Christmas Town at Busch Gardens Williamsburg opens for its fifth season
Written by Russell Meyer
Halloween has become quite a lucrative season for theme parks, but as parks search for more sources of revenue and ways to draw guests to make return visits, Christmas is becoming just as profitable. Theme parks have been putting up holiday decorations for years, and many year-round parks hold hard-ticket events to expand their earning potential. However, theme parks in the more northern climates tend not to open during the winter months for fear of bad weather and perceived lack of interest. After all, how many people are silly enough to want to ride an outdoor roller coaster in 40 degree temperatures, or even colder?Tweet
Busch Gardens Williamsburg has bucked that trend as they open Christmas Town to guests for its 5th season. As a season passholder to the park, I've been intrigued by the concept. However, I've never really had a desire to venture to the park for the event that requires a separate admission, even from the most elite passholders. This year was my first Christmas Town, as my family and I were invited to the park as part of the blogger preview of the event. Having never been before, I had expected the park to be pretty much as normal with a bunch of lights and Christmas decorations, which is what many other parks do for the holidays. Instead what I found was a park that was very different than what I expected.
Christmas Town is truly a completely different theme park with more than six million lights, 1,500 Christmas trees, 20,000 ornaments, and over 3 miles of garland. While some of the park's rides are open, including Verbolten, Mach Tower (turned into "observation" mode as Nacht Tower), Battering Ram, DaVinci's Cradle, and most of the park's other flat rides, Christmas Town is not really about the rides. Christmas Town is also not just about the light and decorations, which is what many other northern climate theme parks do around the holidays by putting on extravagant light shows. Christmas Town is about the complete holiday experience.
As part of the blogger event, my family and I were invited to Santa's Fireside Feast, a buffet style meal complete with Jolly Ole St. Nick. The buffet features salad, Swedish-style meatballs, mashed potatoes with gravy, sweet potato casserole, corn, stuffing, and roasted turkey, along with chicken nuggets, hot dogs, and macaroni and cheese for the kids. As part of the meal, kids are invited to take pictures with Santa Claus (available for purchase after the meal), and Santa entertains guests with a dramatic oration of "Twas the Night Before Christmas". The food itself was pretty good, with the Swedish-style meatballs being the standout, but the real highlight was the opportunity to be with Santa for nearly an hour.
Following Santa's Fireside Feast, we strolled around the park for the rest of the evening to take in Christmas Town. While many of the park's signature coasters are not open during Christmas Town, just about every area of the park is, with the exceptions being Sesame Street Forest of Fun and Land of the Dragons. However during Christmas Town, each of the European lands is transformed into a new area with lights, decorations, music, and even some snow. Two of the most dramatic transformations are found in Holiday Hills (Festa Italia area) and The North Pole (Germany Area). Holiday Hills is a very clever American 50's era inspired overlay that feels straight out of a movie. The area is filled with nostalgic billboards, colorful lights, and 50's holiday music. The lights even put on a show, dancing with the music to count down the days remaining until Christmas. As with stores, malls, radio stations, and TV shows these days, it was a bit unnerving to see that there were still 33 days until Christmas, but until people are willing to push back, the Christmas season will continue to grow every year.
The North Pole is where guests can meet Santa Claus without having to pay for the Fireside Feast. The character meet and greet is set up in the former clearance store and snack stand underneath the giant clock. The décor inside the meet and greet area is well done, but the real magic is just outside. The fountain at the center of the clock square features the North Pole, complete with snow. I've been to other parks that create snow for the holidays out of soap bubbles, but the "flakes" always look too thick to feel real. Busch Gardens' snow at the North Pole feels much more real with smaller suds that give a far more authentic look.
In France, a giant tree has been erected to celebrate the 12 Days of Christmas, as well as 12 smaller trees, one dedicated to each day. In addition to playing the "12 Days of Christmas", complete with a dancing light show, the area features some favorite carols sung in French. France is also where guests can visit the Ice Palace: A Penguin Paradise. Busch Gardens transformed the backstage area of the Royal Palace Theater, location of The Catacombs haunted maze during Howl-O-Scream, into a penguin habitat. The Magellenic penguins, on loan from SeaWorld San Antonio and the Columbus Zoo, are displayed for guests to see, complete with a swimming area similar to what you would find at a SeaWorld park. It was pretty impressive for a temporary habitat, and worth seeing.
In Oktoberfest, O Tannenbaum will delight guests with another dancing light show, featuring instrumental carols. Those that enjoy Trans-Siberian Orchestra and the hundreds of YouTube clips of people getting their Christmas lights to dance in time to music would definitely appreciate the show. Oktoberfest also features the Mistletoe Marketplace, which is set up like a European Christmas market. Having been to Prague two years ago during the holiday season, they certainly were able to capture a similar vibe with this market.
Another impressive light display can be found along the Polar Pathway (the area around Escape From Pompeii), where the water ride's façade and surrounding pools are covered in strings of LED lights. The walkways in the area feature polar bears and a giant Santa adorns the area near the ride's load platform.
However, the light display along the train route was not as impressive. Perhaps I was expecting full scenes, animatronics, and sheets of light, but the strings inside the train and trees with lights wrapped around them along the tracks was a little underwhelming. The train is really a missed opportunity for the park, and after seeing the cars packed hip to hip earlier in the evening, I had expected something more.
The theater shows, on the other hand, were far from disappointing, and are by far should be the highlight of any visit to Christmas Town. Gloria! is a musical retelling of the Biblical Christmas story complete with special effects and a full orchestra, staged inside the Abbey Stone Theater in Ireland. The performers in this extravaganza are by far some of the most talented singers that I have ever seen at Busch Gardens, and that talent is combined with some well-conceived effects to create a show that will give even the meanest Grinch the warm fuzzies. The stage is equipped with a translucent screen that allows projections to occur in front of the performers, while another screen behind the performers can also display backgrounds. In addition, the stage has a number of moving platforms and walkways that allow the cast to simulate walking and floating, which really sells the story. Considering the small size of the stage, the producers of Gloria! have been able to pull off a minor miracle in addition to the miracle of the Nativity.
A much larger stage is set in the center of the Festhaus for Deck the Halls, a singing and dancing big band-style show featuring an energetic cast and live band. The singers here were a notch below those featured in Gloria!, but nonetheless put on a very entertaining show. Due to time constraints, I was only able to see a small snippet of Miracles, which features ballet dancers and a female quartet of singers. However, from what little I saw of the show, it appeared to be a happy medium between the more serious tone of Gloria! and schmaltziness of Deck the Halls.
The park also features a number of street performers, including carolers in England and jesters in France. The restaurants throughout the park also have modified their menus to feature more holiday-inspired dishes in addition to numerous stands serving peppermint hot chocolate. Overall, Christmas Town at Busch Gardens Williamsburg is a completely different experience than guests would receive during the normal operating schedule. It is more than just a bunch of lights and decorations, though they do play a big part in the park's transformation. The lights, decorations, music, street performers, and shows all work together to create a completely new theme park. Christmas Town is open on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays through mid-December, and then every day from December 13th through New Year's Eve, with the exception of Christmas Day.
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