Home » DARKOASTER: The Chilling Legend of Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s One-of-a-Kind Dark Ride Sequel

DARKOASTER: The Chilling Legend of Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s One-of-a-Kind Dark Ride Sequel

Long ago, in the deepest heart of the Black Forest, a young prince lived, unloved, in a dark castle…”

For fans of Busch Gardens Williamsburg – and of the theme park industry – that dark and twisted version of “Once upon a time” served as a prologue to one of the most fascinating dark rides to ever exist. A technological marvel (and well beyond what anyone would’ve expected from a seasonal, regional park), Curse of DarKastle gave a generation of Virginians a world class dark ride in their own backyard.

Now, five years after the gates of the icy castle on the edge of the park’s otherwise-celebratory Oktoberfest were frozen shut, something is stirring in DarKastle… What awaits within the frigid twists and turns of DarKoaster? Join us as we trek through the chilling tale of this brand new ride and its place in the pantheon of Busch Gardens’ uniquely legendary coaster lineup…

Busch Gardens

Busch Gardens Williamsburg has always been a park with more ambition than you might expect from a seasonal, regional attraction. Though – by the numbers – it would surely rank among Six Flags and Cedar Fair’s properties, Busch Gardens seems to exist in a perfect balance of thrills and theme that its would-be competitors just can’t seem to master. 

Originally opened in 1975 by American brewery Anheuser-Busch, the park really was a garden. Under the subtitle “The Old Country,” the Virginia property was stylized as a collection of “hamlets” – lovely little villages each recalling European countries like England, Scotland, Italy, Germany, and France, all distributed among the dense forests of Virginia’s Historic Triangle.

From nearly the start, Busch Gardens had roller coasters. (1978’s Loch Ness Monster – still a classic! – was the first.) But set among the beautiful natural terrain and storybook hamlets filled with authentic restaurants, entertainment, craftsmen, and gardens, this wasn’t just an “amusement park.” And that unusual mix of thrills and theme continued with roller coasters like the suspended, swinging Lost Legend: Big Bad Wolf in Germany, the leaping Apollo’s Chariot hypercoaster in Italy, the soaring dive coaster Griffon gliding over a French vineyard, the Swiss-set Alpengeist tearing through snowy chasms…

In other words, Busch Gardens’ roller coasters were never just “bare, steel thrill rides,” but integrated into the park’s terrain, hamlets, and its celebration of legends of “The Old Country.”

Even in the midst of the “Coaster Wars” of the ’90s, Busch Gardens Williamsburg was touted as an example of a park sticking to its guns, with a “quality over quantity” coaster collection. As other parks surpassed 14, 15, 16 coasters, Busch Gardens had just a half-dozen… but each was a best-in-class among its type, and each was beautifully integrated into a park widely regarded among the most beautiful on Earth.

For fans of themed entertainment, though, one particular ride made it hard to ignore Busch Gardens…

The Changing Industry

You have to remember that in the early 2000s, we were only just beginning to see a new generation of dark rides emerge. Largely prodded by the opening of 1995’s Modern Marvel: Indiana Jones Adventure and the era of “Ride the Movies” E-Tickets like The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, the race was on to develop new, cutting edge ride systems that were blockbuster, jaw-dropping new experiences in their own right. In fact, it was reportedly the development of Indiana Jones Adventure’s “Enhanced Motion Vehicle” (EMV) that forced Universal to think bigger for the park it had in development – what would become Islands of Adventure.

The crowning jewel of Islands of Adventure had to have been a ride we explored in its own in-depth feature – the Modern Marvel: The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man. The Marvel E-Ticket didn’t just introduce a new physical ride vehicle (the “SCOOP” capable of six degrees of freedom motion simulation and full rotation) but a new concept: SCOOPs advanced through physical sets with massive screens integrated into them. As guests pass, those screens become “windows,” extending the physical scenes so perfectly, it’s difficult to tell where the set ends and the screen begins. So revolutionary was the idea of integrating projection into a dark ride that designers developed a new animation technique (“squinching”) to adjust scenes’ perspectives to account for a moving point of view.

Suffice it to say, Spider-Man’s ride system and show concept were groundbreaking. Unthinkable. Industry-changing. So who would’ve expected the “SCOOP dark ride” to next appear not at a Disney or Universal theme park… but at a seasonal, regional park in Virginia?

Curse of DarKastle

Though perhaps modest by Disney or Universal’s standards, the arrival of an icy castle in the midst of Busch Gardens’ otherwise-colorful Oktoberfest was meant to be a mark of something very different from usual. Passing between its iron gates and the leering stone wolf statues on either side, guests found themselves in a labyrinth courtyard of pricker bushes, all built around a towering stone statue of howling wolves… Ascending to the castle’s portico, flickering lanterns and frostbitten walls were meant to carry us to a long-abandoned stone fortress with a dark secret…

Though heavy wooden doors and stone corridors, guests entered a circular chamber beneath a flaming chandelier, where an enchanted “tapestry” came to life, telling the story of the Mad Prince Ludwig. As a child, the dark and perverse Ludwig rose to the throne when his parents mysteriously vanished, and one night – long ago – used the last of the kingdom’s money to throw an elegant ball for his advisors, promising a tour of the castle grounds in golden sleighs. Suffice it to say that those sleighs were found in their stalls the next morning, but no one ever saw Ludwig or his party guests again…

Which, of course, lead to a rising wall ushering us into the stables where those same golden sleighs – with no horses in sight – invite us to retrace their footsteps, touring the castle for ourselves…

There was a serious brilliance to the idea of re-using Spider-Man’s technology (and indeed, some of its “gags”) as a modern, high-tech haunted house. Indeed, the first few scenes of Curse of DarKastle carried us to the castle’s gates, then its kitchen, observatory, and library, each with the animated King Ludwig employing various 3D tricks and silly puns to threaten us. But stone wolves snapping from the hood of our sleigh, wind storms sending pianos flying, and knives whizzing past our ears were merely the start.

Beginning in the castle’s Library – where Ludwig drew us into a belching, steaming fireplace – the action really picked up. After all, the ghost of Ludwig’s murdered mother the Queen returned to plead with us… The Curse that keeps her son’s vengeful spirit alive, she insists, remains only so long as he never steps beyond the castle walls. With that, she leads us on a chase of the collapsing kingdom, seeing our sleighs take flight and hover in mid-air. A tense showdown between mother and son saw guests “freefall” (as in Spider-Man), slamming into a glass dome. Of course, with seconds to spare, the Mad Ludwig would pursue us just beyond the castle, turning to ice and shattering, bringing our sleighs back to terra firma. 

When Curse of DarKastle opened at Busch Gardens Williamsburg in 2005, it was the equivalent of a ride of Rise of the Resistance-calibre opening at Dollywood. In other words, it was a jaw dropping coup. We’re talking about a world class dark ride with still-cutting-edge technology… outside of a Disney or Universal park. Sure, it had its rough edges. But in DarKastle, Busch Gardens had a dark ride picture perfect for the park; a family-friendly haunted house, a high-tech dark ride, and a descent into a European fairy tale all in one. 

If you haven’t be sure to make the jump to our full Lost Legends: Curse of DarKastle feature to read the entire story of this one-of-a-kind dark ride. Spoiler alert! – DarKastle is no more… But that doesn’t mean Ludwig’s curse has dissipated… Continue to page 2 as we explore how Busch Gardens created a spiritual sequel to DarKastle… and one with a little more bite… 

Curse’s End

Curse of DarKastle may have been a cutting-edge dark ride… but that alone can be a double-edged sword.

Think about it. DarKastle – like Spider-Man! – relied on a highly sophisticated ride system (albeit, using pneumatic pads for motion simulation versus Universal’s more advanced and expensive hydraulics), an army of projectors and film media & screens, and complex physical effects like moving sets, fog machines, theatrical lighting, and audio. That would be a tall order for any park to install, much less to keep up. While such ongoing investment might sound reasonable when a ride is new, once crowds have moved on and a ride has settled into a fine supporting role in a park’s lineup, suddenly when an effect goes caput, no one seems too energized about paying to get it fixed. 

The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man (backed by the billion dollar power of Universal Orlando) received a multi-million-dollar refresh in 2011 when the ride’s film elements were completely reanimated from scratch, projectors were upgraded to 4KHD digital, and the ride itself was reprogrammed with a slightly-adjusted ride profile. Curse of DarKastle… did not. Instead, over the years, flickered out effects were common. The ride’s motion was severely reduced allegedly to limit wear and tear. And despite being one of the few indoor attractions at the park, DarKastle began to close during the chilly Halloween and Christmas seasons… 

Especially with the SeaWorld Parks family enduring years of financial devastation after the 2013 film Blackfish soured many Americans on the brand, it seemed likely that DarKastle was doomed. And indeed, in January 2018, park representatives announced that DarKastle had operated for the last time. 13 years after it opened, the jaw-dropping dark ride was officially retired. The icy fortress was renamed “NewKastle”, with the elaborate queue and hollowed out showbuilding used for Halloween haunted houses and Christmas meet-and-greets. It seemed a tragic waste of a wonderful asset… Until

Project: DarKoaster

In mid-2021, rumors began to circulate that Busch Gardens’ five year plan – rewritten from scratch after the COVID-19 pandemic – had gained an interesting addendum… a new ride to inhabit the abandoned DarKastle building… Our friends at BGWFans.com first broke the story, chronicling the quiet development of a ride they affectionately called “DarKoaster.” 

The promise of an all-indoor, multi-launch, family roller coaster was enough to warrant excitement among fans. Even better, though, was the implication that this ride would be developed by Intamin – renowned coaster manufacturers whose long streak of experimental (and often temperamental) rides has reached new heights thanks to their latest batch of multi-launch coasters with memorably weird elements… like VelociCoaster and Hagrid’s Motorbike Adventure (at Universal Orlando) and Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s own Pantheon – a personality-filled, custom, terrain-following epic coaster that we think represents the next era of the Coaster Wars.

Obviously, a coaster squeezed into a former dark ride’s showbuilding won’t be breaking records for height or speed… But the plans unearthed by BGWFans did uncover something incredibly unique about the ride that would replace Curse of DarKastle. Though just over 1,200 feet of track would squeezed into the soundstage (with two launches along the way), the train will pass through the course twice, creating a 2,454 foot length with an awesome four launches in all. The way that’ll work is through a unique transfer track running parallel to (but hidden from) the loading area, where switch tracks will divert trains at the circuit’s end back to the first launch for another go-’round. 

Escape the Storm

Not only did BGWFans get the specifics spot-on… they even got the name. DarKoaster was officially announced September 6, 2022. And for fans, the best thing is that this ride isn’t just a re-activation of the Curse of DarKastle building… it’s a sort of semi-sequel to the ride.

Whereas DarKastle was a hauntingly eerie attraction with “Haunted Mansion” style flickering lanterns and ghostly gardens, DarKoaster will position us as something of urban explorers. Now, it’ll be as if you and I are visitors to a modern day Oktoberfest in full swing. Just as we might choose to step into Gerta & Gunter’s Tours and Rentals (the cover for the family launched coaster Verbolten), we might also decide that the allure of that old, abandoned, supposedly-haunted castle on the edge of town is just too great to ignore. Sneaking in through the yellow tape, we’ll find ourselves in the shut-off ruins like modern day ghost-hunters.

There’s just one problem. Supposedly, as we tour the remnants of this legendary haunted castle, we’ll find ourselves trapped in a blizzard. The question is, is the freak snowstorm threatening to seal us away in DarKastle a natural phenomenon… or something supernatural?

We don’t yet know if Ludwig himself will be the named villain of this experience (though concept art of him from the DarKastle days does adorn mood boards for the ride’s development seen in a “preview center” Busch Gardens established). But it’s clear from the concept art that the Mad King will indeed play a role in the story… even if less overt than the former dark ride. For example, we may not hear Ludwig speak, but we’ll surely see his face somewhere along the ride’s course as we take to snow mobiles (clever adaptations of Intamin’s waterski vehicles already in use at several SeaWorld parks) and head out into the storm to escape DarKastle again.

Busch Gardens’ Suzy Cheely, Director of Design and Engineering, told fans and media gathered for a preview, “You’ll definitely notice [the Easter eggs,] and we are kind of nodding back to King Ludwig and seeing what the next chapter of DarKastle is going to be for him. I think it’s just been fun to bring DarKastle back to life. We’ve been using the building for some other things the last few years, but to bring it back to life as a ride has been a dream, if you will. You know I was involved with the first project [Curse of DarKastle] back in 2005, so the fact that we’re going to build and have another ride here is pretty special.”

(It’s likely – though unconfirmed – that various show elements like lighting, projection, and more will shift between circuits 1 and 2. Imagine, for example, if your first trip around the course is in darkness, while the second includes whipping snow, ghostly phantoms, and more.) 

To be sure, DarKastle will join Verbolten as the park’s solid family coasters, each with a clever dark ride-style twist. But even with a max speed of just 36 miles per hour (which is sure to feel a lot faster when enclosed), this ride will surely stun guests with its four(!) launches, its switch track element, and what we hope and expect will be substantial special effects including projection, fog, and lighting effects that will elevate this experience to dark ride caliber. And hey, escaping Ludwig’s wrath a second time? For Busch Gardens fans, it’ll be a victory well earned.

Are you excited for DarKoaster? Do you think this follow-up to Curse of DarKastle will become a classic in Busch Gardens’ lineup of “legendary” coasters that celebrate European stories and locations? Or will this family coaster fail to impress when thrill-seekers turn up to find it a dark ride / family coaster hybrid that lacks the intensity they’ve come to expect post-Pantheon? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!