When you talk to any of the executives at Busch Gardens Williamsburg about Verbolten, you get a sense that they know the pressure is on.
Sure, it's important that they design a ride that is universally enjoyed and brings guests though the gates. But in this case, the ride they have designed is replacing a legend.
Three years ago, Busch Gardens suddenly announced that they would be removing "The Big Bad Wolf," an Arrow Suspended Roller Coaster that had been in operation since 1984.
A whole generation of theme park fans (including me) grew up riding this iconic roller coaster. So, it was a big shock when it was suddenly being removed.
I remember going on the Coaster Radio podcast saying that I was fine with the decision to remove the aging ride, as long as the creative minds at Busch Gardens had something just as good (or better) waiting in the wings.
So, now we fast forward to May 17, 2012.
Today, I had a chance to ride the attraction that stands where "The Big Bad Wolf" once stood.
Before I tell you whether "Verbolten" can make me forget about the previous tenant, let me describe the ride experience for you.
First of all, the queue line and surrounding area has some of the best theming Busch Gardens has ever done. I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say it is "Disney-esque."
As you walk up to the attraction, you immediately notice a German "Targa" automobile that has been severely damaged. By the looks of the gigantic vine that has smashed through its windows, you can tell that the car has been in a terrible accident.
But what caused it?
Next, we work our way through the incredibly detailed queue line that runs directly through a German Tourist Center run by the brother and sister team of Gerta and Gunter. As we make our way through the queue, we come to realize that the center's rental cars keep disappearing and the passengers are never seen again.
To cover up this dark secret, Gunter collects the personal effects of the missing motorists from the crumpled, vine-entangled
cars. He then sneaks back to the center and hides them amid the messy clutter.
One particularly interesting part of the queue are the video monitors that show live feeds of the Black Forest. Obviously, Gunter is keen to figure out what is happening to his cars (and to guests like us!)
Finally, we make our way up to the station and it looks NOTHING like it did during the "Big Bad Wolf" days. In fact, the design of the entire area makes one (start to) forget that the classic attraction was ever here in the first place.
When the trains pull in to the station, one can't help but be impressed.
There are five trains that hold 16 passengers each. They're shiny, they're new, they have bright colors and working headlights! They really look like cars that you would see on German highways. Most importantly, they're pretty darn comfortable. Although, the headrests might be a bit too high... and they might block the view for smaller riders.
Once we've been given our rental car by Gunter, we're off.
The ride begins with a few leisurely twists and turns as we make our way to the event building. I was surprised that this section actually had a bit of speed, especially if you're sitting towards the back.
Finally, the cars take a sharp right turn and begin to head up a steep hill into the Black Forest. It's then that we hit the first of two launches that this coaster will become known for.
As the cars pick up speed, we leave the bright sunlight behind and are thrust into the middle of a foreboding forest. There are strobe lights, environmental effects and a pretty good soundtrack to make you feel like you're heading someplace you shouldn't be.
Because the ride is in pitch-darkness, you can't brace for what's coming next. But the cars dive into a pretty-intense helix and a few surprise drops.
The best compliment that I can give to this point of the ride is that it reminded me of Space Mountain. There was one drop in particular that got a good laugh out of me.
At one point the cars slow to a crawl and you get to enjoy some of the visual effects and scenery of the forest below you. But soon, you're diving back down another hill and into some more twists and turns.
Finally, the cars slow down and pull into a straight piece of track. This is where Verbolten's designers raised the bar for creativity.
At this point of the ride, you will experience one of three distinct possibilities.
1) A Lightning Storm - A fierce storm will threaten to destroy the train and all its passengers.
2) An encounter with the Spirit of the Forest - A spirit will entice passengers with a pleasant-sounding voice, but then turn evil and attempt to make sure they never leave the forest alive.
3) Wolf Attack - In a tribute to the Big Bad Wolf, a red-eyed pack of creatures will stalk the train.
As cool as it is to have varying story-lines, I'm wondering if the average theme park fan is going to notice it. I have a feeling that the majority of riders are going to be so freaked out by what they just experienced (and by what could possibly happen next) that they won't notice the subtle story differences.
But maybe I'm not giving them enough credit. Time will tell if I'm wrong or right.
Regardless of what random storyline riders experience, the next part of the ride is going to be what people talk about all summer long.
At the height of the storm, wolf attack or ghost experience, the entire track that the roller coaster has been sitting on suddenly drops about 15-feet.
As theme park fans, most of us knew about this development a year ago. However, I think this is going to take a lot of people by surprise.
Today I rode Verbolten for the first time with my brother Greg, who purposefully didn't read anything about the ride so he could be totally surprised.
When the track dropped in a total free-fall, Greg let out a blood-curdling scream unlike anything I have ever heard from him. It surprised him. It scared him. It made me laugh hysterically.
Busch Gardens - 1 Greg - 0
I'm pretty sure Greg won't be the only one taken off guard by this effect, which is the first of it's kind in North America.
After the shock of the free-fall drop, there isn't much time to rest. The train rockets forward (much more intensely this time) to its top speed of 53 mph.
We can see that the cars are heading towards a rickety old wooden bridge on the top of a ravine. Below, is the majestic Rhine River.
Yes friends, we are in the exact same spot as the final river plunge on the old "Big Bad Wolf" coaster.
The trains show to a crawl so we can appreciate the view and perhaps contemplate what's coming next. The designers added sound effects of creaking wood and snapping timber to make us a bit more uneasy.
Finally, the trains plunge over the side and we head down an 88-foot drop towards the Rhine River.
In a fitting tribute to The Big Bad Wolf, the final drop and twisted finale take the exact same route as our beloved former coaster. Call me sentimental, but it was like seeing an old friend who you thought you had lost.
The front seat provided some excellent visuals. The back seat gave me some surprising airtime.
I think Busch Gardens Williamsburg has a hit on their hands.
I think they'll see long lines for the ride all summer long and more people coming though the gate to check it out.
I don't think this is a "perfect ride"... no ride ever is.
I truly envisioned them doing more inside the "Black Forest" in terms of lighting, audio and special effects. In fact, I had to ride several times to make sure I understood what was happening in all three storylines.
I opened this review talking about "The Big Bad Wolf" and wondering if "Verbolten" could live up to its legacy.
"The Big Bad Wolf" had 25-years to impress people and make lasting memories. "Verbolten" has been open one day.
I think "Verbolten" has enough surprises and unique details of its own to eventually make people stop comparing it to "The Big Bad Wolf."
Because the bottom line on Verbolten is... it's fun.
It made me laugh. It made me yell. It made me throw my hands up in the air. It made me high-five my brother. It made me want to ride again.
Isn't that exactly what you want in a roller coaster?