Category: Virginia

2016, Attractions, Guest Post, Halloween, Haunted Attractions, Theme Parks, Virginia

Busch Gardens Williamsburg Howl-O-Scream 2016 Preview: “No Escape” Escape Rooms

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This is a guest article written by Kara Dennison.

Escape rooms escape rooms escape rooms. I’m not sure what cause the surge of popularity in escape rooms over the last handful of years, but I can’t say I mind it. I’ve sadly never actually been to one, although not for lack of trying — my closest experiences are either attending Then She Fell or playing those Flash games online. So Busch Gardens getting two as part of Howl-O-Scream excited me.

Our group attended Media Night recently, where we were promised a “modified experience.” No one was entirely sure what that meant, but we went along with it.

Now, the things you need to know first off. The escape rooms are across from Land of the Dragons in Germany. Each room holds a group of six, who have half an hour to track down clues in order to solve a mystery and escape from the room. You have two to choose from: one Jack the Ripper themed, one themed to Mr. Karver and his creepy dolls from this year’s overarching ‘Evil Encore’ branding. Oh, and yes — they do cost extra ($30 before 4 PM, $40 after), but the price includes a group photo at the end.

Now, for the modified experience.

There were approximately 30 people in attendance for media night, and they wanted us to be able to see both rooms. So, rather than sending us in in groups of six and locking us in until we found our way out, we were split in half and invited to look around each room with the doors still open, and after a time we’d swap rooms.

My group saw the Jack the Ripper room first.

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Without giving too much away, the idea is that anyone who comes through Jack the Ripper’s apartments is helping the London constabulary find out his true identity. As the constable put it, ‘Clues will lead to other clues, which will lead you to his identity.’ The room was full of drawers, cabinets, hidden items, and even some hidden areas that went largely unsearched until the end of our time. I was pretty sold on this one right away, as even with the quick-and-dirty walkthrough we were able to start piecing apart bits of the mystery and how one would go about putting the clues together. It was well constructed, with plenty of things to delve into, and rewards of clues (or occasional silliness) for people like me who pick up literally everything.

Then came Mr. Karver’s room, and I was super excited about this. The Evil Encore branding has been so prevalent, and creepy dolls are kind of my jam, so I was really ready for this.

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And… well. While the look of the room, the props, and especially the gentleman playing Mr. Karver were all especially creepy and unsettling and wonderful… I had absolutely no idea what we were meant to be doing. I had to go to the website just now to find out that the point of the room is finding out where Mr. Karver’s workshop is. Does that mean you’re locked in there and don’t know how you got there? Or is there a second, freakier workshop that you’re trying to find your way into? Even a poke around the room with about the same diligence as the Jack the Ripper room didn’t turn up much by way of what we’d be doing if we were actually meant to be in there.

The Mr. Karver room honestly felt more like a theatrical experience/display of the branding than a preview for an escape room. I know who the character is, I know why we’re meant to be afraid of him, but I have genuinely no idea — to put it bluntly — why I’d want to spend $30 to be locked in there with five of my friends. Again, as an experience, it was very cool. And the actor was amazing. But for what it was, the preview was fairly unsuccessful.

That said, I’m not entirely convinced that an unsuccessful preview means a bad attraction. If the two rooms are designed by the same people, then there are good odds they’re of equal quality. And admittedly, Jack the Ripper needs no introduction, where Mr. Karver and his dolls are a new IP.

The size of the venues, while not great for our preview group, would be ideal — snug but with enough room to explore — for the advertised group of six. Things were easily accessible from their various drawers and shelves, though there were a lot of dark areas that I wouldn’t have had a chance in without the flashlight on my phone (a thing to bear in mind especially for the Jack the Ripper room). And it goes without saying that the attention to detail was fantastic — not only because it has to be in an escape room, but also because the atmosphere of Busch Gardens’ various haunted attractions usually does have intricate details to it.

Final thoughts? I love the idea. It’s smart of them to jump on the escape room train, especially as a way to give park attendees a jumpscare-free alternative that’s still immersive. The ticket price is surprising, but not horrendous. I do, though, feel that they could have done the left-hand room a bit better service on their preview night.

For more information on No Escape and to book a time, visit the official website.

2016, Food, Guest Post, Theme Parks, Virginia

Williamsburg, Virginia attractions: Busch Gardens Bier Fest review

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This is a guest post by Kara Dennison.

Busch Gardens Williamsburg already has an entire section of their park called (and devoted to) Oktoberfest, where you can get German food, hear traditional music, and choose from a variety of beers. But when summer starts to wind down and autumn (and Howl-O-Scream) is right around the corner, the park rolls out the barrel for Bier Fest: a multi-day festival featuring more beer, more food, more music, and… honestly, just more.

This year’s Bier Fest stepped it up from last year, with more than 100 beers on tap at stalls throughout Oktoberfest and inside the Festhaus itself. The Fest is also twice as long as before, running select days until September 18.

With this embarrassment of riches, there was no way I was going to be able to sample absolutely everything. So I deliberately aimed low: two food items, a beer, and their advertised German cordial tasting. Otherwise there was no way I was making it out of the park, much less home.

The Food

The Festhaus had its usual fare available, but special Bier Fest stalls had a variety of spins on traditional German food: pretzels, schnitzel, sandwiches, and bratwurst.

The first thing I tried was their bratwurst pretzel, which is pretty much what it says on the tin.

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The pretzel was nice and soft, and the bratwurst (which I’m stupid picky about personally) was very good. It’s hard to tell without my hand for scale, but that’s a pretty large pretzel. It was very filling — which was a bit annoying, as it was good enough for me to want seconds.

When it came time for more food, though, I varied it up and had Jäger Schnitzel.

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This was not what I was expecting at all — I know what schnitzel is and I’ve had it before, but I was surprised to see it on a stick like, well, fair food. This had every opportunity to be badly cooked or a mess to eat, but it was not only delicious, it held up on the skewer. (Even with me, ever-clumsy, being the one to eat it.) The drizzle was a really good mushroom sauce. I’d originally considering putting some mustard on it, but anything else might have undone what was already just fine.

The Beer

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Bier Fest attendees have the opportunity to buy a beer sampler either online or at the event for $22 ($42 including a souvenir mug), but I’m not as much a beer connoisseur as many of my friends. To that end, I went to one of the outdoor booths, told the lovely lady there what I liked, and had her match me up. I ended up with a Saving Daylight — a wheaty, citrusy beer — from the Virginia Beer Company. It was about $9 for an extremely full glass that lasted me the majority of my walkabout there.

Even though I didn’t try more than one, the fact that the people at the taps were that knowledgeable and that friendly tells me that you’ll find something you like there. There are also a lot of local brews that rotate out, so if you want something Virginia-made, you’ll have no trouble finding it.

The Cordial Tasting

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Nice.

This was $14.95 for a flight of four shot-sized liqueurs, complete with background on the history and flavor profile of each one. You also walked away with a nice glass.

This event was so popular, though, that by the time I got there the park had bought out a good portion of the local ABC’s German stock and there was no more to have. So while Jägermeister and Bärenjäger were on the menu, the other two — Chambord and Domaine de Canton — were decidedly French. Not that that was a minus.

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The host was extremely knowledgeable and extremely friendly, and I learned a lot about a few things I already figured I knew plenty about. The booth also sells hats, shirts, and mugs for those who want souvenirs to take home.

The Music

Three bands are appearing over the course of the event: The Happy Dutchman have their own stage outdoors where they perform traditional German music five times throughout the day. Next weekend, Harley Boone will be appearing in the Festhaus for four shows daily.

This weekend that spot was filled by the Kevin MaC Band, a local group specializing in country and oldies. Listeners to local country radio may have heard their newest single, “#Winning.” They did a fantastic show that felt more like casual jamming than a rigid performance, improvising and creating off-the-cuff medleys.

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Overall, Bier Fest had a great party atmosphere, fantastic food, nice decor, and extremely friendly staff. I can’t believe I was unaware that this was a thing last year, and wish I’d had a chance to go more than once. Next year I will be in line for multiple bratwurst pretzels and as many shows as possible.

Bier Fest runs from 11 AM to park close on select dates through Sunday, September 18. For more information and to purchase packages in advance, visit the event’s official website.

2016, Attractions, Food, Guest Post, Reviews, Theme Parks, Virginia

GUEST POST: Busch Gardens Williamsburg Food and Wine Fest 2016 review

This is a guest post by contributor Donika Haddock.

Memorial Day weekend has several significant meanings to many people. For most people it marks the end of the school year, beginning of summer. For Busch Gardens, it’s also the beginning of their annual Food and Wine Festival.

In its fourth year, the Food and Wine Festival is back again, with its mix of foods and wines from various countries from around the world. It’s a great time to introduce yourself to foods you’ve never tried before, plus it’s a nice change of pace from the same theme park foods we’re used to at Busch Gardens (not that their food is bad, but something different is good once in a while, right?).

This year the park switched out two old booths for two new ones. Gone are the Scandinavia and Scotland booths. While I miss the Swedish meatballs from Scandinavia that is probably the only thing I miss from that booth. In its place, the park brought in Hawaii. What is a common food most people think of when they hear Hawaii? SPAM of course!! The Hawaii booth serves Spam sliders, with sriracha mayonnaise and grilled pineapple with a side of pineapple-coconut coleslaw.

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To be honest here, I still can’t bring myself to try it……yet. But I HAVE tried the Huli Huli chicken, a soy BBQ chicken served with a side of sweet potato salad.

Unfortunately, this is one dish I would pass on trying again. I’m not one for potato salad to begin with, but I was curious about the sweet potato salad, and thought that would add an interesting twist with the orange and purple potatoes. Interesting is the key word. The potatoes were barely cooked (still crunchy), making the sweet potato salad unpalatable to me. While I can’t wait to go back each weekend, I have to admit, I have yet to make it through to the Hawaii booth to try everything I want, due to being too full from the other booths. Friends and other park guests have told me the root vegetable chips with Maui onion dip and the tune poke (pronounced pokay) are must tries. The dessert that’s offered is the Haupia Tart, a sweet coconut mousse with Kona coffee ganache. Mmmm…coffee….

The second new booth this year is Virginia, located in the former location of the Scotland booth. (Editor’s Note: Aaaah! Scotland was my fav booth! – Oni)

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This is new booth has two of my favorite offerings this year. If you were a fan of the Scottish toffee, you’ll want to try the pecan, bacon, chocolate bars. The only way I can describe this dessert is toffee meets pecan pie meets bacon and chocolate. Seriously, I don’t like pecan pie and this dessert I can’t get enough of. Can’t make it to the park to get your hands on it? You can find the exact recipe (and others) here.

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The Virginia booth also offers pork rinds with a variety of Southern dips (deviled ham, pimento cheese), bacon and cheddar hushpuppies, She-crab soup, and my second favorite, the Smithfield Ham Tasting. The tasting consists of three varieties of ham, Red eye country, hickory smoked, and applewood, paired up with apple butter, raspberry jam, and whole grain mustard, finished with a honey biscuit on the side. Sure to please the Southern in everyone.

I did venture out this year and finally tried the ratatouille. While I have to admit I’ve been curious about this, I hadn’t been brave enough to try it until this year. From the France booth, the ratatouille parfait is roasted veggies served in a cup with a twisted parmesan cheese stick. This is a change from previous years as the ratatouille used to be served as a tomato stuffed with the roasted vegetables. Personally, I wasn’t a fan of the parfait style. While the presentation was nice, the initial layer of chilled veggies with the drizzle of balsamic vinegar tasted good, the bottom layer lacked flavor and seasoning. Should’ve stuck with the stuffed tomato. If this is how they will present the dish for future Food and Wine Festivals, I’ll definitely be passing on it again.

My biggest disappointments for this year comes from the France (again) and Caribbean booths. Besides the ratatouille, France also serves up Steak Au Poivre, or peppered steak.

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I tried it twice this year, and both times I couldn’t eat it. The peppered over powered any flavor of steak, and actually made it spicy. From two people who love steak, neither of us could eat this. So disappointing. If they were to cut down on the amount of pepper, even slightly, it would be close to edible. From the Caribbean booth, the Jamaican Jerk Chicken was second on my list of disappointments for this year.

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Last year, the jerk chicken was grilled, nicely charred, and full of delicious smoky, sweet bbq sauce. This year, the chicken was served up buried under its grilled pineapple salsa. Once the chicken was uncovered, it wasn’t grilled at all. Cooked, yes, but not grilled. The drumsticks this year looked and tasted as though they were boiled. No char on the outside, as the skin was still chewy and rubbery, and the bbq sauce was served on the side in a cup. If they can learn one thing from this, GRILL THE CHICKEN!!!!

The park has added several features to the event that have been long awaited and much needed. First off, as the Food is mostly small servings, it gets to be an expensive way to eat and indulge very quickly. The park finally added an option to purchase a food sampler pass. For $35, you get to try ten helpings of whatever food items you want, from any of the booths. $50 will get you fifteen samples. These passes are pure gold, and if you do it right, the average cost drops to around $3.50 per sampling. Perfect for spending the pass on the higher priced items like the bacon wrapped scallops in Spain, which runs $7 per order.

But what about the wine? You can’t have a Food and Wine Festival without wine, right? The wine tastings, located throughout the park yearly, run about fifteen dollars per tasting. The park added a wine tasting pass (wine tasting trio), that allows you to sample three wine tastings of your choice, for the price of $29.95, with a savings of around $15. This is another great deal for the event.

Along with the foods and wines, the returning food artists are a huge hit as always. It’s fun to watch them create masterpieces out of fresh cut melons, cakes, and fondant, and the displays change weekly. There’s also an ice carving demonstration nightly at 6pm in Ireland just outside of the Abbey Stone Theatre, where two food artists compete to be the first to carve a masterpiece out of their block of ice in under twenty minutes.

All in all, the event, even with its highs and lows, is still a great event to check out, whether it’s with a group of friends or a weekend date. It’s the perfect time to try new foods, enjoy the food art, and maybe hit up a few shows and rides while you’re at the park.

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2015, Guest Post, Theater, Theme Parks, Virginia

Williamsburg, Virginia Holiday Attractions: Busch Gardens Christmas Town “Gloria!” 2015 Review

Hark to this. Image ©2012 SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, Inc.
Hark to this. Image ©2012 SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, Inc.

This is a guest post by Kara Dennison.

Full disclosure before we begin: I was a Christmas pageant kid. Largely because at my old church there were maybe five children total. I was Mary every year for several years, until I hit the preteen years and graduated to being the angel because apparently that’s how Christmas pageants work. The point is, I did the whole dang “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown” thing. And I was aware “Gloria!” was a big deal show (big enough that I didn’t go last year because the line went on forever), but did I want to stand in line for a Christmas pageant?

Listen up, though. This show is ridiculously pretty, the music is extremely good, and the staging is (sorry) glorious. Yeah, it’s a Christmas pageant — but it’s like the best ever high-end Christmas pageant.

The first thing of note: the scrim. No, seriously. They make extensive use of it, and it’s very cleverly handled. This is performed at the Abbey Stone Theatre in Killarney, which is a much smaller and more intimate performance space than, say, the Globe. But they make up for their lack of fly space and pyrotechnics by using the scrim and back screen to project set pieces and special effects, with the actors between the two in a way that integrates them into the imagery very cleanly and artistically. The costumes are essentially what you’d expect them to be, save for our lead angel (see above), who’s straight out of Jesus Christ Superstar and looks amazing.

What’s most interesting is that yes, they are doing a Nativity play jukebox musical using Christmas carols. And they are ramping it up. But they seem to know what they’re meant to ramp up and don’t fix what ain’t broke. There’s a full band down front performing all the music live (and sit near the band if you can, because it’s very fun to watch them), there’s a decidedly more modern tone to some segments and orchestrations, but all things considered, it is very traditional.

The singers, incidentally, are astounding — some of the best I’ve heard in the park. The soloists especially in the choral numbers are just mind-blowing, and I’m glad they took the time to put credits with photos outside the Abbey Stone. And the aforementioned band is top-notch, too. We were sitting rather close to them, so I can’t vouch for how good they sound at the far ends of the theatre, but they were good and loud and strong from where we were sitting.

Honestly, my only issue with it was probably only an issue on the night: there seemed to be some set pieces that were moving and thumping oddly as they were being slid on and off the stage. I’m not sure if that was an error on the night or if there’s something that needs looking into. Fortunately nothing came crashing down, but it seemed odd in a production that was otherwise well put together.

I mean, yeah, I appreciate “Gloria!” might not be everyone’s jam. But even if you’re not of a terribly religious bent, give it a go, because it is a beautiful show managed extremely well and sung with a hell of a lot of heart. And no, seriously. Look at that angel. Look. Tell me you would not wear that suit to a party.

2015, Theater, Theme Parks, Virginia

Williamsburg, Virginia Holiday Attractions: Busch Gardens Christmas Town “Scrooge No More” 2015 Review

Image ©2014 SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, Inc.
Scrooge on one of his better days. Image ©2014 SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, Inc.

This is a guest post by Kara Dennison.

Question: how many ways can one tell the story of A Christmas Carol? Answer: all of them. It’s one that never gets tired of being rewritten or remade or reimagined because it is, at its heart, the most basic and essential of holiday messages: don’t be a jerk on Christmas.

Okay, it’s more than that. But the fact remains, it is the most solid non-religiously-tied story of the season, and with a park that has its own tiny England, you really can’t do without a staging of it at Christmas.

“Scrooge No More” was Christmas Town’s new show in 2014, put on by the same people behind “Monster Stomp at Ripper Row” — and it shows. Off-the-wall costumes, creative use of all parts of the stage, heavily thought out lighting design, and a highly stylized aesthetic are all present again, although not as gory or edgy as its Howl-O-Scream counterpart. “Scrooge” is infinitely more family-friendly, though it does get its creepy on at plenty of points throughout.

It’s worth noting that “Scrooge” isn’t a jukebox musical of the typical theme park variety. Nor, for the record, was it borrowing at all from the Leslie Bricusse musical. This is all new music, ranging across a variety of styles. The music is cute and engaging overall and moves the story along, but it isn’t truly the central or most fascinating thing about the show.

Visually, as you’d expect from its pedigree, “Scrooge No More” is serious eye candy. Heavy use is made of clever lighting and video projection to move the story along, even in the “real life” scenes. Scrooge’s chamber has a distinctly Lemony Snicket feel to it (as does Scrooge himself) before Marley’s appearance in chains kicks off his night of weird dreams. The various ghosts (all played by ensemble members) are heralded with a variety of projected effects, bringing a surreal, dream-like quality to the whole production. Much of it is reminiscent of the techniques used by the UK theatrical troupe 1927: Marley’s chains are augmented by a “web” of animated ones projected behind him, scenes build themselves up from animated pieces, and the Ghost of Christmas Present appears to us first as a giant CG nutcracker.

(This is to say nothing of the time travel effects between the ghosts’ scenarios, which… well, let’s just say someone loves the Twelfth Doctor as much as I do and has no problems being extremely blatant with it.)

The final segment with the ghosts is downright eerie, veering slightly more toward its “Monster Stomp” roots. Between Crowley-esque imagery and a frighteningly realized, larger-than-life Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, I found myself sinking down in my seat to hide. It’s grim, but not gruesome: a good chilling Christmas ghost story, lightened immediately by Scrooge’s reformation.

Also worth noting are the ensemble players who took part in a light pre-show, specifically the gentleman performing antics with an unruly spotlight and doing a bit of juggling. It was a pleasant, fun atmosphere from the beginning, and the right one to get families jazzed for the show to come.

“Scrooge No More” is sheer spectacle at its core, somehow managing to blend the merry Victorian aesthetic just outside the theatre’s doors with the dark, unsettling undercurrent of “Monster Stomp.” A Christmas Carol is the ultimate vehicle for this pairing, of course, and it’s exciting to watch. While you might not necessarily leave humming any of the music, you will definitely still be talking about the visual spectacle for days after.