According to a new special use permit filed with James City County late last month, Busch Gardens Williamsburg appears to be giving their entertainment department something they have needed for decades now: dedicated, non-theater space inside the park.
So, what is the permit for exactly? A 15,500 square foot rectangular building located behind the Royal Palace Theater labeled in the plans as “Proposed Busch Gardens Entertainment Event Building.” Below is an image that was included in the permit filing which depicts the site plan overlayed onto an annotated satellite map.
To give some better context as to where exactly this area is, I’ve included a map below depicting the the rough project perimeter.
Those with particularly sharp eyes may even be able to spot the first signs of life from the site next time you’re at the park. Currently, as the pictures below show, all that can really be seen are utility markings in an otherwise untouched field, but that is certainly more than nothing!
So, cool, it’s a big rectangular building in the middle of nowhere. What will it be used for? Why does this matter?
The most obvious use that comes to mind for this new construction is as a dedicated Howl-O-Scream house location. Since 1999, one of the park’s most popular and profitable events has been forced to scrounge for empty corners of the park in which they can set up temporary haunted houses. This worked well enough at first because, honestly, the park’s competition wasn’t actually doing anything all that different.
However, as the popularity of park Halloween events grew, so did their budgets. Many parks across the country began to dedicate entire buildings to their fall attractions. As the events continued to grow, many of those same parks began to take things a step further by constructing dedicated warehouses solely for haunted house use.
These dedicated haunting locations allowed parks to build a house once and leave it standing throughout the year. A simple dusting and some light refurbishment is all that would be needed to reopen one of these permanent houses for the following season. This is in stark contrast toBusch Gardens Williamsburg’s temporary houses, which needed to be built and removed on very tight schedules each and every year.
As financial hard times fell on SEAS, BGW found themselves cornered into opting for a strategy far worse than erecting and razing temporary houses. BGW found themselves cornered into opting for a strategy far worse than building temporary houses. Instead, Busch Gardens Williamsburg began to simply let any temporary houses in otherwise unused space stand throughout the year.
This is fine indoors, but Williamsburg’s Howl-O-Scream currently features three outdoor mazes—all of which now sit out in the elements year-round. This naturally dramatically limits the initial quality and, overtime, the lifespan of these outdoor houses and the props utilized within them.
What about the indoor houses? The man hours that should be dedicated to rebuilding and removing outdoor houses are instead forced to be utilized on the indoor mazes. Why? Because as of this year, there is only one single indoor house location at Busch Gardens Williamsburg that doesn’t need to be removed and rebuilt each season (Dead Line’s location under Escape from Pompeii). The other three indoor house locations (Battle for Eire’s queue, the Royal Palace Theater backstage, and DarKastle’s ride building) are all used for equally (or more) important attractions during the park’s other seasons.
Lets contrast this to Kings Dominion for a moment. Kings Dominion’s Haunt event features seven houses as well. Only one of those seven houses is outdoors and it is essentially completely reconstructed for each season. Of the six indoor houses, five of them are located in space dedicated to the event meaning that only one indoor house needs to be rebuilt each season (Blackout in Planet Snoopy).
With so many indoor house locations dedicated to the event, Kings Dominion has shown over the last few years that they can justify spending incredible amounts of money building remarkably well-themed environments. Case and point? Blood on the Bayou which was added for last year’s event or Trick or Treat which came the year before it. Both of these houses were the most expensive Kings Dominion has ever built at the time of their construction and, as anyone who has experienced them can likely attest, they blow the thematic quality of anything Busch Gardens Williamsburg has ever constructed straight out of the water.
Due to an overreliance on indoor house locations that must be reconstructed each year, paired with the use of too many outdoor house locations which the park cannot properly care for, Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s Howl-O-Scream event has simply fallen behind the regional competition. The park’s investment in Howl-O-Scream infrastructure, such as dedicated warehouses for haunt mazes, is long overdue and I, personally, hope this will be the use of the park’s new 15,500 square foot “event building.”
Christmas Town Space
I consider this option far less likely than the Howl-O-Scream related possibility outline above, but it certainly isn’t out of the question. Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s Christmas Town has shown an intriguing propensity for walk-through attractions and detailed photo ops.
The now defunct Ice Place in Aquitaine lost its home in the Royal Palace Theater backstage to Twas That Night on Ice. It is not out of the question to think that, following the success of Ice Palace, Rudolph’s Winter Wonderland, and the new Santa’s Workshop, that Busch Gardens Williamsburg may be considering the addition of another, more elaborate walk-through Christmas Town attraction in the same vein as the ones mentioned previously for Aquitaine.
The two possibilities presented above are exciting and eye-catching, but we must also consider the possibility that this project simply won’t be guest-facing at all. There is a real chance that this new building could simply be new storage space for the Entertainment department—something the team could always use more of.
Huge thanks to ParkFans forum member, Celticdog, for the initial heads-up regarding this permit and to the James City County Planning Commission for their incredible turnaround time in setting up a viewing for the documents related to this application.
Additionally, Luke and Thomas, two other ParkFans forum members, volunteered to head down to the planning department offices to get the site plans for this project since I couldn’t make it yesterday. They then headed over to Busch Gardens Williamsburg to take the pictures included above of the planned construction site.
The turn-around time on this article would have been impossible without the contributions of everyone listed above.