Variations on a Theme

Variations on a Theme

How do the three amusement parks stack up? We go behind-the-screams to find out.

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Ah, France. The tinny accordion music. The famed cuisine—multiple scoops of cookie-dough ice cream in a waffle cone so big you need both hands to hold it. The quaint country village scenes, painted on the sides of cinderblock buildings. The bloodcurdling screams.

Busch Gardens, a theme park in Williamsburg, Va., encompasses France as well as Germany, England, Ireland, Scotland and Italy (deal with it, Luxembourg). And right now France is all about the source of those screams, a torture device known as Griffon (never “the” Griffon).

Griffon is not just a roller coaster—the tallest floorless “dive coaster” in the world, meaning it drops straight down—it’s a brand. It’s on T-shirts and hoodies and shot glasses and posters and plush, stuffed griffin dolls, and it even includes tabletop models of itself that you can buy for $100.

The signs caution that the real thing requires more than an hour’s wait in line. Not to worry. If Griffon were merely a coaster, merely a manipulation of the same old three dimensions, that might be your only way to experience the ride. But Griffon has another trick up its sleeve.

Head for a quiet, unmarked Griffon observation area with benches—whether to wait out the line or psych yourself up—stand on the pavement, look up and you’ll get a different perspective on the ride. You’ll only get one dimension, but it’s a doozy: the fourth dimension, time.

That is, the moment in time when the car pauses, just before the first row of riders begins the initial free fall of the course. The coaster is floorless, and those riders dangle from their harnesses, getting an unobstructed view of the ground 205 feet below. Griffon is content to hold on to that moment for about 4 long seconds.

An observer, strategically placed, gets a good look at the faces of the front-row passengers during this moment of stillness and apprehension; the front row can see the observer, too. It’s a shared moment of seeing and being seen, a thrill both vicarious and all the sweeter for having an audience. The rider and observer exchange looks, glee and a sense of schadenfreude. It might be the world’s first interactive roller coaster. (Griffon also is popular on YouTube.)

The amusement park business, like so many businesses today, revolves around pushing the pleasure buttons in the human brain, and it’s constantly evolving. Scientists are continuously coming up with totally new ways to combine sugar, fat and salt; engineers the world over are battling the laws of physics and human frailty to make a better whoosh, a better scream. Disney World, leader in the clean-bathroom revolution of the late ’80s, is even testing alternatives to waiting in line. These people are good.  

We’re lucky to live about equidistant from three variations on the theme park: Busch Gardens Williamsburg, the cute one; Hersheypark, the chocolate one; and Kings Dominion, the affordable one.

Even if you visited Busch Gardens in, say, 2009, you wouldn’t know about the Mäch Tower, a 245-foot drop tower new for 2011. You wouldn’t know that Anheuser-Busch no longer owns the park (or that Anheuser-Busch no longer owns Anheuser-Busch), and that the beer theme, including the Clydesdales, has entirely vanished.

What remains is a seamlessly integrated family-friendly theme park, emphasis on the “theme.” The vaguely foreign neighborhoods of Busch Gardens, established with their own music, food, rides and a few well-placed umlauts, make it the classiest of the nearby amusement parks, lush and green and fully themed, with crowds that tend to be multi-generational, often extended families looking for a moderate amount of togetherness.

Hersheypark in Hershey, Pa., is the park that chocolate built. The over-liminal message throughout is that chocolate is the world’s greatest substance, to be consumed at all hours of the day in every available form, to be celebrated and bathed in and worshipped and praised. If you are of the opinion that chocolate is highly underrated, you will want to move here.

The park is merely one piece of the tourism puzzle relating to chocolate—there’s also a museum, a series of resorts, a café—and that makes Hersheypark the most varied of the nearby theme parks, with two exhibits where you get to put on a paper apron, learn stuff and, at the end, get chocolate as your reward. Chocolate consumption is not required, but it helps to have enormous respect for the important work of chocolate production.

Anthropomorphic Reese’s Cups wander the park, ready to be adored and leading an adorable dance with the smallest kids; children gleefully clutch plush Kisses as big as their heads; shops sell exotics such as strawberry Whoppers and cinnamon chips for baking. The vaguely old-timey feel of the non-chocolate portions of the park presumably represents the non-Hershey parts of human history, those dark days Before Chocolate.

Before Chocolate includes a zoo and an exciting variety of roller coasters that feature new ways of manipulating the same old three dimensions in order to convince your subconscious systems they’re in danger. Fahrenheit features a 97-degree “negative drop.” The negative drop is a relatively new roller coaster phenomenon, and the anxiety begins with trying to describe it: Imagine yourself tilted 90 degrees forward, back parallel to the ground—then tilting even more. Your inner ears will never figure this out.

Comet, a 1946 wooden creation, is less about track layout and more about being deliberately rickety. As you slam through the turns you can actually feel the track moving side to side to absorb the impact—it might be your imagination but you really don’t think so.  

Sidewinder picks you up backwards, shoots you through the course, then sends you hurtling in reverse through the same track, loops and all, leaving you marveling at its efficiency. The engineer in my group gave it high marks.

A new, much-hyped coaster was expected to debut this year, but now won’t be ready until 2012. It’s a delay that has the Internet coaster community quite upset.

Meanwhile, whatever law requires amusement parks to employ singing, dancing teenagers is fully enforced here. The literal jukebox musical we caught involved one kid referring to a Tina Turner song as music from when his grandparents were dating

Kings Dominion, in Doswell, Va., has the most economical ticket prices of the three parks, with a bit of a wilder, old-school carnival feel than the other two. Crowds are dominated by packs of teenagers. And this is the only one of the parks to have metal detectors, which may or may not make you feel safer.

Freed of its rapidly aging, movie-promotion angle after Paramount sold it in 2006, Kings Dominion hasn’t quite figured out its theme without Scooby-Doo and Wayne’s World to ground it. Charlie Brown and Snoopy perform in the central plaza at regular intervals, with a Snoopy-themed sound-and-light show new this season, but the permanent elements remain in transition.

For many park-goers, though, Kings Dominion is merely the delivery device for Intimidator 305, the tallest, baddest, fastest coaster this side of New Jersey. New in 2010, Intimidator occupies its own section of the park, and is constantly mobbed by teenage boys, those arbiters of cool. The hill before its big drop is the highest point in the park (305 feet), and if by chance you have your eyes open at that point, the view of the surrounding wooded areas is pretty spectacular, and the engineering—oh, heck, who are we kidding. All you need to know about Intimidator is how you react to the following phrase: 92 miles per hour.

Kings Dominion also has the largest water park of the three, with complicated water slides, as well as a lot of space devoted to boardwalk games with giant stuffed-animal prizes. Enough inadequately covered tween flesh is on display to turn you into a disapproving schoolmarm, regardless of who you thought you were.

International Street, dominated by a one-third-scale Eiffel Tower, features familiar franchise restaurants in case amusement park food (combined with the 305-foot-drop, say) gets to be too much. The tower is centrally located, with nothing more than about a half-mile away, a boon for non-enthusiastic walkers.

Like so much in life, you have to know what amusement park you want before you can get it. We found we liked Busch the best for general ambience and activities for the smallest kids; Hersheypark, for the variety of things to do; and Kings Dominion, while getting a zero for apostrophe placement, wins for ticket price and most extreme coasters and rides.

But perhaps the best way to categorize the parks is by the noise you want to make throughout the day. If it’s “awwww,” go to Busch Gardens. “Ah!” go to Hersheypark. Or “AAAAAAAAHHHHH,” head straight for Kings Dominion.

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