Before you even enter the gates, you hear the shrieks of sheer elation reverberating among the treetops. Up there higher than the loblolly pines, colorfully-clad humans, who look more like tiny dolls, swoosh by in a blur, twisting and twirling, their screams trailing after them, lingering in the air. It’s a happy sound that echoes throughout the park three seasons of the year, and no matter how old you are, it’s a sound that immediately awakens the fun-loving child that exists in all of us, the one who’s been cooped up inside for too long. Welcome to Busch Gardens Williamsburg.
Peter, my husband, Ross, our son, and I braved the summer heat recently and headed up to the park for a day of thrills and chills. We’d last visited the park in November to experience Christmas Town, Busch Gardens’ unique tribute to the holidays. Then, as darkness fell at five p.m., we watched the park’s familiar surroundings transform into a winter wonderland with brilliant colored stars and snowflakes scattered among the trees and along the bridges. In Ireland fake snow—flakes of soap powder—fell, glittering in the light, like the real thing. You should have seen the delighted smiles and subtle excitement that shone from visitors’ faces as soon as they saw the snow. Steaming cider, a Christmas market, carolers, and more lent a new kind of magic to Busch Gardens, whose management somehow seems to find new ways to entertain us every year.
In fact, that’s why we came this summer: to experience the park’s new IllumiNights, which runs through Aug. 22. Now instead of fresh, cool autumn air, a blanket of humid summer heat enveloped us as we entered the park. So we headed to a new attraction in Ireland, Europe by Air, a ride formerly known as Corkscrew Hill. Here in a cool cave-like environment, we waited in anticipation, enjoying the frigid AC. Soon we were seated in the high-tech simulator and took off, flying the stunning skies over Europe, past Blarney Castle, Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, and the Roman Coliseum. When it was over, I wanted to jump on a plane and head to Europe to visit these iconic attractions myself. Luckily, Busch Gardens is a lot closer and definitely less expensive than a trip to Europe!
Time for a roller coaster ride. Peter, who has vertigo, sat this one out, so I climbed on Griffin for a heart-stopping ride that began with a slow, suspenseful climb 200+ feet in the air followed by 205-foot vertical drop that simply stuns the senses. Flying along at 75 mph you tend to forget who or where you are for a minute and focus only on the wind roaring in your ears, the jolting turns, the hair whipping across your face, and yes, the screams that spill from your mouth. At one point I remember thinking, “I’m 52. What in the world am I doing on this thing?” But I loved it. Not that I wanted to go again—once was enough.
Lines were too long to hop on another of my favorites, the Skyride, so Peter and I strolled along admiring Busch Gardens’ lush landscaping. The park was honored with the award, “Most Beautiful Theme Park,” this year for the 20th (!) time in a row. We stopped to watch a wolf demonstration and then headed off to the first IllumiNights show in Ireland. There on an open square we watch an Irish legend come to life: a friendly elf learns to play a magic flute to summon his princess back home. Larger-than-life puppets, special effects, and audience interaction kept everyone enthralled. The performances are offered in four countries every hour beginning at 5 p.m., so there’s plenty of time to see all the shows.
We met up with Ross, who’d been spinning around on coasters since we arrived, for a light supper in the picnic area: Caesar salad with chicken, and then we headed to France for their IllumiNights show, a lively parade featuring Can-Can girls, moustachioed waiters balancing wineglasses on a tray, bakers bearing crusty baguettes with clouds of flour billowing behind them, and elegant ladies twirling parasols. The parade was dream-like, a fantasy of French icons and symbols that blended together to transport you to another place and time.
For isn’t that what going to Busch Gardens is all about? A chance to be somewhere else for a little while, to escape the ho-hum and experience the moment with family, friends, and even strangers, who you feel connected to somehow. Looking around at smiling faces—grandparents watching toddlers in the new Sesame Street Forest of Fun, teens running from the exit ramp to the entrance to ride the coaster yet another time, little ones eating cotton candy or a drippy ice cream cone, you feel a kind of energy that circulates throughout the crowd, uniting us all.
As the sun disappeared in the west, Peter and I paused to watch fireworks light up the sky in an explosion of color. An original score accompanied the pyrotechnic display, an exhilarating finale to another fine day at Busch Gardens. On the way out, I decided to go on one more ride, another favorite, Der Wirbelwind, the swing that twirls you around and around. As the ride began to revolve, the wind washed over my body, cooling me after the searingly hot day.
My bare feet dangling, I melted into the moment, spinning around as lights and colors and smells and sensations whizzed by in a panoramic blur. I could ride that swing forever.
Going to Busch Gardens is about forgetting your worries and being in the moment. It’s something we all need in today’s hectic world…less worry, more fun, more quality time with the ones we love. So bring your kids, borrow someone else’s, or get in touch with your inner child, and scoot on up to Busch Gardens for an adventurous escape.
For more information, please visit www.buschgardens.com