"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

Image: BGWMemories

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."

Image: Busch Gardens

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.

Image: Universal / Marvel

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

Image: SeaWorld Parks

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...

Image: SeaWorld Parks

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... 


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