Wednesday, December 9, 2015

This year at Busch Garden's Christmas Town

8 million twinkling lights, over 1000 fresh cut trees, the scent of holiday food and displays with over 20,000 ornaments transform Busch Gardens Europe in Williamsburg into a Christmas Town for the 7th time since 2009. This year the holiday happiness continues with a few new additions to the already magical experience from November 26-January 3, 2016.

Christmas Town is an additional event not including on season passes, but is less than half the price for a typical visit. This is a time to visit the park for the seasonal delights and not necessarily the rides as many are not operating due to weather and maintenance. This season the park began with being open just on the weekends, but beginning this weekend it is open daily from 2-10 pm except for Christmas Day (December 11th until –January 3rd )

This year there is an all new ice skating experience with headliner, 2 time Olympic silver medalist champion Elvis Stojko T’was the Night. Based on the popular poem and will be shown in the Royal Palace open air theater in the France village.

If you are short on the Christmas spirit, this is the place to go. It is nearly impossible to not truly appreciate the beauty of the holiday season with 8 million twinkling lights, the sweet clean smell of pine trees and some of the best hot cider and hot chocolate you have ever had.

Each country has its own light theme and music in the back ground. England is very traditional with white lights, holly and red ribbons.  You will find parts of the park as a winter wonderland of blues. Ireland and Italy are themed as you would expect, Ireland has greens, Italy is very gold with angels. Fiesta Italia has become Holiday Hills and is a retro holiday theme with your classic red, green and white. One of the nicest spots in the park is when you walk the bridge between Italy and Germany to the song Let there be Peace on Earth while looking at the lights.

You should lap the park at least twice and see all of it. Be sure not to miss the Polar Pathway (the transition from England into Italy where Pompeii is). Riding the train around when it’s not super cold is really nice you can see a lot of the lights including what you can only see from the train. The Skyride is open as well and the above view is breath taking.

The park is to be explored and absorbed. Some of the attractions available are Santa’s Workshop, the train, Highland Stables and all the rides in Germany and Italy. Only Verbolten is open of the coasters and when it gets below 36 that will close for safety reasons same is said for the Nacht Tower (Mach Tower) 

Including the new ice skating show, there are a total of 6 shows to be enjoyed all in the spirit of the holidays. Scrooge No More in England is an adaptation of the Charles Dickens Classic A Christmas Carol, with technological enhancement from the upgrade done on the Globe last year. The lighting and sound in the festive show fully takes advantage of the new technology. At Fest Haus there is a musical holiday review show called Deck the Halls. In Italy is Miracles a winter themed acrobatic show. And over in Ireland is a classic retelling of the Christian “first Christmas” show at the Abby Stone called Gloria

Outside of the Fest Haus the 50 foot main tree will light up nightly to a musical score, properly named O’Tannenbaum.

Holiday Shopping
Shopping at Christmas Town can be part of the fun there is plenty of it around. The normal stores will be open selling Busch Gardens merchandise as well as holiday decorations and gifts. In Oktoberfest there is an outdoor market of items from local artisans, winery and ornaments. With all of the holly jolly around it makes a good time to pick up some special items, or get pictures done for your holiday gift giving, regardless of what you celebrate. Cashless wristbands are offered and can be purchased once you enter the park to make your day a bit easier. You can pre pay a set amount or link to a credit card depending on your preference and needs. If you pay up front with cash and don’t use it all, it is refunded to you at the end of your night. You can use these for all purchases including dining.

Food is always part of the fun and exceptionally delicious at Busch Gardens. The menu is relatively the same but gets tweaked for the season.  Some examples of holiday themed foods are turkey, ham, stuffing, hot chocolate and hot apple cider. You can purchase a Christmas Town themed refillable mug for about $6 and get as much hot chocolate and hot cider all season long for $1 a refill. For Christmas town you will also get to enjoy holiday treats like S’mores, Fondue Fudge, seasonal soups in a bread bowl. Over in France you can get some Smoke house deliciousness outside from smoked turkey legs to smoked sausage sandwiches with whatever toppings you like (kraut, cheese, peppers, onions, chili, all of the above)

Santa’s Fireside Feast (Castle O Sullivan in Ireland) is a holiday buffet and interactive show with Santa. You can meet Santa, tell him what you would like for Christmas and get a picture. He also will read everyone a story, there is a small show with this including elves but you are part of the show. Ms. Claus will bring cookies out for dessert. It was a real delight and a must for kids. You can book this for lunch or dinner, bring your appetite the buffet includes a carving station of turkey or ham, Swedish meatballs, homemade mac-n-cheese, stuffing, sweet potatoes, and Trapper’s Smokehouse Chili. Plus there is plenty of food for kids plus a salad bar and more.

Admission can be purchased for a $35 fun card which allows multiple visits, pass holders should log on the Busch Gardens website for deals on admission which can vary. Parking is complimentary for pass holders, and $15 for everyone else. Busch Gardens becomes Christmas town by a 70 person team in the few weeks at the end of Howl-O-Scream and is the largest Christmas light event in North America in the 100 acre park.

For more information

Saturday, October 3, 2015

HowlOScream 2015 Unearthed Blood, Sweat, and Tears

If you have never been to Busch Gardens for Howl-O-Scream, or any other time you may not be aware of just how enchanting the place is in the fall.  We regularly refer to Busch Gardens as “the park”, not just because it would be short hand for Amusement Park, but because it is indeed everything you expect from a park. 

Busch Garden’s in Williamsburg for the 15 past years has taken its peaceful and beautiful park and turned it into something a bit more sinister and scary for most of September and October, though it is just as beautiful.

In fact, it may even be a tad bit more beautiful with the elaborate lighting and decorations throughout the park.It is full of trees, flowers, animals, picnic locations and places to play. For Howl-O-Scream everything is decorated for fall, and there are also the spooky elements of Halloween. 

Howl-O-Scream events begin every evening at 6 p.m. and are designed for the type of audience who wants the crap scared out of them, so most of the time that is not little kids. Actors fill the park dressed as ghoulish characters to jump out and scare guests. So keep this in mind when visiting with children. There are also haunt house mazes set up in most of the villages in the park. Each is themed differently from each other, but all are full of your typical haunted house d├ęcor and jump scares. Some have optical allusions to them, making these haunted houses just a bit more thrilling.

We have taken Noah to Howl-O-Scream 4 times now since 2010. The very first time we went, we didn’t think much of the warnings I just gave you. He was 8 and I figured he would understand it wasn’t real, I also know he has seen some spooky things on TV. But what I wasn’t planning on was just how hella scary it would be for him because of his anxiety. (whoops) I also didn’t have a plan for that. That year, this was our big family trip, so he had to suck it up a little bit.

I have told him if he really hates the jump scare, and doesn’t want to enjoy the feeling of being scared then he just has to be more aggressive. Not in a physical sense, in fact I let him know he was not to touch anyone, just as they aren’t going to touch him. But he could go through the mazes ad the park feeling like HE was part of the “scare squad” that he would be doing the scaring. This year he was willing to finally try Deadline, since has been mesmerized by its outdoor TV’s for years, and we were getting a VIP tour.  He did well with that one, when people tried to get him he would just say “No thanks!”

After coming out of there I noted to him that this means he has done 3 haunted houses (there are 6) So it’s’ like he has survived 3 nights of the Five Nights at Freddy’s game he plays. (survival game about crazed animatronic animals coming to get you). This resonated with him; suddenly it is now a competition, something he can beat. So naturally he wanted to go on to other Haunted Houses so he can survive more “nights”.  We made it to the Vampire themed Bitten, and when Noah went through this one he would say to the Vampires “My blood is full of garlic”. I caught one of the vampires break character for a second to laugh, she smiled, but never uttered a sound.

This would make our 5th visit to Busch Gardens Howl-O-Scream, and I am hopeful that sometime in the coming year we will be living down here so there will be numerous opportunities to tour the country’s most beautiful park.

When we arrived off of 64 into Williamsburg, I was listening to My Little Town by Simon & Garfunkel and that always yields a few tears of joy and the feeling of being home. 

This year's theme is Unearthed. As it turns out, when the park was doing maintenance in Ireland a house was discovered by the crew in that village.  It’s believed the house belonged to a woods woman named Scarlett whose mysterious healing practices made her a target from suspicious townspeople. Fearful of Scarlett’s dark arts, the townsfolk killed her husband and buried her house deep in the earth. And unlucky for us, they dug it up and are giving tours. 

The weekend was overall cloudy, rainy and added to the atmosphere. It was also decently humid, which did promote some sweating, however, the humidity was quite pleasant compared to what we are use to in NJ.

Howl-O-Scream is geared for adults and teens in the evening, and families during the day (before 6) though if your kids aren't too easily rattled, or like being scared then they will enjoy it.  All of the rides are running weather permitting with the exception of the water rides (Pompeii, Log flume, Roman Rapids) and Europe in the Air, which is being used for the haunted house Unearthed There are still shows of a spooky nature in the Globe (England-Monster Stomp)  and Fest Haus (Oktoberfest-Night Beats), in Ireland, is the only show that has adult themes (Fiends) so you may want to skip that one. 

Over in France after 6pm there are "demons" running around with chainsaws (without the chains on the blade of course so it’s not hazardous, just noisy). Noah noticing the guys with the chainsaws, was concerned they may cut off my arm. I told him "Well I hope not because I sure am attached to it."

                  There is a demon DJ on top of this skull for dancing at night


                       New Haunted Houses


Guest will journey into Scarlett's house and experience the splintered labyrinth of horrors and the wrath of this scorned demon. This haunted house is located where 13 Your Number is Up was previously (Europe in the Air) in Ireland.

Unearthed had a lot of details within the haunted house maze and it was cool to be the first group to go in. Though it may have needed a few more scare squad members, but for Noah it was better because we did this first and it gave him confidence to do the others.

Cornered takes guests to a 1977 farming community where townspeople are disappearing at an alarming rate.  A local corn farmer is the main suspect but everyone who ventures into the maze of maize is never seen again. Every time someone goes missing a cornhusk doll mysteriously appears.

We found Cornered pretty cool with the visual illusions, maze of mirrors, and some kind of inflatable fabric that seems to promote mild claustrophobia. Rubber rats adorn some of the walls and air cans blow at your feet in spots so you think they are trying to get you. Rats. Definitely more scary in the dark, but good for those who are just too timid (like Noah) during the day.

Lumberhack takes guests to a literal new territory. Situated in the woods behind Busch Gardens’ Oktoberfest village, deep in the "Black Forest" LumberHack beckons unsuspecting hikers into a forgotten logging camp inhabited by zombie lumberjacks.

Lumberhack was the star of the haunted houses in our opinion. The fact they set it up in the woods was not only cool for the ambiance of being in the “Black Forest” but also gave an even better scare factor. The whole thing made it instantly believable as far as these things can be. The scares were great, and the effects of chainsaws and saws added some more scare. This was the only haunted house out of all I have been into (and that would make 9 over the years) where I literally ran away from the scare squad. If you can only do one haunted house, be sure to do this one. 

              Lumber Hack had great atmosphere working with the natural environment.

                                               The Food

Dined at the Blood Banquet, but it was so rainy all day it was too wet for the show. The food was mostly good; I think we arrived at the end of a service so some of the meats where a bit on the dry side. So I would recommend arriving on the earlier side, you do need reservations. (you can get them there or at Guest Services). The star was the Cherry Cobbler dessert, the baked potato bar and the Chili. Personally I enjoyed the pork loin.

The menu consists of all-you-care-to eat buffet and had 2 meat carving stations, a baked potato bar with toppings, and dessert table. The cost is $22 for adults and $15 for kids includes beverages. The price is fair for adults, but for kids I found it to be a bit high for my picky eater. We were fortunate to be given complimentary dinner tickets. If you have a picky eater who won’t enjoy the sauce on the pasta you can get it plain.

Menu for Blood Banquet
Rosemary Beef                                               Trio-colored spiral pasta with Vodka or Alfredo Sauce
Mustard Glazed Pork Loin                             Chicken Parmesan
Diablo Turkey                                                 Casket Chili
Corn Medley                                                   Salad
Rolls                                                                Cherry Cobbler
Beer, Soda                                                       White cake with lemon frosting
Vampire Martini                                              Chocolate Tart

                               Trapper's Smoke House

I can’t really pick a favorite place to eat, or note one as best. But we did spend more time at Trapper's this weekend, so I am spotlighting them. I would say the top 3 are Trappers (New France), Fest Haus (Oktoberfest), and Ristorante Della Piazza (Italy) and it depends on what you are looking for, Italian, smokehouse or German. Sometimes we wind up at Fest Haus simply because it is indoor eating (when it’s too hot or rainy) they have Noah's favorite (pizza) and there is usually a show. Italy has a show as well. 

But Trappers is a carnivores dream, they smoke their own meats here and you can choose from smoked chicken, brisket, ribs or all 3 when you can’t decide. (that's the sampler)  They also sell desserts,(also baked on premises) salads, kid’s meals, mac-n-cheese, and some of the best green beans I have ever had. It may sound weird to say, we go to a theme park for the green beans…but we do! We ate at Trapper’s twice opening weekend since the weather was nice during those times (the time it rained we ate at Fest Haus). A must visit for meat (and green bean) lovers. Prices for dinner are $10-$15 and include one side. Desserts and additional sides are about $3

The Smoked Brisket Platter at Trapper's with green beans (you can also get waffle fries or Mac-N-Cheese, but trust me the green beans are worth it). The sampler is big enough to share, you can ask for an additional plate, no charge.

IF you are looking for fun Halloween themed drinks, you can have the option to visit Open Casket outside of Fest Haus in Oktoberfest, Pirates Baarrrgh in Italy going towards the Ristorante, Demon Drinks in France and there are a few "wenches" serving outside Unearthed in Scarlett's Square. We sampled the Scarlett’s Potion. It is a 10.99 vodka cocktail (raspberry cranberry) in a souvenir class that has the ability to light your way through the park (or give you a mild seizure if you are downing the potion too slowly and you have the strobe feature engaged) you can change the way it lights up on the bottom of the glass (which is also plastic for safety reasons). It was delicious and fun, sometimes you need to take the edge off with all the stimulation and scares of Howl-O-Scream, or give yourself some liquid courage.  One thing I can also say about drinking at the park. In 40-50 visits I have never seen someone drunk, belligerent, rowdy or puking. So either people hold their liquor, or the security here has some kind of underground secret lair. Either way you should feel comfortable to drink responsibly and not worry about those who don't.

Overall Howl-O-Scream was a lot of fun and even a peaceful time, regardless of it being also scary.   Since we were there for a media event, the staff was kind enough to give us all ponchos, wish I had brought them with me the second day when it really rained.

I for the first time slipped and fell leaving Oktoberfest over the bridge to Italy, the ground was slippery because of the rain, it was dark, and though I was wearing proper footwear I must have stepped in the wrong spot and it just slipped like I was on ice. Probably should not try to take pictures while I am walking.

I walked it off and cleaned up at the bathrooms in Italy. It freaked Noah a bit. My camera wasn’t as lucky. I didn't drop it though, some how held on to it and my glass of water.  But despite that, had an awesome night, and weekend, happily giving this place my blood sweat and tears.

Even after many days here, I never get tired of the beauty of the park

Howl-O-Scream is scheduled on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays from September 25-November 1, 2015

 Bridge from Ireland into Scotland at night, who knows what spooky adventures await.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Bier Fest comes to Busch Gardens Williamsburg this September

While Busch Gardens is gearing up for Howl O Scream (which begins a tad later this year) guests can look forward to the brand new event Bier Fest.

Bier Fest is an Oktoberfest festival coming to Oktoberfest of Busch Gardens, probably why they named it Bier Fest.

The short 4 day event will be over two weekends, September 12-13 and September 19-20 from 11-6pm. (the park opens at 10 am).

Bavarian Heritage including traditional German food and about 75 different types of beer will be highlighted during the festival. The beers will be from all over the world, and some from local Virginia breweries. “This fall we are exploring the many flavors of beer with brewers from 10 countries, (America, Asia, and Europe) this is the largest in park history.”  park president Carl Lum.

Some names you would expect like Becks, Rolling Rock and Budweiser will be available as well as Pumpkin flavored beers. Some other brands of beer that will be at Bier Fest are Goose Island, Bold Rock and Devils Backbone (to get you excited for HowlOScream). More are listed on the BG website.

There will be a Keg tapping ceremony from the  Burgermeister at 11:30 am each day with limited samples.

Guests can purchase a “Bier Fest Sampler” which will be 10 3oz. beers for $20, and given a card which can be used throughout the 4 days of the festival. You can also get a souvenir mug for an additional $10. Pass members can get an additional 10% off.

For those who prefer cordials you will have the option to also sample German  schnapps, which are usually made with fruits such as cherries, apples, pears and plums. The schapps are made without additional sugars and through the distilling process there isn’t a lot of sweetness left, so it's sure to please those who don't want anything too sweet.

                                Example of tasting, from Food & Wine 2015 Scotch Tastings

Some of the food options will include the Schnitzel sandwich which was popular at the Food & Wine event, as well as German meatballs in a caper cream sauce.

German music from the Happy Dutchman and 2 other bands will be entertaining on the outdoor stage in Oktoberfest and inside Das Festhaus. Dancing is encouraged. 

Bier Fest is not a separate ticketed event; it is included with regular park admission, and is still family friendly fun as always. Some E-ticket rides in Oktoberfest are The Mach Tower, Verbolten and Dark Castle for those who love thrills, and for those who prefer their thrills more tame there are shops, bumper cars (The Auto bahn) and the entertainment. All rides not part of Howl O Scream should be running (Pompeii and Europe in the Air are being used as haunted houses).