Monday, June 24, 2013

Busch Gardens Willamsburg Trip Report

My wife and I both figured that neither of us had been to Williamsburg, VA since we were about 12 years old so we figured that it would be a good spot to vacation for a few days. Of course, Busch Gardens played a key role in our plans for the trip. We were originally going to visit the theme park on a Monday but both the Monday and Tuesday were promising for heavy rains. We waited until Tuesday and had a beautiful day with not a cloud in site. The threat of rain also helped keep the crowds down, which is always nice.

Busch Gardens Williamsburg is a world class theme park with beautiful landscaping, excellent theming and million dollar attractions! Since we stayed at a hotel near the park, I was actually able to get the five of us through the park's gates before the official opening time of 10:00am.

My only real disappointment with the park came a few days before we arrived. I was looking forward to finally seeing the 4D Sesame Street film that plays at several of the Sea World/ Busch Gardens parks (as well as overseas Universal properties) but the film had been retired at the older Pirates 4D Adventure had returned in it's place. That movie was something I honestly wanted to experience the most but I got over it.

We did, however, start our day off in the park's newest section: Sesame Street Forest of Fun which is a kiddie section themed after the popular children's show. For the longest time, Sesame Place outside Philadelphia was the only park you could see the Sesame Street gang so it was neat to see this extension of the brand in another park.  They have a great little kiddie coaster called Grover's Alpine Express, similar to Sesame Place's Vapor Trail coaster. This was the first ride of the day, the kids dismissed it in line as a baby ride but then they loved it and ended up riding it an additional time. We didn't do any of the other rides in Sesame Street - they have a cute little boat ride, a drop tower and a rocking tug-style ride that looks like Oscar's friend Slimy the worm. There's also a Sesame Street gift shop...and believe it or not, this Muppet loving Dad didn't spend a single cent in the gift shop!

Escape From Pompeii

From there we made our way over to Italy where another star attraction on my list waited; Escape From Pompeii. I love dark rides and I love when a park has the means to provide a unique experience. Pompeii is a simple chute/flume ride with an elaborate lead-up to the drop. Guests ride through the ancient city of Pompeii as an earthquake hits causing fires and destruction along the way. After a giant statue comes crashing inches from your boat, you plummet down a huge hill into a gigantic splash. My 7 year old, Tanner, and I were drenched and he loved the ride - eventually awarding it his favorite ride of the day.

Next, I grabbed a solo ride on one of the park's signature coasters - Apollo's Chariot. This is the kind of coaster that I have come to love in my older years...tall, fast and not alot of twisting and turning that makes me sick. With an initial drop of 210 ft and speeds up to 72 MPH, this is an awesome ride! The same can't be said for Roman Rapids, the park's white water rafting ride. I have yet to see a park that can pull off this ride the way Kings Dominion does. Roman Rapids is brief, unimaginative and on this particular day they were running it very inefficiently making the load times almost unbearable.

In the area are some standard carnival type rides which are all nicely presented and preserved. The kids and my wife rode a handful of them while I sat out on baby duty, which was fine because I hate spinning rides.

We ate lunch at Das Festhaus, which is one of the few things I remember from my earlier childhood visits. It's a large German style pavilion with a live show throughout the day. The cafeteria style set-up of the food service was a little tricky to navigate with three kids and a stroller but we made it through and sat down to a hearty lunch of
German goodies including a huge slice of multi-layed cake that we all shared. We were also in time for the festive show which included a polka band and dancers.

Next up, I again left my wife sitting on a bench with all the kids and grabbed a quick ride on the park's newest roller coaster, Verbolten. Here, Busch Gardens tries to take a page out of the Disney playbook with a highly themed storytelling ride. This is a little more than a coaster. Riders board a German automobile for a trip into the Black Forest. While swerving through trees in the forest, the car suddenly blasts into a tunnel where the forest becomes very dark and there are a few major surprises along the way. It's a really well done ride, and certainly a big kick for someone who's never experienced the thrills of an Orlando attraction.

Elias' favorite ride
Another signature attraction I wanted to make sure I rode was Curse of DarKastle, which is located just up the hill from Verbolten. This is another very elaborate, highly themed ride that takes visitors into a haunted castle. It's a cool adventure that incorporates elements from dark rides, 3D movies and motion simulators. The only other ride I've seen like this is The Amazing Spider-Man ride at Islands of Adventure. My son Elias loved this ride and ended up going on it three times, while my younger son chickened out. My wife got to experience it with the help of a Parent Swap...

Busch Gardens makes no advertisements about a Parent Swap feature, but having used the ability at other parks we asked at the front of the DarKastle attraction, and the ride was built to allow some of a party to wait while the other half rides and then flip flop without having to wait in line a second time. While Elias and I rode, my wife and two other kids waited in a small room by the exit. When we got off, we were led to them and then Jen rode with Elias while I sat with Tanner and the baby. It's the only ride we needed to use Parent Swap on, but it's worth asking about at the front of any attraction if you need such a service.
At this point in our day, we wanted to make sure we made it to the other side of the park to catch some animal attractions that the kids were excited about seeing. We briskly moved through the park making our way through the various winding pathways and villages of German and France. In Germany there is a nice playground area called Land of the Dragons with the ol' netclimb attractions. The kids tore off into that...usually I enjoy doing those with them but I learned last year at another park that they don't work too well with adults in flip I sat out while they played and blew off some steam.

More Animal Shenanigans!
My kids LOVE animals - it's probably the only thing that ranks as high as video games on their interest scale. Busch Gardens has a handful of small animals  in cages in a section called Lorikeet Glen. As we were visiting, some of the animal handlers had a huge snake out in the grass for the kids to pet. That was pretty neat. And our timing was just perfect to catch a 3:30 performance of More Pet Shenanigans - a trained animal show that was high on our list of Must Do's.

The kids smiled and giggled through the entire More Pet Shenanigans show. A team of trained dogs, cats, mice, ducks and even a pig perform very simple tasks in a cute little show. Afterwards, the boys got to meet some of the four legged stars up close...and they were in heaven.

Wolves are currently near the top of the boys list of animal favorites so they were very excited to see Busch's pack of wolves up close in Wolf Valley. They also oohed-and ahhed their way through the show The Secret Life of Predators which featured wolves, foxes, rats, birds and owls. I hate owls! If you stand all the way down in front during the show, you'll come within inches of some giant (but actually cute) rats. If you stay in the back of the performance area...let's just say an owl might swoop by just as close. Luckily, we were in the front.

We spent alot of time with the animals of the park. Around the corner from all the wildlife is the Ireland section of the park, home to a Sesame Street character meal which I would have loved to attended but I was outvoted on. We all did ride, however, Europe In The Air - a flight simulator that gives you the sensation of flying over some of Europe's most beautiful landmarks. I was setting myself up for an experience similar to Disney's Soarin' Over California...but it didn't quite live up to the Disney attraction.

I had hoped to ride Loch Ness Monster, the park's signature double looping roller coaster. The coaster is celebrating it's 35th Anniversary this year. When I was a kid, it looked like just about the most terrifying thing in the world - I wanted to conquer it finally after all these years but the ride broke down when I was in line...about three trains away from riding. I decided not to spend the last hour of our day waiting for a ride that may or may not reopen so I exited the attraction...leaving Nessie for perhaps another trip.

Having made the full loop of the park, we slowed down to do some shopping and check out the stables of the park's Clydesdales. They aren't "The" Annheiser-Busch World Famous Clydesdales anymore...because the beer company does not own the park now - but it's nice that the current park owners (SeaWorld Parks a.k.a The Blackstone Group) decided to keep the large horses as an attraction like they've been since the park's opening.

The last half hour of our day found Elias and I taking the Skyride system to the back of the park to grab one more ride on DarKastle and getting back up front with just enough time to snap a picture with Elmo in Sesame Street.

Elias & Elmo
Even though the park closed at 7:00 on this day (I could have easily used at least another hour) we had a great time at Busch Gardens. The park is beautiful and well laid out. I appreciate atmospheric music from the different countries being played throughout and not just Bruno Mars or whatever is on the radio like so many other parks do. The park's refillable drink bottle is a good deal us plenty of 99 cents beverage refills through the day with an initial output of $8.

Also, Busch Gardens truly makes shopping an attraction. While so many other parks, including Disney, streamline all their gift shops to sell the exact same merchandise - Busch Gardens offered all sorts of different stores throughout the entire park. It's always nice to slow down and get out of the sun for a while and browse around a good gift shop...even if you're not in the market for a $500 German made Cukoo-Cukoo Clock.

My only complaint of the day was the park seemed a bit understaffed and not running some rides to their maximum capacity potential. I suppose this has to do with visiting so early in the season and not having all the college kids home and working quite yet. Oh, and also they don't have the Sesame Street 4D movie anymore and I didn't get to meet Cookie Monster.
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