Part Two, June 2004

Text and images copyright Jay Ducharme 2004

We began our second day at Busch Gardens with breakfast at a Williamsburg restaurant, The Gazebo. It had an attractive interior. There were photos on the wall of the owner with various notables (including Ronald Reagan). The food was plentiful and good. Our waitress seemed quite disinterested though.

Since we were in such an historically important city, Karen and I decided to take a walk around historic Williamsburg. For those of you who might not realize it (I didn't), Historic Williamsburg is a ground-up restoration of what the village probably looked like in the 1700s. It's staffed with people in period costumes going about their lives as they would have in that time period. We followed the green road signs. They took us to the giant visitor's center, with acres of free parking. It was still early (about 9:30), but the parking lot was already filling up. We followed the winding well-landscaped cobblestone path down to the entrance. Outside the main doors, there was a large bronze table that was a scale recreation of the entire Historic Williamsburg complex. We entered the big air-conditioned modern building. There was the requisite gift shop on the left and an educational bookstore on the right. Various giant photos depicting scenes from the village adorned the walls. What was most stunning was about 50 yards away: an area that looked like an airport terminal. It was a huge queuing area set up to buy tickets. I hadn't seen any prices or charges anywhere, and the thought of having to pay to walk around an historic area caught me off guard. I looked all around, trying to find more information. Finally I found it. In a wing off to the right where the bathrooms were, generally hidden from view, was a big poster with a listing of prices. My jaw dropped.

To walk into Historic Williamsburg cost $33 per person. There were many historical re-enactments such as mock trials that were an extra charge. The prices went up from there, to a maximum of $75 if you wanted to take in all the "shows." (That price was their "season pass.") We had planned to be there only a couple of hours at the most, and refused to spend that much money to experience something that essentially we see for free every year near our home (Storrowtown Village at the Eastern States Exposition). So we turned around and walked out. I could see spending ten or fifteen bucks to walk around, but I thought their price was exorbitant. We later found out that if we had parked at the nearby College of William and Mary, we could have simply walked in the back way for free.

So we headed back to Busch Gardens and went straight for the lockers under Escape From Pompeii. Rather than walk around with soggy feet all day, Karen suggested we wear sandals and put our shoes in a locker. It was a pretty good deal: six dollars gave you use of the decent-sized locker until the park closed. There was no key to misplace: you simply punched in your locker number and your passcode on the touch screen.

The weather turned quite a bit more hot and humid, so we queued up for Pompeii. We didn't mind at all as the boat flooded with water. People around us with sneakers groaned as their feet got saturated. After the ride we both stood on the viewing platform and got drenched as the boats passed.

Karen then bought herself a nice new hat and we headed for Apollo's Chariot. We were both wearing our spiffy new AC shirts, and many people stopped us to comment on them. The line was fairly short again and we queued up for the front. Two boys needed two more riders so we went right to the front of the line.

We left our sandals with the attendants. I pulled my lap bar down, but it wouldn't click all the way. There was about an inch between it and my stomach. Normally, I wouldn't have minded. But those B&M seats made me feel so vulnerable. The first drop and second hill had me clinging to the lap bar as I floated out of my seat. Through the pretzel and the incredible swoop-drop, I thought I would fly out of the train. I was most likely in no danger at all, but it was amazing how that little bit of wiggle room in the seat created such a sense of peril. We bought our humorous photo from the photo booth and walked back to our locker. That was the only drawback to the locker: it was near the front of the park, but Busch Gardens is so huge that it made for a lot of walking if we wanted access to it during the day.

From there we stopped to get some good Italian ice. We stood by the Roman Rapids observation deck and watched one raft after another get drenched. Feeling the approaching heat of the day, we took a spin as well. There were two kids on the ride with us who got soaked and loved it. Then we wandered through San Marco, enjoying the many sights.

We decided to make our second day a show day. We headed to Killarney for a production that Karen really liked the last time we were there: Irish Thunder. The Abbey Stone Theatre had a fairly nondescript exterior: uninteresting stonework with red doors. It did a good job of hiding the spectacular interior. Walking into that theater was like walking into another world. The little blue seats were too small and uncomfortable, but the amazing scenery distracted me from that. The interior was designed to look like ancient castle ruins from Ireland, perched up on a mountain. Vines crawled over the realistic gray stonework along the sides of the auditorium. Through arched openings, a blue sky and clouds were visible. Everything was dimly and atmospherically lit. Gentle mist drifted out from the wide stone-like stage. On either side were large archways with winding stone stairs that curved up and out of view. Each archway sat high upon a series of large jagged stone steps. There was a curtain across the stage's proscenium, but it was lit to look like an ancient stone wall. The words "Abbey Stone Theatre" radiated mysteriously from it. A woman's voice with a thick Irish brogue announced that the show would begin soon. An elderly woman behind us noticed our shirts and called out, "Are you the people from Minnesota?" We turned around to her puzzled and shook our heads. "Oh, I'm sorry," she said, "I thought you were somebody else."

The show was billed as, "championship dancers direct from Dublin, Ireland." It was similar to Riverdance. There were about a dozen performers. There was a group of dancers with two soloists, a group of singers and a fiddle player. The high-energy performance was staged so that each new piece became a little story with two performers (usually the lead dancers) as the main characters. The dramatic opening was mysterious, with loud thunder and low music, Ripples of lightning across the stage illuminated the performers, who were standing behind the curtain. It was if they were ghosts materializing before our eyes. Fog flooded the stage, the curtain lifted and the dancing began. The backdrops were spectacular, sort of like giant versions of those music boxes with the moving panoramas. The music was so loud though, that often the performers' incredible tap work was inaudible. Since this was just the second day of performances, I could understand things still needing fine tuning. What impressed me most about the show was how engaging the performers were. Their concentration was intense, yet they seemed to be having a great time. And they constantly acknowledged the audience, whether it was getting everyone to clap along or just smiling and focusing outward. They really seemed as if our enjoyment was everything. During so many shows at other parks, I get the feeling that we (the audience) are a chore that the performers have to suffer through. The performers go through the motions but never seem to be enjoying it. Maybe the difference was that the show was fresh for everyone. But Karen saw it in the middle of the season two years ago, and was still really impressed.

The show lasted about a half-hour and was quite satisfying. It was also technically amazing. We left smiling, walked over to Aquitaine and took the Skyride for a leisurely journey around to Banbury Cross. Then we walked back through San Marco and into the Oktoberfest. Karen had been debating whether to try Big Bad Wolf. I talked her into it. She doesn't like rides that swing back and forth, but I said that this was one ride she had to try simply because it's the best of its kind.

The line for the coaster stretched to just outside the station, and right when we queued up an announcement was made that the ride would be shut down for a while. I saw them cycling the trains and I watched a maintenance man walk over to the transfer track. I knew that they were taking the third train off to run two. Some people began to leave, but we stayed. I wanted to watch the tracks switch. Unlike a standard coaster that has the transfer track on a sliding platform, Arrow created an interesting alternative. A small section of track (about fifteen feet) after the brake run had another section of track welded upside-down onto its back. The maintenance man turned a key and pressed a button on a panel, and the track section rotated so that the top piece spun around underneath. It was curved to line up with one of the storage tracks behind the station. With one train in the station, one on a lift hill and one in the brake run, the maintenance man disengaged the brakes and that train obediently rolled into the storage area. Then the maintenance man pressed another button and the track section revolved again, lining up with the station. The ride was restarted and within a few minutes we were climbing into the front seat.

BBW was originally a Schwartzkopf project, but he couldn't complete it. Arrow-Huss (which designed the park's wildly successful Loch Ness Monster) was called upon to complete it. They had just experienced a rather unsettling failure with their first suspended coaster, King's Island's The Bat. Big Bad Wolf was a chance to redeem themselves and they did so spectacularly. This 1984 masterpiece is almost completely hidden from view except for the imposing drop above the Rhine River and the brake run that's suspended high above a long rushing waterfall. As with Nessie, that sense of mystery works in the ride's favor. There really isn't much there. The ride is only 2800 feet long (compared with Apollo's Chariot's 4800 feet). Quite a bit of that trackage is taken up by the two lift hills. But thanks to ingenious placement and great theming, the coaster is a heart-stopping thrill from start to finish.

I like this era of Arrow restraints: they were padded but thin and didn't get in the way of my vision. I don't know why the over-the-shoulder harnesses were needed on this ride. The trains completely surround the rider and there's no danger of falling out. But even so, the restraints weren't uncomfortable at all. And the trains and track still looked new after all these years.

We rolled out of the station in a sort of inverse of the typical Arrow mini-drop. We gained speed around a left-hand turn into dense forest and engaged the noisy lift. It didn't get very high above the ground. It didn't need to. From off of the lift, the track dove into a ravine that was peppered with small structures looking like Bavarian homes and shops. Karen screamed as we flew through the course at what seemed like a much-too-dangerous speed, narrowly missing the buildings, zigzagging around tight turns. After a left-hand turn we hit the mid-course brakes and drifted toward the second lift. Unlike the first, this lift went much higher off the ground. When we crested the hill we got a glimpse of the nearly 100-foot drop and the picturesque Rhine River before diving down the cliff toward the water, whipping around a wide left-hand turn at nearly a 90-degree banking and then racing upwards around a right-hand turn before swinging into the brakes. As I said, there's not much there. But what's there is spectacular. Karen was glad she went on it, but vowed never again. I could have happily stayed on it all day. The ride doesn't have a lot of speed, but it creates a tremendous *sensation* of speed. That might be why so many enthusiasts don't like Cedar Point's Iron Dragon, which is a very similar ride except for the theming: Iron Dragon has none (unless you can call the ride's structure "theming"). BBW has that detailed Bavarian village that comes perilously close to the ride, and it has that stunning drop off the cliff. The excitement comes from the landscaping and layout, which ties together with the ride experience. It illustrates my point that a great coaster doesn't need to be the biggest or the fastest, just well-designed. I'm curious as to how much of BBW's current design was Arrow-Huss', how much of was Busch Gardens' and how much was Schwartzkopf's. Probably the only suspended (or inverted) coaster that comes close to being as effective is Alton Tower's Nemesis. Big Bad Wolf is possibly the best ride at Busch Gardens. It fits into the park's scheme so naturally.

Next we cooled down by getting some ice cream at the Wilkommenhaus Ice Cream Shop. I got a tasty root beer float and Karen got a strawberry sundae in a waffle cone. Then we walked under the ornate iron trellises into Oktoberfest to watch "This Is Oktoberfest" in the Festhaus. The sheer size of the Festhaus is imposing. It's supposedly the largest permanent clear-span pavilion in the world. In the center of the hall was a circular stage, about twenty feet in diameter. It looked like a giant white gazebo with four pillars rising up about twenty feet. We took a seat at one of the rustic picnic tables toward the back of the pavilion. An announcement was made that the show was about to begin. The German oom-pah band could be heard in the distance, and they and the eight dancers (four men and four women) appeared in Oktoberfest attire. They all made their way toward the stage, singing and playing. The band went up onto the stage where there were music stands set up and a drum kit. When the musicians were settled in, the entire bandstand slowly rose up into the air and stopped at the top of the gazebo. They kept right on playing and the dancers took to the stage, performing all sorts of intricate routines. My favorite was when they imitated the movements of a german cuckoo clock. They brought all the little kids in the audience up onto the stage to perform the chicken dance, of all things. The set ended with the Budweiser theme song as the bandstand slowly dropped back onto the stage. Then the performers danced their way out to the front of the pavilion. It was another entertaining, high-energy show. As we left the building, we walked under the huge, spectacular stained glass eagle, a symbol of the Anheiser-Busch corporation.

We walked back through Rhinefeld and up into New France to ride Le Scoot. The covered bridge separating New France from Aquitaine offered splendid views of Alpengeist's twisted track diving past Le Scoot. We passed on Alpengeist. I rode it on our last visit and could barely walk when I got off. I love its theming, with the skies bolted to the back of the train. It's probably still B&M's greatest inverted coaster. It was placed very well, taking advantage of the hilly terrain. But at 195 feet high and with six inversions, it was just too intense for either of us.

So we queued up again for the old Arrow flume, which was more our speed. The layout of Le Scoot is peculiar. We left the station and immediately turned right up a long slow lift hill. Off of the top of the lift, we drifted in a large clockwise circle through a trough about 40 feet in the air. Then we took a little dip under the lift hill, floated through about 50 feet of straight trough, turned left and entered a tall thin sawmill-style building. This was a nice effect. There was a giant saw blade spinning in front of us, where the trough dropped out of view. All we could see was the saw blade and the wall of the building. Then the log plunged down the drop and skimmed over the water at the bottom. It wasn't quite like an Arrow speed flume, but it also didn't have a big splash like most others. There was another little drop of a few feet, then we circled around to the left and were back in the station. It was okay, but it was really short. There seemed like a lot of wasted energy. Instead of wasting so much time traveling up that long lift hill, I wish the ride had started with a short lift and then sent us floating through that beautiful forested area, like the one at King's Dominion does. Save the big lift for the end to build suspense. Maybe there could have been rustic cabins in the woods or animatronic scenes of lumberjacks. We ended up with a pretty fun photo of us on the drop, so all was not lost.

The area around Alpengeist felt like the Swiss Alps, with pine trees scattered about and fake snow on the roofs. There were also many humorous skiers who suffered accidents as a result of Alpengeist. But most of the New France area was pretty rustic, with lots of log cabins. The one stage in there was an anachronism: a giant multicolored jukebox. I guess every park has to have a 50's music review. Busch had two: a generic dance show and an Elvis tribute. But why were they located in this area? I would have loved to have seen traditional Canadian folk bands, or even Zydeco bands. That would have fit well into that area. But a 50's review? That seemed completely out of place. We passed on those and headed for the delicious smells coming from the new Trapper's Smokehouse. The giant cafeteria looked sort of like a ski lodge. The specialty was food prepared on a mesquite-fired grill. Karen and I split the smoked salmon dinner which cost $10, quite a reasonable price. Along with it we got salad, some dinner rolls and some bread pudding. We sat at the nearby patio that had massive wooden tables (hewn from logs) and chairs that made me feel like a midget. The chairs were so heavy they were difficult to move.

The meal was by far the best we had at Busch. The salmon was perfectly done and had a slightly spicy smoked flavor. The barbecue sauce was just hot enough. The dinner rolls melted in our mouths. The salad was crisp and fresh. And the bread pudding was to die for; it was delectable. The portions were just right; we didn't feel stuffed from too much food.

The line for the Le Mans Raceway had dwindled, so we queued up for it. Busch Gardens' spin on the old antique car ride is clever: the cars look like old-style racers from the 1920's. There were three separate tracks that followed different routes. When all three were run simultaneously the cars could "race" for a while, then separate and rejoin several times during the long circuit. The park was running only two tracks that day. I ended up behind Karen on the same track, so we didn't get to race. But it was a nice leisurely trip.

We strolled through Lorikeet Glen, back toward Killarney. If Karen hadn't seen the "Show Times" sign, we never would have known that the "Secrets of Castle O'Sullivan" banner indicated a performance. It looked like a nice piece of scenery that was integrated into the landscape. There was a long corridor beyond some stone arches. A small raised platform at the center against the wall held various artifacts including an old RCA gramophone. It looked like junk you'd find at a flea market. We had about 20 minutes before the show, so we wandered about Killarney. A group of folksingers were outside. They didn't quite seem to fit. There were a half-dozen of them, and they were a poor imitation of Peter, Paul and Mary. They weren't really Irish; they were more like the movie parody "A Mighty Wind." And they sounded tired.

We walked back to the corridor. A crowd had begun to gather. Within a few minutes, a young man emerged. He said he was an American, but was the last surviving heir to the O'Sullivan line. He had decided to sell of everything including the family's castle to get some cash and live a comfortable life elsewhere. We were all invited to the auction. He continued with amiable banter about auction etiquette. Then we stepped inside.

The theater was dimly lit. The large stage housed a fragmentary set of a castle interior. Unlike the Irish Thunder show, this set was much more theatrical, with no attempt to convince us it was real. Eerie gargoyles sat above the exit doors on either side of the audience. The guy appeared on stage and sang a corny song about what he was going to do. I felt a bit uncomfortable, because I wasn't sure what the tone of the show was. Outside, he seemed like a snake oil salesmen. But inside he was more like a junior college theater major. Then off to the left side of the stage, thick smoke erupted from a chair. The back of the chair shimmered with green sparkles and a leprechaun magically appeared in it. The leprechaun was obviously a sophisticated puppet, but it fit in well with the style of the corny song.

I won't go into detail about what ensued but it was surprisingly entertaining, with some really impressive live special effects. And it also delivered a message without getting preachy. The shallow materialistic American discovered with the help of the leprechaun that there's more to life than possessions. And to think, I never even knew there was a theater there....

We headed back through Lorikeet Glen and spent some time looking at the exotic birds. One of them was quite talkative, eagerly repeating "Hello!" and "Pretty boy!" over and over. Then we took the Skyride to Banbury Cross. We walked to our locker and got our stuff, and then went shopping. At one of the stores there was some confusion about discounts. At a popcorn stand the day before, the clerk asked us if we had a passport. We said yes, and she deducted 10 percent from our order. At the gift shop, I showed my pass and the clerk said it wasn't any good. It was a "bronze" pass, and I needed a gold or platinum for a discount. They didn't take AAA or any other discount, so we paid full price. We got some T-shirts and magnets. There were also two of the nicest mugs I've ever seen, tall heavy ones (almost like beer steins) with a roller coaster track running all the way around them. The shop had a video playing that had on-ride footage of all the coasters. I asked the clerk where I could buy that but was told it was only a promotional video and wasn't for sale.

After we stocked up, we stopped off at the Globe Theatre to see the new 4-D feature, "R.L. Stein's Haunted Lighthouse." I have no idea who R.L. Stein is. The gift shop had lots of Stein merchandise (no beer Steins though), so I would guess he/she is popular. The movie starred Christopher Lloyd as a crusty and slightly whacked sea captain who is looking after two kids. They're told a story about two other kids who were trapped in a nearby lighthouse long ago and were abandoned by their parents. The film is filled with the usual assortment of gimmicks (a character on the screen spits and the chair in front of you sprays you with water; rats escape and in 3-D run out into the audience and you feel puffs of air on your ankles), but the best part of it was hearing and watching the packed auditorium react. They shrieked and groaned and laughed almost on cue. We heard many children in the audience say that they'd already seen the film several times and they were coming back. By the way, I had heard that Weird Al Yankovic, one of my favorite musical personalities, was "starring" in the movie. He had just a walk-on at the end, looking exactly like himself and somewhat out-of-place. All in all, Karen and I enjoyed the film. It was just scary and suspenseful enough to keep us on the edge of our seats, but it also poked fun at itself. Good family fare. After that it was about eight at night, so Karen and I headed back to our cottage to rest up for our final day.

Wednesday began heavily overcast and humid. The forecast was for thundershowers. Up to that point I hadn't taken any pictures, so we made our final day the picture-taking day. We stopped for breakfast at another of Williamsburg's plentiful pancake and waffle houses and then drove over to the park.

Another nice thing about Busch Gardens is that it doesn't take a bad shot. No matter where I aimed my camera there was lush greenery and beautiful flowers. We walked clockwise around the whole park, stopping to take pictures at various spots. In San Marco, a passing couple offered to take a picture of us "stomping grapes." We reciprocated.

We passed through Lorikeet Glen and noticed that a new show, Pet Shenanigans, was ready to begin. So we stopped to watch. The amphitheater for it was steep and large. The seats were thick wood bleachers embedded into the hillside. The stage below looked somewhat like a hotel front surrounded by green latticework. A couple walked on stage with a spaniel. They talked about how they were looking forward to a relaxing vacation at the hotel but they weren't sure if they could bring their dog in. So the guy went inside to ask. The girl took the dog on its leash and tied it up to her right. She sat next to it on a chair then took a bag, opened it up and placed a small bit of food on a plate at her left side on a table. The dog watched her obsessively, with its ears perked up. She then opened a newspaper and held it in front of her face. The dog watched her, pausing a moment. Then it pulled backwards and slipped out of its collar, which hung in midair. It quietly stepped behind her, gingerly grabbed the food off the plate and then slipped around her and back into its collar. The girl looked over her paper and saw the dog sitting there quietly. She patted it on the head and looked over at her plate. She seemed puzzled, pulled out another piece of food and repeated the routine a couple of times, getting laughs and applause from the audience. Finally she pulled a giant hot dog (obviously a toy) out of the bag and placed it on the plate and resumed reading. The dog slipped around again and grabbed the hot dog. But when it went to slip back into its collar it couldn't. The expression on its face was priceless as its head darted from side to side, looking for a place to stash its stolen goods. The girl looked up from the paper and caught the dog with a loud, "Ah-HA!" She took the dog off stage, and the rest of the show was a series of remarkable antics with all different kinds of animals. The most remarkable were the trained cats that would rappel across ropes or climb obstacle courses on cue. Some of the cats behaved as I would have expected, stubbornly refusing to do anything. That got big laughs. There were also trained doves, ducks, dogs, a mouse and a pig. When doors opened, I could see stacked cages backstage. Animals would emerge from hidden doors on the stage, run across, then disappear through another hidden door on the opposite side while often being chased by other animals. I assume their cages were positioned there. They certainly wouldn't want cats, birds, mice and dogs all running around in the same room together. The show was a lot of fun and much more entertaining than I had expected.

The skies cleared up a bit. We paused from the photography in Killarney to ride Corkscrew Hill. I remembered liking this simulator the last time we were here. The entrance to the ride was such a relief from the heat. It was a dark, air-conditioned tunnel made to look like a cave entrance. Atmospheric sounds filled the air, with voices whispering around us. We stood there for a long, long time before moving. Several people in front of us turned around and walked out. But we didn't mind because it was so cool. After about a half-hour, we wound our way through the tunnel to the ride's entrance. The attendant apologized, saying that one of the simulators was broken. (I never knew there were two of them!) She let us in and we picked up a pair of green-framed 3-D glasses and walked around a corner to another more plain corridor.

The doors at the end of that corridor opened, and we entered the pre-show area, basically a small room with a railing at one end (so the audience would keep away from the screen). The screen had a looped film of a 3-D animated grassy field, presumably in Ireland, with a gentle breeze blowing through. I put on my glasses. The 3-D qualities popped out from the screen, with long strands of grass in front of others and tree branches with rich depth. A stereotypical irish character (a computer-generated 3-D animation) walked on screen and told us he was going to make us one of the "little people." He blew "fairy dust" on us and we shrank down. His big face dropped to ground level and he warned us to be careful and told us to step on the little lights in the next room.

Doors to the right swung open and we stepped through to the next room. There were small circular multicolored lights on the floor, evenly spaced in a grid. From the last time we were there, we knew what to do. So I stood on a light in front of Karen. Before we got separated because we didn't know how the simulator was laid out. The irish character appeared on a screen again and told us to walk in, take a seat and buckle up. Doors in front of us opened and we were herded into the simulator.

The entire floor of the room was a giant moving platform. It sat about fifty people. There was a big screen in front of us with the "fairy dust" image looped in a dizzying pattern. Karen and I were in the front row, in the center. I realized later that if we had stood on the lights that were in the middle of the room, we would have sat at the simulator's center and the jerky motions would have been minimized. As it was, we were basically sitting on the end of a plank that would be flipping up and down like a manic see-saw.

On the screen, the two huge eyes of a child appeared as if he were peering into a small box into which we were placed. The kid said he'd found some fairies and another kid he was with said we should take them to a local proprietor who'd know what to do with them. And off we went, with the simulator's platform tossing us about as if we were being carried by a running child. The short film was non-stop action with some really stunning 3-D effects, culminating in being carried thousands of feet into the air and dropped toward the ocean below. It was still the best simulator I've ever seen and it had a good story that blended well with the Killarney theming. The 3-D computer animation held up remarkably well. But Karen and I got off the ride with sore necks and backs. The abrupt motions of the platform were just a bit severe. If we ever ride this again, we'll sit in the middle....

After two exhaustive hours covering the entire park, my camera had exhausted its battery. I put it back in our car and we spent the rest of the day leisurely taking in the sights one last time. We brought our sandals again, and started off in our usual spot, Pompeii, and got soaked. Then we walked over to La Cucina for some good pizza dripping with cheese. The crust was interesting. It was almost like pastry, rather than standard pizza crust. We took another ride on the Roman Rapids. We sat with a family. The raft spun a lot that time. It felt like we were on a Tilt-a-Whirl.

We then queued up for our favorite coaster, Apollo's Chariot. As we approached the front seat, an announcement was made that the ride was shutting down due to bad weather. The skies had turned dark gray. Distant rumbles of thunder could be heard. We waited a few minutes, but it didn't seem like the ride would be re-opening soon. We were going to instead hop on the train, but that too was shut down. In fact, every ride in the park except for indoor attractions had shut down.

So we walked over to the cleverly-named Roman Frieze and got some waffle cones. Because of the heat and high humidity, the ice cream started melting faster than we could eat it. Then it began to rain hard. Since there was no place to find cover except a small crowded gift shop, we stood under a tree. We were soaked from Pompeii and the Rapids anyway, so it didn't much matter.

When the rain stopped we went into San Marco to catch the Rhythm Chefs. Four performers dressed in ridiculously colorful chefs' costumes created interesting music with pots, pans, cups and buckets. They also tap danced comically. They performed without saying a word to each other or the audience, who initially can be caught off-guard. The Chefs appeared by rolling a cart onto the midway. They "set up shop" right there for the first part of their routine, and an audience would gradually form around them. Then they moved into the Ristorante della Piazza's amphitheater and sat at one of the cafe tables in the audience, where they performed their terrific routine rhythmically banging cups while exchanging them back and forth with one another. Then they ran up to the Piazza's big stage for their finale. It was a lot of fun. The performers were really engaging and seemed to be having a great time.

We walked into Oktoberfest Gifts. I bought some souvenirs there. I was looking for a really nice paperweight I'd seen of Apollo's Chariot, but none of the employees seemed to know where it was. And I couldn't remember where I had seen it. As we headed out of the gift shop and across through the iron trellises, we noticed a big sign that had been placed off to the side. It was dark and mysterious, with jagged mountains and howling wolves faintly illustrated. "The other side is closer than you think," the sign proclaimed in bold red letters, "Coming Spring 2005." A worker who was there tending the flowers said he heard it was going to be an indoor roller coaster. Since the park's Mack Wilde Maus (formerly known by the odd name of Wild Izzy) was removed, Busch Gardens has had just four major rides. It's not that I missed the Wilde Maus. I thought it was the sloppiest installation at the park at the time. It was just a mass of yellow track plopped down onto the midway with no theming at all. It didn't fit into the rest of the park. I don't even think that the park needs more rides, because that's not what the experience is about. I just hope that whatever ride they get, it will be seamlessly integrated into the surrounding theming. That's what make this a great park.

From there we went to the German Gift Shop in Rhinefeld. I stared longingly at the hundreds of clocks. There was one cuckoo clock carved to look like a sleigh. It cost over $400. I asked one of the attendants to demonstrate the sounds of various clocks. I finally settled on a beautiful wooden cuckoo clock with a bird in flight carved into the top, surrounded by maple leaves. It had the sweetest-sounding cuckoo of any of them. (The cuckoo's sound is activated by two tiny leather bellows that are hand-made. So no two clocks sound alike.) It cost me about $200, and I'm sure it will gain value over time. It was also extremely heavy. They double-bagged it for me. I had to carry it from underneath; I was afraid the bags would rip. They had offered to have it delivered up front for me, but the next delivery wasn't for another two hours.

We left the gift shop and headed for New France as it once again began pouring. We ducked for cover under an archway, with a great view of Alpengeist cycling empty. Then a full train of passengers went by. That must have really hurt, flying at over 70 mph through heavy rain.

The rain let up after a few minutes. We headed for the kettle corn stand and bought a bag. It was okay, a bit more salty than we were used to and not as sweet. We walked back to Killarney and through the portcullis to Heatherdowns. The waterfall under the bridge was shrouded in magical mist. Bagpipes could be heard faintly in the distance.

Something else I noticed in the park were the signs placed everywhere. They had a nice rustic look to them and were very helpful navigating through the park. They not only identified the different lands, but major rides as well.

We went to the Emporium one last time and bought a few more T-shirts. On the way out, I stopped by guest relations to tell them what a great time we had. The woman behind the counter seemed stunned. "Can I take your name and write down what you said and send it upstairs? All we ever get here are complaints. They'll be so happy to hear something positive!" We chatted for a while and then Karen and I left the park.

Our three days there went by too quickly. It was a wonderful escape, and we certainly intend to return. If it weren't such a long drive, we'd make more use of our passports. On our way home, we took a different route, completely bypassing Interstate 95. While it didn't save us any time, the highway (Route 81) was lightly traveled, picturesque and the trip was much less stressful. We sadly had to pass by many other parks along the way home (Hershey, Dutch Wonderland, Dorney, Knoebel's), and many of the area's spectacular caverns. But we'll be back that way again. A trip through Pennsylvania and Virginia is always delightful. And for us, Busch Gardens might be the ultimate getaway.

Return to Karen and Jay's Excursions