By Patricia Hall, Fairfax Family Fun
It often has been named the most beautiful theme park in the world, and that’s during the regular operating season. During the holidays, Busch Gardens tops itself with millions of lights and decorations for the annual Christmas Town event. Open now through January 2, 2017, Christmas Town makes for a lovely way to get in the holiday spirit. This year, the theme park is giving visitors more attractions to enjoy with two new kid-friendly (or KIDsiderate ®, as the park calls them) areas and the addition of a thrill ride.
New attractions and rides
All new this year is Rudolph’s Winter Wonderland, where guests can meet Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and friends Clarice, Yukon Cornelius, and Bumble from the classic Rudolph television movie. The park’s professional photographers will take your picture with life-size, costumed characters in an “icy” setting. The characters are true to the classic depictions, and simply adorable (how could you pass up a photo opp with Bumble, the not-so-“abominable” snow monster?). Rudolph’s Winter Wonderland is in the park’s Holiday Hills ™ area near Italy.
Also, for the first time, Busch Gardens has opened up the Sesame Street® Forest of Fun ™ for the holidays. This is a big plus, since the park can get very crowded during the holidays, so it’s great to have another area to enjoy, especially for families with young kids. Here, guests can enjoy family rides: the Grover’s Alpine Express roller coaster, the Prince Elmo’s Spire drop tower, and the Oscar’s Whirly Worms rock-n-tug ride. There’s also the Oscar’s Yucky Forest playground to explore.
Although we didn’t see them during our brief visit to this area, there are also strolling characters, so be on the lookout for your chance to meet Abby Cadabby, Elmo and Cookie Monster, and get a special holiday photo. At the entrance to the Sesame Street area are multiple colored Christmas trees, which also make for nice photos. This part of the park was very popular so Busch Gardens made a great decision to open this up for Christmas. The park wanted to have more to offer for guests with younger kids, Nathan Warters of the communications department told me, and they certainly hit the mark here.
On the opposite end, for big kids and adults, is the addition of the Tempesto Launch Coaster. This means the park now has two major thrill rides open during Christmas Town (the other being the very popular Verbolten), another good move. Along with other exciting rides (a drop tower, high swings, “battering ram,” and more) plus a carousel and other mild rides, there are now 25 rides open throughout the park during Christmas Town.
Don’t miss a ride on the Railway, through which you can see more than 200 acres of lush landscaping, or the Skyride for an aerial view of the park: with 8.2 million lights throughout, Busch Gardens Williamsburg has the most holiday lights in North America.
Keep in mind that the park is very popular in the late afternoon through early evening and lines will be longer then. Also note that the thrill rides are subject to weather conditions (they don’t operate when temperatures drop below 36 degrees F).
Games and entertainment
If rides are not your thing, you still will find entertainment throughout the park. Among the Christmas Town attractions: visit beautiful horses at the Highland Stables, meet Santa a at Santa’s Workshop, and enjoy a spectacular O’ Tannenbaum light show at the 50-foot Christmas tree.
And of course there is the always-stunning Polar Pathway, which turns the Escape from Pompeii ride into breathtaking waterfalls of light, visible even from outside the park. This was our third straight year attending Christmas Town, and this section never, ever gets old for me. It’s beautiful and impressive and you may find yourself just staring at it for a long time. Don’t forget to sit in one of the “polar bear” seats for a fun photo!
The park also has arcade and carnival-style games, especially in the Oktoberfest section and nearby “North Pole.” In keeping with the holiday theme, prizes tend to be Christmas- or winter-related. We saw several people walking around with giant plush Santas and candy canes (we tried to win some but lost!). Throughout the park, you’ll encounter illuminated pathways and the smell of fresh pine from the many trees the park brings for the event, so just walking around is a nice experience.
A can’t-miss feature about Christmas Town is the shows, all of which last about a half-hour. There are five main live shows (some indoors, some in open-air theatres) and by now we’ve seen them all. Last year we saw Scrooge No More!, Deck the Halls, and ‘Twas That Night, and this year we saw Miracles and Gloria! (you can see details in our posts from our first visit in 2014 and our second visit in 2015).
- Scrooge No More! is a condensed version of Scrooge and the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future, who teach him the importance of family and friends. The show takes place in the enclosed Globe Theatre in England near the park’s entrance and has some fun special effects.
- Deck the Halls takes place in the huge Das Festhaus eatery inside Oktoberfest. It’s a festive show full of music and dancing (with a bit of comedy) and since the stage is in the center, with plenty of tables all around, every seat is a good seat.
- ‘Twas That Night is an ice-skating show that made its debut last year. It is based on the classic poem A Visit From St. Nicholas and features world-champion figure skater Elvis Stojko. This was a beautiful and exciting show with some fun surprises. It takes place in a huge open-air theatre near France.
- Miracles, at Teatro di San Marco in Italy (another open-air theatre) is the most mellow of the shows, a classic love story told through ballet and contemporary dance. The cast has some amazing singers and understated but beautiful costumes.
- Gloria! was the final show we saw, and I think we certainly saved the best for last. I can’t say enough good things about this show. All other shows were good but I was blown away by this one. Gloria!, at the enclosed Abbey Stone Theatre in Ireland, tells the classic story of Christmas in a musical format. The show has some neat visuals and special effects (angels, for example, “glide” across the stage). The music starts off as a traditional carol but then takes on a jazzy beat, provided by a live 17-member orchestra, and the singing is superb. I had found some seats in the center, but my son opted for second-row seats right by the orchestra pit. I was glad we sat there, as watching the musicians was a treat for our son, who’s taken a greater interest in music since signing up for the fourth-grade strings program a school.
Best tips for seeing shows
All these shows are free, already included with park admission. Seating is on a first-come, first-served basis (unless you have upgraded your ticket with reserved seats or private tours). My top tip for seeing the shows is to rank them by preference, since you likely won’t get to see them all in one visit (unless your party decides to “divide and conquer”) if you also plan to do many rides.
Also consider the timing. We have found that the very last shows of the evening often have plenty of seats available and with no lines. Contrast that with the shows earlier in the day, when you may be waiting in line 30 minutes or more to secure a seat before the next performance begins. If you can hold out until the very end — the 9 pm or 9:30 time slots — you are almost guaranteed no lines at any of the shows.
Also consider the distance. Busch Gardens Williamsburg is a very large park and it can take you some time to get from one section to the other. Since the shows are spread out (one per area), it’s not possible to do back-to-back shows: give yourself at least a half hour — more during peak times — to get from one show to the next. (In other words, don’t plan for 7:30 pm show in Ireland and an 8 pm show in England. The most fuss-free show of all is Deck the Halls. Since its location (Das Festhaus) is huge, with dozens of tables, you could get there just before it starts and still grab a spot.
Dining and shopping
When you’re spending hours at a theme park you’ll need to eat, and Busch Gardens Williamsburg has no shortage of dining options. The park has six restaurants for basic foods (burgers, pizza, sandwiches, and more) plus plenty of snack stations, cafes, beer stands, and sweet shops. Seating varies: at Dickens’ Tavern in England there are limited tables just outside, while at Marco Polo’s Marketplace in Italy tables abound.
If the cold weather is getting to you, Das Festhaus and the pub-style Grogan’s Grill (in Ireland) are your best choices, as they both are indoor restaurants. For more exclusive meals, go for one of the dining experiences that provide you with reserved seating. The new Dine with Rudolph and Friends option also has character meet-and-greets and photo opportunities, and Santa’s Fireside Feast gives kids another chance to meet Santa.
For shoppers, there are many stores throughout for toys, decorations, ornaments and seasonal treats, souvenirs, and elegant gifts. There are also places to decorate your own pottery and take old-fashioned photos. Stores will hold your purchases so you can continue to enjoy the park.
Christmas Town is open nearly every day between now and January 2, 2017, from 2 pm to 10 pm. Single-day tickets at the gate are $38; parking is extra and admission discounts are available online. See our tips below to have a great day at Christmas Town!
Top tips for Christmas Town
- Remember this is a seasonal event so not all the usual rides at the park will be operating.
- Lines for the thrill rides, Verbolten and Tempesto, can get long, so do them earlier in the day when the park is not so crowded.
- Consider upgrades such as tours, reserved seating, and Quick Queue passes so save you time.
- If you want to play arcade games, bring cash, as these do not accept credit cards
- To make the most of your day, plan to be inside the park when it opens at 2 pm. Take into account the time to park and take the tram to the entrance and (if you’ve not bought tickets online) visit the ticket booth. If you have bags, purses, or backpacks, you also will need to go through the bag check. The first few hours are the busiest and may take you longer than expected (we were at the exit from I-64 at 2:45 pm on opening day but not inside the park until 3:45 pm).
- Dress in layers and bring mittens, scarves and winter caps — the temperature can drop quickly at this time of year.
- Strollers, wheelchairs, and electric scooters are available for rent; a one-day advance reservation is required.
- Look at the park event map and show schedule well ahead of your visit to help plan your day.
- If you’re traveling with pets and don’t want to leave them at the hotel, Busch Gardens has a climate-controlled pet kennel (fees apply)
Disclosure: I am a Busch Gardens Thrill Chaser (ambassador) and my family was invited to visit Christmas Town and received other perks including meals, a photo pass, and a goodie bag. The opinions in this post, as always, are strictly my own.
All photos (c) P. Hall