Monday 13 August 2012

Verbolten at Busch Gardens Williamsburg - Review

The new multi-launch, freefall, indoor-outdoor, highly themed roller coaster for Busch Gardens Williamsburg in Virginia this season has been one hell of a surprise from construction to riding for the enthusiast community. Originally suspected to be something akin to Busch Gardens Tampa’s Cheetah Hunt, it was announced that Zierer, a company best known for their tiny kiddy coasters, was to build a ride similar to Intamin’s Thirteen at Alton Towers. No one quite knew what to expect.

Approaching from Italy over the bridge, Verbolten first presents itself in a spectator-friendly drop from a ruined bridge peering out of the trees to your left. The brightly coloured roadster themed trains slowly approach the drop and dive down towards the river before veering off and out of sight into the woods. There’s just the right about of goofy bright colours mixed with subtlety and believability you want from a theme park. The picturesque scene is accompanied by the whistling sound effects of wind coming from the Black Forest and the faint sound of a festival going on in Oktoberfest. Something I really love about this park is how the themed areas transition. There’s no awareness of having left Italy and entering Germany in crossing that bridge, you just instantly forget where you came from. The whole park is very much a passive experience, arguably like a good theme park should be – an escape from reality. The cheesy stereotypes blanket the park with the right amount of obscurity breaking up the monotony of cliché. Everything is self-explanatory to the right degree, without the need to force-feed you narratives, and much of the park and its rides simply lack explicit narratives, because until now they have typically chosen hardware which entertained purely on a visceral level.

To your right, Mach Tower, the parks new giant Moser drop tower which opened last year, is being obnoxiously loud and going off like a sonic boom. In appraisal, it gets people to turn and look at it, but the out of place noise is perhaps the only criticism I have for the general atmosphere of the newly renovated Oktoberfest. The bright garishness of the area is pulled off well, with a lively fairground atmosphere contrasting much of the parks subtler ambiences without taking it too far. It all feels fresh and new, and compliments the unusual additions to the area which are unlike any of the park’s prior choices thematically, or in terms of hardware. It doesn’t feel out of place at all to me, which is really surprising, it all fits whilst still demonstrating its differences to the rest of the park. I was worried when I first heard of Verbolten’s car theme, worried how that would fit with the parks focus on ancient mythology. My first visit to Busch Gardens Williamsburg was just after Big Bad Wolf had closed, but before this area had been renovated. It was in desperate need of a new breath of life, and it’s now become one of he park’s better areas. I still don’t get Mach Tower. I don’t get why a family theme park would buy the most intense thrill ride on the market, and make sure to get a huge one at that. I don’t get why they wanted something a neighbouring park has a better version of. I don’t get why they’d then theme it to something as lame as May Day. And I don’t get why the ride then turns out to be one of the tamest of it’s kind on the market. None of that makes any sense; it’s just a big contradictory mess, or am I missing something? And like drop towers everywhere where there are bigger and better attractions, it’s never got much of a queue.

Signage points out Verbolten’s entrance, with a car crashed into the wall. Guzzling smoke and the occasional sound of it’s engine attempting to start, its the only sign that something isn’t quite right in the otherwise happy festival town around us. In full access for the public to touch, surround, have their pictures taken with and peer inside at the exquisite details, the car is a great singular piece of theming, which communicates the narrative in one nice little bundle. Vines have taken over the wreckage, the interior coated in moss, whilst it remains fresh looking on the outside. It’s that nonsensical mysterious magic with a touch of realism that people love about theme parks, captured whimsically here without over thought or complication.

Verbolten’s entrance area is unusual. There’s often some clustering of people around the entrance – a mix of bag faffing as staff tell guests they must leave bags with a friend or in a locker, and confusion about which way you go because there is no obvious “enter under me!” sign. I really like the entrance area from a creative perspective, as it truly doesn’t feel very ride-like and more like some little village park, with the garden beds amongst the walkways. But from a practical point of view, it’s all a little awkward. With no definitive entrance “gate”, people often stand or sit in and around the entrance area whilst they wait for their friends to ride. Still, it’s a minor criticism for what is otherwise unique and beautiful. The building that marks the entrance and houses the lockers is beautiful in detail. A whimsical and colourful take on Medieval German half-timbered architecture, complete with jetties. Jettying is found in timber buildings throughout Europe as a way of increasing space within the building without obstructing tiny streets. And it’s absolutely perfect for the theme park setting, as it creates a feeling of being enclosed and heightens the illusion of being transported to somewhere else. The window turret right at the top is particularly lovely in a nonsensical fairy-tale way.

The purely thematic signage is beautifully designed and crafted, one particular sign, “Die Naturfreunde – Schwarzwald Touristenverein” (The Nature Friends – Black Forest Tourist Association), is slightly pulled away from the building by the vines creeping all over it. The signage introduces us to the narrative of the attraction – “ Black Forest Motor Tours” is the only English signage, and all we arguably need. Nicely and authentically reminding us where we are supposed to be, the German signs must offer a whole other level of interest for anyone who speaks any German. People who know something others don’t are usually more interested and keen to engage and educate others. The fact that it doesn’t actually matter what the signs say for everyone else, just that they look the part, draws people into the story more than they would otherwise, without forcing it down their throats, and that’s important… This is for fun after all. I keep going on about this, but it’s important.

Busch do not allow guests to leave their bags on the station platforms, or provide any free area to leave them whilst they ride. Instead, paid lockers are your only option. Whilst this is fairly common throughout the USA, it’s an annoyance, especially considering their neighbouring park Kings Dominion is so good about bags to the point of going out of their way to provide a free method for Volcano’s poorly designed station. To make matters worse, and Griffon is the same, the lockers are in little box room, which isn’t crowd friendly. It should be open at both ends, allowing a better flow of traffic.

But with bags out of the way, through the quaint and neat pathways you go to join the queue. On a peak day, the line moves fast, which is almost a sin because the queue theming is rather lovely. The single best element of it is variation. The queue moves through 5 distinct areas that are all very different, and only one of them is unpleasant, unthemed switchbacks. The queue weaves around the outside of the tourist centre building, shaded and out of the rain – nice, before entering a reception and ticket office themed building. I liked that this building wasn’t fully enclosed, but instead still captures the breeze from outside. The feature of this area is the reception desk, where an old-fashioned TV plays a video of Gerta, who co-owns the Black Forest Motor Tours company with her brother Gunter. The characters were introduced via the official website where their biographies can be found. It isn’t necessary to know the story details, because the general idea comes out through the fantastic use of theming. The details merely exist to make it feel real, to make it work in a logical way and are presented online for those interested in finding out more. The video of Gerta serves to affirm the location, why you’re here and introduces the dramatic twist in the otherwise innocent setup - Don’t go into the Black Forest, you’re warned, and all will be fine! There are cabinets and shelving filled with authentic objects, reminding me of a tacky B&B that collects trinkets from local tourism. There’s also lots of objects around the reception that give a used and lived in feel. The video is a nice touch, because it adds a little or a lot depending on the level of attention paid. The very existence of it is enough to contribute to understanding the theme. And that’s how I believe these middle-ground themed attractions, which don’t aim to fully convince their audience, should be. Amongst the high quality theming are some disappointments, however. Some of the painted decoration on the walls is really rather sloppy, in a way which suggests that it was perhaps rushed with the deadline looming. I can’t quite work out why they chose to paint these details anyway; stencilling them would have looked better and taken far less time. The other disappointment is the poor quality of the posters, which would have been a lovely authentic touch if they weren’t all so badly pixelated. It’s pretty poor, especially considering the high standard elsewhere. And it’s not even as though you see them from a distance, you’re inches from them.


Exiting the building, you’re faced with a cattle-pen. I’m not going to complain as the queue moves so fast you’re through it in no time, plus you get the opportunity to watch the train pull into the brakes and see the joy on everyone’s face.  What little theming is present in this area has the same nice touches found elsewhere and by the time you’ve taken in all that, you’re out of the sun again.

The queue then enters the “Station Büro”. With shutters half down and a dark and messy interior, it appears as though we are not supposed to be here. The wonky red sign above the door is in German, “No entry, staff only.” The presentation here is haphazard, with suitcases and books and junk piled high, a map of the area strung with findings and many samples of weeds, this is Gunter’s office. He’s been going a little crazy, collecting and hoarding the belongings of the tourists who go missing in the Black Forest to cover up the incidents from other customers, determined to find out what is going on. He’s set up surveillance cameras in the forest keeping watch, he’s researching through mountains of books, and he’s monitoring samples of the vines. When he’s not fixing the cars, Gunter spends his time locked away in here. The details in this room are fantastic, creating an environment guests are genuinely interested in examining. When presented with this much, well… Stuff, people inquisitively look harder, especially in a situation where we know that the stuff has been presented for us to look at, like in a museum, or other kind of display like this one.This is one section of the queue where when it moves people often won’t move up as they stare at the Gunter Cams looking for movement. It’s like watching paranormal footage. It’s great, because nothing that exciting even happens, but the suspense is irritatingly perfect.

Exiting Gunter’s control room, it’s the home stretch to the station. This area passes by the entrance to the queue on the right, and gives a great view of the station to the left. A member of staff directs you in the general direction of free space on the platform, not forcing you into a specific row; they are simply there to stop the station becoming insanely full of eager people. The simplicity is nice, and a nice change from the over-complicated, ill thought designs that several of this years new coasters have, such as SkyRush and Swarm. The station is split into two halves, capable of loading two trains at a time. The system seems to work, eating up the queue line at good speed. (Assuming it doesn’t break down, at least.) The station theming isn’t over ambitious, but it doesn’t need to be, as the auto workshop look works well with the basic appearance of a roller coaster station as a functional space. The floor is coated with oil stains – you don’t see themed floors all too often, the gates marked with signs made from mufflers and exhausts. Overhead, drums filled with oil, fuel and such sit alongside weed killer. Gunter and Gerta have a serious weed problem affecting the running of their business after all. A baggage conveyor also sits above the track in the station. We thought it would have been cool had the conveyor worked, and we think the creative’s behind it may have too, as there is a sign saying not to load vehicles when the conveyor is in motion, explaining away why it isn’t. The signs really make the theming of this ride ultra special, there are lots of little bits to read and it all looks the part. There’s lots of stuff hanging from the ceiling, stuff that looks functional, like petrol pumps and pulleys and pipes going off in different directions. On the exit platform there is a control panel, with more of Gunter’s cameras so he can keep watch as he works on the cars. A series of wheels with pipes underneath, perhaps to release weed killer into different sectors of the forest? And in the centre of the platform, an old vault-like section of the wall has portholes showing the vines growing out of control behind. Perhaps this is another area where Gunter is monitoring the vines? “Verbolten!” warns visitors not to go near - The ride’s name comes from the German word for forbidden, “Verboten”. Vines creep through the back wall all over the place, onto the baggage conveyor and through the porthole doors, though they aren’t excessive. The siblings have mostly kept on top of them. Scattered around the station are various posters and stickers and even an old coke machine. It all looks the part and there’s plenty to look at and read until it’s time to board. The only weird thing is an odd sign with a very generic splat graphic on it, we’re not sure what it has to do with anything.

I love Verbolten’s train design. It’s goofy, but not too goofy, spacious and comfortable. The train pulls out of the station and pauses on a section in view of spectators, theming surrounding you in the form of a car being fixed on one side and other car related bits and bobs all around. Sound effects play a huge part of the atmosphere of Verbolten. Despite there not being any sound system on board, you feel constantly surrounded by sound, which is awesome. Here, it’s the noise of an engine running, and off you go, swerving back and forth casually, before the whistling sound of wind becomes audible. As the cars turn, you’re faced with a dark, grey, brickwork tunnel and a launch track straight ahead. I noticed here that the trains vibrate a lot. Not rough as such, just a bit plasticy feeling.


Throughout construction the park made this ride look poor, and I honestly wasn’t expecting much of a step above Thirteen. (More on comparison’s with Thirteen later.) I don’t really know what it was, perhaps it was that they avoided showing the best bits, but examples include a video that showed off some of the theming that was to be found inside the show building. It just looked cheap, like an in-house ghost train at a seaside fair ground. Another thing is the “floating tunnel”, which because of its position in full view of spectators, was what so many people photographed during construction. At the start of the ride, the first launch takes you through what is supposed to be a bridge arch into the thick, overgrown dark forest on the other side… But there’s only one arch, so it looks like a tunnel. More importantly, only the front of it is themed. The sides and rest of the show building are just corrugated green metal. It wouldn’t matter, because most of it is hidden by foliage, except the floating tunnel in full view of spectators. I don’t know quite what they could have done to improve it. Theming the entire exterior of the tunnel wouldn’t have helped convey the idea of a bridge and it would have been costly. I’m hoping as the years progress, evergreen trees all over the Verbolten site will grow up and enhance the theme.

Official artwork for Vebolten, showing the concept of the train going under the bridge in the distance.

But what’s so odd is that on the ride, you don’t notice the floating tunnel. You swerve away from it before you have the chance to look at it, and then approach it head on. I hope that’s skilful planning and consideration, and not fluke, because if so it’s really special. And the whole ride is the same; nothing really takes away from the adventure you’ve set out on throughout. It’s refreshing to not be distracted for pretty much the entirety of the ride, minus a couple of petty complaints only I would moan about.

The launch is surprisingly powerful, shooting you up an incline that seems to go on for a long time into the darkness, surrounded by the whistling of the wind. As soon as the coldness of air conditioning, the darkness and the eerie wind hits you, you’ve forgotten the Virginia heat outside. There’s a flash of light as you leave the launch track and you’re thrown out of your seat with reasonable force as the car dives down to the right. It’s dark. Really, really dark, and that’s half it’s success. UV lighting and flashes of lightning direct you very specifically to where they want you to look and there’s no unsightly supports or bits of track or anything in view. The crappy looking leaves from the construction video actually turned out to look incredible. The stylised shape of the oversized leaves fits perfectly with the rest of the theme and makes for a very theatrical experience, and you pass the theming at such speed you’d not be able to identify the forms if they were any smaller or realistic. Whilst the physical theming is practically the same as the cut outs found on the high-speed section of Revenge of the Mummy, it’s pulled off a lot better here. There’s a real sense of your surroundings being dense, not a vast open black space with the odd cut out as so many indoor coasters feel, and that enclosed feeling as I said before is a really successful tactic with themed environments in creating the sense of being transported somewhere. Everything feels very close to you, within reach, and the sounds of the forest only heighten that. But at the same time, the length of time you’re in this building and the amount of different things you see, many of which giving the illusion of great scale, makes you believe the forest is truly huge.

Inside of Verbolten’s show building lies what is actually a rather intense and enjoyable coaster. The helix is particularly intense and disorientating. If you can tear your gaze away from looking straight ahead, down into the helix centre is a huge, swirling, moon-like disk spinning amongst the vines, accompanied by an eerie, music-box twinkle. It adds to the disorientation and confusion, and as quickly as the moon came into view, it’s gone again. You roll up onto a block brake to view what is perhaps my favourite part of the indoor theming. The set here is simply of the forest, but it gives an incredible sense of depth. It’s like being in a theatre production, a set you can explore and get in and amongst. The train rolls off and dives down into the scene and it’s gone. They’ve so successfully cordoned off each scene without obvious walls to create a real feeling of having moved through a truly huge space.

You find yourself on a straight section of track. You probably know what’s coming, but for those who don’t the suspense here must be pretty intense.  This is the freefall drop section, where an entire section of track falls down like a drop tower ride to rejoin a section below where the train can then move on. The train slowly rolls forward for what seems like an eternity in the darkness and one of three potential shows then take place. What a truly delightful surprise that no one suspected, and great way to make a gimmick that could have so easily made the ride have little to no re-ride value have bags of re-ridability. One of the scenes features the glaring eyes of wolves, a reference to the removed Big Bad Wolf coaster, another a storm and the third the mysterious and ghostly spirit of the forest. I think as a stand-alone piece of entertainment, the spirit of the forest is the best, but the problem is that none of them actually make any ounce of sense when you consider the rest of the narrative building to this point. The storm works best with the rest of the theme, but only because it’s generalised and ambiguous. The rest of the theme suggested something mysterious and dark was wrong with the forest, some kind of paranormal force. The spirit is arguably along those lines, but it seems far too good, too mother nature, if you know what I mean? Not a mischievous, bad force that’s been snatching tourists up. You’d expect, from the narrative presented in the queue, that the vines would be tangling around you and your car, and maybe pull you down, or snap under you. On top of that, none of the scenes make any sense with the event that is about to take place, the drop. There’s no suggestions of what the wolves have done to make you fall or what the spirit has done to make you fall… The storm comes closest – lightning striking and you tumbling through the dense foliage, perhaps. Comparisons to Thirteen cannot be avoided, because despite all Thirteen’s problems, the drop makes sense. You go into a section of castle, covered in scaffolding with temporary wooden floorboards. The floorboards creek and then snap under you! But it’s okay! You’re safe, they didn’t fully collapse! And then they do, as the full drop happens and you fall all the way down. See, it makes sense doesn’t it? You understand why you’ve fallen. It’s not just an element for the sake of it. Thirteen’s little pre-drop is also really good, it makes you nervous and prolongs the entire experience. Verbolten lacks this, and just drops all the way down. Whilst it’s a little taller than Thirteen, it’s not as intense, as dramatic or as interesting. Whilst the park didn’t keep the drop track a complete secret, it strangely wasn’t presented as the highlight of the ride, unlike Thirteen. And that’s quite simply because it’s not. The drop on Verbolten is one part of a huge picture, where as it’s all Thirteen has to offer. Literally. The rest of Thirteen’s theme is terrible, the physical theming itself even in the drop section is poorly executed like a cheap scare house put together from party shop props and the ride is, well… Crap. But all this really is no excuse for the three shows not relating to the theme on Verbolten. I don’t get it. All three shows use lighting and sound to lighting different elements of scenery in the darkness. I like the overhead branches in the storm scene, the drama of the clashes of thunder and the lightning illuminating the stylised purple branches.

When Verbolten first started leaking as a car themed, forest themed mish-mash, I couldn’t help think it was just Thirteen with cars. And it’s kind of weird just how close it is to Thirteen’s “dark forest” theme, isn’t it? And at the time cars didn’t make sense and it looked like they were just going to be forcibly applied to the Black Forest theme until they somehow awkwardly fit into the gaps because someone up in marketing decided “cars are cool, look how well Kings Dominion has done with their irrelevantly car themed 300ft coaster!” But actually, it all fell into place rather well. It doesn’t feel disjointed for the most part; it’s just the drop that feels a little out of place. And I think that’s strange, because it could have so easily been made to fit. I assumed originally that the drop was going to be a bridge collapsing, because you know it makes sense that a car would be on a bridge. Cars also really don’t fit with the rest of the park’s rather romantic thematic choices, but for some reason that doesn’t feel an issue once there. Maybe its because, like I said right at the start, that BGW’s areas just sort of happen. I think Italy is actually the weird out of place one, if any. The layout of that area, the look of it and the collection of rides just does not fit with the otherwise very green and West European themes. Even the Canada part feels more akin to Scotland, Ireland, France, England and Germany than Italy does. That’s why the park so desperately needs Spain or Greece to accompany Italy.

Another minor criticism… The whole freefall thing takes a lot longer than Thirteen. I remember listening to a Season Pass Podcast interview with John Wardley where he explained what he disliked about Expedition Everest. Quite simply, that it takes too long to do its thing, which ruins the flow and ruins the magic. He wanted Thirteen to be in, drop and out before you had time to figure it out. Verbolten kind of gets away with it, because in the pitch black you cannot see what’s going on. You’re just sat there vulnerably wondering what’s about to take place and whether that’s the end of it.

After plummeting further into the darkness and a few moments of nothing, the train moves forward, down a small jolt of a drop and launches into the light. This launch is more powerful than the first. The blinding light and shock of the launch conceals the otherwise dull surroundings and access road to the right. As your vision returns and the car weaves about the hillside, the bridge comes into view. I wondered prior to riding who the bridge was for. I didn’t expect it to be a feature appreciated on ride. It’s fairly well themed structure is only viewed from the front on the river side when crossing the bridge from Italy to those not riding. But after the second launch, you view it side on and get to truly appreciate the scale of this thematic piece. It’s just really nice to see it quite far off and then coast up into it. I hope that as the trees grow here, helping to create the feeling of darting about the woodland, they don’t completely obscure the bridge. The sounds of the wind whistling return as you approach the bridge, accompanied by creaking wood as the car slows over the unsteady surface. The upcoming finale drop over the river is disappointing, I think. I never got the chance to ride Big Bad Wolf, but I can imagine it was filled with the best kind of gut churning adrenalin so rare on anything but a drop tower these days. The small Arrow suspended I’m familiar with, Vampire at Chessington World of Adventures, has a tiny drop which even has that gut wrenching sensation. The kind of feeling only produced by really long trains. Verbolten’s drop over the river is just kind of meh anywhere except the back, and even then it’s far from great. But it’s spectator piece, and you feel like you’re part of a show when the train finally comes into view of spectators, many of which seeing Verbolten for the first time like we did. After dropping down towards the river, track then banks off to the left and then right where the poorly placed camera snaps you’re photo  (Why isn’t it on the second launch?) before turning into the brakes.  This section rattles like the first part, I can only assume it’s when the train isn’t travelling that fast that it happens, because throughout the rest of the ride it doesn’t happen. As the train comes to a stop, everyone smiles. It’s one of those rides that is just good and honest fun.

I really like Verbolten. It’s (almost) everything Thirteen should have been. But also, it’s the missing piece in the Busch Gardens puzzle. Why did such a highly themed family park have an aversion to highly themed roller coasters and family roller coasters? I’ve never quite understood. But Verbolten fills the gap, and becomes one of the world’s few truly themed roller coaster experiences. Part coaster, part dark ride. The trick track isn’t used to fullest potential, but the range of experience from traditional roller coaster, launches, drop track and theatrical dark ride create something few parks can boast about. And amongst all that, a solid ride with some intense moments! It would be easy to pass it off as a collection of gimmicks, but you have to go and ride it and try your best not to enjoy it. It’s a bit of a shame Verbolten replaced a ride with a lower height restriction, but you really couldn’t get much more bang for a ride with such a low height restriction as Verbolten’s 1.2m (48”). Verbolten may have trouble being remembered against some of the intense competition this season, with the likes of Dollywood’s Wild Eagle and Hersheypark’s SkyRush, but we have to remember that Verbolten is a completely different category here. I’m not just making a point of it being a family coaster; I’m making a point about it being more than a coaster. It’s very much an experience and one so wonderfully different from anything the park or even country has to offer.


  1. Excellent review and description of the ride. I wonder if we will be seeing more coasters from Zierer in the future?

  2. Great and detailed review. The one thing I have to say regarding the poor fit of the rotating elements in the event building is, in terms of some malevolent, perhaps paranormal force, I always kind of viewed the wolves as spirits as well. That is to say, it's such a clear homage to TBBW which is "dead" and gone, that perhaps it's meant to be a quite literal reference to the wolf being (kind of lamely) back to life. It's supposed to be haunting riders. Granted, that doesn't explain the whole pack assuming TBBW was really just one wolf, nor does it really explain why you fall, but that's kind of how I've been seeing it-- not necessarily a pack of "plain old wolves," but at the very least a pack lead by the restless spirit of what once stood traveled the same path. And, in fact, while that doesn't explain the drop, it does actually fit much better with the second outdoor portion of the ride (TBBW forcing the same dive towards the Rhine), not that it really needs so much explaining anyway. That's just me, though, and even with that line of thinking there are definitely still some holes in the story, but I think that melds a little better with the whole paranormal vibe. Awesome job on this.

  3. I read your post and I found it amazing .Your thought process is wonderful. The way you express yourself is awesome.

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