After a couple of weeks off, RD is back this week talking about one of his favorite theme parks, and if you've been to Busch Gardens Williamsburg, it's probably one of your favorites as well.
So have a seat, take some deep breaths and enjoy.
In My Opinion
Written by RD Sussman
Busch Gardens Williamsburg has a place in my history that is unparalleled by any standards; I have spent more time there than any other theme park in the country - combined. You may think this is a joke; it is not. BGW was my first theme park as a small child back in the mid 70s; I grew up with the park; I chose my college based upon how close it was to BGW- being a short drive from dorm to drop was a great thing for me. So I have some very strong feelings towards the park - and its history as well. My #1 coaster on the planet is there (Loch Ness Monster, also my high-ride count coaster).
As we all watched in 2009-2010, Anheuser-Busch was destroyed by their fourth generation president; the company was broken up and spun off or sold. Busch Entertainment corporation was spun off and sold to the highest bidder, and became Sea World Parks. Anheuser-Busch, a 160 year American company is now owned by Europeans. And we began to see the decline of the parks at the same time.
BGW has been well known for decades as being one of the best theme parks in the world, with rides, shows & attractions on a par with Disney. The immaculate care of the park was well known, and the sheer attention to detail on the scenery was second to none. When a new ride would be installed, the park organically grew the ride in, placing it not only appropriately, but making sure that it fit with the area in which it was installed. The 90s were the heyday of BGW - the point where the park not only expanded, but built on a fine history of great development. While Drachen Fire was a bust, Alpengeist was not - and it was a blockbuster attraction from day one. Escape From Pompeii revitalized the splashwater falls concept, adding a show building to enhance the feel of a ride and bringing a totally new storyline to the park. Apollo's Chariot added the first B&M hypercoaster to the world, and it was an amazing new achievement in technology & terrain design. BGW was untouchable, and shined like a brilliant diamond which it was.
The 2000s were no less challenging - but the park still held her own. Drachen Fire, standing dormant for years was removed quietly after no buyer was found for it; King Arthur's Challenge was replaced by Corkscrew hill, and quietly the park entered a period of internal rebuilding, with more focus on improving existing attractions than in adding new ones. Hastings fell way to Ireland, and the simulator again changed to Europe In The Air, a far cry from its days as Questor. In fact, over the decade only one new major coaster was added (Griffon) and we sadly mourned the passing of the first successful Suspended coaster, the Big Bad Wolf. BGW was changing - but the shoe had yet to drop.
Once the parks had been spun off into the new holding company, things began to change. While the emphasis on quality was always first and foremost, things were going on with the new management that raised alarms in those of us who know the park well. A gardening staff that was the envy of every other major park company was let go; the park would do their work internally now. Attractions began to show signs of wear. The atmosphere of BGW was changing. 2012 brought forth their last big addition to the park, in the form of the very well themed Verbolten, a family coaster that fills in the hole where BBW was. This ride has received accolades for being an excellent fit for the park, as well as a crowd pleaser.
So now it is 2015. BGW still holds its head proud - but no longer has the shine it once had in it. Though their holiday celebration is considered one of the most beautiful (As well as one of the highest-attended winter events) the park no longer focuses on the entire picture. Rides that are the envy of the world are now joined by more off the shelf models, and have notorious histories of mechanical issues. Food service once on par with Disney is now being outsourced to other contractors.
And then now we have "TEMPESTO!", BGW's 2015 addition. A Premier launch coaster, well known for being a one-trick pony and a capacity nightmare is coming. Squeezed into a narrow plot of ground between Apollo's Chariot and a park midway, it stands out like a sore thumb on the skyline; a cheap & fast addition that shows very little real quality in it as far as what BGW has historically put up for the public.
BGW, you're heading for rock bottom here - and it isn't going to be pretty (or easy) to get out from there.
Editors Note: No official plans, artwork or announcements have really been made about Tempest, but the ride is currently under construction and we all know what it is. And while it's the perfect fit for a park like SFDK, it's not for BGW.
Up into the 2000's, attractions for BGW were planned well ahead, organically themed and designed to fit their location, were thrilling as well as capacity monsters, and designed to please a different segment of the family audience. Each major new attraction was planned very carefully, and executed well, creating a magical atmosphere that no other park in the country could do - save Disney of course. Verbolten was the last of these great concept rides, and it was developed not long after the decision was made to shutter BBW.
Sea World Parks has been hit by the shit stick recently, after the fraudulent film "Blackfish" was released. Now I know you're wondering why this would impact BGW - but it does, and it is showing. Sea World Parks has been hit with an anti-SeaWorld propoganda machine which hit attendance as well as revenues. As a whole, the company is starting to suffer financially, and at the same time has announced a major expansion/change to the SeaWorld parks, in terms of attractions & animal care. While this is a crucial thing, to pay for this the company is cutting jobs and reducing expenditures at other parks. This in turn has led to cutbacks at both Busch Gardens Parks.
Big mistake, Sea World Parks. BIG MISTAKE.
The Busch Gardens parks have been well known for quality, atmosphere & attractions. And the apparent solution is to cut back, reduce & buy cheap. No, No, No. You are degrading the quality of the experience for something that stands out like a sore thumb, and will piss off people with six hour waits. Tearing down trees to install it removes some of the beauty BGW has in it - something the park is well known for. And I don't like where this is going.
So where to start? This is more difficult than it appears to be, and is one that has to be answered.
First, it is time to put a new captain at the helm of the company. While the CEO of SWP was released recently, there needs to be a larger sweep out of upper management, as well as fresh minds.
Second, the Busch Gardens parks (as well as the water parks) need to be spun off into their own units, separate from Sea World Parks. Since none of them directly have joint operations with each other, to focus the parks on their core markets would be a huge start. Sea World Parks is now taking from their core money making parks to pay for their own issues, and it is the Busch Parks which is suffering at that. By keeping the synergies of the Busch parks as one, a focus on building that brand can continue and expand.
Third, return to your roots. The reason BGW was so successful is that it never lost sight of what it was: A clean, well-built, well-run & family friendly theme park. This focus has been met only in part, and in a lot of ways has been forgotten about since 2010. Cutting corners in one area to help raise money for others shows in time. To quote from Ross Johnson, "For every penny you spend now, it comes back dressed as a shiny nickel." This message rings VERY true, especially in a competitive business like theme parks.
Is BGW at the bottom of the barrel? No - not by a long shot. They are still a gold-standard for parks. But at the current pace, and with the current trends in place, they are making decisions and futures that are totally inappropriate for the park's needs. BGW is a park that has for decades been considered a diamond, but now it is one that risks having that diamond taken, and replaced with a cubic zirconia. It is time for major changes at the top for Sea World Parks, one that focuses on the whole company and not just on three parks in the chain.
That means this is the opinion of one person, not a trip report or news article. Please keep that in mind as you are reading.
appy New Year. RD is back today with another great article, this time about his "Home" park Six Flags Over Georgia.
If you've been to this great park then you know that it's really one of the crown jewels in the Six Flags chain with a great mix of rides, scenery and fun for everybody. So it's hard to argue RD's points below. But I'm sure some of you will try. - Gregg
* Click on any of the photos below to see a full size version
Written by RD Sussman
As many people know, I'm a long-distance from my home parks. As I'm a jet-commuter (yes, it is a term!) from Phoenix, I can consider my two home parks to be 'distant' from where I am; the first is Disneyland - an hour flight from here, and the other is Six Flags Over Georgia (SFoG). Why? Simply put: SFoG schools every other SF park in the chain. It is simply that good.
So what makes SFoG so much better than every other SF park? It isn't one thing or another - but rather a combination of things that go beyond the standard SF operations. It is a park that has stayed ahead of the game for attractions, while not forgetting about their classics. It is a park which remains loyal to what Angus Wynne created 50 plus years ago, while keeping up with the times. And it is a park that I've yet to have a bad day in over the past 15 years.
Now that isn't to say that SFoG hasn't had its bad times: It has - and in spades. The 1990s were a rough time for the park, with Time Warner's control of the SF chain being obtrusive to the point where the park's ownership sued Time Warner. [Side note: SFoG isn't owned by Six Flags, inc - it is owned by a trust of people including the Wynne family, private banks & investors - and less than 20% of the voting holdings are Six Flags. It is the only park in the chain which has this ownership basis, and the Wynne family retains control over it.] Found guilty in 1996, Time Warner finally relented & provided improvements to the park under their duties as the park's oversight.
But I digress. During this period of turmoil, operations were not at their prime. SFoG was notorious for line jumping & well-known in park fights, guest service did the best that they could, but the park was a black eye. Even the worst of the SF parks surpassed how SFoG was viewed, and many people thought the park was not worth saving.
The 2000s were the turning point. Melinda Ashcraft took the helm, and worked magic across the board. Her guidance & leadership of the staff was astounding, and the park began to rise to the top. Training was emphasized. Clean was in. Operations improved, and the park hit its stride. Over the decade, the park recreated itself internally, with older attractions not scrapped, but rather lovingly restored & improved.
So what is it that really sets SFoG apart?
Let's look at the mix of rides in the park: Every single demograpic has an attraction that they can ride - from one of the earliest Mine Trains, all the way up to a rare US installation of a Gerstlauer Eurofighter. Coasters that stand out include the notable Goliath Hypercoaster, which winds around the front area of the park, to the standing coaster Georgia Scorcher. And just about everything in between (yes, even the rather painful Ninja...)
Flat rides range from the simple (A wave swinger) to the latest (A StarFlyer known as Sky Screamer). And the park's classic Log Jamboree is a wonderful log flume that when weighted correclty can drench people (Sorry about that Shawn.... hehehhehehee). Add in a two-stop in park train, a Sky Ride and plenty of slower family attractions, and you get a park that is nearly perfectly balanced.
SFoG has not lost sight of their older coasters either. Great American Scream Machine is one of the most beautiful & photogenic coasters, and runs wonderfully at 42 plus years of age. MindBender, the park's terrain build Schwarzkopf coaster stands out as one of the best rides on the planet. Monster Plantation shows that Disney does not have a monopoly on the ability to do a great ride-through attraction, and still retains a charm & class that very few parks in the world have in their attractions.
SFoG hasn't left the park to rot. Buildings are kept in excellent condition, painted & cleaned. Trees cover the park, providing plenty of shade for those notorious Georgia summer days. There are benches everywhere, particularly in the shaded areas, which allow those of us who like to rest some good space to people watch. And the park is immaculate.
Over the past few visits - at different times during the year no less - the park has been clean & well kept. Trash is almost non-existant, something I've had a hard time finding outside a Disney park. For the most part, the facilities are kept clean, including an area I tend to look at more closely - the restrooms. Dining establishments are continually checked for trays, trash & refuse, with garbage cans emptied regularly. This to me is an important thing all around, as nothing is more disgusting than an overflowing trash bin in a dining area.
What has impressed me most of all are the people: While every park has its fair share of 'I'm here because it is a job' types, and SFoG is no exception to this, SFoG's staff tend to be much friendlier than I've encountered at many other parks. Staff are more apt to go out of their way to help. And I saw more smiling staff there than any other park I've been to in the Six Flags chain. People were having FUN with their jobs. And they showed it.
Now the food follows the typical Six Flags model - I'll digress from that aspect except for one thing: At several private events I've attended, the fried fruit pies are NOT to be missed. They are astounding. Incredible. AND WONDERFUL!
SFoG has not forgotten what a theme park should be. You don't find an uber-attraction standing out like a sore thumb as you find in other parks. The rides all seem organic, and fit to where they belong; even mighty Goliath (Which sits in the very middle of the park) looks like it belongs there - and has for years. Attractions are spread out, and use the terrain were possible. They look as if the ground grew a mine train, or a looping coaster, or a log flume. Buildings are not obtrusive, but fit into the areas appropriately, blended into the scenery & the areas nicely. And there are signs. Lost? Follow the arrow. It is easier to negotiate SFoG than most every other park in the USA.
So while other parks are busting their seams with the biggest rides, SFoG keeps doing what they do best: A good park with a great feel & out shining everybody else. When I think of my next visit to a Six Flags park, I can assure you that I'm headed to Atlanta - and headed to the best Six Flags park in the country.
It should be noted that Six Flags Over Georgia's new "coaster" for 2015 is The Joker: Chaos Coaster coming in Spring 2015. Our feelings about this being a coaster aside, we are taking a wait and see approach with how these rides will fit into their respective parks.