It was January 2018 when Busch Gardens Williamsburg announced that unbeknownst to fans, they’d already taken their last ride on the park’s Lost Legend: Curse of DarKastle. Originally opened in 2005, DarKastle had done the unthinkable by porting the still-coveted ride system of Universal’s The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man to a regional, seasonal park. Punching well above its weight, Busch Gardens’ DarKastle was a cult classic fusion of mythology and technology, introducing a completely original story, characters, music, and world in a ride that was funny and frightening; action-packed and adventurous.
So when Busch Gardens re-opened for the spring season in 2018, seeing the gilded German palace on the edge of Oktoberfest roped off with its marquee removed was a heart-breaker. Even seeing the dark ride’s showbuilding hollowed out in favor of seasonal haunted houses and Santa Claus meet-and-greets felt like a gross underutilization of prime real estate… and a tragic abandonment of a genuinely-cool, original IP.
Five years later, DARKOASTER was meant to change that. A return of a climate-controlled, indoor, “dark ride” style experience (in a park whose dark ride count has fallen from 2 to 0 in the last half-decade), DarKoaster is also intended to serve as a sort of “spiritual sequel” to the iconic dark ride that preceded it. Does it all come together? Well… (Naturally, spoilers for DarKoaster will be out in the light, so read on at your own risk!)
Earlier this year, we published a preview of what DarKoaster promised – and that’s still a good place to start. But the long and short is that from the moment DarKoaster was announced in 2022, we knew a few key things about it.
First is the “story” stuff – that DarKoaster would, in a way, continue the story of the Mad King Ludwig, inviting us back to the ruins of his castle at some time ostensibly after we broke the curse and escaped on the dark ride. The new ride would challenge us to “Escape the Storm” by launching into the blizzard-ravaged grounds of the castle, all while Ludwig’s spirit pursues.
Though Busch Gardens was casually noncommittal on how much DarKoaster would explicitly tie to DarKastle, extensive behind-the-scenes videos of the ride’s development saw the creative team discuss how the new coaster would build on Ludwig’s story, nod to the dark ride’s scenes and stories, and even feature a musical score paying homage to its predecessor.
Second is the logistical stuff – that this new roller coaster inhabiting the DarKastle showbuilding would be (as you’d expect based on space limitations) family fare, reaching top speeds of 36 miles per hour and dips and hills of about as many feet. We also knew that it would be a “straddle coaster,” grafting snowmobile decor onto the manufacturer’s “straddle” train design (cast on previous coasters as four-wheelers, jet-skis, motorcycles, horses, off-roading Jeeps, and Hagrid’s motorbikes).
Speaking of which, we also knew the manufacturer – Intamin. As Coaster Wars aficionados will tell you, this Swiss-based ride manufacturer has been known since the ‘90s for its technologically-driven rides that often feature elements known to push reliability to its limit. Some of the most legendary coasters on Earth – like Volcano: The Blast Coaster, Millennium Force, and of course, Top Thrill Dragster – are Intamin icons.
Indeed, Intamin rides are known not only for “experimental” pursuits, but for serious frustrations. (Cedar Fair and Six Flags both seemed to make Intamin a manufacturer non grata in the mid-2000s after a series of high-profile ride breakdowns and notoriously unreliable projects.)
Intamin is back in many coaster junkies’ good graces thanks to a string of major successes (including VelociCoaster and Hagrid’s Motorbike Adventure for Universal Orlando and Busch Gardens’ own Pantheon – all three of which have indeed suffered significant downtime or delay). But in many ways, an Intamin is still a jewel in most parks’ crowns… and true to form, BGWFans quickly discovered what DarKoaster’s quintessentially-Intamin “feature” would be…
… That DarKoaster would make good use of the limited showbuilding space to travel through the course twice, without passing through the loading area. How? Put simply, at the end of the first lap, a quick switch track would divert trains down a hidden “bypass” track running parallel to (but hidden from) the station, returning them to the start of the course.
From there, it was over to fans to speculate what, exactly, would happen inside the ride itself…
Things to Know
Let’s start with the known issues.
DarKoaster is an Intamin through and through. That means that if you hope to experience it in the next year or two, you have to factor in that the ride will invariably close for what amounts to hours a day. As anyone who waited for Hagrid’s Motorbike Adventure in its first years can tell you, that’s par for the course and to be expected when you have a multi-launch, track-switching Intamin.
Unfortunately, DarKoaster has a serious compounding problem: it has an almost unacceptably small capacity. The ride can operate just two trains (which makes sense when you puzzle out the ride's double-lap cycle) with each holding just 10 riders. To make matters worse, the “straddle” trains also require more finesse to enter than most coasters which – when combined with the need to place loose articles in bins – greatly impacts the ride’s throughout.
(For at least part of the ride's first few weeks, one of its trains also needed removed from service, leaving just one, 10-person train... evidence that the park probably should've ordered three trains even if only two can operate at once.)
During its inaugural weeks, fan calculations have seen the ride max out at dispatching a train every 1 minute and 42 seconds… extrapolated out, that would give DarKoaster a best-case-so-far operational hourly capacity of 350 people per hour. To put that in perspective, that’s less than Disneyland’s Dumbo the Flying Elephant, which can theoretically reach 600 riders per hour.
With continuous break-downs complicating an already-abysmal capacity, you can see why on even moderately busy days, DarKoaster has tended to have a wait time hovering between 90 minutes and two-and-a-half hours. Needless to say, even the lower end of that scale pretty much ensures riders would disembark feeling that the ride – remember, a family coaster by any measure – wasn’t worth the wait.
So given what we know about DarKoaster’s limitations, there’s really just one way to ride…
Der Rope Drop
As anyone who's ridden a brand new ride in its first few months will tell you, your experience with the ride doesn't really begin when you step aboard. And likewise, my review of DarKoaster is shaped by the trials I had to endure to get on it!
Full transparency: I visited Busch Gardens Williamsburg on Memorial Day Weekend – the “unofficial kick-off of summer,” and notoriously one of the busiest days of any theme park’s operating calendar. That only reinforced the need to participate in “der rope drop,” bee-lining straight to DarKoaster (which had only opened the weekend prior) whose wait would only grow as crowds do and breakdowns compound throughout the day.
As “luck” would have it, this year’s Memorial Day weekend was a rainy one, with (quite literally) continuous misty showers all day on Sunday. While I hoped that would put a damper on turnout (and it did), I knew that any guests who did show up would head to the brand new DarKoaster first. Given a 10 AM opening, I showed up at the parking lot booths at 8:30, joining five or six other cars lined up at the “Starting Line.” The booths opened at 9:30, and we made our way to security.
(That’s when we saw the sign proclaiming that the park’s other Intamin – Pantheon – would be closed for the day. Not even a “wait and see, weather-related, temporary delay.” They’d already called it for the whole day, apparently because Pantheon can’t operate in even mild wind – thanks Intamin! Full transparency again: Pantheon did end up opening that afternoon despite the all-day mist, which is obviously a great thing, but it was certainly an irritating mood-killer to start your day being told it would be closed all day.)
The park opened at 10 AM, and the horde of hundreds who made the trek back to DarKoaster made it to the ride by 10:10 or so. And then… we waited. With a small set of switchbacks outside the castle’s gates and a winding tail leading through Oktoberfest beyond, we (maybe the tenth party in line) just stood… in the rain… waiting. An ambassador standing at the ride’s entrance didn’t say anything or insinuate there was a problem, so we all just waited.
Like many parks, Busch Gardens opens some sections of the park later than the official opening time. Maybe Oktoberfest (at the back of the park) would open at 10:30? Given that the park’s newest and most in-demand ride is there, it wouldn’t really make sense… but maybe at 10:30 the chain would be pulled and we could enter the queue! Nope. One by one, guests approached the bored ambassador to ask what was going on, and he must’ve answered in some way, but never made any announcement to the group. (You’d think answering the same question from a dozen people might tip you off that everyone wants to know!)
By about 11 AM – an hour after park opening – another ambassador finally took the microphone and announced that the ride was temporarily delayed. No park dares make an estimate of when a delayed ride might re-open. But it was odd when a third ambassador tried to comfort guests by saying, “We’re just doing some training in there.” Uhhh… on Memorial Day weekend? At park opening? (It was a made-up excuse, of course, but it doesn’t really sound better than the ride being “broken” when you’ve been pruning in the rain for an hour.)
By 11:30, people ditching the line had moved my party up to first place. Sure we’d sunk 90 minutes into a rainy wait already… but I knew the wait would be at least that long the rest of the day once it opened, so why not hold out? Luckily, I was right. At 11:40 or so, announcements were made that the trains were cycling, and by 11:50, the queue was open. But man… There’s no way to explain the lack of communication and the frustration and the looming lack of Pantheon but to think, “Intamin really owes this park a refund… and this park needs a better plan.”
Obviously being first in line meant that I walked quickly and continuously through DarKoaster’s queue. The space itself was largely unchanged from the DarKastle days with some exceptions. For example, ever-present stone wolves (in an iconic garden state and flanking the castle’s entry) were removed when the building was used as an event space and needed carte blanche flexibility. The former was replaced by the legs and saber of a long-crumbled statue, ostensibly of Ludwig. The statue’s base has carved reliefs clearly meant to depict Ludwig and his Mother as they appeared in DarKastle.
Further on, in the castle’s covered colonnade, a “historical marker” sign touches on the lore of the structure known as “DarKastle,” effectively making the story of the dark ride "official" in the new coaster’s mythology. Sadly for fans of the former occupant, that’s one of the most overt references to the former ride.
Otherwise, you pass quickly through the corridors of the castle and into a room presided over by a portrait of King Ludwig himself (or at least, a version of him; Falcon’s Creative appears to retain the DarKastle intellectual property, requiring that this Ludwig be a different and legally-distinct character model). If you were paused in this room, you’d see that every few minutes, a ghostly spectral version of Ludwig leans out of the painting, looks around the room in disdain, then sinks back into the portrait with a growl.
That’s about all the “pre-show” you get, but frankly, this isn’t a story-driven ride. There is no “beginning, middle, end,” and it certainly requires no knowledge of the dark ride that came before. At best, visitors would pick up that they’ve joined a ghost hunt at a castle, and – evidenced by the skis and snowmobile parts that litter the ghost hunting equipment cases – the weather can turn on a dime. That’s reinforced when visitors finally hop aboard their “snowmobiles,” facing a gothic window where – outside – a snow storm is raging.
So far so good? Then let’s grab those handlebars and explore DarKoaster itself…