Seven Things That Stood Out On My First Visit To Busch Gardens Williamsburg
Busch Gardens Williamsburg was stop two on my East Coast coaster road trip. Like my first stop on the trip, Dollywood, Busch Gardens Williamsburg has long been on my list of parks I’ve wanted to visit. I’ve actually been to the sister park, Busch Gardens Tampa, but that was about a decade ago when it was still Busch Gardens Africa and had free beer.
My knowledge of Busch Gardens Williamsburg was basically limited to knowing that it had a lot of roller coasters that frequently ranked highly on people’s lists of best coasters, and that it was at least vaguely European themed. It’s safe to say I didn’t quite know what I was getting into beyond that. Here are seven of my reactions to the park from my first visit, and some of the reasons that BGW is now one of my favorite theme parks.
1. Is this the best themed park in the US?
I guess I was so used to the phrase “non-Disney/Universal parks” when comparing amusement parks, that it had never crossed my mind that Busch Gardens Williamsburg might also be at that level. But from when you pass through the turnstiles into the England section of the park, it becomes completely immersive. I mean, the park is even designed so that you can’t see the entrance once you get into the park. There are touches that add to this immersion beyond just the styles of buildings, too. Things like the signs throughout the lands being in actual foreign languages, or the little bits of “Roman Graffiti” on the Teatro San Marco, are details you don’t see at US parks.
Maybe it’s not quite the level of a Disneyland (there aren’t live performers or characters walking around interacting with guests, for example), but for a park that costs half as much (or less) and has the collection of coasters it does, it’s pretty dang impressive. And, as someone who values the overall experience of a park as much as the ride quality, it made me immediately happy to be there.
2. Music and sound design is key
One of the most important, but most subtle, things a park can do to make its theming “immersive” is through a well designed soundtrack, and well designed speaker locations. I raved about this back when I visited Tokyo DisneySea. Having soundtrack that fits within your specific “land”, and hiding the sounds of other lands, is a key to keeping me from being pulled out of the theme. Busch Gardens did this as expertly as any park I’ve been to.
Every land had a music from the country it’s actually themed to, and only that music. They also did a great job preventing sound bleed. At one point I actually noticed when crossing the bridge from New France to France how seamlessly the speakers I could here went from “frontiersy Canadian music” to the sounds of a french cafe.
3. The coaster collection is A+
I knew that BGW had good coasters, but I don’t think I expected the catalog to be this good. In particularly, every coaster integrates with the terrain, landscaping, and layout of the park beautifully. I love the way Apollo’s Chariot drops further than it climbs, the way Alpengeist flies under the bridge and hugs the ravine on the second half, and the swooping dive Verbolten makes towards the river. The line-up also consists pretty much of all of my favorite coaster models (a Dive Coaster, a GCI, a themed launch coaster, an Invert, a hyper). They also all offered excellent night rides, particularly because of how well they all interact with the landscape (and how well the tracks are hidden from the park lights). The one coaster that isn’t really surrounded by woods , Griffon, offers amazing night views of the park, and was beautifully lit for their Summer Nights program.
I’m still struggling to decide which of these coasters was my favorite, because I think I’d be happy to ride all of them (including 40 year old Loch Ness Monster) over and over.
If there was one thing I felt was lacking from the coasters, it’s that most didn’t have as much detail in the theming as there was in the lands themselves. There were nice small touches, like the skis on the back of each Alpengeist car or the diving equipment near Loch Ness, but they weren’t really immersive attractions. With one obvious exception…
4. Verbolten is a special ride
When I think about picking a favorite ride from the park, I keep leaning towards Verbolten. There are two main reasons for it.
First: it’s really the only coaster of its kind in North America (and one of only a few in the world). Beyond the unique element, the launches were exciting, the indoor section as as good as any twisted indoor coaster, and the dive off the bridge towards the river was a great finish.
Second: The level of detail in the theming is exemplary. Like, better than some rides at “bigger” parks. The entire queue is meticulously detailed, filled with items like travel posters, maps, and spooky security camera footage, all that help set the story. The station and the area around it has all the little artifacts you’d hope for (luggage, oils cans, creepy vines), and I loved that the recorded announcements were made by one of the characters from the ride in a German accent.
The trains themselves look fantastic. I love that each one has a different car design and different jokey license plate. Then of course, there’s the dark portion of the ride. The lighting effects and props are well done throughout it. I didn’t realize until people pointed out to me on Twitter that there are three different versions of the sequence. That kind of variation is basically my favorite thing in a themed attraction.
The level of detail in the theming, the variation of the “show”, and the quality of the ride elements themselves make Verbolten stand out as a special coaster.
5. Great spots for watching coasters
Since starting to write for Coaster101 I’ve become very appreciative of parks that give great views of their roller coasters. Initially I wasn’t sure it would be possible for a lot of the rides at BGW with how much landscaping and theming there is and the position of a lot of the coasters on the edges of the park. But once again Busch Gardens surprised me.
The mass of coasters at the bottom of the Rhine River valley is probably one of the best coaster watching spots there is. The low bridge crossing on the Rhine River beneath Loch Ness gave truly fantastic views of multiple coasters. From different spots down there you can see exciting elements from all three of Loch Ness, Alpengeist, and Griffon. I imagine someone with a lot of patience could catch the rare moment when all three trains are in view. Beyond that area, the bridge between New France and Germany offered amazing views of Alpengeist with the park added an extra terrace for an even better photo position. On Griffon there’s a marked “observation” area that gives a great view of the splash down. Clearly the park has thought about where people might want to watch there coasters from.
Even the more hidden rides, InvadR and Apollo’s Chariot, can be seen wonderfully from the train ride and Rhine River Cruise, respectively. It’s amazing how well the park designed observation spots while keeping the rides themselves so closely tied to the terrain and surrounded by woods.
6. Battle for Eire might be the best use of VR in a park
Here I’m just seconding with what Andrew wrote back when he reviewed Battle for Eire at opening. Even as someone who didn’t dislike VR on roller coasters, this seems like the best use of VR in a park and a natural evolution for a simulator ride. The ability to look around a full 360 degrees without being distracted by seeing other riders next to you makes the ride so much more immersive then a normal simulator. Plus, they seem to have solved the main operational problems of VR headsets.
The headsets are easy to attach, the part that you actually wear is simple and easy to clean, and the tethered headsets can run more powerful animations than standalone sets. I can’t wait to see what the next step of this kind of ride is (more interactivity? Tailored visuals? Multiple stories?), but Battle for Eire seems like the state of the art for now.
Oh, also, the safety video was very amusing.
7. Dinner and a show
How is it that no other theme parks have figured out that having shows happen where guests are dining is a brilliant idea? Normally I don’t see a lot of shows at theme parks just because I’d rather fill the time with rides. At Busch Gardens, I ended up seeing 4 different ones.
A big part of the reason why is that both Oktoberzest and Mix It Up happen in the big (pretty tasty) dining areas. It’s a great way to both spend a little more time with a meal (instead of grabbing something on the run) and actually be entertained. Of course, it helped they were both pretty fun shows to watch.
Of course, the other two shows I saw at BGW were excellent too, even though they didn’t involve eating. Celtic Fyre was really well done, very solid he production values. I loved that it involved not just Irish dancing, but actually told a story. Although it did make me really want a beer (which I realized you can bring into the theater with you, so next time I’ll grab one first). You can learn a little more about the behind the scenes from our interview with BGW costume designer Cindy Brown from a few years ago.
Then finally, Light Balance was maybe the best thing I’ve seen live period. Andrew raved about it here, and I don’t think I’ve got much to add to that. If it’s still playing, or comes back, absolutely check it out. I can recommend getting the reserved seating, as it saved me a very very long wait and was some of the best $10 I’ve ever spent.
It’s probably pretty obvious from those seven points that I had a great time at Busch Gardens Williamsburg. When thinking of parks that are on the spectrum from small regional park to major Disney property, I now realize that BGW is very much toward the Disney end of the spectrum, maybe only lacking in ops compared to the big, expensive parks.
I don’t know that the combination of immersive theming and excellent roller coasters can be matched anywhere else in the U.S., and I’m already starting to think about when I might be able to come back for another visit. Really the only thing that made me sad at the park is the fact that the Curse of DarKastle building was there taunting me, and a lot of folks on Twitter made it sound like it was really good. Hopefully BGW does something exciting with the building at some point.
I’m still continuing along my East Coast roadtrip, and should have more posts from my about it in the coming weeks. But, if you want to follow along in real-time, check out our Twitter feed. And to see all the posts related to my trip, you can check out them all here.
For more on Busch Gardens Williamsburg, check out their official site. Their Bierfest is starting August 17 (I’m kind of sad I missed that)! You can also see everything else the rest of the C101 team has written about Busch Gardens, including some great interviews and features, here.
If you’ve got any other favorite parts or thoughts on Busch Gardens Williamsburg, share them below in the comments. Finally, here are some more photos I took at the park.
Just some full disclosure here, I was provided with complimentary tickets to Busch Gardens by their PR team. But I promise I would have happily paid the two day price, it’s a good deal!