There’s a lot of ballyhoo about Southern California theme parks being the best in the nation, but as an Los Angeles replant and frequent visitor to all the usual suspects (Disneyland, California Adventures, LEGOLAND, SeaWorld, Six Flags, etc.,) I believe Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Virginia, can hold its own against the park super powers.
Ride of My Life
On a recent trip back to my home state of Virginia our family of two adults and two six-year-olds planned a two-day visit to Busch Gardens in historic Williamsburg. My childhood memories of the place are still fresh. I recall riding the famed Loch Ness Monster when it opened in 1978, and the fear in my heart as a bagpipe rendition of Amazing Grace played softly over the stereo system as my brother and I waited in line. My parents refused to go on this crazy upside-down looping roller coaster over a pond of water. I thought my folks were being wimpy and lame, in the day.
So here I was some -- choke -- 36 years later, looking at the twisting interlocking loops and the 130-foot drop above the park’s Rhine River, I tried to beg my son -- the only one of our party eager to brave this beast -- out of going on this ride. He was steadfast. So I waited in line with him hoping for the ideal situation which thankfully presented itself. Another boy, a bit older and much taller, was also seeking a buddy to ride in the two-seater car with him. Away they went, eyes wide with trepidation. A few minutes later, the laughing boys arrived back at the station screaming, “We want to go again!”
Even on a mid-summer day, in July, we were able to ride again and again on our favorite rides. This was something that we had found impossible at SoCal parks, where even with a Fast-Pass, if you can figure out the system, you are lucky to ride any of the premium rides more than once in a day. Perhaps it was the horribly humid Virginia summer heat that kept tourists away, or the economy that is still not recovered enough for many families to spring for the admission price ($72 for 10 and up, $62 for 9 and under), but we found the crowd, even at peak times, to be manageable, and I dare say pleasanter than at left coast parks, possibly owing to the polite and genteel nature of folks south of the Mason-Dixon line.
Into the Woods
Besides quick-moving lines for rides, another recommender for Busch Gardens is the lush environs. Each time I visit Northern Virginia, right off the plane at Dulles Airport I am always immediately struck by the difference in vegetation. The thick woods of green trees and fields of green grass and farms along the roadside are a sight for dry eyes accustomed to the dusty expanses of cacti and other succulents and the non-native palm trees of LA. Busch Gardens has somehow preserved this dense greenery even at the center of the park. Roller coasters zoom through them, tug boats chug beside them and the train that circles the park lumbers around these shady forests of old-growth trees, which are an enchanting retreat from the sun on hot days.
While our family is always impressed with the impeccable upkeep at Disney parks, Busch Gardens truly earns its 23-years-running accolade as the nation’s most beautiful theme park, as voted by the National Amusement Park Historical Association (NAPHA). Adults can appreciate the quant reproduction of Europe as represented by nine villages in six countries, and kids will find the grandest assortment of thrill rides along with kiddie rides to satisfy every age and degree of daringness. We all do love the wonderful “experiences” at Disney, but for older kids who really want to have their cranium shaken, Busch Gardens has it all -- the soaring Apollo’s Chariot hyper coaster, the snow monster floor-dropping Alpengiest, the insane 205-foot free-falling Griffon, and the Verbolten autobahn racetrack coaster for starters. Then there’s DaVinci’s Cradle, which I boarded thinking it was a mild-mannered giant swing to soon realize this massive raft-like ride was working its way up to a full circle rotation that left me wondering what sort of engineering feat enabled this contraption to stay standing while subjecting us and its foundation to such a magnitude of centrifugal force. We also loved the scare of Curse of DarKastle which was like Disney’s Haunted Mansion on 3D steroids.
Hot Enough for Ya?
On boiling hot days like when we visited, the park has misters to cool off visitors, and there are splash and soak rides, like Escape from Pompeii, Le Scoot and Roman Rapids that provide relief, but in the case of weather, the SoCal parks win, as even when it hits triple digits it never feels hot and sticky like an East Coast summer. Speaking of attractions where the West wins, Busch Gardens’ Europe in the Air simulator ride is a poor imitation of Soarin’ Over California, the latter which I could ride all day, and the former which literally made all of us nearly lose our lunch from motion sickness.
During our visit we got treated to Star Spangled Nights, a fireworks display after dark that added extra excitement to our evening experience. The park hosts several special events like this year round, including an extraordinary holiday light display during the park’s Christmastown winter season event.
History Repeats Itself
Of course, Busch Gardens’ Old Country pales in comparison to the surrounding city of Williamsburg, which includes Colonial Williamsburg, Yorktown and Jamestown. Visitors who come for the theme park should book at least a couple of days to explore this amazing throwback to our country’s earliest days with exhibits that show what life was like as early as 1607 when the first Virginia settlement was founded.
There are many places to stay in Williamsburg, and because it is a terrific place for recurring vacationers many time share developments offer affordable extended stay accommodations. Just a few minutes away from the park, we discovered a spacious and comfortable townhouse at Kings Creek Plantation, where we had all the amenities of home in a two-bedroom, two-bath unit which included a living and dining area and a fully equipped kitchen.
Our stay was two days and one night, which was not nearly long enough to explore the tip of the Historic Triangle and all the offerings of Williamsburg, but it’s reasonable to say that this destination has been standing beautifully preserved for centuries, and it will be there for us for our next visit, which we will definitely make soon.