How Should Busch Gardens Williamsburg Right Their Ship?

Busch Gardens Williamsburg: How can, what arguably was, the best themed park on the Mideastern seaboard fix it's many woes? BGW is rife with "on stage" problems that directly effect park guests and "behind the scenes" issues that trickle down to a lackluster patron experience.

From Tom Rigg
Posted September 12, 2013 at 10:38 AM
The rumors and reports coming out of Busch Gardens Williamsburg over the past season have been foreboding to say the least. With performer walkouts, shuttered shows and rides, reductions in the special events offerings (I'm looking at you IllumiNigths), steady increases in pricing, and ever dwindling benefits to pass membership the park seems to be careening down a slope that won't end anywhere pleasant. I have been a loyal pass member for over 5 years now and for the first time I am considering not renewing this coming season.

So here are the two questions I am posing:

1) What should BGW do "on stage" that visitors to the park directly interacts with to improve the customer experience and retain their local pass member base?

2) What should BGW do "behind the scenes" to fix the problems that seems to be like a creeping vine moving from entertainment to public relations, to park ops, to special events?

For some quick background info, BGW is unique in the SeaWorld portfolio as having a fairly large pass member base that makes up a great deal of their off season visitors and their midweek summer visitors.

In the list of woes, recently the entertainment division was rumored to have passed up inviting performers from the summer to remain on cast for Halloween and Christmas shows and instead told them they were welcome to audition if they would like to continue working past their summer contracts. It's been suggested that this was a ploy to cull some higher paid performers from the roster.

Also, a musician who'd been with the company for roughly a decade was reported to have been fired without cause, resulting in a walkout by several other musicians from a show that heavily relies on live music. The show was subsequently shuttered for the rest of the season.

In other news, the PR department sent a message on the BGW social media feed announcing the closing of all water rides for the summer last weekend. Then, a suspiciously short amount of time are the blow back from the announcement started pouring in, the park claimed that the message was a mistake.

So, by the end of the current summer season, two shows were closed, one ride was completely shut down, and another, Mach Tower, was in on again, off again operation.

Finally, pass members were greeted this season with a 150% increase int he cost of kennel use. A 33% increase in the cost of Christmas Town tickets. And the reduction in the times when they can buy tickets for friends at a discounted rate.

From Russell Meyer
Posted September 12, 2013 at 12:08 PM
This is what happens when a park has stockholders to answer to, when they used to operate relatively autonomously. Also, this is just my personal observations, but as a whole, the mid-Atlantic theme park market is experiencing a down year. I don't know if it has been weather, lack of new, highly-anticipated attractions, traffic, the still-struggling economy, or other reasons, but I haven't been to any of my 3 local parks when they have been crowded aside from a July 4th trip to Six Flags America, and I primarily visit on weekends.

I think the cost cutting maneuvers are pretty normal when you have a large corporation trying to balance the bottom line when certain lines of that business are currently underperforming. I don't know any specifics about the unwarrented termination, but I have heard about the company's decision to not automatically extend talent contracts through the fall and winter in favor of seeking cheaper local talent to fill those positions.

As far as special events, the park put on the very amibitious Food and Wine Festival this year, that was successful enough to warrant a second go for next year. As far as Illuminights, while I didn't catch any of the performaces this year, I'm not aware of any specific cutbacks to the shows aside from pairing back the dates. Personally, while I think the event was nice in previous years, I wouldn't plan my trip around it or deliberately stay in the park overnight just to see it.

When it comes to passmember benefits, I haven't seen a change, but I have held a Platinum Pass for nearly 10 years now. I did notice that they increased the parking a few weeks ago, but that doesn't affect passholders.

Mach Tower has been a disaster since it was built, but I don't think that the park is to blame. Moser delivered a crappy ride platform, and BGW has done their best to get it running reliably. From my personal experience, it's been running pretty good this season (longer freefall too), and while there have been some days when it has some downtime, it hasn't experienced extensive, days-long, downtime that it saw in its first 2 seasons. Europe in the Air was closed because no one rides it. The simulator attraction there has had problems drawing guests back to its first season as Questor. It would be nice to have an attraction in Ireland, but the park just hasn't had much success in putting something in with staying power. Corkscrew Hill was probably the most successful. The same goes for the Globe Theater...Films have come and gone through there for decades, and it makes sense for the park to try something new with a live show.

I think what you're seeing is some belt tightening to compensate for some recent overspending that didn't make a big difference at the turnstyles.

From Derek Morse
Posted September 16, 2013 at 6:51 AM
I made my first visit to Busch Gardens Williamsburg this summer when my wife and I took a vacation to Virginia in late June. I had an absolute blast and loved the park, although we did not take the time to enjoy many of the live shows so I can't really say how crucial they are to the experience.

From Rob Pastor
Posted September 16, 2013 at 8:54 AM
We enjoyed the park the most when they had a large number of street performers and live shows. The combination of the two established an old world ambiance & charm that set BGW apart from all of the thrill amusement parks located within a few hours drive. That was BGW's credo along with it's beautiful setting..... Get back to basics. Another dark ride would also help. That, along with the existing superior coasters could revitalize the park.The Busch family did a great job running BGW. They differentiated BG from the amusement parks(Six Flags & Cedar Fair). In Bev & Blackstone though, just wanted to take out profits instead of putting a decent percentage of the profits back in the park. BGW was the only true theme park in the USA outside of Florida & California. To remake it into just another thrill amusement park, as Blackstone has been doing, is setting it up to fail. The Williamsburg area is a huge tourist destination. A theme park in it's environs has more tourist attraction than a typical thrills park, which BGW seems to be morphing into.

From David L.
Posted September 16, 2013 at 4:28 PM
Quick note:

"Only true theme park in the USA outside of California or Florida?" (or something like that).

What about Dollywood, Silver Dollar City, Water World, Sea World San Antonio, and probably a few others I am forgetting?

As for BGW, my one visit at Christmastown was amazing, and a steal in terms of money. I can only think that some massive marketing campaign (a la get in free on your birthday) or world class ride (like massive indoor dark ride based on AAs or a unique shooter) will bring it back if what it already has doesn't do that already.

I really hope it bounces back soon as this is a wonderful park!

From Tom Rigg
Posted September 17, 2013 at 3:04 AM
The claim I made is that is arguably the best mid-Atlantic theme park, not the only one. I do think that Dollywood is a theme park and a great one, but I wouldn't regard it as mid-Atlantic.

I also think it's important for newcomers to the BGW experience to understand just how great and consistent the BGW experience has been over the years. I feel like for a great deal of time the only other park that rivaled BGW, excluding Universal and Disney which for the sake of this argument are in a league of their own, in service, quality, and value was Dollywood. For years there was nothing comparable to the work BGW put into creating a complete guest experience. There was also a lot of value put on tradition and local patronage.

As the park has moved through the process of being an IPO it really does feel that cracks are surfacing in these aspects of the park. With that said, it is still a great park in comparison to many other ones, especially in physical beauty. The best way I can describe the issue is through hypothetical: If Disney were to slip on ride quality or overall guest experience, it would more than likely remain far above the quality of most other US and international parks, but it would still be a lesser experience than it was in the past. BGW is the same in that it was/is an incredibly nice park that stands above many other regional parks in many way, but has slipped in some areas that used to be a good deal better than they are today.

From Jason Jackson
Posted September 17, 2013 at 6:42 AM
When Anheuser-Busch (not the AB-InBev) owned the parks and the Busch family ran the business, the parks were used as a showcase for families that ran counter to AB just being a beer family. Of course in the long run it was the idea to promote the positive image of AB to develop future customers of the beer side of the business. The parks enjoyed the deep pockets of AB and the standards were over the top. AB InBev wanted nothing to do with anything but beer and the parks begin to suffer the Blackstone came in and pumped some money into the company to then be able to eventually sell or IPO the company. So now the parks are learning to be out on their own and learning how to spend money wisely and correct mistakes that were made. There are a lot of us who wish for the old days when the Busch Family and AB ran the parks, but that will not happen. I believe the park eventually will find its just might take some time.

From David L.
Posted September 17, 2013 at 3:38 PM
Tom, I was referring to what Rob said in his reply.

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