Ever since Busch Gardens Williamsburg reopened, we have been able to experience a variety of limited-capacity special events ranging from the food-inspired Taste of Busch Gardens to the animal-focused Winter Weekends. Given the park’s resource and time constraints, these offerings have varied in quality and creativity. Of all of them, however, last month’s Mardi Gras event seemed the least appropriate for BGW.
Zachary and I were discussing the disconnect between Mardi Gras and a European-themed park in the middle of the snowy Virginia winter. Something about the setting just didn’t read “Carnival” to me. To my surprise, Zachary agreed (maybe I wasn’t being as bitchy as I had feared).
One of the interesting results of the past year’s limited COVID operations is that Busch Gardens Williamsburg has for the first time been able to stay open through the winter months. Fans have hoped for year-round operations for ages and rumors have long percolated below the surface. Limited-capacity, short-run special events seem to have finally provided the key. They have provided a way for BGW to open sections of the park and provide attractions and activities for its guests, even as they perform off-season maintenance and refurbishment. Based on last week’s investor call, we have reason to believe this trend will continue even after the threat of a pandemic has subsided.
Not all of these events seemed to suit the park, however. Essentially, BGW’s Mardi Gras did not work for me. It felt like a cut-and-paste of a concept developed for Tampa. While the two sister parks have successfully shared events in the past (e.g., Howl-O-Scream and Christmas Town), not everything that works in Florida can be replicated in Virginia (and vice versa). Mardi Gras, in particular, is a Gulf Coast celebration. Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama are generally warmer in February than the Mid-Atlantic states. It is also worth noting that Six Flags America hosts a Mardi Gras themed event in April and May. So, there is already such an event in the region anyway… and it isn’t even held until the temperatures climb into the shorts and t-shirts zone.
Before I go any further, I want to be clear that I fully support the basic structure we have seen this winter. Like EPCOT, I think Busch Gardens Williamsburg is ideally suited to host a variety of themed events. Given how cold Virginia gets in the winter, providing alternatives to amusement park rides, seems like the best way to justify year-round operations. Even if the roller coasters can operate in temperatures below 40 degrees, many people like me have no interest in experimenting in January and February with the wind chills created by a train running at 50-70 miles per hour. So, focusing on food, animals, and the theater seems like a great alternative.
Perhaps a Carnival-themed event would have been better suited to our European hamlets, since there are pre-Lent festivals in countries like Germany, Italy, France, Spain, and Belgium. Unfortunately, however, Kings Dominion’s Grand Carnivale debuted in June 2019. So, we can understand why Busch wouldn’t want to appear to be copying their chief regional competitor an hour up the road.
BGW’s event suffered from a variety of other problems, as well. The decorations looked like generic Oriental Trading Company party supplies. As a result, every area seemed to be decorated in the same sparkly green, purple, and gold style. For guests who are used to hamlet-specific special event décor this was a little underwhelming. Perhaps BGW could have themed each section to a different city’s Mardi Gras or even just a variety of Krewes. Regardless, the park, itself, isn’t structurally designed for parades. There really is no logical way to send cars and floats through more than one or two hamlets, before terrain and path-layout interfere. Even cold Hurricanes seem unappetizing, when there is snow on the ground and temperatures are dipping into the 30s and 40s.
So, the obvious question is what could Busch Gardens Williamsburg do in February in place of the popular booze and bead fest? I’m vetoing Valentine’s Day right out of the gate, because: gross. But never fear, Zachary, who is a wellspring of useless theme park knowledge, had the solution. It seems that Scott Gasparich, BGW’s former Vice President of Entertainment, had at least one remaining, trick up his sleeve, and we are happy to steal it. Under his leadership, his department conceived of a park-wide, Medieval-themed event, built around the defunct Hastings hamlet. We think this is a great idea, but with one important modification: We believe BGW should host a park-wide Threadneedle Faire-themed event.
As many of our readers know (or remember) before Wolf Valley there was a Renaissance/Medieval area called Threadneedle Faire. Guests enjoyed period games, hosted by costumed staff, as well as a small theater with period entertainment. This fun and charming piece of park history provides the nostalgic basis for our concept.
What we are proposing is essentially a Renaissance Festival. In addition to paying homage to the games and actors from the park’s original Threadneedle Faire, there are many ways to theme each hamlet differently by pulling from their cultural histories. Unique costumes, music, and activities could be offered in each country to reflect the individual nature of each of the park’s sections. This event would tie in logically with the park’s European theme and provide a family-friendly alternative to other area winter activities.
Without doing a ton of research, ParkFans members Thomas, Pretzel Kaiser, and Mushroom helped Zachary and me brainstorm ideas for the event. We came up with a wide variety of ideas for the Culinary Department, including fair food like pasties, stews, apple dumplings, and anything on a stick. The bars could serve heated mead, ciders from several Virginia cideries, and even specialty mixed drinks like Snakebites and Bee Stings. Busch could hire jugglers, jesters, acrobats, and bards, and offer Shakespeare, falconry, dueling, archery, and puppet shows. They could even bring back the magic show at the gypsy wagon.
There are great opportunities for interactive activities, as well. In addition to the scavenger hunts that have become a staple of these limited-run events, BGW could bring back its old walk-around characters, including Gordon the Dragon, St. George the Knight, the nobleman Francois Flambe, and a trio of woodland creatures named Rufus, Alfie, and (disturbingly) Robes-Pierre. Of course, additional costumed hosts would also be needed throughout the park to complete the period festival vibe.
As anyone who has ever been to a RennFest knows, the merchandising opportunities are massive. In fact, this event would provide the park an opportunity to partner with Virginia meaderies and cideries (please, not just Bold Rock), as well as local artisans and performers. In addition to the usual period garb and toys, BGW could also sell specialty pins, nostalgic character plushies, and other historical park and event themed swag.
I can already hear some of you saying either this can’t be done in the current economic environment or that a Renaissance Festival makes little sense in a theme park. As it happens, there is actually precedent for such an event. As we were fleshing out this concept, Six Flags Discovery Kingdom announced their own Renaissance Days. Having been to SFDK, I can say with confidence that the theme would work even better in Williamsburg’s own Old Country.
We believe a park-wide Threadneedle Faire would suit the park’s European theme, while also drawing from its history, providing an unusual family-friendly event suitable to the region’s climate. It could, if done well, draw the same kind of crowds and engender similar enthusiasm as other, complex events like Christmas Town and Howl-O-Sceam.