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.