths was still closed, it didn't look out of place since the park had painted the doors to look like the surrounding buildings. There were also numerous murals throughout the park that fit well with the areas they were in.
The giant Festhaus was calling us. In the past, we had seen a show there that was basically a German band concert with authentic German dancers. The most amazing thing about it was the band's platform, which started about 30 feet in the air and gradually drifted down onto the stage. Instead of German music, though, the new attraction there was titled Entwined: Tales of Good and Grimm. We could tell something was different the minute we entered the Festhaus. A giant scrim had been hung over a balcony that formed an archway into the dining area. It was deep blue and green and depicted a mystical forest with sunbeams shining through. Inside the massive dining area was a stage that occupied almost the entire width of the Festhaus. It was a pretty elaborate and atmospheric set, with different levels, stairs, a stone well, grass and long strips of decorated cloth hanging from the ceiling that combined formed an image similar to the scrim at the entrance.
So we decide to have a light lunch and take in the show, which began in about a half-hour. The cafeteria portion was beyond the left side of the dining room from the entrance. Menues hung by the entrance turnstiles. I thought it was peculiar that a German eatery featured a large sign advertising "Festhaus Pizza & Fries", which included turkey sandwiches and a club wrap. It was also curious that traditional German food (bratwurst, sauerkraut, etc.) was almost an afterthought there. Naturally, beer was sold -- but not one drop of Budweiser. Considering that the park was called BUSCH Gardens (not to mention the fact that the Anheuser-Busch brewery was next door to the park), that seemed really strange. But we were there for a light lunch. So we each got a salad and a drink. Karen also got
some kettle-cooked potato chips. We chose a table near the back center of the Festhaus.
As we were finishing our food, the show began. The opening reminded me of Sondheim's Into the Woods, with a narrator singing a sort of modern Broadway-styled number about the Grimm fairy tales. The heroine of the story was introduced. She wished for a better life and wanted to meet a prince. It was clear there was going to be a sort of fairy tale mash-up, as with Into the Woods. But so far the show seemed sophisticated, and the music drew inspiration from German bands. Then a group of magical gnomes appeared and things headed south. They told her they could help her fulfill her dreams. Three gaudily-dressed women appeared high up on the opposite side of the stage. I think they were supposed to be like evil stepsisters. But they weren't. They for some reason wanted to crush the girl's dreams. One of them burst into Madonna's Material Girl while another girl performed acrobatic maneuvers up on a trapeze, a la Cirque du Soleil. Pinocchio appeared for some reason. The narrator told the audience that our heroine needed three magic words to help her. So he asked audience members for the name of a street, an animal and something else that I can't recall. Whenever she got into trouble, we were supposed to shout those three words. He also told us to yell "Yay!" whenever anyone said, "Happily ever after."
Next she encountered an old man, an old lady and a wolf who also wanted to stop her. They tied her to a giant bottle of hot sauce and sang a song around a cauldron. I'm not kidding. Eventually, the audience was cued to shout out the three magic words -- and all of the baddies were vanquished. The narrator turned out to be her handsome prince. Disco balls began spinning and the heroine burst into Dancing Queen. Trapeze artists spun in the air along with the disco balls. It was one of the worst shows I'd ever seen. I felt embarrassed for the actors. They were enthusiastic and were doing the best they could, but they didn't have anything to work with. It was as if the park had hired a professional composer and lyricist to write the show but they only had time to finish the first two numbers. After that, the management threw in anything they could think of just to fill a half-hour. It was sound and fury, signifying nothing. Children were probably dazzled by the visuals -- and as with London Rocks, that's about all there was.
We escaped from the Festhaus and walked back through the Oktoberfest area. Verbolten was up and running, although very little of the ride was visible. Karen and I strolled back through the Germany area and then proceeded down the long steep ramp to the Rhine River Cruise. A boat was just leaving as we arrived in the station. A senior boat captain was standing at the queue. As was customary at Busch Gardens, he asked us where we were from and if we were having a good time. We talked a bit about the park and the changes we had seen since our last visit. It was clear that all of the senior workers we encountered at the park took great pride in what they did and loved working for the park. He had worked at there for decades, and lamented that the management was trying to force him out in favor of younger (and in the case of international students, cheaper) workers.
The boat returned to the dock after about 20 minutes and we boarded. Another senior captain was training a young international student, who was at the helm and seemed to be struggling at the job. We travelled quietly down the Rhine River (actually a series of man-made ponds). The water was an unnatural bluish-green from algicide applications. We floated along down toward the turnaround of Apollo's Chariot. Then we turned around and headed back past Verbolten's drop and returned to the dock beside the intertwining loops of the Loch Ness Monster.
There was one way to get back to Scotland from here without have to circumnavigate the entire park: it was along the newly-renovated boardwalk and then up a seemingly impossibly steep and long flight of stairs. Karen wasn't up for that. So instead we simply strolled along the boardwalk. There were lots of turtles and large fish swimming in the water, and lots of people feeding them. Not only Loch Ness Monster, but the tracks of Alpengeist and Griffon were plainly visible.
Then we walked back up the long ramp into Germany and took the Aeronaut over to Scotland. We caught the next train at the Tweedside station and went for a full-circuit ride around the park. A gentle breeze slightly cooled the 95-degree air. Then we rode the Aeronaut over to France. As we passed over Griffon, we noticed a train filled with passengers stuck at the bottom of the lift. One rider was yelling to have them start the ride. For the rest of the time we were there, Griffon ran with empty trains. We walked toward Griffon and along the way paused to listen to three musicians performing some jazz on a circular brick platform.
Karen was melting, and I wanted to shoot some video. So she relaxed in the shade next to Griffon's pool while I walked around the park. When I returned about an hour later, it was dinner time. We walked over to Trapper's Smokehouse. Karen got a salad with fruit mixed in. I got macaroni and cheese, cole slaw, green beans, corn on the cob and apple cobbler. I originally had my heart set on the baked beans, but it turned out that they were mixed with brisket. Except for the corn and green beans, all of my sides were a single ice cream scoop portion served in a small black styrofoam bowl. Our meal totalled a whopping $33. The food was okay, certainly not nearly as good as the smoked salmon from our last visit. The macaroni and cheese was lukewarm and pasty. The green beans seemed to have been sitting around for a while. The apple cobbler, though, was excellent. And Karen enjoyed her salad. The outdoor dining area had some nice touches, such as the big canoe that functioned as a canopy over the tables.
And that was about as much as we could take. The wilting heat was getting to us. I didn't really want to leave, especially since the crowds were so light that it was like having the park to ourselves. But we had a long drive home the next day. We walked back over to Germany and into Father Time gifts. I purchased the little clock I saw earlier. The elderly cashier was from actually from Germany. She wouldn't sell me the clock on the wall; she went into the stockroom to get a brand new clock. I asked her what had happened to all the clocks they used to have. She said that kids would continually damage them. For instance, a grandfather clock had the numbers pulled off its face. She said the last year they had a full stock of clocks, the park racked up $14,000 in damages. So now they offered a limited number of them, and none of the display clocks were working.
Karen called me over to the glass blower's stand. He had made several different models of Star Trek's Enterprise. They were pretty impressive, beautifully proportioned, on a mirrored stand and reasonably priced. The glass blower, Ray, was very friendly and was telling us that he began making them for the heck of it, and found he couldn't make them fast enough. (Each one took about two hours.)
He had guests coming to the shop when the park opened asking to buy one. I told him I'd take one of the smaller ones for my display cabinet. He picked out what he felt was the best of the lot and packaged it up for me. Karen bought one of his glass pieces as well, a sculpture that incorporated shimmering green frogs.
We took our bundles and walked to the Wilkommenhaus, where Karen had seen a stein she wanted to buy for our son-in-law. Then we boarded the Aeronaut back to England. We stopped into the Emporium, where Karen purchased some souvenirs for our daughters. There were no Apollo's Chariot shirts that I liked, and I didn't care for the design of the Griffon shirt. But it was the only one they had and I liked the ride, so I bought it and a few refrigerator magnets. And then we said goodbye to the park.
Busch Gardens still had so much to offer. The employees were some of the friendliest we've ever encountered. The landscaping was still beautiful. There were plenty of rides the whole family could enjoy together, from the train to Pompeii to even Apollo's Chariot and Griffon. But I did have some concerns. The food seemed more generic than I remembered it and the quality wasn't as consistently superior as it had been in the past. But my biggest concern was expressed best by Karen in a Freudian slip she made: at one point she called the park Busch Flags (over Six Gardens, I presume). That pretty much summed it up: Busch seemed to be turning into a ride-heavy thrill park. I had seen a report that management was going to shoehorn another thrill coaster next to Apollo's Chariot. Festa Italia was one of the more beautifully landscaped areas in the park, and I hated to think of the mountains of steel that would dominate those grounds. The idea behind Busch Gardens was to give guests an experience of what old Europe could have been like (and also, of course, to sell beer). And incidental to that, some rides were integrated into the landscape. But the new owners seemed to be pushing the park to be something else. Thrill parks were common, and I had little interest in visiting them. Busch was a unique place, with offerings and an atmosphere that couldn't be found anywhere else. Loch Ness Monster and Big Bad Wolf could only have existed at Busch; no other park could have replicated their layout and theming. But Griffon, though an enjoyable ride, was a pile of metal in the middle of the midway. Any other park could have built it. (To be fair, the short-lived Wilde Mause wasn't much different.) I hoped that the current park management (an investment firm primarily concerned with profit) realized what made Busch unique and that they would continue to capitalize on that, rather than succumb to the trend of flooding the midway with rides just for the sake of having more rides. One big vacancy that could have been filled: a wooden roller coaster for the entire family. The park had that huge empty area where Drachen Fire was (and there was already a coaster station!). A wood coaster could blend in beautifully with the rustic nature of the park. Busch had built just one other wood coaster, at their Tampa park. I wished the same for Williamsburg.
Outside of those concerns, we really did enjoy ourselves. I hoped it wouldn't take another decade before we returned.
Return to Karen and Jay's Excursions