Every one of us has a moment in their time where something makes an impact on our lives, for better or for worse. This is what happened to me in July 1987 ...
Growing up in the northeast, you had a number of choices as to where to go on vacation: The Jersey Shore (long before it became a plasticized molded TV show) and Atlantic City; up to Maine & New Hampshire, down to Rhode Island & Connecticut - or even to the Adirondacks. This year however would be a bit different - as we headed to tidewater Virginia - Virginia Beach, Newport News, Hampton, Norfolk... and Williamsburg. Up to this point, those areas were unknown places for me to visit; indeed, a single visit when I was much younger did not count. We'd be seeing Colonial Williamsburg, and the standard array of tourist traps & such, but to me, it was Busch Gardens Williamsburg that was most appealing to me.
Mind you, my fondness for theme parks had not developed yet. While I'd already had my first coaster encounters notably in Massachusettes & New York, for me they were still terrifying things. Being that I was small for my age, and very thin (Yes, those of you who know me now... I was rail thin) so my first coaster encounters weren't the kind one associates with fun... but rather, terror. I'd seen from a number of brochures that I found around the room the various attractons & such one could find in the area, and one of 1987 Busch Gardens had pictures of this swinging coaster... The Big Bad Wolf. For some reason, the eyes on the lead cars of the train looked alluring to me - and from the pictures, the ride didn't look too intense... to 12 year old me. What I didn't realize is that pictures may speak 1,000 words... but those words don't include "Speed" "Height" and "Terrifying plunge into the water". Rationality was not my strong suit at that age.
The morning started with breakfast in our hotel not far from Williamsburg; and proceeded into the main entry plaza for BGW. The park wasn't overly crowded for the mid-week of summer season, but the heat was definitely in place. In 1987, there were only two coasters in the park: The Loch Ness Monster (That's a future story folks...) and Big Bad Wolf. In fact, the park's offerings were very well balanced: Plenty of flats in the newly-opened Festa Italia, a very good log flume in LeScoot, and the park's general aim was for family friendly rides and attractions spread throughout the grounds. It was certainly a beautiful place - and had a very welcoming, open feel to it: You were the guest in their place, and they made you feel good about being there. If anything, Busch Entertainment Corporation knew how to build & operate a theme park, and to do it with great skill & adept planning. Nothing was out of place - and everything was well tied together.
After wandering through the park's outer perimeter via New France, Rhinefeld & such, I saw the station for BBW - complete with the massive red Wolf logo out in front. The line wasn't very long in all reality, filling in only a few switchbacks of the queue holding house outside the main platform. And having not seen the ride itself, it didn't look too intense at all... as all you could see if you'd come from that direction around the park was the brake run & station house/track to the lift. After 15 minutes, I was in line for the middle of the train...
The air gates swung out and open, and I climbed into the train. I recall sitting down, and waiting for the restraint collar to drop; it did so with little effort even for somebody as small as I was. The restraint lowered... and I recall the dispatch of the train...
"Sit back, relax. Hold on tight. Enjoy travelling at the SPEED of FRIGHT on the Big... Bad... WOLF... (HOWL)"
And my thought was this: What had I gotten myself into. As the train gently dipped down and out towards the first lift, I saw another train blister onto the same lift... apparently, the picture I'd seen before wasn't quite accurate towards my undue expectations. In fact, I'm pretty sure I was about to crap myself. Slowly, slowly up the lift, the anti-rollbacks "CLONK....CLONK....CLONK....CLONK....CLONK....CLONK" as the train ascended the lift... followed by the first drop into the village below.
At this point... the ride became a blur of sheer, unadulterated terror. And I wanted off... NOW. Of course, there were more things to come, such as the helix in the middle, and the second lift.
It should also be noted: Back in that era, I battled severe motion sickness... the kind of which kept me drugged up the hilt on airplanes and any other moving vehicle. Needless to say, my breakfast that morning was starting to chatter with me in very dangerous ways. As our train ascended the second lift, with every "CLONK" of the anti-rollbacks my body made itself known that a technicolor yawn was about to take place... in bad ways. The train rounded the top of the lift, and I saw white. The drop looked beyond taller than it was... and down... she.... went.
There are times in our lives where we wish we were elsewhere: The first time we wreck the family car, the pregnancy scare of a teenager, the baseball thrown through the ginormous plate glass window. All of those seemed preferential to where I was right then. The rapid motions of the BBW train combined with the swaying right then left then right again were bringing me ever-closer to the embarrassment of ejecting the contents of my esophagus forward at blistering speed. Fortunately, the brake run slowed us down, and the good operations let me off and out of the train in no time flat. Up the exit stairs, down the other side... and in full view of any patron within a good 100 ft was the Linda Blair inspired projectile hoarking into the bushes just outside the exit stairs. I felt as if I'd swallowed a live squirrel, and he wanted out.
Needless to say... it was NOT love at first ride. It was however the ride I credit with being the first to make an impact on my life. As time would progress through months and years, I would become reacquainted with BBW - to grow closer together, and in the end, BBW became a fond & loving friend of mine through many years of living close to each other (From 1991-2000, I lived very close to BGW, and would spend 40-60 days annually there... if not more.) While my #1 coaster is (and always will be) the Loch Ness Monster, BBW may be my fondest memories - and certainly among the most notable.
There are times where something can scare us to death one minute... and become a close friend the next. BBW is one of those for me. Through the 90s, I became aware of every nuance and every fine point BBW offered her riders over the years. The way one could (and SHOULD) ride her at night. Or on foggy days the trains disappearing into the late evening fog at the base of the river ravine- with the mist and the speed and the breeze at the same time coating the tracks and making the strange BBW 'squeak' as they did this. Or how on rainy days, one never sat in the forward seat, lest they get covered in 'wolf pee' from the bunting wheel covers on the axles. And then there were the hidden references to Die Wildkatze, the coaster which occupied the site formerly - including a single Schwarzkopf light column to the left side of the train, between the village run & the mid-course helix; it was customary to say "HI ANTON!" as the train zipped by.
And then it was with great sadness when the announcement was made: Big Bad Wolf would be silenced in 2009. This monumental machine of my history, a ride that had at one point caused me to hurl as if possessed - would soon become nothing more than a memory. I had relocated a few months earlier to the west coast, and watched friends take their final rides via the web, and I mourned that I did not get to say my goodbye to BBW. I spent the better part of a week in a dark funk; a sad moment in my life as I watched a ride so impacting on my future turned off one last time. By the end of the year, BBW was gone; removed from the landscape, with only the footers and a few small scraps of the columns remaining. To me, seeing the first pictures of the site less the brown & red structure that made up BBW were painful; as if years of my life had been erased in one short winter. In a lot of ways, I lament this - but as we all know life & love are different from reality & facts. And since then, the site has been re-used by Verbolten, an excellent family coaster - and with tributes to BBW remaining (WLF-XING) on the new attraction.
BBW will never be known as the most terrifying ride on earth. But rather, a ride that was well designed, well engineered, fun & thrilling - and one that made a thousand memories for millions of people over her 25 years. She will always be nothing short of a great ride for me, and one that I cherish as I do a handful of others.
And those bushes at the exit of the stairs? They never did grow back...