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Americana-Euro-Kitsch Collision

  • Post category:Adventures

Our seven-year-old son left with a newfound love for rollercoasters. Our daughter, age nine, felt enchanted…and exhausted. My wife—the thrill-seeker among us—rattled every bone in her body and soared to unimaginable heights. And I scratched an itch I’ve had for more than 20 years to revisit and traipse the streets of European cities big and small. Okay, well maybe my European vacation was an alt-universe/theme park version, but in all respects Busch Gardens delivered on the promise of kid-venture, thrilling rides, Old World whimsy and charm, new experiences, and core memories that will last a lifetime. It was that good.

Secondary to the obvious accoutrements and many reasons that families flock to this theme park, located just a couple miles from Colonial Williamsburg proper, are the periphery “great outdoors” experiences that this peninsula, sandwiched between the York and James Rivers offers. You can go for the theme park and discover pastimes—like hiking and fishing—should your heart desire.

Our visit, just ahead of Easter weekend, gave us 96 hours to explore, most of which was spent within the gates of Busch Gardens. We’ll walk through those experiences, and discuss the myriad outdoor opportunities beyond, for you or your family.

Once through the main gates at the park entrance, you’ll be transported to London, England.

Make it Happen

First things first; booking your trip. Research, research, research. We found booking through the Busch Gardens website attractive for the variety of packages available, based on length of stay, proximity of hotel, type of theme park passes, and some of the inclusive variables (like parking and dining options) that altogether saved us a couple hundred dollars had we not booked a package deal.

We chose a family package that included three nights at the DoubleTree by Hilton hotel (closest to the park, only 1 mile away), three-day passes for each of us (two adults, two children), with parking included (by the way, daily parking ranged from $30–35/day during our visit—a lot to pay out of pocket if you don’t go with an inclusive package). We didn’t include dining in our deal (you can if you want), leaving us to fend for ourselves in and out of the park. 

All this said, you can truly customize your trip and maybe develop your own “package” by purchasing your lodging, tickets, and options through other vendors (Airbnb, Vrbo, etc.).

Travel & Pitstops

For Mid-Atlantic East Coasters, travelling to Williamsburg, Virginia, will likely take you along Interstate 95 at some point of the trip—both a bane and a boon in my opinion. The East’s main travel artery will get you where you want to go, but damn if it isn’t one of the most stressful driving experiences; three/four/five/six lanes of traffic, trippy interchanges, bulldog truckers, and, let’s be honest, idiots everywhere have me looking for alternate travel routes at every opportunity. For Marylanders living right of the interstate, there’s an option. Maryland Route 3 South just about parallels I-95, taking you through Waldorf, across the Potomac River (Gov. Nice Bridge, of which a brand new bridge is being built), and toward Port Royal, where you can either continue on Route 3 South (eventually connecting with I-95, then I-64 East to Williamsburg) or take a left on Route 17, which traces the Rappahannock River down toward the Williamsburg/Hampton Roads region.

Those with pitstops and fishing on their mind may want to veer down Route 17, a very peaceful, uncongested drive with opportunities to get a bite, enjoy nature parks, and get a line wet. There are several smaller overpasses that cross feeder creeks, coves, and parts of the Rappahannock itself. Several nature preserves, parks, marinas, and water access points are also accessible along 17: Port Royal Unit National Wildlife Refuge, Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Tappahannock Park (at the quaint, cute, antique town of Tappahannock), Garrett’s Marina, Remlik Marina, Urbanna Town Marina, Beaverdam Park & Lake, and Gloucester Point Park at Yorktown are but a few mentionable.

The “riverwalk” takes you along Brewery Road Lake and under the most famous coaster in the park, the Loch Ness Monster.

European Vacation

Our trip was focused on Busch Gardens and taking in as much of the park as possible (Yes, I brought a light tackle spinning combo and a travel bag of tackle and lures just in case.) Being Easter Weekend, we weren’t quite sure what to expect. Would the weekend be busy and packed? Tough to tell heading in—with the kiddos out of school it could be. But it’s also early season (a bit chilly at that), so the waterpark and related water-themed rides were non-operational. Nevertheless, the park was busy but not uncomfortably so. Lines for the popular rides, including the newly opened “Pantheon” rollercoaster, were fair. During our entire three days, our longest wait time for any attraction was approximately 45 minutes at noontime for the very popular “Skyride,” the classic cable-gondola that whisks passengers from England to France to Germany and vice versa. About those countries…

Absolutely love the European theme of Busch Gardens. It satiated my soul, despite the various villages playing up every country cliché in the books. Germany was my favorite “destination,” but each was unique and whimsical, including Italy, Ireland, Scotland, and New France (aka Canada). Within each, you’ll find coasters for the adults and rides suitable for the youngsters. For the littlest of littles, Sesame Street tucked within England features adorable rides, including “Grover’s Alpine Express,” a great, safe, introductory rollercoaster (it proved to be my kids’ favorite ride in the entire park).

My wife and I took turns watching the wee ones, while each of us independently rode the most thrilling rides. The Loch Ness Monster—the world’s only double-interlocking loop coaster—opened in 1978 and still thrills riders today. It’s also one of several coasters that zip and soar over the theme park’s famed Brewery Road Lake, the central impoundment off the James River that begs the question, “Can I fish this theme park lake?”

There Was an Attempt

It looks tempting, but if you’re thinking of fishing Busch Gardens proper, you won’t. Fishing poles and gear won’t get you through security to the park. In our research, we did stumble across a fishing forum in which two anglers boasted of covertly fishing the lake under the Loch Ness Monster, along the boardwalk, by using handlines with soft plastics and lures tied to the ends. They dropped in their handlines and walked the length of the boardwalk, almost as if trolling the lures, and claimed they got two big largemouth bass to hit, all before security caught on and gave them a warning to stop—no fishing allowed. Guess my rod and reel would stay in the minivan after all.

Brewery Road Lake holds fish but it’s illegal to try your hand for them from the theme park’s grounds.

If you’re truly itching to angle, the nearby York and James Rivers, and Atlantic Ocean, are probably your best bets with charter opportunities in the Yorktown/Newport News/Hampton area. The James is known for its tremendous blue catfish population, which is likely the most plentiful and opportune river on the East Coast to hook into very large fish—with 20, 30, and even 40 pounders pulled out regularly. Epic trophies larger than that have even been caught out of the James. Nearby, the Norfolk/Virginia Beach area has charters willing to take anglers for inshore, nearshore, and offshore for a variety of species, including tarpon (yes, there are tarpon in Virginia!), striped bass, red drum, cobia, and much more. Click here for our Charter Fishing 101 tutorial and compendium of charter captains serving the greater Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic region.

All in All

The Busch Gardens experience, towns of Williamsburg/Yorktown/Newport News, and nearby Virginia Beach offer a trifecta of family fun and adventures situated conveniently in the lower Mid-Atlantic region. What’s doubly cool is that there’s so many attractions in this region that you can visit time and again to discover something new. Our 96 hours were dedicated to the Busch Gardens theme park, but we’ll be coming back to explore historic towns, educate our kiddos, and relish in the natural beauty of this slice of country where the Chesapeake meets the Atlantic.

The Busch Gardens train traverses the park’s perimeter and is a must-do for a leisurely finish to the day or trip.