Monday, May 21, 2012

Braving the Black Forest

Well hello again fellow adventurers! Skip here to report in for another wonderful adventure to Busch Gardens Williamsburg to take a trip through the Black Forest on their brand new coaster Verbolten!

Verbolten is the final part of the park's effort to revitalize the Oktoberfest area of the park that began with the closing of The Big Bad Wolf coaster in 2009, and to be honest they succeeded beyond my expectations. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a bit sad at the closing of Big Bad Wolf. When I was younger it was my first "big boy" coaster, and its loss was definitely one I felt the first time I visited the park after the closing. But after seeing the new area that began to spring up around its former station which included Mach Tower and the new specialty pretzel stand (more on that later!), I started to get a good feeling about the changes.

And then as more and more information about Verbolten began to trickle out, I began to get legitimately excited about Busch's new addition. It was apparently going to have everything I look for in a ride. Heavy theming? Check. A well thought out story? Check. Never before seen technology? Check. And the Rhine River Drop was even coming back! What's not to love!?

The Rhine River Drop returns!

Well, I'm happy to report that the experience lives up to the hype...for the most part. Now, I know that sounds like I was a tad bit disappointed with the attraction, but know that I wasn't. The small amount of negatives I took away from the experience was the bit of wasted potential, not from a bad ride experience.

So, long story short, Verbolten is an amazing experience. If you were on the fence about going to Busch Gardens to check it out, I'd recommend taking the trip. It's completely worth it, and the ride deserves your time. That's my quick, non-spoiler review. If you don't want the ride spoiled, scroll down and read the rest of my thoughts from the trip, or leave. I'm not forcing you to stay. (But seriously...don't leave)

Thar Be Spoilers Ahead

The Queue
Approaching Verbolten through Oktoberfest is such a great experience. The festive atmosphere is alive and well with bright colors exploding off the buildings, decorations, and theming of the area as you get further away from Darkastle (which in all honesty feels incredibly out of place in the land now).

The story of Verbolten is that you are a tourist coming to Germany for the festival, and have decided to rent a car to tour the countryside. To do so, you've come to Gerta and Gunter's visitor center. The two siblings run the quaint business, with Gerta being the face and Gunter being the mechanical whiz that keeps their cars going. Of course all is not as happy and festive as it seems. I mean when is it ever in a theme park ride? Cars (and one would assume, people) have been disappearing in the fabled Black Forest, and the brother and sister have been perplexed as to why.

The backstory is played out in the wonderfully themed queue. While it's not up to the level of rides like Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey or Star Tours, Verbolten has the best queue I've ever encountered outside a Disney or Universal ride. The best way I can describe it is "Expedition Everest light". The same basic concept applies, as you're a traveler headed through buildings preparing you for your trip through a famous local. Of course Everest is more in-depth and longer, but Verbolten's still impresses.

As you enter the queue, you pass by one of the cars Gunter managed to pull out of the forest. It has a big vine growing right through it and moss covering the inside. Every now and again it tries to turn over, and smoke billows from the smashed hood.

You then wander around the outside of the visitor center, before entering it. Inside is a quaint setting with posters detailing destinations, cupboards containing books and trinkets from Germany, as well as Gerta's office. The detail on the office stands out, and the placemaking of the rest of the building is very effective.
Gerta and Gunter's Tourist Center

Gerta's Office
One a small, old-timey  TV, Gerta greets us and gives us the backstory of what's going on with the forest. It would have been a nice touch if it wasn't such a struggle to hear the majority of what she was saying...and if what you could hear all too well wasn't incredibly annoying. Gerta's explanation's have painfully low audio, save for when she imitates the sound of a car revving up and screeching, which is cringe inducing. Seriously, someone needs to tinker with that audio.

More from her office
After that, you head back outside for a few switchbacks that give you your first good view of the coaster trains, and let me tell you they are sexy. Yes, sexy. It's the only word I can use to describe them. They're the prettiest looking coaster cars I've ever seen. Forget the blocky awkwardness of the Rockin' Roller Coaster cars, this is what a car-themed train should look like. Clean, sleek, and bright colors highlight these feasts for the eyes. And they come complete with European-style vanity plates complete with sayings like "WOL FXNG", "YLB DRPN", and "BLK 4ST". They really made some great trains, but I do have a complaint I'll save for later in the review.
Sexy train is sexy
We then head into Gunter's office/laboratory. Gerta's brother seems intent on finding out what's going on with the forest. A map filled with notes, newspaper clippings, and samples from the forest highlights one wall of the cramped space filled with lost people's luggage. On the opposite wall, we can see shifting, grainy video feeds from cameras he's set up in the forest to really find out what's going on. We exit and head up to the station.
Gunter investigates the Black Forest
Gunter's observation post
More from his office
Before moving onto the ride review, I have to commend what a capacity beast Verbolten is. The dual loading platform works wonders, and allows 32 people to load simultaneously with 16 to a train. I waited in the full queue all three times I rode the ride throughout the day, and each time it only took anywhere between 40-50 minutes. This will be great for the heavy summer crowds that will no doubt start descending on the park in the next few weeks.

The Ride
After waiting in the station and heading onto the train, I was pretty happy with the zero-entry walk onto the car. Having a flat surface even with the loading platform is such a great idea and really expedites loading/unloading. The seats are nice and comfortable and the lap bars are nice and snug. Personally, I prefer a coaster that doesn't loop since you can get the lap bar instead of over the shoulder restraints. The freedom is great, and adds to the out of control feeling. The front of the car also has a camera that records your experience like Rip, Ride, Rockit does at Universal.

But the train also has one of the rides biggest missed opportunities. No on-ride audio was a big mistake, in my opinion. A whole score isn't necessary, but it would have been great to have engine noises constantly going in the background. We get a bit at the beginning as we exit the station thanks to offboard speakers, but then nothing the rest of the way. It's a bit odd.

Once we leave the station, we coast past 2 turns, and then come face to face with the event building. There it is, just sitting there on stilts with some simple theming on the entrance face, which is one of my other nit-picky problems with the ride. The event building is just there. There's no reason to believe we're going into the Black Forest. In fact, it looks like we're just going into a warehouse. If SeaWorld Parks and Resorts was dead set on making this a themed ride, this is a gaff on their part. make me believe I'm headed into the forest, guys. At least plant some trees around the building to make it more than a floating box. Again, it's not a huge deal, but the lack of theming definitely took me out of the moment for a moment.

But then we're rocketed up the first launch and into the event building. Inside, we're surrounded by black-lit trees, branches, swirling mist, and other things. This is probably the best use of black light settings I've seen in a coaster. You really do feel surrounded, and the setting is very effective.

One thing that really surprised me about the event building is how intense it was. You pull some serious Gs in there, and I was not expecting that.

As you approach the event building's...well...event, the ride's re-ride ability comes into play. Three different encounters will play out, and luckily I caught all 3 in 3 rides. The first I saw was definitely the weakest of the bunch, which was the spirit of the forest threatening us and telling us we shouldn't be there. The second I encountered was a pack of wolves stalking the car, their red eyes the only visible thing in the inky darkness. This was more interesting than the spirit, and I enjoyed the nod to the ride's predecessor. But the final storyline was the best, and involves lightening and a violent storm. As all three reach their crescendo, the track and train freefall. It's a surprising and thrilling moment, and something I've never experienced.

The train then rockets out of the building and through the second launch, performing some twists and turns before the "broken bridge" scene. On the bridge we hear creaking and crumbling before our train plummets towards the Rhine River, and then twists back up to the station.

Overall, it's a fun, thrilling, and exciting attraction. The coaster is smooth and exhilarating, and the event building is much more involved than I expected once you're inside.

But there was still something that nagged me about the ride, even though I enjoyed the hell out of it. The ride and the story just don't mesh. The whole time we're supposed to be avoiding the Black Forest, and then supposed to be lured in there somehow. But instead, we speed into it mere seconds after leaving the station. The transition from "simple drive in the country" to "brave the Black Forest" just isn't there, and the flow between story and ride suffers for it. I feel this was a pretty big oversight, especially considering how much the ride's story and theming was hyped.

Spoilers End Here

One thing I really have to lambast BGW on is the merchandise options for Verbolten. I mean, almost everything is centered are around a fart joke. You see, fahrt means travel in German, and ALL the shirts are centered around making fun of that. There was a single polo shirt with the ride's symbol, but not simple t-shirts. I mean come on. Most of us don't want to wear around a shirt that makes us a walking fart joke.
The Loch Ness Monster's interlocking loops
The rest of the park was as beautiful as ever. If you've never been to BGW, you really need to see the place once. The natural hills and setting of the park is breathtaking, and the coasters weaving in and out of said setting only adds to the beauty. I've never been the theme park fan that equates traditional roller coasters as bad theming though, so maybe I'm weird. Plus, the lands are very well themed. Think of it as a step below World Showcase with roller coasters, and you've got BGW.

They even have a Spider-man/Transformers type ride called Curse of Darkastle. Now, the ride's story is a jumbled mess that seemingly has pieces missing and weird, random spurts of dialogue, but it's fun none the less.

But something has really bothered be about Busch Gardens' queues, and it really sticks out in Darkastle's the most. Look at the following progression of pictures.

Yup, that's a LCD TV screen smack dab in the middle of the queue. And I know some of you probably figure it's just a poorly themed preshow thing. Nope. It just runs commercials for their Quick Queue service, behind the scenes tours, and their iPhone app. And it's not just in Darkastle's queue. It's all of them.

Listen, I'm not going to blame Busch for trying to inform people about these services, but putting it in every queue is tacky and seemingly desperate. People don't like waiting in line, and considering the majority of BGW's queues are boring and simple, I doubt they want to be hawked at as well. If they want to be taken seriously as a theme park, SeaWorld Parks and Resorts should rethink this strategy.

On a random note, the front row on BGW's Griffon is a religious experience if you're a coaster fan. Seriously, the ride is great regularly, but in the front it's mindblowing. It really feels like you're flying. For those that don't know, Griffon and Sheikra are sister coasters.
Griffon is amazing    

Also, pretzel sandwiches. Seriously.
Seriously delicious

And that's all for today everyone! Hope you enjoyed it.


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