In a recent post, I told you about Howl-o-Scream 2011 and all the fun we had at that annual Busch Gardens spooktacular. But now let’s talk about the rest of the park – the parts you can find any time it’s open! Busch Gardens Williamsburg (which is actually in nearby James City County) has won the Most Beautiful Amusement Park Award from the National Amusement Park Historical Association for 21 consecutive years, beating out even Walt Disney World for the honor. One visit and it’s easy to see why: the park is beautifully landscaped, and while dedicated to groundbreaking, award-winning rides, it also takes care to preserve its other best assets. On my first return visit to the park in something like 19 years, I was pleased to see that the general layout and decoration had not changed too terribly much, and that the great new (for me) rides that had been installed fit right in. This was so refreshing as all my other childhood and teenage favorites have either now changed almost to the point of being unrecognizable, have taken out some of their absolute best rides for no apparent reason, or are gone altogether.
If you’re planning a trip to Busch Gardens Williamsburg for the first time, I can assure you that you will love it… The park is laid out in various sections, each representing different parts of Europe, with a wide variety of shows and rides. I was so excited when we drove up to it on October 30 that I could barely contain myself! One of the best parts is it’s truly aimed at all ages. There are more than enough things to entertain small children, from the Sesame Street Forest of Fun and Land of the Dragons sections to various other shows and the animal reserve. But there are also lots of food, shows, pubs, and rides adults will enjoy and a few aimed directly at them. I was worried Eric and I would run out of things to do up until Howl-o-Scream started at 6 PM, but I was so wrong – we didn’t even get to everything, by a long shot!
Tip: Grab a map/guide as soon as you get into the park. If you aren’t sure where to find the maps, just look for the area right inside the entrance that has a bunch of other people standing around looking at their own maps. No, I’m serious. It is a map-reading extravaganza.
If you like midway games and winning prizes … you will like the Festa Italia Games and Oktoberfest Games sections. There are midways and a fairly large arcade. In fact, one of the first things that happened after Eric and I entered the park was Eric’s winning me a stuffed Angry Bird.
Tip: Either rent a locker out for the day for your smaller prizes or souvenirs, or pay the extra 5 bucks for the priority parking so you can make frequent trips to your car to put stuff away. (As of this writing, regular parking costs $13 and priority is $18.)
If you are a roller coaster fan … then you are in for a treat. Some of the world’s very best roller coasters are right here in this park. In the Scotland section, you will find the highly respected Loch Ness Monster, a bright yellow series of loop-de-loops. This is definitely the tamest out of the four “adult” coasters, but is still very fun, especially when you go into the dark cave and can’t see anything. Then, in Festa Italia, hop onto the infamous Apollo’s Chariot! Among the general public it may be well known for the unfortunate 1999 incident in which Fabio, the famed romance novel cover model, rode in the front seat on its maiden voyage and got hit in the face with a big fat Canadian goose. But Eric will remember this one as being his first ever roller coaster, as well as the ride during which his zombie hat flew right off of his head because some people don’t listen to their girlfriends. I love this ride for its 210 foot drop. And, every year since 2000, it has received a Golden Ticket Award and ranked as one of the top 10 best steel coasters in the world by Amusement Today magazine. (If you haven’t heard of the Golden Ticket Awards, they are kind of a big deal, mmmkay?)
Go to the Germany section to ride the fabulous Alpengeist, a 195-foot-tall light blue coaster in which riders are supposedly being terrorized by a snow monster on a runaway ski lift in the Alps! (I LOVE how creative Busch Gardens is with the stories behind their rides!) Lastly, see if you are brave enough to go over to the France section and ride the Griffon. It takes you 205 feet high and then meanly drops you after first hanging you over the edge for a few seconds, just long enough for you to go ahead and lose control of your bladder. Below is a first-person rider video by East Coast(er) General so that you can understand the magnificence of this thing.
Lastly, there is a junior coaster in the Sesame Street Forest of Fun called Grover’s Alpine Express (adults can ride too!). A sixth coaster, Verbolten: Brave the Black Forest, is being constructed right now on the former site of the Big Bad Wolf coaster, which was dismantled in 2009. (You can read more about Verbolten on The Coaster Critic’s Blog.)
If you want a thrill but are too scared of roller coasters … there are plenty of good rides that aren’t coasters. Le Scoot, the log flume, can be found in the New France area. Two other great water rides are Italy’s Escape from Pompeii, which features special effects and ends with a five-foot chute drop into a splash pool, and Festa Italia’s Roman Rapids, which is a whitewater rafting-type ride that will soak you from head to toe. And don’t get all smart about it and plan on being the odd person who somehow stays completely dry because there is no way you will get away with that.
Aside from water rides, there is the AMAZING Curse of DarKastle in the Oktoberfest area! Both the outside decor and the 3D effects in this ride are incredible, but the ride itself doesn’t seem to move that much aside from some jerks and twists here and there. You will definitely feel like you are being yanked around plenty though as you follow the story of a crazed evil king who is now chasing after you. The ride is enhanced with light sprays of water, fog, and wind.
A brand new attraction is the 246 foot Mach Tower in the Oktoberfest section, which will give you a wonderful view of the park and a couple of surprises before dropping you.
Finally, you will probably enjoy some of the more generic carnival-type rides found here and there. These include New France’s Le Catapult (scrambler ride), and the Turkish Delight (teacup ride), Trade Wind (a circular fast train ride), and Elephant Run (similar, but lower), all in Germany. If you go to the beautiful Gardens of Invention section at Festa Italia, you can ride The Flying Machine (two-rider cars that um, fly around), the Battering Ram (a swinging boat ride like Kings Dominion’s The Berzerker, only way tamer), and DaVinci’s Cradle (kind of like a big boat that swings up and down while keeping riders horizontal, like one of those Rainbow rides). There are plenty of others – a set of giant swings, etc. so check them all out on your map or flip it over to see the full list.
You can navigate the park on foot, of course, or by Skyride (hanging cable car) or train. Each stops at various stations in different sections of the park, or you can just stay on and make a loop around the whole thing. You can also go on the Rhine River Cruise and ride around the center of the park before coming back to where you started. These are all pretty easy-going rides and the Skyride will give you a great view. The Rhine River Cruise comes complete with a good view of the ongoing construction of Verbolten on the former Big Bad Wolf site and some narration of what you are seeing, but if you have a lot of shrieking kids or yammering adults on your ride, sit up front to hear it.
If you love animals … You will enjoy checking out the wolf reserve, bald eagle rescue reserve, Lorakeet Glen (where you can pay a couple dollars to feed the birds) and the Clydesdales and ponies. There are also some animal shows at Jack Hanna’s Wild Reserve, including a show about “the secret lives of predators.” A ride around the park on the train will show you herds of sheep and other animals.
You can find shows and rides great for younger children throughout the park. Check out the back of your map to get all the show times and locations. There are also two sections of the park made especially for children, including the Land of the Dragons and Sesame Street Forest of Fun. Both of these have plenty of rides and playground equipment. One of those areas has replaced the old kids’ area called Eagle’s Nest, where some dumb kid ran right into my face when I was very young and caused some profuse tooth bleeding. Boy was my mom mad at that kid. Digress … who, me?
If you are hungry … you have plenty of options to keep you full. There are food carts and stands, quick “to go” bistros, and restaurants and pubs. Das Festhaus in the Oktoberfest section is great for families and other groups with long tables and benches and it has “authentic” German offerings like bratwurst, pretzels, black forest cake, and sauerkraut. I have to say the food in Das Festhaus may not be gourmet, but for theme park food is actually pretty good. You can often catch a show while you eat. Our meals were included with our hotel and park tickets package which was nice. There are several other sit-down restaurants, such as Trappers Smokehouse in New France area and Ristorante Della Piazza in the Italy section. Grab-and-go options are plentiful; we liked the aptly named Pretzels and Beer with outdoor patio seating in the Oktoberfest area (right next to the Mach Tower). Listen to people scream bloody murder as you gleefully tear into your pretzel dog! In the France area we hit up Bistro 205 for a snack of iced mocha and messy nachos … how French of us, haha.
Other things you can do include take photos at the various “photo op” areas set up throughout the park, see a show in multiple theaters, hang out in the Irish pub with a drink and meal or some Starbucks coffee, and shop for souvenirs at one of the tons of shops. You can buy a stuffed Alpengeist, Griffon, or Loch Ness Monster with bendy body, in fact!
If you plan to make frequent trips to your car and back, I highly recommend you purchase the priority parking which is currently $5 more than the “regular” parking at a total cost of $18. You will be able to park in the lot right outside of the main entrance and get out of the park quicker at closing time. If you use the “regular” lot you can ride the tram to the front entrance.
The Quick Queue pass is also definitely worth the money, especially if you live farther away and cannot visit the park often. You can choose a Quick Queue pass that works once for each ride, or pay more for a pass that gives you unlimited Quick Queue access to certain rides all day long. I highly recommend buying in advance from the web site (link below) to avoid disappointment.
You can use one of the coin lockers in the park to store smaller souvenirs and other items or pay $5-$10 (at this writing) for an unlimited use day locker (small and large).
Make sure you wear good sneakers. This is not a small park and you will be getting a good workout just walking around. If you are feeling worn out the heat and walking, there are many, many places to sit in the shade and drink some water and catch a rest!
There is a day pet-kenneling service near the Priority parking lot (you will pass it on your left as you go in the entrance). I haven’t used it but I seem to recall reading somewhere that the fee is actually rather small. No clue on if the facilities are any good or not so call ahead and ask.
LINKAGE: To get started on your visit to Busch Gardens, visit the official Busch Gardens Williamsburg site here. There is also a Busch Gardens Tampa Bay with an Africa theme that I hope to visit one day.