Sometimes I wonder how amusement park rides are designed. Are there several engineers or is there one single person who comes up with a brilliant idea? Does he wake up in the middle of the night, wondering if Italian pesto would be a good theme for a rollercoaster? Or does he think about how cool it would be to put 10 people next to each other in one giant coaster train? Is he suddenly convinced that the Black Forest (literally one of the most peaceful regions in the whole of Europe) should be portrayed as a cursed forest of doom? Or is he thinking about leaving out the last vowel of a coaster’s name? Yes indeed… designing a coaster seems to be quite complicated. But hey, I’m perfectly able to enjoy a coaster without knowing how it was developed. So I just say buongiorno Tempesto, bonjour Griffon, guten Tag Verbolten, salut InvadR and good morning Busch Gardens Williamsburg.
Not many theme parks are as highly regarded as Busch Gardens Williamsburg. The park is well-known for its high quality coasters, the beautifully themed areas and its lush landscape. That’s why my expectations are pretty high today. Will this park be able to enter my personal top 10? There’s a very good chance. Busch Gardens is themed to European countries and I happen to have a thing for a German theme park with a similar concept. Let’s find out if this American park performs on the same high level.
Today is Good Friday. This day doesn’t have any meaning or function in Belgium, but that’s different in many countries. For example: here in United States, many people enjoy a day off and that becomes clear when we drive to Busch Gardens. Although we arrive 30 minutes before opening time, traffic is starting to back up on the main road leading to the park. At the time we get to the toll booth, they even let us pass for free to keep the line moving. That may sound fun (we just saved 15 dollars) but it also means that the park will be jam-packed today. The busy Easter weekend has clearly begun and there’s nothing we can do to change that.
Some American parks have strange pricing strategies. Just like Dollywood, Busch Gardens offers season passes which are cheaper than two days of regular admission. Since we will be returning to the park tomorrow, we ordered such a Fun Card online. That’s a light-version of an annual pass: it allows unlimited park visits in 2017, except during the busy Halloween and Christmas seasons. The Fun Card costs 85 dollars, which is actually incredibly cheap for a whole summer of Busch Gardens admission. It’s even a good deal if you decide to use it as a 2-day pass, just like we do. After scanning our Fun Cards for the first time, we enter some sort of main street in British style. This first area looks pretty good. It’s no Disney level theming and the number of Union Jack flags might be a little exaggerated, but this area feels cosy and it offers a good atmosphere. Our only concern is whether we should get a Quick-Queue or not. However, this wait-avoiding bracelet is so steeply priced that we decide not to buy it. That means that there’s definitely no time for English tea and biscuits; there are quite a few rollercoasters waiting to be ridden.
Our first stop will be Festa Italia. This zone contains two spectacular coasters which Italians would describe as a delicious (a)pollo al pesto. The pesto is provided by the least interesting member of this coaster duo: Tempesto. It’s still sad that Busch Gardens decided to order this standard Premier coaster in 2015. Despite the nicely styled entrance and a cool colour scheme, Tempesto just doesn’t look as if it belongs here. Besides, the ride’s impractical restraints make its capacity too limited for a park like Busch Gardens. We literally have to squeeze ourselves into a rubber harness and that’s a time-consuming process. It also feels a little strange, because we know that identical coasters in Germany and Northern California operate with simple lap bars. Luckily, the actual ride seems more pleasing than expected. Launches are powerful, there’s some cool hang time at a height of 45 meters and the train runs incredibly smooth. That’s why Tempesto shouldn’t be described as a horrible coaster, but I really think it’s more fitting for a medium-sized park than for a place like Busch Gardens.
Time to spend those dollars we’ve saved at the parking lot. Busch Gardens doesn’t allow backpacks and loose articles on most of its top attractions, so we are obligated to rent a locker. I really don’t like it if parks charge money for the use of lockers, but unfortunately it’s the only way to visit some coasters today. After our ride on Tempesto, we can just leave our bags in the same locker because the next coaster is literally next door. I’m talking about Apollo’s Chariot, a brightly coloured mega coaster. There isn’t any queue at this time, so we get seated in the last row within minutes. While climbing the lift hill, we wave at all those poor people waiting to access the parking lot and they are probably jealous of us. That’s because we’re about to experience a great rollercoaster. Apollo’s Chariot is super smooth, fast and it features some great moments of (floater) airtime. However, like most B&M mega coasters, this ride isn’t overly intense. I really don’t consider this as a negative thing; not every ride should cause black outs or ejector airtime. This is just a very decent, enjoyable rollercoaster for a broad audience. The next day, we would notice that Apollo’s Chariot is even better when you choose the front seats.
The Italian themed land has much to offer. There are two rollercoasters, quite a few flat rides and two water attractions. Because it’s a little chilly today, I skip both the Shoot-the-Chute and the rapid river. However, Nick and Steven decide to ride Escape from Pompeii during the afternoon and they seem pretty enthusiastic about it. They tell me that the darkride part is impressive enough to justify a wet T-shirt.
Festa Italia shows what Busch Gardens Williamsburg is all about: large themed areas with a good mix of thrills and family-friendly attractions. The German themed land and its Oktoberfest square perform on the same high level. The walkway between Italy and Germany crosses an American version of the Rhine River. While walking over that bridge, we get some very amazing views. On the left, there’s a lush green landscape and Verbolten’s iconic drop. On the right, we get a glimpse of three legendary rollercoasters. It’s an impressive sight and I’m starting to understand why Busch Gardens is called the world’s most beautiful theme park.
I entered Busch Gardens Williamsburg without extensive knowledge about the park. Of course, I’ve heard many good things and I’ve occasionally seen some photos of the park’s famous coasters, but I actually didn’t know much about this place. It can be a little frustrating to walk around without a plan, but it can also create some great surprises. And today’s best surprise is… Verbolten. Unfortunately, it takes a lot of courage and patience to ride this coaster. We enter the queue three times, but the ride just keeps breaking down. In the evening, those technical issues seem finally fixed, but the wait time quickly reaches the 90-minute mark. That’s too long for us, so we decide to buy a 10 dollar Quick-Queue for Verbolten. Luckily, staff members don’t scan our cards, which enables us to make two rides in a row. I realize that this isn’t the idea of a single-use Quick-Queue, but let’s be honest: who wouldn’t like to enjoy such a great coaster twice?
While waiting in the beautifully decorated station building, an irritating woman’s voice with a German accent can be heard frequently. She tries to warn us for the dangerous Black Forest. That sounds extremely strange to me because I know the Black Forest as a cute holiday destination with friendly people. It’s a region well-known for its romantic mountain views, cuckoo clocks, liters of German beer and mountain goats. However, Busch Gardens tries to create the idea that the Black Forest feels like pure horror. They designed it like a dark forest of doom, in which you’re being chased by evil powers. That doesn’t even come close to reality, but they created one hell of a rollercoaster. Verbolten is mostly an indoor experience and the atmosphere in that indoor part is truly amazing. After this dark section (which includes some extremely cool effects), the train reaches the big drop at the Rhine River, followed by some very powerful curves. Wow… what an overwhelming ride! Verbolten completely blows my mind and it’s hard to believe that it’s actually built by kiddie coaster manufacturer Zierer. It cost a considerable effort to ride, but Verbolten was definitely worth that wait. This is without a doubt one of my new favourite rollercoasters.
I’m not into free fall towers and I try to avoid rides like Mäch Tower. However, I’m very much into German cuisine. That’s why we choose the nearby Festhaus for our lunch, which mainly consists of sausages and kartoffelsalat. Busch Gardens even adds some extra German flair with a show full of lederhosen, traditional music und hübsche Mädchen. It’s kind of entertaining and the American pronounciation of Eins Zwei Saufen and Auf Wiedersehen is simply hilarious. However, after we’ve finished our dessert (a giant portion of Black Forest cherry cake) we quickly exit the building. There are still many attractions waiting to be ridden.
During the past week, we travelled from Carowinds and Dollywood to Kings Dominion. Those parks added lots of coaster credits to my counter, but there weren’t many darkrides to discover. That’s why I’m glad to see The Curse of DarKastle. I’ve heard very positive stories about this multimedia ride, but there’s one problem: Disney and Universal are spoiling us with extraordinary good darkrides. These darkrides are actually so good that most other parks aren’t able to perform on the same level. That’s exactly why Curse of DarKastle feels somewhat underwhelming. This ride is similar to The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man at Universal, but you can clearly notice that it was built with a lower budget. The storyline remains vague and vehicle movements don’t feel that convincing. I’m not saying that DarKastle is a bad darkride, but it’s just not that impressive If you’ve ridden some Universal darkrides. I may have expected a similar theming level here at Busch Gardens Williamsburg, but that clearly didn’t seem the case.
The nicest way to enjoy Busch Garden’s beautiful scenery is from the cable car or from a boat. That boat ride is called Rhine River Cruise and it’s a lovely attraction. Fifteen minutes of quietness and stunning views are guaranteed. However, a major downside is the unpleasant smell of that Rhine River. The best way to avoid this smell? Take the Skyride to get an overview of Busch Gardens Williamsburg. This cable car offers some wonderful vistas as well and especially the view of Loch Ness Monster’s interlocking loopings is priceless.
After disembarking the Skyride at the British station, we are within a few steps from that legendary Loch Ness Monster. This 39-year-old coaster must have been a big innovation at the time it was built. Its height of 40 meters and the total track length of one kilometer are even quite impressive to today’s standards. It’s definitely no surprise that the ride is still very popular and almost every visitor points his camera at those loopings which made Loch Ness Monster world-famous. Is the actual rollercoaster experience as impressive as it looks? My answer is yes. Despite its age, Nessie’s loopings create considerable g-forces, trains run smoothly and I’m very surprised by a triple indoor helix. Of course there are some unnatural transitions and that second lifthill feels rather ridiculous, but that doesn’t bother me. This coaster icon may last another 40 years, if you ask me.
Steven and Nick want to ride Grover’s Alpine Express no matter what and they don’t mind queueing. But waiting 40 minutes (together with dozens of screaming toddlers) for a simple kiddie coaster is just too much for me. Instead, I use that time as a photo opportunity. While wandering through the park, I notice that crowds have become massive and queues under an hour are rare. The only calm area is Ireland, because there aren’t any attractions there. The only fun thing about the Irish themed land is a small zoo. Busch Gardens Williamsburg doesn’t offer as many animals as the sister park in Tampa, but this part of the park is just a good way to escape the crowds. The most popular animals seem to be the Big Bad Wolves. I wonder if that’s a coincidence…
After my companions obtained their child-friendly credit, the three of us walk to the French themed area. The facades and the atmosphere are a little less elaborate in this part of the park, but seriously… who cares about those facades if they’re right underneath a colossal coaster? This bright blue construction can be seen from the entire park, but the true size is only reveiled when you’re standing next to it. Please meet Griffon. I’m used to Efteling’s Baron 1898 and that’s why this coaster looks like a mammoth to me. Griffon is more than 60 meters high and trains plunge down with speeds of up to 120 km/h. In short, ‘Griffon’ is nothing less than huge. If Busch Gardens Williamsburg was Dubai, then Griffon would be Burj Khalifa.
Big, bigger, Griffon. This ride’s size is impressive, but how about the ride? Believe me: it’s at least as good. I loved every dive machine I’ve ridden so far, but Griffon is superior. During a back row ride, I experience some the most intense airtime I’ve ever felt on a rollercoaster. Besides, both descents are powerful and the smoothness is remarkable. Griffon is a world-class rollercoaster and it’s also a visual masterpiece. I could stare at those vertically plunging trains and the final splashdown for many hours. So dear Griffon, je t’aime beaucoup. Even the wait wasn’t that bad. Despite a full queue, we were pulling down our shoulder restraints after less than 40 minutes.
Don’t ask me why, but I notice that theme parks with a European theme like to build an area which actually doesn’t fit within the park’s philosophy. At Europa-Park, for example, that’s a zone with an African boat ride and colonial houses. Everybody calls it Africa, but Europa-Park tries to camouflage that mistake by calling it Adventureland (Disney anyone?). Busch Gardens tried to perform the same trick with the area known as New France. Nice try, but everybody knows that this part of the park just represents Canada. This Canadian area is considerably more crowded than the rest of the park and it’s clear why: this is the home of a rollercoaster which opened only seven days ago.
Does anybody know what happened during the board meeting concerning this new rollercoaster? Did they invent its name right after a party with plenty of wine? Or was there an intern who made a typo just before the press conference? Anyway, this brand-new wooden rollercoaster isn’t called Invader, but InvadR. I really hope that other parks won’t copy this kind of behaviour. Could you imagine attraction names such as SilvR StR, TowR of TerrR or ValravN? No, me neither…
Anyway… InvadR it is. It appears that some fellow visitors have queued more than two hours for this ride, but it actually doesn’t look that extreme during the afternoon. We would eventually wait for 75 minutes, which isn’t too bad for a ride which was inaugurated last week. On the other hand, that queue is way too long for an ordinary family coaster and that’s exactly what InvadR turns out to be. The ride is surprisingly fast and it features GCI’s typical powerful curves, but I’m a little disappointed by InvadR’s size and decoration. The coaster’s entrance is stunningly beautiful, but the station is simple and the actual ride isn’t themed at all. Conclusion: InvadR is a fine family ride, but just don’t wait more than half an hour for it.
We skip a ride on the log flume because of a lengthy queue, but we woudn’t want to miss its neighbour Alpengeist. Unfortunately, crew members inform us that there’s a two-hour wait during the afternoon. That’s too long for us and that’s why we postpone our ski trip until tomorrow. But there’s more bad news ahead: during this scorching hot Saturday, Alpengeist remains closed during the morning. Staff members even inform us that the coaster will probably not open today. That’s where I started to freak out: should I really leave Busch Gardens Williamsburg without a ride on the legendary Alpengeist? However, during the afternoon, I suddenly see a train with 32 passengers rushing through the ride’s cobra roll. So luckily, the answer to my question is no.
Alpengeist is often considered as one of the planet’s best inverted coasters. There’s only one way to find out if that’s correct: a front row ride. And oh my god… it’s truly a great coaster. This runaway ski lift stands out because of its unpredictable lay-out, an original theme, high speeds and some brilliant near-misses. This coaster makes me realize that I’ve got the best hobby in the world. Some people may find it crazy that I travel to the USA for theme parks, but these people will probably never ride a magnificent coaster like Alpengeist. I hope they enjoy their painful ride on El Condor.
Alpengeist made an unforgettable impression and I’d love to ride it several times, but there isn’t any time left. We need to start the long drive to Hershey, where we will be visiting the last amusement park of our trip. Tomorrow is Easter and that day should be celebrated with chocolate. The city of Hershey happens to have tons of chocolate and it’s nice to know that they have fourteen (!) rollercoasters as well. But before I write about my experiences at Hershey Park, there will be another trip report concerning Busch Gardens Williamsburg. That’s because we booked the park’s Coaster Insider Tour on Saturday morning. It’s always cool to have a behind-the-scenes look at theme parks, but this VIP tour is even more interesting since it puts the focus on amazing coasters like Griffon, Alpengeist and Verbolten. As you might expect, we had a quite spectacular morning at Busch Gardens. Read all about it in my next report.
Busch Gardens Williamsburg is a mythical place. We rode some fantastic rollercoasters, we wandered through beautifully themed areas and we were impressed by the park’s lush landscape. If you ever decide to visit Busch Gardens, you will definitely have a wonderful theme park experience. However, I wouldn’t recommend a visit during Spring Break. It’s a very busy time and it seems as if Busch Gardens isn’t fully recovered from its hibernation yet. During our VIP tour, we begin to understand why most attraction wait times are so long. In April, coasters like Loch Ness Monster, Griffon and Alpengeist run at low capacity because one of their trains is still in winter refurbishment. Our tour guide explains that those extra trains will be added before the summer season begins, but that’s a weak excuse for all those Spring Break visitors. Park management definitely knows that these weeks are crowded, so they should plan accordingly.
Although I liked the park and its rollercoasters a lot, some of their operational choices are difficult to understand. Busch Gardens doesn’t seem as customer-oriented as Disney parks, Europa-Park, Dollywood or… Hershey Park. That’s right: I didn’t have any excessive expectations about that next destination, but it actually turns out to be the most surprising park of our entire trip. You’ll read about it soon, but now it’s really time to say goodbye. I say ciao Tempesto, au revoir Griffon, tschüss Verbolten, adieu InvadR and bye bye Busch Gardens Williamsburg. Hope to see you again soon!