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Christmas Town 2018 Review

 10 million lights….candy canes and cookies galore….peppermint fudge hot cocoa.  These could only mean one thing….CHRISTMAS TOWN IS HERE!!

In it’s tenth year (yes, ten years!!) Busch Gardens is pulling out all the stops for this year’s Christmas Town.  And yes, I mean, they’re pulling out ALL the stops…starting with the train.

One of the newest attractions this year is the Christmas Town Express.  This 1.5 mile tour around the park is absolutely beautiful and worth the wait. Speaking of the wait, get in line early. With only one station (Caribou) open, the line can fill up pretty quickly.  Refill your hot cocoa mugs, sit back, and enjoy the ride!

The second new attraction this year is at the Wilkommenhaus.  Once again the park is using their light mapping projection system to transform the Cookies and Cocoa shop into its own gingerbread house.  The projections come on every 15 minutes after dark, tempting you to escape the cold and indulge in the parks delicious homemade cookies and hot cocoa, located just inside.

For those of you with small kids, Sesame Street Forest of Fun has family photos with your favorite Sesame Street characters, as well as the new stage show ‘Elmo’s Christmas Wish’.

There may be no other new shows this year, but for those that have enjoyed them in past years, Deck the Halls is back in it’s tenth year (yes, it’s the longest running Christmas Town show), as well as Twas that Night, Scrooge No More, Gloria!, and Gift of Harmony.  This is probably my only complaint.  While Gift of Harmony was new last year, I would love to see a new show inside Das Fest Haus.  Deck the Halls is great, but after ten years, can we get something new?

And don’t forget to round out your night visiting Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer in Holiday Hills, along with his friends from the Island of Misfits, for photos, and the big man himself, Santa Claus, inside NewKastle (formerly Darkastle).  He’s ready to hear your Christmas wishes and take photos!

And while you’re walking around the park, don’t forget to indulge in all the Christmas Town goodies.  Whether you’re stopping by Josephine’s Creamery de Chocolat for a sugar overload with their beignet sundae or peppermint freak shake, or you’re enjoying a hot roasted sirloin sandwich from Das Fest Haus, there is food and treats throughout the park for everyone to enjoy.

Christmas Town is open now through January 5, 2019, on select nights.  Check www.christmastown.com/va for more information and tickets.

Howl-O-Scream 2018 Review : The good, the bad, and the scary

Can you believe it’s the end of October already? Where has this year gone? Seven months ago we were excited for another year of roller coasters, and now we’re nearing the end of Howl-O-Scream and getting ready for Christmas Town.

What has been your thoughts on Howl-O-Scream this year? Have you been yet? Do you plan on visiting the park for one last scare before they close and prepare the park for Christmas Town?

2018 is also the 20th year for Howl-O-Scream. The park geared us up for weeks leading to the opening by leaking teasers for the new mazes and scare zones.

This year we said goodbye to the mazes Bitten, Deadline, and Catacombs, and said hello to new mazes, Dystopia, Demented Dimensions, and The Vault XX.  We also saw the return of Frostbite, Cornered, Circo Sinistro, and Lumberhack.

Along with the mazes, new scare zones Fool’s Court and Garden of the Souls joined forces with the returning zones, Sideshow Square, Vampire Point, Axe Alley, and Ripper Row.  Fool’s Court, located in New France where Demon Street was, is full of evil jesters looking to steal your soul.  Literally.  These guys are great.  Creepy and fun to watch.  Garden of the Souls though, located in Davinci’s Garden in the San Marco area, is my absolute scare zone this year.  Loosely themed to Dias De Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, you can watch the skeletons as they roam while trying to steal the souls of unsuspecting park guests.  I would really like to see this theme expanded on.  I think they did a fantastic job with the characters and costumes, as well as the theme throughout the garden itself.

I have to say, while I absolutely LOVE the new themes this year and I hope to see them return next year,  I have bitter disappointment in Sideshow Square.   Since it opened two years ago, this has been my favorite zone.  The team that played the circus freaks, because seriously, that’s what they were, were always amazing to watch. The gypsy fortune teller, the demon clowns, Wendy the wind up doll, and the ring leaders.  I could (actually, I would) spend HOURS watching them do their thing.  Interacting with guests and each other.  But not this year.  This has been my biggest disappointment for Howl-O-Scream this year.  They replaced the majority of the troupe (minus the gypsy) with clowns. But the entertainment just wasn’t the same. If the park were to bring one scare zone back, I would ask (beg) them to bring back the original troupe.

Also a disappointment this year was Circo Sinistro. Again, since it opened two years ago, was a favorite maze. The themeing was great, the scares were good.  This year, I was bored.  No scares.  Not one.  Not even anyone trying.  I think the guests walking through the maze did more scares on each other than the actual cast.  Needless to say, I was so disappointed in this maze this year that I couldn’t bring myself to another walk through.

Another disappointing maze for me was Frostbite.  I LOVED it last year.  There was always something around the corner.  The ice walls added to the feel of being inside a frozen castle. This year, it’s like they didn’t even try. It’s like the park debated about even using the space for a maze and decided at the last minute to bring it back, and then half assed the decorating.  So bad that when I went through I spent more time walking through blacked out ‘hallways’ with no scares, than actually being scared.  Again, this was a visit one time only maze this year.

The best mazes this year were the new ones.  While I found Dystopia to be ‘just OK’, I really enjoyed Demented Dimensions and The Vault XX.  I could walk through both mazes again and again and catch new details inside with their themeing and decorations.  But my absolute favorite maze this year, has been The Vault XX.  This maze pays homage to Howl-O-Scream’s past mazes and themes. If you can, check out the details of the various rooms and see if you can find your favorite characters from years past.

All in all, this has been another great Howl-O-Scream year.  If you haven’t been yet, this is your last chance.  Sunday will be the last night before the park reopens for Christmas Town.  Grab and friend and head over for some last minute scares!

Busy summer at Busch Gardens

Can you believe it’s August already? Where has this summer gone?

2018 has been a busy year for Busch Gardens.  New pass program, Food and Wine Fest, Concerts, Summer Nights, and the upcoming Beir Fest.

What was your favorite food or drink this year at the Food and Wine Festival? I absolutely fell in love with the Brazilian booth. The Churrasco was delicious and perfectly cooked, the grilled pineapple was a hit, but my absolute favorite this year was the Brazilian lemonade!!  I couldn’t get enough of that drink and kept going back for more every chance I got.  While I’m still bummed they removed the Canada booth, Brazil was the perfect addition to replace them and quickly became my new favorite booth.

Not long after the Food and Wine Fest ended in July, the park introduced their Summer Nights event. Music, lasers, pyrotechnics, fireworks, and let’s not forget the dance troupe, Light Balance.

If you haven’t been to the park to check out their Summer Nights yet YOU NEED TO GO!! Replacing the pirates show at the Royal Palace Theatre this year is SPARK, a live rave/ dance party featuring lasers, pyrotechnics, music, and bubbles. This show is running nightly through August 12.

The Wilkommenhaus features projection light mapping (think lasers projected onto the building). The sun goes down, the building lights up! This is a fun show that I would love to see return next year.

If you’ve been through the park during the day, you’ve probably noticed the park left the Cuba Kiosk up from the Food and Wine Festival. This kiosk is open and offering fun treats such as fried Twinkies and Acai berry bowls (think frozen yogurt with toppings, yum!) and mixed drinks.

Just a few feet away from the Summer Nights Kiosk at Josephines Creamery the park is featuring their all new Freak Shakes, available only during Summer Nights. What is a Freak Shake? It’s an insane monstrosity containing a cold and creamy milkshake buried under a mound of marshmallow fluff, chocolate chips, cookie dough, whipped cream, and a cookie or brownie (or if you prefer the subtle flavor of strawberry shortcake, you can get one of those as a Freak Shake as well). Let me just say, these shakes are not for the weak. It took two of us to attack ours and we still couldn’t finish it.  At $14 for the shake I recommend trying them at least once, but get it on an empty stomach and make sure you have a buddy (or two) to share it with. You’ll thank me later.

Now, finally, topping Summer Nights off, is the amazing dance troupe, Light Balance.  First seen on America’s Got Talent, this dance group is AMAZING.  The Abbey Stone Theatre has gone completely dark (when does that ever happen?) to show off the groups neon lights and effects.  Without spoiling too much, all I can say is if you haven’t seen these guys perform, you need to ask yourself, WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?  If you’ve never heard of the group, take the time and look them up on Youtube.  You won’t be disapointed. Their shows are only 12 minutes long, but trust me, it won’t feel like 12 minutes.  If you plan to see them this weekend at the park, make sure you get in line EARLY as it’s a show you won’t want to miss and seats fill up fast.

Summer Nights ends this weekend, August 12.

So, what happens after Summer Nights ends?  The precursor to fall, Beir Fest.  Beer lovers, this event is for you!  Similar to the Food and Wine Festival at the beginning of the summer, Beir Fest is the parks version of Oktoberfest.  With over 100 beers on tap each weekend, German foods like pretzels, turkey legs, and bratwurst, live music, and the tapping of the Firkin Keg every Friday, this event is the closest you’ll get to Oktoberfest.  Enjoy beers by the glass or by the flight.  Pair with a delicious salty pretzel or go authentic with German sausages from Das Fest Haus.

Beir Fest run weekends only August 17-September 3.

Battle For Eire

This past week Busch Gardens revealed to local media the behind the scenes construction of their newest ride for the 2018 season, Battle for Eire.

The storyline of the ride is Addie, the heroine, and her dragon sidekick Ollie, are battling the evil Balor and his minions Sluagh for the Heart of Ireland.

If you haven’t heard by now, Battle for Eire is a Virtual Reality ride, the first of it’s kind at Busch Gardens. With the use of goggles, the VR give you a full immersive experience, basically surrounding you in the storyline and making you feel as though you’re there with Addie and Ollie. If you’re not a fan of VR, or are afraid it might give you motion sickness though, that’s ok. The park took that into consideration and has designed the ride so that it can be ridden with or without the VR goggles. If you choose to ride without, you’ll view the screen as a 4K video.

While in line, riders will pick out their headgear and put it on and tighten it down. Once on the ride itself, you’ll put the VR goggles on. The goggles attach to the headgear by three magnets so you literally just pop them onto the headgear.

I know there are a lot of concerns regarding the VR headgear and how it works vs cleanliness, and let me put those fears to rest right now. The headgear is perfectly safe and clean. Don’t trust me? Trust the park. Why? Because you trusted them over the years to keep the 3D glasses at Curst of Darkastle and the shows inside the Globe Theatre clean. The headgear will be cleaned in the same sanitizing machine those 3D glasses were cleaned in. And don’t worry, the park has purchased plenty of the headgear, literally THOUSANDS, to ensure they have plenty for a full days operation with cleaning and turnaround. But what about the goggles themselves? Don’t worry about those either, they will NEVER touch your face.

Just a few stats about the ride for those that don’t already know….

There are actually 2 ride ‘rooms’ with each platform seating 59 guests.

The estimated experience time is around 15 minutes from time in queue to the time you’re walking off the ride.

You can ride with or without the VR goggles. If you choose without, the screen will be the equivalent of watching a 4K television screen.

Speaking of TV…..the frame rate for the video will be 90 frames per second. The average television runs at around 30 frames per second.

The voices of the characters were done by actual actors in Ireland.

The characters based on Irish lore.

Battle for Eire is created by Falcon’s Creative Group, the same group behind the creation of Curst of Darkastle.

While no official opening date has been given out yet, the park is aiming for a spring opening.

Changes to 2018 Annual Pass Program

If you’re like most locals, you probably have an annual pass for either Busch Gardens, Water Country USA, both parks, or even the 11 park Platinum pass.  Last week, Busch Gardens announced their brand new MEMBERSHIP program for their 2018 operating season.  Yes, that’s right, Membership.  The new program has three tiers, Basic, Unlimited, and Premier, with prices starting at $10 per month, per person, or $120/year.

Let me break the new membership levels down for you.

The Basic membership gives you admission to Busch Gardens and Water Country USA, Howl-O-Scream, and Christmas Town, on select days, subject to blockout dates, 50% off general parking, guest ticket discounts, member sneak peeks, and in park discounts

Unlimited and Premier memberships both offer unlimited admission to Busch Gardens, Water Country USA, Howl-O-Scream, and Christmas Town, no blockout dates, free general parking, member sneak peeks, and in park discounts.  While the Unlimited pass gets you 2 free guest tickets, the Premier level gets you 3 free guest tickets and free preferred parking.

What are the blockout dates for the Basic Membership?  Pretty much spring break, holidays, and most Saturdays.  In other words, the busiest days of the theme park season.  While at first glance, this may be a huge deal breaker for most people, if you prefer to visit the park during the middle of the week when it’s not super busy, this may be the deal for you.  You still have plenty of time to visit the park, even during peak season,  and can still get your money’s worth of your membership.  For more information regarding the blockout dates, check their website https://buschgardens.com/williamsburg/annual-pass/blockout-dates/

Something I’m curious about with the new memberships, that the park has yet to disclose, is the member ‘sneak peeks’.  Will this be something similar to how local museums offer their members private invites to opening night events for new exhibits?  Will park members receive private sneak peeks to events like the Food and Wine Festival before it’s open to the general public?  Or will these mysterious sneak peeks be something else completely?  Only time will tell as the park hasn’t said anything beyond ‘more information will be coming soon’.

Probably my only complaint regarding the memberships and how they’ve been created, is the fact that we don’t get to opt in or out of Water Country USA.  I’m torn on this.  I’m not typically one for water parks, but I don’t hate them either.  But I feel it would’ve been nice to have had one more pass option, not including Water Country USA on it.  Not to knock the park, it’s a great park, but for those that absolutely don’t go to water parks, this portion of the membership goes to waste.  I would’ve liked to have been given a membership option for one park as well as the two park options, at a slightly cheaper price of course.  Maybe Busch Gardens will reevaluate their membership plans down the road and adjust their offerings to suit this need/want.  I know those Water Country USA only pass holders would appreciate the option as well.

Now, for those existing pass holders, I’m sure you’re wondering how these new memberships affect your current passes.  Well fear not, you have options.  You don’t have to switch over to the memberships…..yet.  If your current annual pass is paid for in full, you don’t have to switch over until the pass expires.  If you’re on the EZPay, you can keep your pass until you’re ready to switch to the membership.  If you want to switch to the new memberships now, anything you’ve paid for your current pass will be prorated for the membership.  It is currently unclear just how long the park is planning on allowing the annual passes to continue though.  It could be through the end of the 2018 season, it could be three years from now.  Originally the park had listed a January 2019 date that all passes must be changed over by, but since their announcement, they have removed that original date and are stating you can keep the current pass for now.

For more information on the new memberships, visit the parks website.  You can compare the benefits of the three tiers and decide which one works best for you.  . https://buschgardens.com/williamsburg/annual-pass/benefits/