Pros: Plenty of rides for kids and adults; great character interaction.
Cons: Lousy customer service all around.
Located just minutes from the colonial tourist area, Busch Gardens Williamsburg is provides a welcome respite from days spent educating oneself on our country’s history. Advertised as, “The World’s Most Beautiful Theme Park,” this European-themed park boasts a full complement of thrill rides, family-friendly attractions, and even some animals to be admired.
At $66.99 for adults, $56.99 for children for a single day ticket, Busch Gardens isn’t cheap. After plenty of research, I learned that I could get a seven day pass good for both Busch Gardens and the Colonial Williamsburg area for $130.00. The fact that the pass included free parking at the theme park and allowed us to make multiple visits to the historic district made this pricing a good deal for us. It was also nice to have the vast majority of our sightseeing expenses prepaid before we even left home.
We visited Busch Gardens early in its season (late March) with our toddler. The primary draw for us was the Sesame Street themed attractions as well as the other kid-friendly spaces. Therefore, this review will be primarily focused on these offerings. For an in-depth look at more fast-paced rides and entertainment, I refer you to the other excellent reviews listed under this topic.
Toddler-Friendly Busch Gardens
When we were planning our trip, we were pleased to note that the park had plenty of rides and other attractions for the toddler sent. While nearly all rides ban “hand-held infants,” our daughter was walking well at the time of our trip so we were permitted to take her on anything that didn’t have a height restriction. If you have an older child who may eligible for some rides but not others, you can stop at the measuring point at the park’s entrance to get him a wristband which allows access to the appropriate sets of attractions.
Of the park’s kid-friendly offerings, the best and most modern attractions can be found at Sesame Street Forest of Fun, our first stop of the day. Those with kiddos who resist being corralled will appreciate having a place for them to stretch their legs in Oscar’s Yucky Forest. This cute, cushioned area offers tunnels for crawling and stairs for climbing. It could probably stand to be about 50% larger, but otherwise Baby_Chelledun had no complaints. We next moved to Bert and Ernie’s Loch Adventure, a simple loop boat ride that proved to be the baby’s favorite of the day. She ended up going around a couple of times since it wasn’t busy yet. Unfortunately, Oscar’s Whirly Worms broke down just as we reached the front of the queue so we missed experiencing that attraction. Baby_Chelledun was too little for Grover’s Alpine Express and Prince Elmo’s Spire, which are an adorable kiddie coaster and mini drop tower, respectively. Kids of all ages can have their picture taken with a Sesame Street character at 1-2-3 Smile With Me, although if you are doing a character meal like we did it makes sense to skip the wait for this attraction.
Since our goal was to fit in most of the park’s kid-friendly attractions before lunch, we headed straight from Bert and Ernie to the somewhat more dated Land of the Dragons, which opened about an hour after the park gates. We spent a fair amount of time exploring the multi-story climbing tower which includes dragons and eggs popping out all over the place and a “dragon phone” that allows visitors to communicate from the bottom of the structure to the top. This play area could stand some updating, as other than the phone there isn’t much for kids to actually look at or play with once the climbing is done. Adjacent to the tower are a few different children’s rides with ridiculous names: Eggery Deggery (kiddie ferris wheel), Flutter Sputter (circling Dumbo-type attraction), Chug-A-Tug (circling boats), and Bug-A-Tug (circling lady bugs). The former two allow a supervising companion while the latter two are only accessible to children under 56”, which I understood to mean that your kid has to be big enough/brave enough to ride alone.
The remainder of the kiddie rides at Busch Garden are scattered throughout the park’s various “countries.” After checking out the Muppets and the dragons, we made our way to some of the others. There are actually quite a few, but to be honest most are slightly themed carnival-style rides as opposed to unique, interesting attractions. Examples include a Turkish Delight, a teacup ride in Fiesta Italia, and Wirbelwindchen, a swing ride in Oktoberfest. We were excited to try out the Kinder Karussel since Baby_Chelledun had enjoyed a carousel a few months earlier. Unfortunately, she didn’t love this one as much, perhaps because it seemed to go a bit faster than similar rides we have been on. Even I felt a little queasy at the conclusion of our ride!
In addition to these designated children’s attractions, families with kids will want to spend some time checking out the nature exhibits at Busch Gardens. We saw wolves, eagles, parrots, sheep, and more scattered throughout the various “countries and contained in Jack Hannah’s Wild Reserve. There is also a show featuring performing domestic animals, which I can not recommend based on an experience we had that is detailed below.
A few different “public transportation” type rides round out the park’s kid-friendly attractions. We took a relaxing spin on the train, which stops at stations in Fiesta Italia, New France, and Scotland. The route isn’t particularly scenic, but it gets you from Point A to Point B and trains are always fun for kids. Guests can also travel by water on the Rhine River Cruise or by air on the Skyride.
Finally, be sure to check and see what seasonal offerings may be available during your visit, especially if you are visiting close to a holiday. Since we visited about a week before Easter, the Bunny was in attendance. We followed his footprints to Oktoberfest and snapped a couple of halfway decent photos, thus negating the need to go to a sketchy mall set-up upon our return home. Professional photos were also available for sale.
Lunch with Elmo, Big Bird, Etc.
As my regular readers know, I am obsessed with Sesame Street and hope my child grows up the same way. So, obviously I was not going to say no to an invite to dine with my heroes in a set price meal at Castle O’Sullivan. Despite a few hiccups in the check-in process (see below), this experience was overall well worth the price. We had a reserved table with high chair and ate a fairly tasty buffet that included everything from salad to corn dog nuggets to mac and cheese. The character cupcakes with sprinkles were awesome!
Better yet, the experience included about an hour of entertainment from and interaction with a slate of Sesame Street characters that included Big Bird, Elmo, Cookie Monster, Abby Cadabby, and Ernie. While my daughter was a little scared of some of the characters when they got too close, she loved watching them dance and frolic with the other kids. We saw Abby give hugs, Cookie Monster try to steal a little boy’s dessert, and several of the gang dance in the aisles. Elmo and Big Bird were posed at the front for a formal photo shoot for which each table was called individually. Individual characters performed classic Sesame Street songs on stage throughout the show. As character meals go, I felt like this one gave much more bang for the buck than comparable experiences I have attended at Walt Disney World.
Oh Yeah, There’s Grown-Up Stuff Too
By the time we explored the kid’s areas and devoted 90 minutes or so to lunch, we didn’t have a whole lot of time or energy left for thrill ride. We didn’t mind, as we spend a lot of time at theme parks and there’s always another coaster. However, we did check out the available options and found time for Mr_Chelledun to take a spin on a few of them.
There are quite a few thrill rides at Busch Gardens, from roller coasters to drop towers to 3D experiences. During the late March day we visited most of them had virtually no lines. Mr_Chelledun gave high marks to Apollo’s Chariot and Alpengeist. He was a bit disappointed, however, that the heavily advertised “new for 2012” Verbolten, a multi-launch coaster, was not yet operational at the time of our visit. If inversions aren’t your speed, check out the indoor 3D thrill ride Curse of DarKastle or Escape from Pompeii, a traditional big-drop water ride.
Why We Won’t be Back Next Year
If you’ve stuck with me thus far, you probably consider this an overall positive review. Unfortunately, there were some aspects of our day at Busch Gardens that were rather disappointing. Our problems all boiled down to customer service in some form or another. For the most part, the employees we encountered were not overly friendly. Mr_Chelledun and I commented that Busch Gardens could take a lesson from the consistently warm and fuzzy Dollywood in this regard. In addition, below is a summary of some of the specific issues we experienced during our visit.
1. Parking attendants seemed poorly trained. We arrived at the park about 25 minutes before opening. Although crowds were light, there was a major backlog to enter because few parking attendants were on duty and the lines were moving very slowly. Despite the fact that we had prepaid for our parking by purchasing a Bounce Pass, we waited for some time and ended up entering the park a little late.
2. Ride operators seemed poorly trained. Many rides appeared to have a skeleton crew, and I’m not convinced that all the employees were confident or knowledgeable regarding their assigned duties. I mentioned above that Oscar’s Whirly Worms broke down during our visit. It appeared that this was because when the ride operator stopped the ride at the end of the cycle before ours, it was not in the correct position on the tracks. She didn’t know how to get it back to the correct starting point and had to call for back-up.
3. Restaurant staff seemed poorly trained. It took FOREVER to get checked in for our character lunch. Thank goodness the group was relatively small, or we never would have all made it inside. Fortunately, we arrived very early, as did most of the other patrons. While the meal itself was a buffet, we had to rely on servers for beverage service, which was also very slow.
4. Cashiers seemed poorly trained. Many outdoor refreshment stands were closed. I waited ten to fifteen minutes for a Diet Coke since the food and beverage staff didn’t seem to know how to make the waffle ice cream dishes ordered by the folks in front of me. At the gift kiosk in the Forest of Fun, having our purchases sent to the main gate turned into a major ordeal when, again, the employee staffing the cashier’s desk didn’t seem very familiar with this process. Even copying down my name and address from my driver’s license seemed to take a lot of effort.
5. Animal trainers and caregivers seemed poorly trained. We were walking by the Pet Shenanigans theater and happened upon some employees rehearsing a rope trick with a cat in plain view of park patrons. Naturally, we paused to watch from outside the auditorium. The cat seemed terrified from the get-go and promptly suffered a scary fall from a rope several feet in the air. After this happened, an employee rushed over to us and told us essentially that we were being asked to stop watching because the cat was having trouble getting the trick any time he had an audience.
I was upset at the implication that we had somehow caused the incident and unsure why this rehearsal wasn’t done behind the scenes and lower to the ground. Of course guests are going to pause to watch animal training activities that are easily viewable from the public thoroughfare. After all, some zoos/aquariums purposefully do training in a space where the public can view it for educational purposes. At the time of this incident, the show was only about 35 minutes away so I certainly hope this cat trick was pulled, but as the rehearsal seemed to be ongoing as we waked away I have no great faith that the right decision was made. Needless to say, something like this would never happen at Disney. I am planning to forward at least this portion of my review to Busch Gardens because it seems that some changes need to be made to training and rehearsal techniques for this show.
The cat debacle marked the end of our day at Busch Gardens Williamsburg. Some of the kinks we experienced may be due to the fact that we visited early in the park’s season, although if things don’t improve quickly I can’t imagine how the larger summer crowds will be accommodated.
Overall . . .
Busch Gardens Williamsburg is a indeed a pretty park. The attractions it offers are mostly solid although it could stand a thinning out of some of the many carnival-style rides to make room for fewer but more substantial experiences. However, lines at all levels move with glacial slowness and customer service does not seem to be a high priority. Although we certainly had some moments with the Sesame Street characters, I left Busch Gardens with a bit of a bad taste in my mouth and I have no plans to return.