While Busch Gardens Williamsburg may be celebrating its annual Howl-O-Scream festival with a nod toward “The Dark Side of the Gardens,” the real shroud of mystery, suspense, and legend won’t be lifted until late spring 2012. It’s then that the park – as well known for its beautiful landscaping as its thematic and thrilling rides – will unveil its sixth roller coaster, Verbolten.
The mysterious new Verbolten will be located in the park’s Oktoberfest area, joining a lineup of attractions that have called the German-themed forest home. Whether it’s the Spiderman-style follow-up Curse of DarKastle, the much-maligned (or perhaps just misaligned) Drachen Fire, the revered Big Bad Wolf, or the against-all-odds Mäch Tower, Verbolten will need to have a trick up its sleeve if it wants to stand out among its famous and infamous peers; luckily, all our sources seem to indicate that it will.
The experience most appropriately begins in the Oktoberfest section as a whole. For 2011, the entire area was renovated with a unifying architectural style, live “streetmosphere” entertainment, a festive, stylistic new collection of festival flags throughout, and of course, the towering centerpiece of the project’s first phase, Mäch Tower, a 245 foot drop tower. But there was something a bit unsettling about the otherwise bright new area – a fence constructed all along the outskirts of the town, blocking visitors' view of the woods (the former prowling ground of Arrow’s suspended terrain coaster, Big Bad Wolf).
A little later on in the season, as Mäch Tower finally opened to the public, another strange detail appeared: striped, red ‘Warning’ tape criss-crossed the fence, and danger-ridden road signs were posted, advertising sliding cars, falling rocks, and one very large, very clear warning: “Now Entering the Black Forest.”
And indeed, come 2012, visitors will once again be able to enter the ramshackle lodge-style station for the Big Bad Wolf, but this time, it will be a bright, welcoming visitors center advertising completely free car tours of the world famous German Autobahn. Take our advice: take the tour. The speed-limitless Autobahn itself is a fitting ride, but when a nasty, last-second detour sends the car hurtling into the Black Forest, you can bet on a thrill or two.
Legend of the Black Forest
Like any good sinister, dark, twisted mystery coaster, the details of Verbolten were few and far between before its official announcement, and even now, there’s not much we can say for sure, but there are a few things we could speculate on from the beginning.
Most basically, we know that Busch Gardens in Williamsburg and its sister park in Tampa have a knack for complimenting each other. In 1996, Tampa opened the B&M inverted coaster Montu. The following year, Williamsburg opened the B&M inverted coaster Alpengiest.
In 1993, Tampa opened Kumba, a B&M multi-looping coaster and a would-be sister-ride to the Virginian Drachen Fire. Both opened Sesame Street areas (Forest of Fun and Safari of Fun, respectively) just a year apart, and there’s no question that Tampa’s SheiKra dive coaster paved the way for Williamsburg’s Griffon two seasons later.
Given all that, it seems pretty logical that Verbolten would at least follow in the footsteps of Tampa’s new, smash-hit family coaster, Cheetah Hunt. The similarities are notable: both clock in around 60 miles per hour and feature three launch areas. But it’s the differences that are so interesting. First, the cutting-edge industry leaders behind Cheetah Hunt, Intamin, are not manufacturing Verbolten. Busch Gardens isn’t even going with their favorite, reliable Bollinger & Mabillard this time around.
Instead, the (appropriately) German company Zierer has been brought in to design and manufacture the attraction. While Zierer’s contribution to the industry is not negligible (with nearly 150 roller coaster installations), I can’t think of a really notable one off the top of my head – sure, they’ve done their share of kid’s coasters (like Shamu Express at SeaWorld Orlando and the two Grover roller coasters at the Busch parks), but they’re not necessarily industry titans.
In another unexpected twist, instead of increasing the statistics and capacity of its “second generation” ride over the Floridian counterpart (as the park did in Alpengeist and Griffon), Verbolten’s statistics are not as immediately impressive at Cheetah Hunt’s. Instead of a staggeringly lengthy attraction (Cheetah Hunt is 4,429 ft, or about 1,350 m), Verbolten will be 2,835 feet (864 m). It’s also a bit slower at 53 miles per hour (85 km/h) compared to Cheetah’s 60 miles per hour (97 km/h) and boasts a largest drop that it about 14 feet (4 m) shorter.
But it’s what we don’t know about Verbolten that promises to set it apart. Williamsburg’s park has always stuck very valiantly to its thematic roots in European folklore, myth, and celebration. In keeping with that tradition, leaked concept art and current construction verify the existence of a massive show building hiding within the Black Forest. And in a marketing campaign not unlike Alton Towers’ Thirteen, it’s the mysteries of that building that are keeping enthusiasts on their toes.
WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW!
The park’s promise of a “first in the U.S.” experience also seemed to indicate that a drop-section similar in style to Thirteen may be on the bill. And indeed, on October 7th, 2011, members of BGWfans.com captured images of a drop-section of track constructed on the concrete base of the ride's showbuilding, matching a leaked schematic drawing posted on the same site. The track section in question indeed looks to be about the same size and height as Thirteen's, so barring any mechanical delays (of which Busch Gardens is all too familiar after this year's Mäch Tower), Zierer will indeed prove that their technological team can match (or perhaps even outdo) Intamin's...
Interestingly, both Thirteen and Verbolten are themed to dark and sinister forests where a mysterious building promises a first-of-its-kind experience.
Popular opinion has it that Verbolten will also recreate the famous river-dive finale of Big Bad Wolf, saving the largest hill for last and seeing riders careen towards the water below, pulling up at just the last second before rocketing back up the hillside and into the woods.
So what is there to think about a ride of which so little is known?
Well, we know one thing: Busch Gardens Tampa’s Cheetah Hunt was a rousing success once the public (and enthusiasts) caught onto the fact that it was a family coaster, and always had been. The same can be said of Alton Towers’ Thirteen, and we have a distinct feeling that if Alton Towers could do it all over again, they’d dial back the marketing schtick on Thirteen and promote it more like Verbolten is being promoted – a fun, fast-paced adventure ride with a surprise or two, but certain nothing to immobilize patrons with fear.
Of concern is Verbolten's technological reliability. Three LSM launches and a "secret" element in the show-building promise to put a strain on the mechanical aspects of the ride and the affiliated employees responsible for its upkeep. Cheetah Hunt had a hard time maintaining operation with just the launches, and rides like Thirteen have a hard time staying operational with just a unique element, so combining them might admittedly be disastrous. But Busch Gardens Williamsburg is known for their operations and very reliable choices, so hopefully it'll all work out.
All-in-all, Verbolten will be something new and different for Virginian visitors who, until now, have really only had white-knuckle thrills to chase (even if Busch Garden’s coasters add a bit of back story to those thrills). Busch Gardens Williamsburg has always been quality over quantity, and it appears the wait for Verbolten will be worth it. Like the rest of the park's coaster line-up, Verbolten promises to maintain the park’s high standard of entertainment with record-setting thrills and top-notch storytelling, and how could we complain about that?