Featured Image: Current and former Virginia Wesleyan University students at Busch Gardens’ HowlO-Scream event. Ethan Labelle|Courtesy
As people age, and college students grow too familiar with their campus, holidays such as Halloween and Christmas tend to lose their appeal—their magic. Candy eaten in cheap costumes fails to excite the senses and one can only watch so many horror movies in October. In Virginia Beach’s soggy climate, snowball fights, roaring fires and frosty winters are few and far between. However, roughly one hour from campus exists a microcosm of (Americanized) European culture, exhilarating roller coasters, theatrical performances and extravagant holiday-themed experiences that can rekindle festive excitement.
Busch Gardens is a family-friendly theme park subdivided into sections that celebrate and mimic Germany, France, England, Scotland, Ireland and Italy, located in historic Williamsburg, Virginia. Not only does the park boast more than twenty rides and attractions, patrons can peruse the petting zoos, take advantage of free daily performances, dine in restaurants (some including live shows) and shop for souvenirs and art. From Sept. 9 to Oct. 31 of 2022, Howl-O-Scream is Busch Gardens’ main event when the sun goes down at 6 p.m.
In addition to the typical theme park charm, Howl-O-Scream layers on a ghoulish gleam. It expands the park with five haunted houses, five territories, four terrifying shows, party zones and (for those of age) BOOze bars. Mikayla (Kaza) Dayton, a Virginia Wesleyan freshman who recently starred in the school’s production of “Cabaret,” said, “As a native Delawarean, the wonders of Virginia’s Busch Gardens are anything but commonplace to me. But as an amusement park enthusiast, I am always eager to experience a new adventure, especially during “spooky season.” This past weekend, my friends and I experienced the spooky thrills of Howl-O-Scream!”
She went on to say, “When we first arrived in the afternoon, we were greeted by crowds and crowds of people; Oct. 22 must have been when the whole world went to Busch Gardens.” Dayton and her friends explored the park, eating at Das Festhaus—a festive German dining hall—in the Busch Gardens’ Germany section and riding the Griffin, a roller coaster nestled between “Ireland” and “Scotland.”
Although the ride’s wait time was over an hour-and-a-half, Dayton stated that “being able to experience the thrills of the coaster at night was spectacular.” However, the true fun started when Howl-O-Scream festivities began.
In regards to the event itself, Dayton said, “Fog machine smoke and actors dressed in gory costumes could be found scattered through the park. Regrettably, I was the first in the group to be jump-scared by an actor with a chain-saw coming from behind me on our way to Ireland. But, again—I am all about thrills, so I didn’t really mind.”
Dayton and her friends finished their night with several breath-taking roller coasters and a KILLarney Diner, one of the haunted houses. In regards to her trip, Dayton said she personally “enjoyed the coasters much more than the haunted house—mainly because it’s not a fully immersive experience for me unless my hair is blowing, I’m at least fifty feet in the air and I’m screaming like a maniac from the intensity of a coaster drop.” However, she would definitely recommend Busch Gardens’ Halloween experience as “it’s incredible to see how the park really comes to life (…or death)” and how “the intermittent scary dance parties, frightening performers and creepy ambiance of the whole park truly immerse visitors in the spirit of Halloween.”
A sophomore at Virginia Wesleyan, Gabriella Snowman, recently joined junior Ethan Labelle and their group of friends at Howl-O-Scream. A popular event, their group of ten experienced long lines, but as Snowman describes, “the things we waited for were worth it,” including the newest roller coaster, Pantheon. Labelle, who has attended Howl-O-Scream every year for the last eight years, recommends making the trip as “they do a great job of decorating each year and the haunted houses are really entertaining, even if they aren’t that scary.” Snowman, who had only been to Busch Gardens once prior, for Christmas Town, had a fantastic time with the actors, the unique themes of the haunted houses and how thoroughly the park adopted a Halloween theme.
As Halloween is nearly here, Busch Gardens will be continuing the festivities with Christmas Town, from Nov. 11 to Jan. 8, one of the largest holiday displays in North America (according to the website). Alumna, Ryan Westpfahl, produced a glowing report of this holiday event. “A visit to Busch Gardens has been a special treat since I was in grade school. The roller coasters, animals and atmosphere have made me a consistent visitor into my adult years. You can’t beat Germany, Italy, Ireland and Switzerland during the holidays—and Busch Gardens Williamsburg is the closest I’ve gotten.” Westpfahl enjoys both Christmas Town and Howl-O-Scream enough to purchase a membership for year round fun.
The park comes alive with holiday cheer, as Westpfahl describes it, “the award winning Christmas lights make for awesome views and even better pictures while the winter treats make you feel at home despite the chilly weather. I hit Christmas Town every year and never regret spending the time or money. Beyond checking off what’s become a holiday staple, the event always provides space for some relaxation and care-free moments during, what can be, a stressful time of year.”
Ticket prices vary, as there are always sales, ticket bundles, and discounts available online or through sites such Groupon. If you’re looking for an activity to spark holiday spirit, be sure to check out the website, https://buschgardens.com/williamsburg/.
By Sasha Saxon