Coaster Insider Tour
Busch Gardens Williamsburg
“Must do experience for every roller coaster enthusiast”
It’s Saturday 15th April 2017 and the Easter weekend is in full swing. For most people, that means that they can stay in bed until noon and that they don’t have to do anything. That doesn’t count for us, though. We booked Busch Gardens’ Coaster Insider Tour, a behind-the-scenes look at the park’s most thrilling roller coasters. That’s exciting, but it also means that we need to get out of bed at 6.45 AM. Ouch.
If you’ve read my previous trip report, you may remember that we already spent an entire day at the park. We discovered some elaborately themed lands, we enjoyed the park’s lush landscape and we rode some of the world’s finest roller coasters. Those roller coasters are the focal point of the Coaster Insider Tour. We’re going to visit Loch Ness Monster’s catacombs, we get to see the maintenance areas of two B&M machines and we’re getting some very unique views on a brilliant ride called Verbolten.
Tour participants are expected at the parking toll plaza at 8.15 AM. Then, our VIP experience starts. A gate is opened just for us and a Busch Gardens van escorts us on the abandoned parking. They’re leading us to the preferred parking lot, where we may park our rental car on the very first spot. You usually pay quite a big extra for this premium parking close to the park entrance, but it’s one of the many extras included for tour guests. A few minutes later, some fellow participants and our tour guides join us. Savannah and Ben are two Busch Gardens employees with a passion for their jobs. They know everything about the park’s backstage routes and they’re able to give us front-of-the-line access at most roller coasters. In other words: Savannah and Ben will be my best friends this morning.
Our day starts with a photo session in the English-themed Main Street. It’s unusual to see this area completely empty, especially because we got used to the extremely crowded version of yesterday. But are we really here to make some photos of an empty main street and are we interested in the delivery of hundreds of soda bottles? No, we aren’t. That’s why Savannah and Ben quickly take us to the Scottish area, where the park’s oldest operational roller coaster is located. The Loch Ness Monster was built in 1978 and it has some quite impressive statistics: the track is one kilometre long, the tallest point is at 40 metres and trains rush by at 100 km/h. However, the most striking elements of this coaster are its interlocking loopings. This visually pleasing element was built only a few times, and the one in Williamsburg is the only remaining in the world.
Despite its respectable age, I don’t think that Loch Ness Monster will be sent to coaster heaven soon. While entering the coaster’s maintenance area, I can clearly notice that it receives lots of love. This spotless garage contains coaster wheels, hundreds of bolts and a piece of shiny coaster track. Savannah tells us (in a slightly surprised way) that there’s supposed to be a coaster train on that track. But apparently, this train just didn’t arrive yet. During spring, Loch Ness Monster operates with only two trains instead of three. It’s unfortunate that we aren’t able to make those typical coaster train fan boy photos and it explains the long queues we encountered yesterday.
If you’re somewhat familiar with Busch Gardens Williamsburg, you may know that it takes quite a while to walk between Loch Ness Monster and Griffon. However, both coasters are located right next to each other and the walk takes only two minutes through the park’s backstage. Savannah and Ben guide us to a sandy pathway, which offers some unique views of the mighty Griffon. Everything about this blue thrill machine is gigantic: the lift hill towers 60 meters above the park, the immelmann loop is enormous and the trains are extremely heavy. That last fact is highlighted in the ride’s garage, where such a massive train is hanging right above us. To make maintenance easier, the train doesn’t stand on a piece of track. Instead, it’s hanging on small rails at both sides. This gives us a clear view on the train’s underside. Ben points out the enormous size of the wheels and he tells us that one single Griffon row is heavier than a complete Loch Ness Monster train. Heavy indeed!
Funny detail about the train’s weight: Busch Gardens Williamsburg initially didn’t plan Griffon to be a floorless Dive Machine. The only thing they asked B&M concerned the ride’s capacity: the park wanted Griffon to have a higher capacity than SheiKra at the Florida park. That’s why they opted for 10 guests in a row instead of 8. However, B&M calculated that this change would make the train too heavy, unless… they left out the floor. This is how B&M and Busch Gardens invented the floorless Dive Machine concept, which has been copied a lot since that day.
Next, Ben tells us about the three kinds of wheels on this coaster. This information isn’t new if you’re into coasters, but it’s cool to see all those gigantic wheels in close-up. His story about the chain-dog and the anti-rollback isn’t new either. These are the main components a train needs to climb a lift hill: the chain-dog is attached to the chain and the anti-rollback would keep the train in place if the chain should break (the famous clicking lift hill sound is created by the anti-rollback and not by the chain, as some might think). In addition, dive coasters like Griffon feature a third hook underneath each train. This is some kind of chain-dog which is used by the holding break, which causes the feeling of dangling over the edge of the tallest drop. It’s attached to a very slowly moving chain and when the train reaches the end of that chain, the 62-metre descent begins.
While booking this Coaster Insider Tour, we got to choose between two different options: observer or participant. Both tours are exactly the same, but participants get a little extra… they climb to the top of Griffon. Of course, we booked the participant-tour. We didn’t want to miss such a unique experience and the additional cost isn’t that huge. Unfortunately, Busch Gardens recently sent us an e-mail with bad news. The evacuation lift – which would bring us to the highest point of the coaster – had broken down and that’s why this part of the tour was cancelled. That’s quite sad for us, but Busch Gardens can’t be blamed: the park did inform us in advance and they quickly refunded the extra cost of the participant-tour. Besides, we already booked a similar tour (including a dive machine lift walk) at Cedar Point for this summer, so it’s no big deal. Let’s hope Valravn’s evacuation lift doesn’t break down.
Hey, there’s another way to get to the top op Griffon… riding that monumental coaster! And we feel lucky, because this VIP tour allows us to ride every roller coaster twice. We take our seats in the front row and we’re able to make today’s first rides. However, Griffon almost immediately breaks down during these early rides: we get stuck at the bottom of the lift hill. That’s quite funny, because Ben literally just told us how this coaster would be evacuated. Will we get an evacuation? The answer is no: the lift chain starts moving again five minutes later and we get to experience a truly great roller coaster two times in a row. What a great feeling to wake up with holding breaks, vertical drops and refreshing splashes.
It’s past 10 o’clock and Busch Gardens is officially open. When we enter the New France area, it quickly becomes clear that today’s crowds will be similar to yesterday’s. In other words: it will be another very busy day. New France is the home of the newly opened InvadR and almost every American seems to ride this wooden coaster first thing in the morning. The result is a massive, chaotic crowd. Even the Busch Gardens employee holding the ‘End of Line’ sign looks confused. Savannah and Ben tell us that this madness is the main reason why InvadR isn’t included in the Coaster Insider Tour. Besides, the coaster doesn’t feature a Quick-Queue entrance (yet), so there’s only one way to ride this brand-new GCI: entering the very long line. Luckily, we’ve ridden InvadR yesterday, so there’s no need to conquer the queue today.
InvadR has been added to our Coaster-Counter already, but we didn’t ride Alpengeist yet. We knew that this coaster would be included in our VIP tour and yesterday’s queue was just ridiculously long. However, my heart skips a beat when I realize that the ride is experiencing severe technical difficulties today. That enables us to make some unique photos of the empty ride station and the control panel, but I would obviously prioritize a ride over these pictures. A couple of hours later, Savannah gets a phone call with some good news: the maintenance team fixed the issues sooner than expected. Alpengeist’s wait time suddenly climbs to massive heights, but our VIP lanyard grants access through the ride exit. Check my previous trip report to read how much I enjoyed a front seat ride on this inverted coaster.
The backstage part at Alpengeist is less impressive than the one at Loch Ness Monster. The maintenance area is at least as spotless, but there’s not much to see and the transfer-track is empty as well. Just like Loch Ness Monster, Alpengeist runs with only two trains during spring season. The third train is present, but it’s stored in wooden boxes next to the track. I don’t like this situation: Spring Break is a busy period for Busch Gardens Williamsburg, so I really don’t understand why they don’t operate coasters at full capacity. Yesterday we noticed queues reaching the 90-minute mark, so a third train could make a considerable difference. It doesn’t bother me as a Coaster Insider Tour participant (we get front-of-line access anyway), but I really expected better operations at an iconic theme park like Busch Gardens.
There’s one very interesting aspect during Alpengeist’s guided tour: Busch Gardens added two demonstrations to the ride’s maintenance area. The first one simulates a coaster’s brake section. Every tour participant is invited to slide a brake fin through a magnetic brake, which definitely sounds easier than it actually is. Of course, my muscular strength doesn’t even come close to the power of a heavy train which enters the brake run with 80 km/h, but this simulation gives a good idea about the strength of magnetic brakes. The second test fixture is a little more complicated: Busch Gardens cut one of Alpengeist’s over-the-shoulder restraints in half. This enables us to admire the inside of a classic B&M seat. Restraints are locked with a complex system consisting of steel pins, which by the way make a recognizable clicking sound when the restraints is pulled down. The system is 100 percent safe: even if one of those pins fails, the harness will stay closed. The seat belt B&M adds to its over-the-shoulder restraints is another safety measure, but it’s mainly there as a visual help for the ride’s staff members. If the belt can be closed properly, that automatically means that the harness is safely locked.
Alpengeist isn’t the only great roller coaster in the German section; Verbolten is another example of brilliance on coaster tracks. Most park visitors seem to share my opinion, because the queue is just as massive as yesterday. Luckily, we don’t need to wait 60 minutes to swish through a nocturnal version of the Black Forest. Thanks to Savannah and Ben we once again get access through the exit. That’s a fun feeling, but you can probably guess that most other visitors seem to hate us. We see a lot of angry faces when we enter Verbolten’s train without waiting, but I don’t mind. It’s kind of amazing to experience my favourite Busch Gardens coaster without any queue, twice in a row.
Yes, Verbolten is definitely my most beloved roller coaster at the park and it’s a highlight during the Coaster Insider Tour as well. After our two exclusive rides, we’re expected at the control booth for some behind-the-scenes action. Very concentrated operators keep an eye on the station and the tracks in the ride’s nerve centre. The ride is actually so complex that there are always two staff members at the control booth. Besides (and this is a cool fun fact) these people can always get in touch with the Zierer headquarters in Germany directly. Here’s why: Verbolten didn’t only push Busch Gardens’ boundaries, but it was also a great challenge for Zierer. This manufacturer hasn’t produced many big coasters yet and Verbolten remains their most challenging project so far. That’s why Verbolten is particularly sensitive to technical issues, but Busch Gardens and Zierer do their best to fix these problems as quickly as possible.
The most unique moment of our tour at Verbolten is saved for last. After our visit to the control booth, we leave the park’s pathways and we go off-road. We get a closer look at the ride’s show building, which is somewhat hidden in a small forest. This enormous green hangar accommodates Verbolten’s impressive indoor section. While approaching the building, we notice that the sound of crying wolves and icy winds is becoming stronger. That doesn’t match today’s weather conditions (it’s currently 30°C and the sky is blue) but it fits perfectly within Verbolten’s storyline.
We’re able to experience Verbolten’s dark atmosphere again up-close, because we’re about to take a look inside (!) the show building while the attraction is in full operation (!). Even entering the hall is an adventure on its own. Because Savannah and Ben definitely don’t want to spoil the experience for current riders, the door may not be opened when there’s a train in the indoor section. That’s why we need to sneak in quickly between two ride cycles while Savannah is shouting ‘Go go go’. At the moment the door closes, I suddenly hear an ear-splitting crack of thunder and stroboscopes start to flash. Although my eyes need to adjust to the darkness, I can see a train rushing by at high speed. Verbolten’s scenes light up when a vehicle approaches, so it’s easy to get an idea of the ride’s lay-out by following the lighting effects. It becomes clear that the decoration in this indoor part mainly consists of painted curtains, as we see them fluttering when a train passes by. That may sound cheap, but this can hardly be noticed during the ride. Unfortunately, the ride’s free fall track can’t be viewed from our location, but we did see that element on night vision cameras at the control booth. We would spend about 10 minutes inside the show building and we get to see the different show scenes which makes this ride so awesome and re-rideable. Believe me: this part of the tour was freaking amazing. Our time at Verbolten’s indoor section actually justifies every dollar we spent on the Coaster Insider Tour.
Talking about those dollars… How much do we pay for this guided tour? Honestly I was surprised by the cost in a positive way. The standard observant tour costs 60 dollars and the participant-tour (including the Griffon lift walk) costs only 15 dollars extra. Of course, you need to add Busch Gardens admission, but even that doesn’t make the Coaster Insider Tour overly expensive. In comparison: on a normal Saturday, you would spend 80 dollars on a Quick-Quick Unlimited. This VIP tour is cheaper, while it includes tons of interesting information, behind-the-scenes looks and two queue-free rides on the park’s main roller coasters. Besides, Quick-Queue visitors still need to face a considerable wait, while they’re getting seated in the middle rows of a coaster train. Coaster Insider Tour guests, however, are escorted to their favourite row and they can remain seated for a second ride. Is this what they call decadence?
When we arrive at Apollo’s Chariot, Savannah asks us which seat we prefer. Because we rode this coaster in the back seats yesterday, we ask for the front row. Not a problem, is her answer. We remain in that pole position for two consecutive rides and we once again enjoy pure B&M mega coaster goodness. Our guides tell us that we won’t be seeing this rides’ maintenance area, because it looks quite similar to those we visited earlier today. The neighbouring Tempesto isn’t visited either, but Savannah hands us a single-use Quick-Queue to avoid this ride’s long wait during the afternoon. Our tour is concluded at Loch Ness Monster, where we are treated with two exclusive rides. During this morning’s visit to this legendary Arrow creation, inspections were still being made. However, at noon, the coaster is running and that’s why we end our VIP experience with some great coaster history. Typical Arrow-roughness is included, but it’s actually not too bad for a ride which is nearly 40 years old.
It’s almost 1 PM when our tour comes to an end. That means we have to say goodbye to Savannah, Ben and Busch Gardens Williamsburg. We need to drive 450 kilometers to our next destination, so we decide to leave the park early in the afternoon. While commencing the long drive north, I realize that this tour was definitely a great success. We had to wake up very early, but we visited some unique places and we managed to make lots of coaster rides within a few hours. If you’re a coaster enthusiast, then you should definitely consider this experience during a visit to Busch Gardens.
Also interesting: Busch Gardens encourages you to take pictures during the tour. Apart from Verbolten’s indoor section and the blueprints of Loch Ness Monster, you may make as much photos as you like. Even during the Griffon lift walk, they allow you to take your own camera with you. Of course, it’s sad that exactly this spectacular part of the tour was cancelled, but that gives us a good reason to book this Coaster Insider Tour again in the future. I really wouldn’t hesitate to experience it a second time. Although most coaster fans may know most of the information given during the tour, it’s great to notice that Ben and Savannah are very passionate about their thrills. They answered all of our questions and they know some pretty cool fun facts. At Verbolten, for example, they told us that the wooden roof at the iconic drop was built by a professional roofer. That sounds logical, but this particular roof had to look old and destroyed. The roofer finished the job successfully, but he said that this rather small roof structure was the most difficult thing he’d ever done. These facts keep the tour interesting; it’s really not all about nerdy coaster talk. Lastly, this Coaster Insider Tour can be considered as an alternative for a Quick-Queue, which may be very useful on busy days.
Long story short: if you plan a visit to Busch Gardens Williamsburg and if the tour is organized during your stay, you should definitely think about booking it. We even noticed that it’s perfectly possible to combine the Coaster Insider Tour with an evening visit to Hershey Park. After a six-hour drive (and a lot more traffic jams than Google Maps predicted) we finally arrived at Pennsylvania’s famous chocolate town and its beloved attraction park. We wouldn’t spend more than an hour at Hershey Park, but that seemed enough to discover four new coaster credits. Those 10 other coasters need to wait until tomorrow, so we’re planning another busy day full of first drops, g-forces, inversions and… lap bars which feel like pure torture. See you tomorrow!