Home » Behind the Ride: Verbolten at Busch Gardens Williamsburg

    Behind the Ride: Verbolten at Busch Gardens Williamsburg

    Deep within the dense uncharted forests of Virginia, a dark and sinister mystery is waiting to be unearthed… In 2012, Busch Gardens Williamsburg opened what may be one of the most mysterious, clever, and thrilling family roller coasters to ever exist. Today, we’re determined to take you Behind the Ride to explore the story, special effects, and spine-tingling surprises that make Verbolten a must-see adventure for any themed thrill ride enthusiast.

    Busch Gardens: The Old Country

    Opened in 1975, Busch Gardens: The Old Country was a project undertaken by Anheuser-Busch to invest in the Williamsburg, Virginia area. The theme park (situated in the shadow of a 1.2 million square foot brewery) was themed to European countries from the start, both as a complement to an Africa-themed Busch Gardens in Florida and as a component of the historic Colonial Williamsburg story, celebrating the cultures, countries, and customs of European immigrants during colonial times.

    For 25 consecutive years, the National Amusement Park Historical Association has named Busch Gardens Williamsburg the Most Beautiful Park in the World. That’s no coincidence. The gorgeous park is settled among the towering and dense forests of Virginia, following the natural terrain of the land with steep hills, rivers, waterfalls, and lush gardens. It’s renowed the world over for its authentic food, original entertainment, and gorgeous scenery, made up of storybook “hamlets” representing England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Canada, Germany, and Italy, each packed with real craftsmen, live artisans, authentic entertainment, and hand-prepared food.

    Put another way: Busch Gardens Williamsburg is that rare kind of park you could spend a full day at without riding a single ride and still leave feeling satisfied.

    Which isn’t to say that the park is without rides. In fact, Busch Gardens epitomizes “quality over quantity.” Its six (soon to be seven) adult roller coasters represent the best of their kinds, partly due to their placement in such a gorgeous setting. Rides like Griffon, Alpengeist, Apollo’s Chariot, and Tempesto are stunning in scale and style.

    Big Bad Wolf

    Since 1984, one of Busch Gardens’ headlining rides was tucked away in the dense forests of the park’s Oktoberfest: Big Bad Wolf. One of the first suspended coasters on Earth, Big Bad Wolf was revolutionary in its time, placing riders beneath the roller coaster track in suspended buckets, able to swing freely as the coaster negotiated banked turned and drops.

    Racing through the full-grown woods and slaloming through a fully-built Bavarian village, Big Bad Wolf was what many recall as a perfect family coaster: an ideal blending of Busch Gardens’ beautiful setting, thoughtful theming, and family thrills. Generations of park visitors remember Big Bad Wolf as their first “big” roller coaster – a bridge between kiddie coasters and the park’s 200-foot thrill-machines.

    Image: Martin Lewison, Flickr (license)

    But Big Bad Wolf’s time came. In 2009, the park announced that the ride would be no more. A victim of time and of the bankruptcy of its manufacturer, Big Bad Wolf would retire despite the cries of locals. So beloved was Big Bad Wolf, it earned a full, in-depth feature as part of our Lost Legends series – worth a read, since it’s the perfect prologue to what comes next.

    Because even if Big Bad Wolf was gone, Busch Gardens had plans to build on its legacy –and its land – in a brand new, 21st century family thrill ride. 


    Beginning in 2010, Busch Gardens announced that it would set out to refresh the park’s Oktoberfest hamlet, re-energizing the land with a new consistent style and story. The results were pretty wild. New textures, colors, banners, bunting, and stages filled the hamlet, creating an energetic and lively land. The smell of hand-rolled pretzels and on-tap beer wafting through the land, Oktoberfest was once again a festive place, even if it was without Big Bad Wolf.

    The first new attraction to open was Mäch Tower, a 246-foot tall drop tower featuring on-ride audio, rumbling seats, panoramic views of the infinite forests of the region, and – of course ­– a freefall plummet.

    While all eyes were turned skyward, though, a construction fence appeared around the old Bavarian station used by Big Bad Wolf and the woods it had raced through became a construction zone. The fences outside bore a ominous symbol: a metallic shield cut through with a lightning strike. While Oktoberfest may be in the midst of perpetual celebration and optimism, something dark was blooming within the woods just outside of town. 


    The capstone of Oktoberfest’s rebirth, Verbolten would open in 2012, providing a 21st century family roller coaster shrouded in mystery. What do riders on board Verbolten experience? Read on…


    Image: Anna Marie, PullOverandLetMeOut

    Your first sighting of Verbolten probably comes into view as you cross a bridge high above the park’s Rhine River from Italy to Germany. From that vantage point, you can make out something sinister rising from the woods high atop a forested hill: a covered bridge. The closer you get, the worse it looks: splintered and dilapidated… You might even hear it creaking in the wind. 

    As you walk across the bridge with the covered bridge in the distance, you may seen a bright bolt as a roller coaster train comes rocketing from the forest and races up to the covered bridge. It creeps across the structure, then zooms down the imposing 85-foot drop toward the river below. At the last second, it pulls up and zooms along the water’s surface, racing back into the trees and disappearing yet again.

    If you’re ready to tackle Verbolten, your adventure begins in the old queue house for Big Bad Wolf, now recast as Gerta and Gunter’s Tours and Rentals, a bright and festive tour center for Oktoberfest visitors run by a sister-brother duo. A single ominous sign: a crashed German roadster out front. Every few minutes, its engine struggles in an attempt to turn over, with smoke billowing from under its hood. If you dare glance inside, you’ll notice something strange: a network of vines crawling throughout the inside, snaking along the windows as if trying to break out.

    Inside the Tour Center, elaborate posters advertise all of the many places you might visit on your tour of Germany – castles, countrysides, villages… Collections of antiques collected by Gerta line bookshelves and display cases. At the check-in counter, a sign signals that Gerta, unfortunately, can’t be here to check us in herself (she’s dressed in her Oktoberfest best, clearly out celebrating in the town square), but she appears on antique televisions with some very simple advice and one stern warning: “Whatever you do,” she offers emphatically, “do not go near the Black Forest. It is strictly verboten.”

    The warning is simple, but effective: as you explore the countryside, be sure you keep a healthy distance from the old stone wall guarding the Black Forest. Going near would be dangerous – very dangerous – as its sinister vines could draw you in. If you do wonder too close to the forest, look for old covered bridge; it’s the only way out. 

    With that being said, Gerta invites us to continue on toward the garage where we’ll board our zippy German roadster as she heads off to find her brother, Gunter, who’s been mysteriously distant. Easy enough!

    But on the way, we pass through a shed out back. This shed has become a makeshift office for Gunter. Or, should we say, a makeshift laboratory? The spooky shed has a few security cameras trained somewhere in a dark forest – did one of those branches just move? Even creepier, it seems Gunter has been doing some experimenting, as strange, otherworldly vines are growing from test tubes, slithering through the glass cases they’re trapped in. The walls are lined with unclaimed luggage, mysteriously abandoned by the owners. Once you’ve passed through the shed, take a look back at it – it appears that one single vine has broken through the siding, climbing up the wall of the building…

    Still, we press on and find ourselves in the garage just as a sleek roadster pulls up. We’re in for a gentle tour of the country and a picture-perfect day in Oktoberfest.

    The Ride 

    The roadster slowly moves from the station and parks just outside, where it rumbles and vibrates as it awaits its coordinates. With a sputter, the train rattles and is slowly pushed forward, entering a small drop and meandering twist through an S-curve and into a clearing. Our first stop on the tour.

    But the sound of howling wind grows louder and louder as the train turns and faces something we hoped not to see: a crumbling stone wall with decaying vines curling outward. Before you can panic, the train contacts an LSM launch motor, which whines and shrieks as the train is drawn into the wall with the sound of a vacuum pulling you in.

    The uphill launch accelerates, as in the distance poisonous leaves appear to glow with bioluminescence. They’re green with purple cores, and as you advance through this tunnel, they get closer and closer until you feel you might have to duck. Arching strobes signal a lightning strike around you as your upward trajectory finally ends, the train racing downward and spiraling through a wild and unpredictable helix through ever-closer gnarled branches. 

    The train dives and twists until it enters another helix, circling around a most unusual feature: the moon, which is suffocated by branches as you pass, darkening the forest to pitch black. Then, the train rears up to a high point in the forest. For a striking second, silence.

    Then begins the most impressive feature of Verbolten: the forest is alive, and you’re about to feel its force in one of three ways.

    At this point, slowly advancing along the ride’s brakes, you’ll hear the sounds of an approaching pack of wolves, hear the inhuman melodies of an otherworldly guardian of the forest, or hear the distant rumbling of thunder. From this point on, the ride will diverge based on the forest’s response to your presence: wolves, the spirit, or a thunderstorm in a randomized selection of the three “paths.”

    Just as you begin to register which of the three forces the forest plans to use, the woods appear before you, lit up in a massive floor-to-ceiling scene of glowing branches, leaves, and roots. You’re in the heart of the forest.

    Reaching the end of the brakes, the train dives down beneath gnarled limbs and climbs back up to the height of the forest.

    Now more dark ride than roller coaster, the train glides smoothly forward.

    • If wolves are your fate, this portion of the ride will be in pitch black darkness, inching you through a terrifying blackness. Then, slowly, pairs of glowing eyes appear around you as 3D audio places snarling, growling wolves surround the train.
    • If the Black Forest decides to defend itself using its guardian spirit, the otherworldly echoes of a supernatural song play as the train slowly advances beneath massive set-pieces of stylized branches, looking more like hands than trees as they envelope the car. Rings of poisonous leaves seem to create a tunnel, beckoning you forward as if hypnotized.
    • For some, the forest will instead use a thunderstorm to put an end to you, surrounded by the sounds of creaking, weak branches beneath you, pouring rain all around, and thunder physically rumbling the track and trains. 

    Regardless of your fate, the train presses forward through the obstacles, surrounded by eyes, with the vision of a spirit formed from branches glowing faintly ahead, or lit by flashes of lightning and rumbles of thunder. Then, the train lurches to a halt. You might anticipate that what’s about to come next is a sudden launch, or an unexpected reversal of the train to move backwards 

    You’d be wrong.

    With a final howl, word from the spirit, or lightning flash, the train drops. It falls vertically. The physical track your train is parked on is a drop tower. The 18 foot freefall makes Verbolten the first and only freefall roller coaster in America. While riders try to compose themselves after the surprising and unthinkable maneuver, the train is pushed forward back into daylight where it strikes the ride’s second launch blasting the train to its top speed in a matter of seconds.

    Verbolten flies forward, erupting through the trees and racing up banked turns to its apex: the covered bridge. Brakes hold back the ride as it pauses on top, the bridge creaking and shuddering under the weight. Then, the ride’s biggest drop yet: an 88 foot plunge toward the Rhine River below. The train levels out along the water’s surface and races around a curve. Directly ahead: the stone wall. Refusing to be drawn back to it, the train pulls away dramatically and bolts up increasingly tight turns, dipping one final time before the station comes back into view.

    After 3 minutes and 25 seconds, Verbolten has raced along 2,835 feet of track. It’s taller, faster, and longer than Big Bad Wolf, borrowing its predecessor’s finale as exactly as possible – piece by piece – in a stellar tribute.

    As always, we’ll include the best video we’ve yet seen of the ride, with the “thunderstorm” scenario chosen:

    Verbolten backs a lot into a family roller coaster. How does it work? We’ll go Behind the Ride next… 

    Inside the showbuilding 

    It’s no surprise to those who have ridden it that Verbolten cleverly takes place partly inside of a massive warehouse showbuilding like a dark ride. Brilliantly, that showbuilding is disguised from any pedestrian vantage point in the park, so first-time riders are unlikely to know that Verbolten is anything but a roller coaster through a real forest.


    The blacklight forest inside is at least a few steps more developed than the blacklight ride on Revenge of the Mummy at Universal Studios, with full, dimensional sets, theatrical lighting cues, 3D sound, and more. A look at the building without a train in it would reveal nothing. Literally. The showbuilding is pitch-black between trains, without so much as a nightlight. Once a train strikes the launch motor into the building, the room comes alive at once with sound and light. The train races through massive, hanging blackout curtains with the branches, brambles, and roots painted on them.


    Once the train reaches the midcourse break – positioned high up in the building – the coaster selects which of the three forest scenarios (wolves, spirit, or storm) the train will experience, adjusting the lighting and sound to match. Each path yields a different program, as lights turn on and off to highlight different parts of the room as a result.

    Verbolten is fairly tame, and removed from the showbuilding, you’d know it. But in the darkness and with images both near and far whizzing past, the ride gives the illusion of great speed. After all, when you’re unable to see the helix in front of you, you’re unable to brace for it. When branches go flying past mere inches from you face, you sense that you’re passing by much, much faster than you are. It’s the same reason, of course, that Space Mountain at Magic Kingdom can feel like you’re racing at light speed, even as you max out at 27 miles per hour – the dull, agonizing speed you’re forced to travel along residential streets.

    Marketing the secret

    Perhaps Verbolten’s best move was in its marketing. Advertised from the start as a family roller coaster with a secret concealed within the Black Forest, expectations were high, but appropriate.

    Compare Verbolten’s reception, for example, to Thirteen, its undeniable inspiration at Alton Towers in England. Thirteen is a family coaster that starts out meandering, dipping, and diving along bunny hills through a real forest before entering a dimly lit archeological dig on a ruined crypt. That crypt conceals a vertical drop a bit shorter than Verbolten’s, followed by a brisk backwards escape and return to the station. The (loose) story revolves around an evil forest (the ride had its own themed land created for it: The Dark Forest) with sinister vines overtaking ancient statues and hooded ghouls walking around. 

    Here’s a video of Thirteen:


    It’s a fun, fine, family ride. But Merlin Entertainment owns Alton Towers. It would be a tremendous understatement to refer to Merlin’s advertising as “over-exaggeration.” So ridiculously outlandish are the marketing schemes Merlin employs for its new attractions, it’s no surprise that Thirteen ended up an underwhelming experience.

    Thirteen was billed as “the scariest ride in the UK” before it opened, the park claiming that it would be open only for people between the ages of 16 and 55, lest the young or old suffer a heart attack from its extreme frights. Those who could ride would be limited to one ride per day, they exclaimed.

    Image: Martin Lewison, Flickr (license)

    It goes without saying that Thirteen didn’t quite live up to the invented hype, and in the end the media circus Merlin tried to start is part of the reason Thirteen is still not celebrated as the great family ride it is.

    What’s more – the unimaginable, terrifying, pulse-pounding, much-hyped, super-secret maneuver Thirteen does (the drop track) was revealed the day before the ride opened in a night-vision newscast with the park’s consent. Huh?

    Busch Gardens at least knew to market Verbolten as what it is – a family coaster that was meant to fill the space left from Big Bad Wolf, both physically and in terms of its demographic. And to be sure, Busch Gardens doesn’t trumpet the vertical drop, and certainly didn’t show it off on national television. If anything, they threw would-be reporters off the scent by barely mentioning the “secret” hidden in the forest at all.


    Roller coaster aficionados know their manufacturers. There’s risk-taking, innovation-focused Intamin; there’s conservative, up-time focus Bolliger & Mabillard; there’s the inventive and theatrical Premier Rides; the tried-and-true clone rides by Vekoma… So, who manufactured Verbolten?

    Well… none of them. Here’s the first surprise. Verbolten was manufactured by a German company called Zierer. Don’t misunderstand: Zierer has made roller coasters. In fact, Zierer has more manufactured coasters to its name than Intamin, B&M, or Premier. The surprise is that almost all of them are kiddie coasters. 15-foot hills, tire-drive lifts, and “dragon wagons.” Prior to working with Busch Gardens on Verbolten, their most well known installations were probably the two Shamu Express kiddie coasters at SeaWorld in Texas and Florida or Busch Garden’s own Grover’s Alpine Express.


    Since Verbolten, Zierer went on to build one more freefall drop-track coaster (Polar X-plorer at LEGOLAND in Denmark) while Intamin has built two (Darkmare in Rome and Thirteen).

    Knowing manufacturers, it’s no surprise that Intamin – infamous risk-takers to a fault – have tried their hand at freefall drop track. It is surprising that Busch Gardens opted to circumvent them and risk it all on Zierer. Their bravado cleared worked out, though!

    Brave the Black Forest


    Even if it’s not the only roller coaster on Earth to feature its most unique element anymore, Verbolten is still an outstanding family roller coaster that got almost everything right. Sure, we’ll be the first to admit that on a Disney-sized budget, the ride would likely have a more well disguised showbuilding and that the area would’ve been replanted with already-mature trees. Yes, the launch out of the showbuilding should be tree-lined on both sides. And yes, Verbolten could be a few hundred feet longer, if only because we don’t want it to end

    All of that can come in time, and given the right powers in charge at Busch Gardens Williamsburg. In the meantime, we’re absolutely enchanted by this well-dressed family coaster that shows just how much a little extra effort pays off. After all, Verbolten sitting in a field at Cedar Point or Six Flags would be of little interest. But with a little “oomph,” it’s a world-class thrill that we can’t get enough of.

    Now, you really MUST check out this fantastic behind-the-scenes, fan-produced documentary that gives a never-before-seen look at the ride with lights on, and traces its unbelievable similarities with the layout of Big Bad Wolf:

    Have you ridden Verbolten? What do you think about this mysterious and well-loved family roller coaster at Busch Gardens? How can it serve as a blueprint for seasonal parks looking to expand their arsenal of accessible entry-level thrills?