Way back in August, I took my kids on a day trip to Busch Gardens Williamsburg in Virginia. This is the theme park I’ve visited the most in my lifetime so it has a lot of nostalgia for me. I first visited Busch Gardens as an 11-year-old on a family vacation in 1985 and we returned for another visit the following summer. At the time, Busch Gardens offered discount tickets for guests to return the following day in the evening hours, so we went several times after dark when it was cooler and less crowded. When we moved to the Williamsburg area in 1991 we got season passes and over the years I visited many times with family and friends.
The last time I remember visiting was probably in 1997 so this was my first visit in 25 years! A lot has changed in that time. For one thing, despite the name of the park it is no longer affiliated with Anheuser-Busch and tours of the adjacent brewery are not offered any more. Busch Gardens is also home to nine roller coasters, including some very innovative thrill rides, whereas back in the day, there were 3 coasters at most.
We visited on a Wednesday at the end of August and since schools had already started in most parts of the country, the crowds were non-existent. We were able to pretty much walk on to most of the rides, which was terrific. The downside is that there didn’t seem to be much else going. I remember that Busch Gardens used to have a lot of musical entertainment and people walking around in character to add to atmosphere. Whether it was a slow day or post-COVID labor cuts, or both, there wasn’t much going on, which was a bit of a bummer.
Here are my thoughts on the various hamlets of Busch Gardens Williamsburg and the rides we went on, with some nostalgia to boot!
Banbury Cross (England)
Banbury Cross has always served as the entry land to Busch Gardens, with shops and guest services rather than attractions. There are a lot of nice thematic details, including a replica of the Globe Theatre with entertainments but none scheduled on the day of our visit. The area was pretty unlively as it just seemed to be somewhere to pass through rather than linger. I remember back in the day the piped in music was always Baroque and Classical music, but these days they also play pop and rock music from the British Invasion. So, for example, as we entered the background music was The Beatles’ “Let It Be.”
- Aeronaut Skyride – Just outside Banbury Cross is a station for the Busch Gardens skyride. Skyrides used to be more common (Disneyland, Walt Disney World, the Bronx Zoo, et al), but this feels like one of the last survivors. It’s also unique in that it follows a triangular route stopping at three stations. We rode the leg from Banbury Cross to Aquitaine.
Heatherdowns has always been a small hamlet with one ride and the Highland Stables, home to the park’s Scottish Blackface sheep, Border Collies and Clydesdale horses (another lingering symbol of the Anheuser-Busch days). Disappointingly, a path that lead to a bridge over the Rhine River to Rhineland is no longer open, or at least wasn’t that day.
- Loch Ness Monster – Nessie is one of my all time favorite roller coasters, and one that amazingly still operates after opening in 1978! It was the first roller coaster with interlocking loops and the only one that still remains. My kids loved it as much as I do and we rode it twice.
Before 2001, this area was known as Hastings (England), and the thematic details of a medieval village with stone fortifications and a draw bridge are pretty much the same despite being a different country. Here more than anywhere else is an area I remember as being lively with characters such as a man collecting “arms for the poor” (carrying several prop human arms) and a storytelling show with dramatic renditions of Arthurian legend. There was also an indoor Scrambler ride (now moved to another part of the park) and a simulator ride (akin to Star Tours) called Questor. Now there doesn’t seem to be much to do except go to a replica Irish pub.
- Finnegan’s Flyer – this giant swing over a ravine was the only attraction operating in Killarney. Unfortunately, this was one of several rides that were not welcoming to my girth, but Kay went on it and said it was fun.
- Eagle Ridge & Wolf Valley and Lorikeet Glen – Just outside of Killarney are some of Busch Gardens’ animal exhibits. The Wolf Valley had closed for the day, but we saw the eagle and I went into the aviary with the lorikeets. Back in the day, this was the site of Threadneedle Faire with carnival attractions with a renaissance theme and a participatory theater show. The actors who worked here were so clever and fun, and it was a really special place but it had closed by the early 90s, probably because it was “inefficient” from a Human Resources perspective.
San Marco (Italy)
The Italian hamlet has lots of nice Renaissance-era details and a garden of inventions that is home to many of the rides. One of my childhood favorites, a magic carpet ride called Da Vinci’s Cradle, was apparently removed just this year!
- Escape from Pompeii – this a basic shoot-the-chutes ride but before you take the plunge your boat rides through the collapsing columns of Pompeii’s architecture and past frighteningly hot flames! This was one of the newest rides on my last visits back in the 1990s, and I liked it a lot better without the long lines that were common back then.
- The Battering Ram – another childhood favorite, and one that my kids loved too. They even asked to ride it again. Funny story: back in the 80s the ride operator had guests on each side shout “Tastes great! Less Filling!” when their side of the swing reached the top. Ironic, considering that was the motto of a competing beer brand.
Festa Italia (Italy)
This Italian carnival-themed area was the first new hamlet opened after my first visits to Busch Gardens and for some reason still doesn’t have the lovely landscaping and tree cover that is common throughout the rest of the park. What it does offer, though, is some exciting thrill rides.
- Apollo’s Chariot – this was the first Hypercoaster when it opened in 1999 (notorious for the opening day incident when model/actor Fabio got hit in the face by a goose). It’s still a thrilling ride with a 210-foot drop and 8 air time hills. Kay and I rode Apollo’s Chariot four times (twice while Peter rode Pantheon) and it is a definite addition to my all-time favorite roller coasters list!
- Pantheon – Busch Gardens’ newest roller coaster opened earlier this year and it is a multi-launch roller coaster that appears to be similar to VelociCoaster at Universal’s Islands of Adventure. Unfortunately, this is another ride that is not fat friendly, and Kay didn’t want to ride it, but Peter said it was pretty awesome.
Rhinefeld (Rhineland Germany)
The main German-themed hamlet is a cute little village with a lot of fairy tale architecture. It’s also the only place I saw costumed entertainers, a couple of men in leiderhosen playing the spoons. While there was supposed to be a craft beer festival during our visit, the tents here and in Oktoberfest were all closed during our visit.
- Alpengeist – the kids went on this inverted roller coaster without me because once again I was too big. They enjoyed it, although Peter said it gave him a headache, but Kay wanted to go on it again.
Oktoberfest (Bavarian Germany)
We ate lunch at Das Festhaus (ironically the kids had pizza), a large beer hall that has a stage for oompah bands but there were no performances on this day so it was a bit disappointing. Oktoberfest was once home to my most favorite roller coaster ever, the Big Bad Wolf. The Wolf was an innovative suspended roller coaster, but sadly closed in 2009. I found this great account of the Big Bad Wolf’s final day on the blog of another fan.
- Der Wirbelwind (Waveswinger) – the kids rode these swings twice, while I abstained because they’re the type of ride that makes me queasy these days even though I loved them as a child. I have no evidence to justify this belief, but these swings seem faster than similar rides at other parks.
- Verbolten – A worthy replacement to the Big Bad Wolf is this multi-launch roller coaster themed to riding a German car on the Autobahn through the Black Forest. Most of the roller coaster is indoors with special effects and lighting that tells three different stories, including one that is a tribute to the Big Bad Wolf. Kay and I rode four times to make sure we saw all the stories. The ride ends by replicating that final drop of the Big Bad Wolf down a ravine towards the Rhine River. This is another new addition to my favorite roller coaster list.
We didn’t spend much time in this French hamlet other than arriving on the skyride and walking through. It’s home to a dive coaster called Griffon, but neither of the children wanted to ride it, and I didn’t want to leave them since Peter already had a headache from the Alpengeist.
New France (French Colonial Canada)
It was a requirement for every 20th-century theme park to have a “Western” land, and Busch Gardens achieved this by creating a logging/fur trapping outpost somewhere in Quebec. It’s really the Old West, though.
- Le Scoot Log Flume – I talked up Le Scoot (which is French for “The Scoot”) a lot to my kids because I remember it being a most thrilling log flume ride. It turns out that it’s no better or no worse than, say, the Policy Lake Log Flume at Canobie Lake. It is a very scenic log flume, albeit not as much as used to be since Alpengeist and Invadr are now routed into the same ravine Le Scoot used to have to itself.
- Le Catapult – a Scrambler ride that used to be located in Hastings (where it was called The Catapult). I always love a Scrambler, but when the ride was indoors with special effects it was even more special.
- InvadR – A relatively-new wooden roller coaster that for some reason has a lap bar that cannot contain my girth. This was the greatest disappointment of my day since I love wooden roller coasters. The kids enjoyed it, though.