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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, (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...

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