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Behind the Ride: Verbolten at Busch Gardens Williamsburg

© SeaWorld Parks.
Brave the Black Forest on Verbolten. Image © SeaWorld Parks.

How does Verbolten at Busch Gardens Williamsburg stand up to Thirteen at Alton Towers? You decide as we go behind the ride.

Walt Disney is famous for suggesting that all he wanted was a place where parents and children could have fun together. That simple ideology is responsible for some of the most treasured roller coasters at Disneyland and parks like it across the globe – distinctly family-sized roller coasters with enough to thrill children and enthrall adults (and usually, with a smattering of theme, story, or entertainment to keep the attention of all).

The practice has spread, as parks attempt to build “in-between” rides that bridge the gap from Barnstormer to Millennium Force. And even once those rides are built, it’s up to the marketing and advertising to align the statistics to the desired effect, turning a by-the-numbers family ride like Revenge of the Mummy into a “psychological thrill ride.”

You’ll find these mid-sized, themed roller coasters that tow the line everywhere. At the former Paramount Parks, The Italian Job: Stunt Track was billed as a first family launched coaster, combining a typically white-knuckle element with a sweeping layout, fun setting, special effects, and on-board audio.

Another family installation was 1984’s Big Bad Wolf, an Arrow Suspended coaster (with bucket-like cars suspended under the track and able to swing and bank freely) located at Busch Gardens Williamsburg in the European-themed park’s Germany section. Swerving through a Bavarian village like its terrorizing namesake, Big Bad Wolf bridged the gap to the park’s adrenaline machines with its mid-range statistics and famous river-dive finale.

Big Bad Wolf was “retired” in 2009, citing the manufacturer’s 25-year shelf-life suggestion. A new family coaster was needed, but the more thrill-adept crowd of the 21st century would not accept a half-hearted attempt at returning thrills to Germany.

The forest is alive

The launch-tunnel entrance to Verbolten's "Black Forest" (rear) with vines crawling out as a train exits via a second launch. Image © SeaWorld Parks.The launch-tunnel entrance to Verbolten's "Black Forest" (rear) with vines crawling out as a train exits via a second launch. Image © SeaWorld Parks.

Verbolten fits the bill. With the mystique, thrills, and surprise of the best thrill rides but statistics and a height requirement fit for the family, Verbolten replaced Big Bad Wolf both in purpose and position, reclaiming the German woods and even re-using Wolf’s concrete footings for an almost-exact recreation of the original’s river-dive finale.

What Verbolten adds to the equation, however, is an indoor section that might deserve classification as a “dark ride,” even if it’s a speedy one. The Chesepeake Bay area in Virginia may not have the immediate and international draw of Orlando, Los Angeles, or other famous theme park locales, but as more and more enthusiasts experience Verbolten, they see that this ride is something new, with some unexpected twists up its sleeves.

Dark ride?

Verbolten: The "Black Forest" before its event building or effects were constructed, with entrance and exit on the opposite side. The track closest to the camera is the "dip" from brakes to drop track (far right). Image via BGWFans.com.Verbolten: The "Black Forest" before its event building or effects were constructed, with entrance and exit on the opposite side. The track closest to the camera is the "dip" from brakes to drop track (far right). Image via BGWFans.com.

Set back in the same woods as Big Bad Wolf (albeit, with fewer trees for the immediate future due to construction), the great extent of Verbolten is contained within a large showbuilding with one launch in and one launch out. That building is the ride’s Black Forest – the place we’re, of course, warned not to go to by Gerta, the hapless proprietor of the Oktoberfest Tours & Rentals Company. Rather than having the ride’s forest be an actual forest (like its long-lost sibling, Alton Tower’s Thirteen), Busch Gardens has constructed a forest of their own.

To go “behind the ride” is to go into the building, and see the innards of Verbolten’s secretive Black Forest interior. No photos are allowed inside the show building, but we’ll let you in on what exactly you can see from within.

Nothing.

The interior of the showbuilding is completely and totally pitch black, with the only light provided by the entrance and exit to the building. That is, until one of the ride’s sixteen-person trains launches uphill into the Forest. At once, the building is filled with the half-artificial, half-real sound of the train being sucked into the showbuilding, followed by a distant flashing of green – the tunnel launch is littered with black-light vines and poisonous-looking leaves that literally appear enough enough to touch.

The inclined launch into the building seems never ending, but at the top, arched lightning bolt strobes surrounding the train to the effect of electric sizzling. That serves to signal the ride’s sudden descent as well as to disorient riders before they slam all the way to the building’s floor and spiral through a ground-hugging helix.

Do the extensive indoors sections of Verbolten earn it a "dark ride/roller coaster" classification? Image © SeaWorld Parks.Do the extensive indoors sections of Verbolten earn it a "dark ride/roller coaster" classification? Image © SeaWorld Parks.

Standing in the showbuilding, you’d see the lightning strikes high against the ceiling and then at once, out of nowhere, the entire building would illuminate around you. Tall vines and twisting branches appear, previously completely absent from the scene. The train dives through trees and into an enormous double upward helix around a vignette of the moon positioned against the building’s floor with gnarled vines that appear to creep across it, blotting it out as you circle around it.

At once, you stop on the ride’s mid-course brakes as in front of you, the forest lights up – this scene of the woods stretches from the building’s floor to ceiling, with the glowing malevolent vines and leaves undulating under otherworldly light. Through the layers of trees, you can see a piece of track, but as you dive down the brake run, you surprisingly don’t end up on it (which, as part of the rides mystique, begs the question “when will I be on that piece of track? Have I already been?”). With one final look at the enormous forest as you dive down into the roots, you get your first hint of what’s to come.

Darkness befalls you

With a large portion of the ride contained in a hidden showbuilding, Verbolten's biggest secret awaits in the heart of the Black Forest. Image © SeaWorld Parks.With a large portion of the ride contained in a hidden showbuilding, Verbolten's biggest secret awaits in the heart of the Black Forest. Image © SeaWorld Parks.

You just never know what awaits inside the Black Forest. And indeed, three different but equally dreaded scenarios may befall you during the ride’s first secret.

Back on the brakes, you may hear pounding thunder and see the forest illuminated by flashes of white lightning. If that’s the case, then your train will glide down  from the brakes, turn against the forest’s roots, and climb up to the height of the building, where all around you, trees flash with light. You’ll feel the rumbling thunder as the train glides slowly through the treetops, and the hard pattering of rain against the overhead canopy can be seen and heard.

Only one-third of riders endure the storm, though. Sometimes, the train will enter this slow-moving dark ride section to the sound of howling. It’s a reference to the land’s previous inhabitant, but it’s far too unnerving to think about that now. The train is slowly whisked through the pitch-black treetops as snorts, growling, and sniffing sounds emanate from the blackness surrounding as one-by-one, pairs of red eyes blink around you.

Separately, you may enter those treetops to find ghostly, icy white leaves glowing before you. As you slowly inch forward, you’ll hear an otherworldly singing voice. Huge, purple branches that resemble reaching hands curl just feet above your head and at the end of this natural tunnel, you can see branches lit by the moon, whose silhouette eerily resembles the face of a woman. “Fall,” she seems to chant soothingly. 

And fall you will.

Be it a final, deafening blast of lightning, all of the wolves’ eyes opening at once to one final howl, or an uneasy moment of silence following the spirit’s song, the ride freefalls.

The entire piece of track that the train is affixed to falls approximately eighteen feet from the treetops in a true vertical freefall that you might find on any drop tower.

The train then releases from the track, drifts forward, and encounters the ride’s second launch out of the showbuilding and toward that recreated river dive.

Behind the-mechanics

The ride launches out of the Black Forest, through the woods, and up to the old covered bridge - the only sure escape and the final hill of Big Bad Wolf. © SeaWorld Parks.The ride launches out of the Black Forest, through the woods, and up to the old covered bridge - the only sure escape and the final hill of Big Bad Wolf. © SeaWorld Parks.

Mechanically, the ride is built by German manufacturer Zierer (who, oddly enough, had previously only worked on kid-sized “roller skater” style coasters) whose freefall-drop track has much in common with the element used on Alton Tower’s Thirteen (and again oddly, both Verbolten and Thirteen also center around a “forbidden forest,” be it Black or Dark, respectively). Its two launches draw from the same power source, so a car cannot launch out of the building until a new one has already launched in (though, in the cases when a train is waiting for this to happen at the bottom of the freefall, the park has supplemented the sound of an engine trying to turn over).

Is Verbolten a dark ride? It would depend on your definition. It doesn’t contain a single animatronic, or a concrete story outside of its tagline “Brave the Black Forest.” It does have precisely timed audio and lighting cues that change to tell a different tale with each pass. And even if its intro and outro are little more than regular old roller coaster track, the arsenal of special effects make Verbolten unmissable.

Appropriate for most every member of the family, Verbolten is a thrill and it’s fun. It’s detailed and it’s in-your-face energetic. Verbolten may represent the future of roller coasters. People want quality, and they want experiences that don’t discriminate based on age. Look for more mid-sized, well-themed rides like Verbolten, where quality and quantity balance out perfectly.

So watch the video below (of the "Spirit" scenario) and tell us – what’s your experience on Verbolten? Would you have guessed the incredible effects? Is it a dark ride? How does it compare to Thirteen?

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