Home » The Fall of DarKastle: A Look Inside Busch Gardens’ Icy Lost Legend

The Fall of DarKastle: A Look Inside Busch Gardens’ Icy Lost Legend

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

This summer, Theme Park Tourist kicked off our newest series, Modern Marvels – an in-depth library of behind-the-ride entries designed to take you deeper into some of the most spectacular theme park attractions ever designed. We’ve whisked you into the mystery of Disney’s unimaginable Mystic Manor, risked life and limb on what some call Disney’s best ride ever, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and faced fire and fury on Revenge of the Mummy.

And while our subject today began in the esteemed echelon of such Modern Marvels, its time has come… Like the ghostly horrors that always grow from such haunting prologues, today’s story of a sinister prince sealed away within the haunted halls of a lost kingdom is a ride that must be seen to be believed… and given its final departure in 2017, this is our best chance to relive the story of Curse of DarKastle – an almost-unbelievable, technological showcase that brilliantly headlined Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s park of myths, legends, and adventures from “The Old Country.”

Image: SeaWorld Parks

While a look inside DarKastle will leave you shocked that a regional, seasonal park in Virginia would attempt such a sought-after technology, we have to begin our story with a living Modern Marvel – the amazing adventure that set the stage.

The Amazing Antecedent of Spider-Man

At the dawn of the New Millennium, Universal’s Islands of Adventure in Orlando, Florida had opened as a herald of a new generation of theme parks. Islands of Adventure was a eulogy to the cop-out “studio park” that had become industry-standard in the 1990s, delicately designed in a manner meeting and even exceeding Disney’s standards for immersion, detail, and storytelling. This astounding theme park was made of six themed “islands” situated around a lagoon, each carrying guests to unthinkable places and times.

Image: Universal

A seaside explorers’ Port of Entry.

The whimsical shores of Seuss Landing.

The ancient mythological literary worlds of a stunning “island” that earned its own in-depth entry in our series, Lost Legends: The Lost Continent.

The misty prehistoric jungles of Jurassic Park.

The waterlogged comic strip boulevards of Toon Lagoon.

And the action-packed streets of Marvel Super Hero Island.

Image: Universal

It’s there in that super hero city that guests would encounter another Modern Marvel… a ride so revered, it’s often considered the best modern dark ride on Earth. Set within the comic-book-come-to-life, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man was singlehandedly responsible for Universal’s new park being called “the most technologically advanced theme park on Earth.” And it earned it.

Here’s the big deal: Spider-Man debuted a ride system colloquially known as the “SCOOP” – a ride system we listed among our Seven Modern Wonders of the Theme Park World, as revolutionary and revered as the Omnimover. While first-time riders seated in the lumbering, twelve-passenger SCOOP cart wouldn’t think twice about it, turning the corner from the loading dock, these ingenious vehicles suddenly spring to agile life.

Image: Marvel / Universal

The SCOOP is actually the heart of this comic book adventure. Attached to a motion base and pinion gear, each SCOOP can rumble, buck, turn, sway, lift, fall, pivot, and spin in circles as it moves through the dark ride. And – most incredibly – hidden among the physical sets and props of the dark ride, massive screens are perfectly integrated, coming alive with 3D imagery that brings the action to life. An almost-unthinkable balance of 3D imagery, shifting perspective, physical sets, motion, and special effects, Spider-Man was unlike any dark ride to come before. 

Image: Marvel / Universal

Set out into the unknown as wet-behind-the-ears reporters, we unintentionally face-off with the Sinister Syndicate, sailing through the sewers, racing through warehouses, and climbing skyscrapers as we help Spidey himself recover the Statue of Liberty from the villains’ evil grasp. The ride’s highlight? It ends with a 400-foot finale freefall (a clever simulation that made our list of Theme Park Special Effects That Still Amaze Us) that would convince even the most grounded realist that they’ve just taken a dive. Spider-Man is so incredible, we told the web-slinging story of its creation in its own entry in this very series, Modern Marvels: The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man.

Busch Gardens 

So The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man opened in 1999, taking the theme park industry by surprise. Groundbreaking in every way, Spider-Man is unanimously renowned and undeniably remembered as the spark that ignited a new generation of theme park innovation.

Who could’ve imagined that the SCOOP technology would ever be adapted outside of Universal, much less at a seasonal, regional theme park in Virginia?

And yet, the 1990s and early 2000s were a surprising time for Busch Entertainment – the operators of SeaWorld and Busch Gardens, wholly owned by brewing industry giant Anheuser-Busch. For much of their decades-long history, the four SeaWorld parks (in Orlando, Cleveland, San Antonio, and San Diego) had been little more than aquatic zoos.

The Busch Gardens parks (in Tampa Bay and Williamsburg, Virginia, themed to Africa and Europe respectively) had been beautifully decorated family parks packed with authentic food, entertainment, and shopping with a roller coaster or two (including Lost Legends: Big Bad Wolf and Drachen Fire… catch up with either of those in-depth features to learn more about the surprising history of Busch Gardens Williamsburg).

Image: SeaWorld Parks

But in the ‘90s and early 2000s – propelled by that same “studio park” push we mentioned earlier – Busch had decided that it could get in on the same themed family fare that had powered Disney for decades. (The same radical ambition brought about a number of surprisingly well-themed rides to other regional parks, like Paramount’s cinematic push and their magnum opus, another Lost Legend – TOMB RAIDER: The Ride.)

At least for a while, their efforts were largely in vain… SeaWorld’s Wild Arctic was a frigid repurpose of the technology behind Disney’s Lost Legend: STAR TOURS. A few years later, another would-be themed E-Ticket ended up sunk, earning its own in-depth entry in a very different series: Disaster Files: Journey to Atlantis.

Even if results were mixed, the creative minds at Busch Entertainment must’ve figured that, really, their best chance at incorporating themed stories, legends, and dark rides into their parks was probably at a park already themed to stories and legends of “The Old Country.”

Image: Theme Park Tourist

Busch Gardens Williamsburg is divided into quaint hamlets meant to make you feel as if you’ve stepped back in time. Italy, Ireland, France, England, Scotland, Germany… Each is stocked with authentic architecture, entertainment, food, and craftsmen representing the wonders of the old world… Set amongst the dense forests of Virginia (and positioned as an “old country” companion to the nearby Colonial Williamsburg), Busch Gardens was the perfect place for Busch to try their hand at a deeply themed ride experience one more time.

Image: Joel Rogers, CoasterGallery.com (Used with permission)

In 2003, the Wild Maus coaster located in the park’s German Oktoberfest was shipped south to Busch Gardens Tampa (where it was rebuilt and named Cheetah Chase; today, Sand Serpant), opening a plot perfectly sized for a new age dark ride that would borrow the unthinkable technology of the SCOOP.

Now, they only needed a story worth bringing to life.

And if you can believe it, the haunting story of Curse of DarKastle is actually rooted in fact… The real, true story that Busch Gardens adapted into their thrilling, legendary adventure ride may leave you surprised… Read on…

Legends of the past…

Image: Neuschwanstein

King Ludwig II of Bavaria (sometimes called der Märchenkönig – the Fairy Tale King) was indeed an unusual – but very real – figure. After a deadly three-day illness killed his father, Ludwig ascended to the throne in 1864 at only eighteen years old. Ill prepared to be King (as most teenagers would be), Ludwig was nonetheless popular for his youth… and his brooding good looks.

Consequently, he made little effort to reform policy or precedent, avoiding social gatherings and public speaking altogether. Instead, Ludwig kept to himself, concealed in his palace as he contemplated fine arts, music, and architecture. His mother even noted that she feared for her son, given his “insurmountable shyness” and creativity.

Original Photocrom print, 1900. Reproduction number: LC-DIG-ppmsca-00179 from Library of CongressPrints and Photographs Division

While the reclusive king’s popularity soared with the people, Ludwig’s eccentricities created great tension in his government… Especially when he hoarded personal funds to finance pet projects, like the lavish Neuschwanstein castle (famously, the inspiration for Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle), bankrupting the King. Still, he continued ahead with still more lavish projects, seeking loans from European royalty.

When Ludwig’s ministers got wind of Ludwig’s plan to dismiss them, they acted quickly to remove the king from the throne.

Image: Neuschwanstein

His advisors sought to have him declared mentally incompetent to rule (even without any examination). They succeeded, and Ludwig was declared “hopelessly insane,” earning the nickname Mad Ludwig that’s followed him through history.

The day after his deposition, Ludwig was found floating in a pond on the castle grounds, dead… though it was ruled a suicide, no water was found in his lungs. He was only 40 years old…

… Technology of tomorrow

Image: Falcon’s Creative Group / Super 78 Studios

The legend of “Mad Ludwig” was the perfect inspiration for a 21st century haunted house that would be right at home among Busch Gardens’ European hamlets inspired by myths and stories of the old country. Curse of DarKastle was announced and a 2005 opening was set. Busch Gardens assembled an all-star team that would work to create the second ever installation of a 4D roving motion-based dark ride.

Image: Falcon’s Creative Group / Super 78 Studios

Oceaneering International (as their name suggests, a sub-sea research equipment manufacturer) had created the original SCOOP system used on The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, and returned to the business to do the same for DarKastle… with a slight change. Spider-Man’s twelve-person SCOOPs used hydraulic pistons to control six-degrees-of-freedom motion bases. For DarKastle, the system would downsize for a regional audience, holding eight guests with four-degrees-of-freedom supplied by pneumatic air bags.

Image: SeaWorld Parks

Ride manufacturer Falcon’s Creative Group was brought on board to develop the ride system while Super 78 Studios developed the ride footage that would tell the story of a legendary mad king and his eternal quest for power.

Neither had worked on Spider-Man, which meant that they needed to essentially re-invent an astounding process developed for Universal’s ride thatr had been called “squinching.” Essentially, before Spider-Man, 3D had never been designed to be seen from a moving point-of-view. If guests moving alongside a screen were meant to think that screen was nothing more than an extention of the real world, they’d need the perspective in the scene to shift naturally, just as it would if you looked down a hallway as moving past.

Easier seen than said, the result is that if you were to stand in place in front of one of the ride’s screens, the image would appear to squish, stretch, and slide. However, from the precisely-calculated point-of-view of a moving vehicle, the perspective appears natural, merely extending the scene.

Curse of DarKastle opened May 1, 2005… but what guests found inside didn’t last long before being reimagined… Ready to go for a ride on the original Curse of DarKastle? Read on…

Image: SeaWorld Parks

Ah, welcome to Bavaria and to the heart of Oktoberfest! Themed to the annual Munich-based “Volksfest” (or people’s festival), Busch Gardens’ Oktoberfest is indeed alight with the sounds, smells, sights, and wonders of a true German celebration… Beer gardens, fresh hand-made pretzels, carnival rides, maypoles, banners, oompah music, leiderhosen… There’s never been a celebration like this before!

Wrought-iron arbors and crawling vines turn this hamlet into one of the park’s most beautiful, reigned over by the gorgeous Festhaus where community tables, fresh German fare, and authentic entertainment invite you to “Roll Out the Barrel!”

But for today’s adventure, we leave the warmth and celebration of Oktoberfest behind, weaving our way through vendors and marketplaces toward a most imposing sight…

Image: spatch, Flickr

Built up from the rocky peaks of the area is a stone tower. The closer we get to it, the farther away the sounds of celebration; replaced by an eerie, distant white noise and a whispering wind promising that something wicked this way comes. A tapestry speared onto the tower frozen over with icicles seems somehow untouched by time, its shimmering gold letters reading: CURSE OF DARKASTLE.

The tower’s face is marred by ice, and water drips from its windows, streaming down into a pool of melted runoff below. The eerie sight of this frozen castle is merely the beginning, and passing between two posed stone wolves, we enter into the castle’s inner courtyard… 

Image: Pete Piszczek, Flickr

Though the gardens are overgrown with brambles, berries, shrubs, and holly, you can still make out the labyrinthine, circular path drawn around an imposing stone statue of three wolves… An overgrown, untended garden in the shadow of a frozen stone castle… There’s no mistaking it: we’ve stumbled upon something unusual.

The queue weaves around the threatening wolves, a mysterious mist seeming to hover over the icy gardens… In the distance, an ethereal note swells over the eerie, otherworldly, subdued musical score.

Image: zachclarke, Flickr

Naturally, we ascend out of the gardens and into the castle, past wrought-iron lanterns, carved crests, and stately windows, deep into the darkened hallways. Marroon wallpaper seems to conceal hidden wolf patterns as the stained glass windows suddenly seem to indicate that it’s a dark, snowy night… But how?

Eventually, guests are ushered into a circular chamber of carved stone arches and tapestries, lorded over by one single massive chandelier and flaming lantern torches encircling the room. Tapestries seem to show the same mysterious, handsome figure embroiled in battles, lavishing in the riches of the kingdom, and more. The largest tapestry in this stone chamber, however, shows only a vacant, wooded glen… But watch closely as the fibers of the tapestry appear to come alive, moving and shifting.

An original story calls for a prologue, and here, sealed in this antechamber, ours comes to life…

Long ago in the deepest heart of the Black Forest, a young prince lived – unloved, neglected – in a dark castle… Like the ghostly horrors that always grow in secret shadows, Prince Ludwig grew to be a troubled child. Soon, even the kindest servants avoided his evil gaze…

One dark winter’s night, as Ludwig wandered the lonely, frozen grounds of the castle, an old woman appeared. Outraged at this intrusion, Ludwig howled in fury! In her place crouched a snarling wolf… as her angry yellow eyes bored into Ludwig’s, she revealed his dark destiny: wicked ruler of a corrupt kingdom! Guided by the wolf, Ludwig set out to take the throne. His parents tried to put an end to his ruthless ambition, but they mysteriously vanished…

Image: Super 78 Studios / Falcon’s Creative Group / SeaWorld Parks

Mad little Ludwig became king and transformed the castle into an impenetrable fortress with secret passageways to terrify his guests! Soon, the treasury was empty. King Ludwig’s advisors tried to overthrow him, but he just laughed and threw a lavish winter festival in their honor. That night, Mad Ludwig led his guests on a tour of the castle in his fleet of Golden Sleighs. No one knows what really happened, but they say the walls echoed with terror…

Image: Super 78 Studios / Falcon’s Creative Group / SeaWorld Parks

The next morning, the sleighs were found in their stalls but no one ever found Ludwig or his party guests… and to this day, the castle remains frozen in time…

The tapestry returns to its original image of the woodland, but now it’s covered in a blanket of snow. As a deep, bone-chilling iciness overcomes the chamber, the torches around the room turn blue, and a wall lifts up to reveal a secret passage into the castle’s “open air” stables, with red doors leading to each horse’s stall. High, vaulted stone ceilings overhead give way to the night sky beyond…

And there, a mysterious vehicle approaches. A line of Golden Sleighs gracefully glides along, picking us up for our own tour of the castle, just like that fateful night so many years ago… Only this time, the sleighs aren’t being pulled by horses…

Seated inside, our journey begins.


Image: Super 78 Studios / Falcon’s Creative Group / SeaWorld Parks

Curse of DarKastle benefits from the same surprise tactic as Spider-Man or their peers… at first glance, the massive, lumbering golden sleigh doesn’t look very dynamic or nimble… And as it lumbers out of the stable and into the forest, onlookers would expect this to be a classic, passive dark ride experience. But the moment it’s out of sight and the ride’s orchestral score kicks in via on-board audio, the sleigh suddenly leaps to life. It lifts and floats a bit as if kicking off the cobwebs, turning to face the eerie, haunted faces of the trees. The forest is alight with an otherworldly glow, smoke bellowing from the ‘mouths’ of the trees as their raspy voices overlap: “Why are you here?”

The sleigh revereses away from the trees, spinning from them to the castle’s entrance. As the snow gently falls, two translucent ghosts come flying from the castle’s doors: “Turn back!” “He’s coming!” Two ghostly guards stop before us, pointing their spears directly at us. But no need to worry; they’re on our side. As an ethereal light shines around us (a clever physical effect), the ghost of the Queen appears. “You must go back outside the walls,” she begs, “my son has no power there! Hurry!”

Image: Super 78 Studios / Falcon’s Creative Group / SeaWorld Parks

She flies ahead, disapparating through us as Ludwig’s sinister, ghostly eyes appear. “Ah, I see we have guests…” the two stone wolves guarding the entrance come alive. “So, you’ve come to tour my castle? You’ll simply die when you see it!” One of the stone wolves leaps from its pedestal, pouncing on us! But at the very last second, the sleigh spins away, where a massive set of wooden doors part, ushering us in.

Image: Super 78 Studios / Falcon’s Creative Group / SeaWorld Parks

“Do come in,” his disembodied voice taunts, “I insist!” 

Our first view inside Ludwig’s castle of tricks is a hallway lined with suits of armour, overseen by an oil painting of Ludwig himself at the far end. As our sleigh draws nearer, a ghostly energy sparks across the painting, concentrating on Ludwig’s eyes. “Allow me to introduce you to my friends,” his voice goads. The spark jumps from the painting to each suit of armour in turn, creaking each to life. “They’ve been waiting for you…”

At once, crossbows begin firing. As we squirm, vibration in our seats makes it obvious that these ghostly arrows are landing all around us. As the suits of armour begin to step down from their pedestals and lumber toward us, one trips, knocking another to the ground and sending its floating head toward us.

Image: Super 78 Studios / Falcon’s Creative Group / SeaWorld Parks

The armor’s faceplate lifts, revealing a decaying, hissing skull underneath. Before we can scream, another knight hooks his sword under us, giving us a swing and a push forward as we spiral away from the hall.

The next room is decidedly more relaxing… a beautiful observatory with its floor-to-ceiling glass windows looking out over the snowy hills of Bavaria as a ghostly harpsicord plays. But a ghostly wolf appears with a growl, followed by an unusual, howling wind that whips up a pile of sheet music, lifting the piano, a harp, and us into a moment of levitation. But the wind concentrates itself into a point and Ludwig emerges for the first time, his outstretched arms sending the whirlwind out, smashing the harp against an orante proscinium and richocheting it onto the hood of the sleigh, smashing us backwards.

Image: Super 78 Studios / Falcon’s Creative Group / SeaWorld Parks

“You have such hunger for my secrets?!” He snarls as deep, foreboding organ music plays from around us. An orb of blue energy appears in his hand. “Now, you shall be fed!” He hurls the energy at us, the sleigh spinning out of its path as a blinding blue light signals that it exploded against us.

Our spin has set us into the dark, stone kitchen with cobwebs covering the wooden rafters around us. Ahead, we see a table set for a feast, but empty. “Sorry the place is such a fright… but isn’t that the point?” Glowing knives whiz toward us one-by-one as a Medieval pulley system raises the table – and us – out of the kitchen and into a much more elegant dining room one floor up. Ludwig is now at the head of the table. “First course coming right up!” He slams a knife into the wooden table, eyeing us from across the room. “You’ll soon be getting your just desserts, but I’m getting ahead of myself.” He uncovers a silver platter with a skull inside. As it lifts and levitates toward us, it becomes Ludwig’s own cackling head.

Now, the sleigh pulls away and rumbles down a tilted hallway, past still more torches that turn blue as we pass. Against the wall are three glowing portraits: the King, a young Ludwig, and the Queen. As the sleigh slows a moment to turn toward them, the King and Queen fade away, disappearing from their portraits as Ludwig grows brighter… “I tried to warn you…” the Queen’s voice whimpers, “you must get out before it’s too late…”

Image: Super 78 Studios / Falcon’s Creative Group / SeaWorld Parks

But with a deep, resounding bass, we enter into the castle’s library… The three story room is aglow with a chandelier, although our attention is drawn forward to a massive fireplace surrounded by a gilded frame. A portrait of a proud Ludwig stands above it. Surprisingly, Ludwig reaches out of the frame, laughing. “Come, come! Don’t hold back!” He offers. In the fireplace below, plumes of glowing, red-hot smoke suddenly appear, pressurized and rising from the hearth. You can feel the sleigh pulling away, trying to resist the otherworldly grasp of the curse… it’s too late. “It’s time to heat things up!” Ludwig leans all the way out of the portaits, watching with a sinister smile and the sleigh is pulled right into the fire.

As his ghostly, horrific laughter echoes, the sleigh is trapped in absolute pitch black darkness, spinning wildly in place. We grab for our seats, holding on the G-force pulls us back… we must be rising out of the chimney!

And then, suddenly, the darkness is gone. A sweet, ornate music appears as we materialize now in the midst of a ghostly ball in a courtyard high atop the castle. The spirits dance around us, reliving their final moments of Ludwig’s grand ball in a hypnotic, calming, and strangely beautiful moment. Ludwig appears in a silent whirlwind, glowing more darkly than the rest. He spins past us himself offering a macbre reminder of the dancers’ fate. “Killer party, huh?”

But the Queen materializes at our side. “You’ll be safe beyond the castle walls… he can’t get you there! He’ll –”

Image: Super 78 Studios / Falcon’s Creative Group / SeaWorld Parks

“No!” Ludwig notices the Queen, “Mother, they’re MINE!”


Ludwig tosses away the ghostly guards holding him, the burst of power tilting the sleigh onto its back, then spinning us to gaze at the freefall below. As if held by a cord from behind, the sleigh dangles precariously in perhaps the ride’s most convincing scene… Physical castle towers on either side of us blend seamlessly into the screen, showing us a glowing, green glass dome below. But before we can focus on it, a red light pulses around us and then appears before us, spiraling down toward the dome like a firework.

It incarnates into Ludwig. “Mother, you’re driving me insane!” 

Image: Super 78 Studios / Falcon’s Creative Group / SeaWorld Parks

He flies up toward us, his face contorting and stretching into a muzzle… a wolf. The were-king snarls, his hands turning into razor-sharp claws. “Ludwig, my son, you were never sane to begin with!” He falls back onto a balcony below. Of course! The curse… Ludwig is granted eternal life in his frozen kingdom by way of becoming a werewolf! And yet, the Queen promises that a single step outside of the castle walls will break the curse… It’s our only hope.

The caped werewolf scales the castle, leaping into the air and right past us!

In his wake, the levitating sleigh it spun skyward, gazing straight up into the full moon.

“I will not allow you to do this!” The Queen cries as snow falls around us. With a heave, she pushes the howling, twisted king who was once her son. With his attention drawn, Ludwig loses his ghostly grasp on us… the sleigh falls backwards, slamming onto a rocky turret… and Ludwig falls, too. He lands on the hood, scratching his claws toward us, but his weight rights the sleigh. He trips backwards, grabbing onto the edge of the tower. It begins to crumble, sending Ludwig, then us, freefalling toward the glass dome below.

Image: Super 78 Studios / Falcon’s Creative Group / SeaWorld Parks

It must be a 400-foot drop, and everyone aboard screams and holds on, certain they can feel the weightlessness as sound, light, and imagery combine into the perfect illusion… We dive past the falling Ludwig as the green glow of the dome surrounds us. Then, the sleigh slams onto it, cracking it. The dome holds… until Ludwig lands in front of us, sending another shatter through the dome. The sleigh suspends a moment, then freefalls away to the left, backwards again into darkness as the world above spirals away.

With a thud, the sleigh lands in darkness. An angelic chorus joins the score as the beaten sleigh turns to the only source of light… the gnarled, twisted trees we saw when we began our adventure. Wait… we’re outside the castle walls… We’ve made it!

The sleigh rumbles to life, speeding through the forest and coming across frozen wooden doors. Rubble falls from within the castle beyond, and a banging thud shakes the wooden doors… again and again, someone beats against them, dislodging the stone frame. At last, the door gives, shattering into wooden shrapnel that flies toward us. A now-manic werewolf Ludwig – eyes glowing and snout drooling – leaps onto the broken door… and out of the castle.

Image: Super 78 Studio / Falcon’s Creative Group / SeaWorld Parks

He snarls and rears back to strike… He leans forward, his claws inches from us… but he suddenly slows as the Queen’s triumphant laughter is heard next to us. “They are beyond… your… reach!” Ludwig’s frozen with his paw at our necks, as his glowing yellow eyes harden to stone along with the rest of him. By tricking him out of the castle, we have broken the Curse of DarKastle, and Ludwig has forfeited his eternal life.

With a hiss, Ludwig’s stone form shatters, spraying us with stone and water… Only the observant will note the electrified cloud of energy that races from the broken form, soaring away back into the castle.

As always, we invite you if you dare to step aboard with a point-of-view video of how DarKastle looked when it first opened to the public in 2005. Because the ride only existed in this short-lived form for a single year, videos of the experience are few and far between… But don’t worry – we’ll include an updated, modern, high-quality point-of-view of the ride as it existed for most of its life on the next page.

Even more interestingly, the raw animation footage developed by Super 78 Studios for DarKastle is available online, too, so you can get a good look at the scenes in this video. Notice the “squinching” perspective in each as the sleigh would be moving past the screen.

Chilling changes

As you can see, DarKastle was a thoughtful, storied, unique new take on the SCOOP ride system and a truly brilliant attraction backed with a detailed story. A lot of care went into the design of the ride – more than most would expect from a seasonal, regional theme park in Virginia.

And yet, there it was.

Only it didn’t last long… not in the form above, at least…

Image: zachclarke, Flickr

After the ride’s very first season of operation, guest comments gave Busch Gardens an idea of how to “plus” DarKastle… and as soon as the park closed for the season, work began on a big change that would turn Curse of DarKastle into the ride we know today… Read on…

Curse of DarKastle was a stunning, unthinkable headliner that a regional, seasonal theme park had no business featuring. With a cutting-edge technology that industry experts would never have thought to live outside Florida or California, the ride brilliantly re-utilized the SCOOP ride system in a whole new way… a haunted house! The ingenious new application to a 21st century ride system made DarKastle all the more brilliant.

But to hear guests tell it, one thing the ride lacked was thrills.

Image: Busch Gardens / Falcon’s Creative Group / Super 78 Studio

Especially marketed as a headlining E-Ticket meant to put Busch Gardens Williamsburg on a national map (and thus, earning multi-hour waits), DarKastle simply didn’t have the thrilling, heart-pounding, memorable, wild experience that Spider-Man proved the ride system capable of. Aside from a few discombobulating scenes and a simulated free-fall, DarKastle was mostly just a high-tech haunted house, which left guests wondering if the SCOOP was being used to its full potential…

And if you can believe it, Busch Gardens had prepared for just such an occasion.

Plot twists

Falcon’s Creative had placed a failsafe in DarKastle: the ability to wireless swap out scenes in the ride and reprogram its motion. Super 78 Studios returned to re-animate key scenes (ratcheting up the in-your-face “thrill”) while replacing other scenes entirely. Here’s just a sampling of what changed.

Image: Super 78 Studios / Falcon’s Creative Group / SeaWorld Parks

  • The opening scene outside of the castle’s entry was reanimated from scratch. This time around, it more closely followed Spider-Man’s lead, with the stone wolf coming alive and leaping onto the hood of the sleigh, snapping and snarling at riders during Ludwig’s ominous, disembodied invitation (now rerecorded to sound angrier and more threatening).

Image: Super 78 Studios / Falcon’s Creative Group / SeaWorld Parks

  • In the dining room and kitchen, the relaxed Ludwig seated at the far end of the table was replaced with a more aggressive, angry king who throws the kitchen table, approaches the sleigh, and appears to slice off his own ghostly head.
  • The tilted hallway before the library gained a new air blast effect to startle riders… as a result, though, the three portraits there (of Ludwig and his parents) were downplayed, minimizing the story… an unfortunate sacrifice that would continue in the reformatted ride…

And most notably: 

  • The entire finale was reconfigured and the ballroom scene replaced. After spinning through the fireplace, riders now find themselves flying across the castle’s roofs lead by the Queen, who implores us to follow her beyond the castle walls as towers collapse around us. Ludwig, though, catches the cart and pushes us back skyward as a snake slithers from his mouth, striking toward the car. Ludwig then throws the car, spinning us to face “downward” into the “hanging” scene.

Image: Wen the knitster, Flickr

Admittedly, the recast finale and re-paced ride downplayed the exchange between Ludwig and his dearly departed mother (eliminating much of their back-and-forth dialogue, too), adding thrills at the expense of the ride’s lavish ballroom scene and its quietly brooding battle and growing tension between mother and son.

However, it did give the ride the added boost it needed to please those waiting in multi-hour lines. It’s a shame both finale scenes and both paced experienced couldn’t exist. But at the very least, the swap shows just how innovative the ride system could be.

Of course, we have to include a video after the ride’s 2006 update, which closely resembles the ride in its final form. See what differences you can spot, and consider which version of the ride – especially its altered second act – you prefer:

Likewise, you can see the raw Super 78 Studios footage of the animated footage here.

Dark decline

Though the 2006 update might’ve positioned DarKastle to remain a spectacular headliner, sometimes even the best laid plans go awry.

By the 2010s, things were beginning to change at DarKastle yet again, and this time not for the better. After a while, the park discontinued the pre-show, allowing it to simply play on a loop as queuing guests walk through… Akin to making the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror’s library “optional,” guests (naturally) tended to proceed straight through the room, losing the all-important background knowledge of Ludwig, his parents, the sleighs, and the curse… Of course, better that than an unfortunate test when they ran the pre-show with no switchbacks inside, creating the dreaded bottleneck free-for-all when it ended.

Most damningly, in the decade since its opening, wear-and-tear seemed to have taken their toll on the ride system itself. Insiders say that aging SCOOPs, motion sickness, and spilled beverages forced engineers’ hands, and Busch Gardens intentionally toned down the ride… The dizzying, spinning highlight in the pitch black fireplace was removed altogether, with the sleigh simply backing up slowly through the scene…

But even beyond that single unfortunate change, the slamming, spinning, and bucking that the SCOOP is capable of became noticeably tamed – little more than taps, shuffles, and bounces. Throughout the ride, any semblance of motion was been downplayed, creating a surprisingly and unsettlingly tame attraction. The finale “freefall” could hardly convince a Kindergartener due to the out-of-sync and barely-noticeable motion, and that’s a shame…

One-by-one, physical effects, triggered props, and infrastructure simply stopped working.

And as you might imagine, 2006 animation didn’t hold up in an HD, 4K world.

The most damning sign of the ride’s future, though, was its off-season use. While the ride had remained open during the park’s ChristmasTown event (as a warm and fittingly-wintery reprieve), beginning in 2014, it remained closed during the off-season event. Soon, it was closed during the park’s Howl-o-Scream event in the fall, too, despite seemingly being tailor-made for the Halloween season. Insiders said that the advanced (and aging) SCOOP technology necessitated off-season care, requiring the ride to remain closed for maintenance… surely, a sign of impending doom…

As the summer 2017 season settled, Busch Gardens announced that DarKastle would be used to house a new, multi-media haunted house walkthrough during the park’s Halloween event… Then, the building was decked out as Santa’s Workshop for a meet-and-greet during ChristmasTown. Uh oh…

Image: Falcon’s Creative Group / Super 78 Studios

All along, fans and park followers supposed that it was inevitable, and that DarKastle was doomed to decline year-after-year until its eventual removal… And voila… On January 23, 2018 – during the middle of the off-season – Busch Gardens announced through its Instagram account that DarKastle had taken its last tours as of the close of the summer season. The structure would be repurposed into a special event space.

Our one-time-Modern-Marvel has sadly transitioned over to our Lost Legends series. 

Happily ever after

Image: zachclarke, Flickr

While the years have not always been kind to Curse of DarKastle, it earned this spot in our lineup of Lost Legends for the way it dared to take a ride system so defined by its original installation and bravely reinvent it. DarKastle was just the kind of ride Disney Parks fans clamor for – an original story with compelling characters, brought to life with thoughtful detail and cutting edge technology.

With DarKastle, Busch was convinced that they could make a multi-sensory, 4D, motion-based dark ride of their own, and they succeeded. Packed with thoughtful details, twists and turns, and a compelling plot, DarKastle was indeed a wonder… even if it might’ve been more spectacular than SeaWorld could maintain.

Now, we want to know your thoughts. Did you know the icy history of DarKastle’s real-life inspiration? Do you remember the “original” DarKastle before its 2006 swap for thrills? Did you noticed the ride’s steady decline into a C-Ticket family ride? Will you miss this forward-thinking dark ride at Busch Gardens, or was it simply too ahead of its time for SeaWorld to maintain? 

Be sure to make the jump to Theme Park Tourist’s Legend Library to set course for another closed, classic Lost Legend.