Some culture amid the coasters
By Michael O'Sullivan
May 14, 2010
Long since dropping "the Old Country" from its name, Busch Gardens Williamsburg still retains its distinctive European flavor. That means that the 350-acre park -- named the most beautiful in America for the 20th straight year by the National Amusement Park Historical Association -- is organized into thematic villages celebrating the history and culture of Europe. You'll never get lost here. The rides, including the park's four signature coasters, are named accordingly: Loch Ness Monster in Scotland; Alpengeist in Germany; Apollo's Chariot in Italy; Griffon in France.
Longtime visitors will notice a couple of changes. First, the Big Bad Wolf is dead. Opened in 1984, the world's first suspended coaster -- familiar to millions for its neck-rattling 180-degree swings -- has been dismantled. New this summer: A 3-D simulator ride, called Europe in the Air, which creates the effect of swooping over European landmarks by aircraft. It replaces Corkscrew Hill, in which visitors were jostled in a virtual-reality Irish fantasy.
For tykes: There are two kid-centric areas. Sesame Street Forest of Fun features gentler rides with character tie-ins to Bert and Ernie, et al. The Land of the Dragons offers jungle-gym-style exercise, with suspended rope walkways and climbing towers. Lower-thrill rides are scattered among the park's 50-plus attractions. If you're looking for a tame version of Apollo's Chariot, for instance, try Grover's Alpine Express.
For coaster lovers: Chances are you won't even miss the Big Bad Wolf. The park's four big coasters include the Griffon, billed as the world's first floorless -- and tallest -- dive coaster. The hypercoaster Apollo's Chariot features a terrifying 210-foot vertical drop, at more than 70 mph.
For bench-warmers: The Skyride cable car is a leisurely, non-stomach-churning way to see the park by air, but you had better not be afraid of heights. A "Rhine River" cruise might be a better option -- as long as you don't get seasick. Good thing there are always plenty of sit-down performances: a polka singalong; Irish dance; pet tricks at Jack Hanna's Wild Reserve, which also features exotic birds, wolves and endangered animals.
Insider tips: Two essentials: a zip-lock bag for valuables, if you go on such water rides as Escape From Pompeii or the Roman Rapids; and an eyeglass tether (a.k.a. sunglass leash), for obvious reasons. They don't sell either in the park's many gift shops, but you'll be glad you have them. Also, lines for the Curse of DarKastle, a 3-D tour through a haunted castle, can run well over an hour. Save it for the end of your visit. Near closing time, the wait drops dramatically.
Food: Pizza seems to be the lingua franca here, but each village offers its version of ethnic cuisine. You'll find, for instance, a wurst sampler platter in Germany's Festhaus, with sides of German potato salad and red cabbage.
Need to know: Busch Gardens Williamsburg is 150 miles south of the District, just off Interstate 64. The park is now open Friday -Sunday and opens daily for the season May 28. Admission is $61.95 for adults; $51.95 for children 3 to 9; and free for age 2 and younger. Parking is an extra $13. Traveling with Fido? Kennel your dog near the entrance for $10. Water is provided, but bring your own food. Call 800-343-7946 or visit www.buschgardens.com.