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If you were somehow unaware, yesterday was the first day of Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s annual pass member appreciation event. For the third year in a row now, the park held an event in Das Festhaus to announce the details of this year’s Howl-O-Scream, Christmas Town, and anything new coming for the following season. This year, as expected, we saw both Howl-O-Scream and Christmas Town details unveiled as well as something you probably didn’t see coming: A food and wine festival debuting next spring. Anyway, details are provided below under the appropriate headers. Below those, you can check out a full HD video of the event filmed by your’s truly. Lastly, I take to the soapbox and talk about my thoughts on the event and why I though that, overall, it was quite a letdown. If you’re only here for the video, here you go.
There wasn’t really anything surprising about this year’s Howl-O-Scream announcement; especially seeing that we’ve known basically everything about the event for a good, long while now. If you’ve been living under a rock and don’t know about what to expect, our continually updated Howl-O-Scream attractions list can be found here. Basically, all of last year’s houses are coming back, Monster Stomp Revamped has been cut, Fiends is getting redone and moved to the Abbeystone, and a new house named Root of All Evil is on its way to Rhinefield. Additionally, there are two new shows this year: Dig it Up in Ristorante della Piazza and Night Beats in Das Festhaus. Lastly, the park has opted to go with two roaming hordes of about 20 to 25 employees each in place of the park’s scarezones. Anyway, if you’d like a complete list of everything (including some of the smaller attractions) you can check out our constantly updated list of Howl-O-Scream 2012 attractions here.
As rumored, Festa Italia will be added to the lineup this year and is supposed to be themed after a retro American Christmas celebration, or, as Scott put it, a “Route 66 Christmas”. What exactly that means, I’m not entirely sure. Turkish Delight, Elephant Run, and Tradewinds are all on the list of open attractions this year and Scott stated that all three would be decked out with lights to enhance the rides. Speaking of lights, the park announced that, with the addition of Festa Italia, it brings Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s Christmas Town light count up to about 7 million lights; a number that the park claims is second only to the number of lights in all four Disney World parks combined. Though not officially confirmed during the announcement, we’ve been told by a few people now that Verbolten will be open this year.
With the Howl-O-Scream announcement, they simply got up on stage and said everything the park had already confirmed. For the Christmas Town announcement, they gave out some new information but, to be honest, it was pretty disappointing. The food and wine festival announcement was different from both of the previous ones. It simply didn’t seem like it was ready to be unveiled. They didn’t have any details to give. Dates? Nope. How it will be setup? No clue. What types of food we should expect? Don’t know. What kind of scale are we looking at? Good question. They didn’t even give it a name. All they said is that there would be a food and wine festival next spring. A bit lackluster to be honest.
I’ve been to all three of the announcements they’ve done so far and this one was, by far, the most disappointing for a multitude of different reasons. First off, they advertised an hour and a half of Verbolten ERT for pass members which was scheduled to start at 9am and continue on till the announcement at 10:30. Well, shocker, Verbolten was broken all morning. The alternative? Mach Tower. As is normal for Mach Tower, it broke down just a few minutes after 9. All the pass members that came to the park over an hour and a half early (some much sooner) to enjoy the hour and a half of ERT were left standing outside. We got ERT for a park path. We felt really appreciated. Once inside, you’d think they’d apologize, right? Nope. No mention of it. In fact, the person from the marketing department that park brought up on stage at the beginning of the presentation had the nerve to brag about Verbolten’s up-time. As you may expect, set a bad tone for the event.
Secondly, crowd control, something I complained about on Verbolten’s opening day as well. They didn’t set up lines, they didn’t tell people where to go, and they didn’t even tell people not to run though their park. When one of the checkpoint ropes drops, it’s like the running of the bulls. You are forced to run if you want any chance of keeping your spot in the pack. Why not have a few employees walk in the front of the mob at a slower pace though the park? Why not actually tell people where they need to be? Like all of the large-scale events I’ve been to at the park, it just felt sloppy and thrown together. It’s obvious that some additional planning needs to be done.
Thirdly, the presentation seemed much more commercial than it has in previous years. Last year’s presentation started out with the park’s president, Carl Lum, taking the stage and thanking everyone for coming, thanking us for being pass members, giving a summary of what we were going to see, and then he handed it over to the appropriate departments to make their announcements. This year, the event started with Dan Dipiazzo, the Vice President of Marketing at the park. As you may expect from someone from marketing, he gave what was basically an impersonal infomercial talking about all the ways you can give the park more of your money. Not a very good thing to start with Busch Gardens.
Fourthly, when Scott Gasparich (Vice President of Entertainment) and Jeff Thomas (Vice President of Culinary) did get their chance to get up on stage and talk about what their departments have been working on, it felt like they were being interrupted every 2 minutes so that Carl could come up on stage and giveaway another Nook. Lets get something straight Busch Gardens, the people who show up to these events are your most loyal group of park-goers. We have passes so we can experience all the great stuff you put together. We don’t have passes for a chance to win a free iPod Touch. If you want to give some stuff alway, go right ahead, everyone loves free stuff. Just please, for the love of all that is good, don’t do it 500 times throughout the presentation. It comes off looking like cheap filler to artificially lengthen an event that probably wasn’t worth my time.
Fifthly, the content. I know this is an off-year for the park. They just spent $54 million on a new coaster and added a drop tower the year before. The problem with the content wasn’t what they announced, but how they announced it. If you watched last year’s presentation (you really should!) Scott turned his unveiling of Howl-O-Scram into a massive all-out production. It was fantastic. Absolutely fantastic. It got people extremely excited for the event. There were groups of actors in their full costumes representing each of last year’s houses running though the audience with special lighting, music, and everything. Each house was introduced one-by-one and they even took the time to list the specific changes that we should expect to see in each of the returning houses. It was, truly, amazing. Sadly, this year, the only real visual preview we were given of the event was the opening number of Night Beats, which, even though it was defiantly the highlight of the presentation, didn’t come close to what we saw from last year’s event. Anyway, after the bland Howl-O-Scream announcement came Christmas Town. Scott covered this section pretty well, especially seeing that it’s still a little ways off. It would have been nice to see come concepts, but I’ll give them a pass here. Next came the nameless food and wine festival. They simply didn’t have enough information to give us with this one. Dates? Nope. Scale? Nope. How it would be set up? Good question. All we know is that food and wine is involved in some mysterious springtime event. Not much of an announcement, especially when it’s made the highlight of the event.
Now, with all that said, I have to give a nod to Scott Gasparich. I disagree with a lot of the decisions he makes and I’m pretty sure we have completely opposing views of what direction the park should be heading; but, one thing I can say is that he cares about his work. There’s no doubt in my mind that he legitimately loves what he does and believes in the things he’s putting together. While he was on stage, it was clear that he was excited to be telling the crowd about what the entertainment department had in store and, if it wasn’t for being interrupted repeatedly by giveaways, it probably would have been considerably better. Honestly, I feel that, if he had been given free reign over the entire presentation, I wouldn’t have just written five paragraphs about everything they did wrong.
In summary, the park need to get the vice presidents of the departments people care about (Larry Giles, Scott Gasparich, Jeff Thomas, Mark Pauls, etc.) up on stage and let them shine. They’re the ones doing the work. They’re the ones who care about what they’re building creating, cooking, and operating. Let them tell the pass members what they’re doing with our money. Let them answer our questions during the Q&A. I don’t want a chance to win a free Nook; I want to hear what the park is doing to improve themselves and make every trip to their park better than the last.