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Curve Flattener.
Aug 3, 2017
Newport News, VA
From the New York Times archives -

A Little Bit of Europe, Made in the U.S.A.
July 27, 1975

WILL the Bard or won't he? Spin in his grave five times a day, that is. I'm wondering because I am sitting inside an outlandish, double‐size reproduction of London's old Globe Theater, watching characters named Romeo, Tybalt, Falstaff and Prospero trample Shakespear in a lurid amalgam of themes that have been pared down to essentially superficial and macabre qualities. The basic struggle between good and evil, graced by the quest for true loge, is lavishly surrounded by thunderbolts, smoky explosions and hideous monsters. At any minute I expect a chorus line to come storming out in Elizabethan regalia cancanning to the theme of “Shakespeare is the . . . one peer to have . . . when you're having more than one.” But that's not likely. I'm in the Old Country, in Williamsburg, Va., the latest Busch Gardens amusement park, and an entirely different brewery from. . .that other one.

A kaleidoscope of simulated European lifestyles in historical settings is at the heart of the Old Country, making it forevermore unnecessary to travel overseas to suffer culture shock. In a single day my wife, Carolyn, and I encountered strolling minstrels, folk dancers, a knight tightly packed into shining armor, bagpipe players, a security force disguised as London bobbies, goats with voracious appetites, roller coasters, Clydesdale horses, antique trains, macaws with Robin Hood complexes, gondolas soaring high above everything and everyone, a puppet orchestra, sputtery Bugattis on a winding race course . . . and lots more. No one paying the $6.50 admission should complain of a dearth of activities or sights, for the ticket entitles its holder to everything but food, souvenirs and penny arcade

The idea of the Old Country is to recreate European hamlets at various , stages of history, and in most cases—assuming one is not hung up on scrupulous authenticity—it's like stepping into a time machine: here we are in Banbury Cross (England) in the 1600's; Rhinefeld (Germany) in the 1800's; Aquitaine (France) in the early 1900's.

These principalities are subtly scattered through 360 acres of classic Virginfa countryside. The park's designers and builders have shown ecological compassion and taste by building Around the existing landscape. The theme areas are separated by hills, streams and woods replete with poplars, birch and oaks, giving the illusion of a much larger space without denying intimacy. And the open spaces are further utilized as a wildlife preserve for more than 500 European and native American animals (including bison, elk and reindeer).

Two sub‐theme areas—Hastings, near Banbury Cross, and New France, near Aquitaine—are centered on medieval England and pre‐colonial Canada, respectively, and are quite separate in mood from their “mother countries.” All five areas consist of shops, eateries and amusements spaced along winding streets and courtyards fashioned in the likeness of small villages. Every time Carolyn and I entered a' new country, we were aware of definite changes—in the styles of building, the costumes and the general atmosphere. Thus, England was staid and stately, while France beckoned gaily and somewhat coyly. Germany wavered between being flush and officious. We weren't prepared for, and in fact were a little disappointed at. the domination of shops over entertainments, but this may reflect our concept of Europe as the birthplace of, rather than the marketplace for, a great traditional arts and

Each architecturally unique area has a centerpiece that sets the mood of the country. In Banbury Cross, it's the Globe, massive and Imposing, a theater within a larger piece of theater. In Rhinefeld, it's the vast communal beer hall with its free Anheuser‐Busch beer. In Aquitaine, it's the outdoor art pavilion where artists are busily sketching any face that will hold still long enough. For an extra $9.

The Old Country pleases on subtler levels, too. The varied native costumes, for example, that enliven the shops and streets, particularly in Rhinefeld where embroidered dresses evoke rainbow images. And the, piped‐in music that is so well suited to each area: chamber music in Banbury Cross, bluegrass in New France, martial music in Rhinefeld. There is no shortage of live music either, ranging from madrigal singers on the steps of the Globe to strolling accordionists in Aquitaine to oompah bands demanding—and. always getting—audience participation in Rhinefeld. In fact, there is music everywhere in the Old Country. There is color, there is life—it is a park that gerierates smiles.

Only after leaving the park did I fully appreciate the artful mood‐making and the uniform friendliness of the entire staff, mostly high school and college students. I felt that their classic Southern hospitality was more than a prerequisite of the job, a rare and endearing quality. Moreover, the staff works extremely hard to maintain a spotless park, and I hardly saw any trash at Busch Gardens outside the imaginative, concealed beer‐barrel trash cans.

After parking in a nearby lot, Carolyn and I crossed a wooden bridge that leads to the main entrance, Banbury Cross. Thick woods effectively shielded the lot and it was easy to fantasize that we were leaving America behind—at least for a while. I had hoped we would be getting passports that we would then have to show to “border guards,” à la Orient Express. Alas, the Old Country seems to have adopted a very contemporary Common Market philosophy; border crossing is mostly a matter of imagination.

We intended to walk through the park but were immediately confronted with a variety of transportation. For instance, there are two steam‐powered locomotives, replicas of Queen Victoria's personal train, the Balmoral Castle, and of the Prussian State Engine, Hock Beinigin, which course around and through the game preserve. Unlike models at other amusement parks we've visited, these have the heavy feel of real trains as they move slowly across a mammoth trestle that traverses the Old Country's re‐creation of the Rhine River. Many of the animals seemed to prefer the less populated, less hectic reaches of their domain away from the trains, but ours did have to stop for an obstinate herd of buffalo obviously debating which side of the track they wished to be associated with.

A secondary method of country‐hopping is provided by skylifts similar to those in the Alps. They run a triangular route linking the three major hamlets. Floating through the sky at 100 feet, we had a good vantage point from which to ponder the folly of men and women exploring dangerous curves on log flume and roller coast rides below. It also led me to reflect that only in America could the borders of England, France and Germany meet. The drawback of the skylift is having to wait in line, sometimes up to a half‐hour.

Back on earth, I convinced Carolyn that walking was my favorite way of exploring new territory, and we learned to appreciate the little pauses it provided between cultures. Although there is much ground to cover in the Old Country, we didn't find it necessary to rush around in a blind panic. There are only four events tied to a schedule: the Globe presentation and the puppet, bird and trained‐animal shows. Everything else is a continuing show. Also, we didn't come into the Old Country on a whirlwind tour, so there was none of that “If it's 4:30, this must be Belguim” mentality. With that in mind, on to Merry Olde England.

I imagine there are features about Banbury Cross that Shakespeare could relate to a swirl of people crowding the streets, shops inhaling passersby and exhaling them as consumers, the aroma of English muffins and delicious ham sandwiches wafting through the air. All this amid 17th‐century decor that is a curious but pleasant combination of Tudor style and Disney's Anaheim method (expressed through plastic stained‐glass windows and concrete cobblestones).

Banbury Cross feels like a village. There are no rides in ihe area other than the skylift, so the main activity aside from shopping or eating is the mixedmedia show at the Globe. On our way there, we stopped at a little food stall where we anted up 85 cents for an Old World‐style ham‐and‐biscult combination and almost half that again for a soft drink, then headed for the Muffin Man's pastries and eventually ended up at the Hokey Pokey for a bout with ice cream. Each country has its variation of the ham sandwich, and they're tasty enough, but there's little that could pass for authentic native cuisine.

As we waddled into the Globe, we were expecting a tribute to the Bard, but we emerged with a sense of tribulation. The Old Country's Globe, an attractive contemporary theater based on an old mold and seating 1,000 people, has great potential and the special effects of the “Ghosts of the Globe” production seemed to impress most of the audiences. But the dialogue is lipsynched, and I kept wishing some mis chievous Puck would bounce on stage and throw everybody's timing off. The half‐hour show is repeated five times daily, and sometimes a wait of equal length is necessary to get in. For those indisposed to such a wait, the nearby Felt and Feather shop offers hats End bags, while the King's MenSgerie.offers a wide variety of children's toys, many of them imported. Other storts are filled with collectibles and souvenirs, including many Anheuser‐Busch items, ranging from mugs and ashtrays to reproductions of Clydesdale horse teams.

The excitement of amusement park rides is found in nearby castlenlike Hastings, which is entered by a drawbridge. I must have some Norman blood in me because I kept thinking how easy it would be to take this place: low walls, catapults facing the wrong direction and everybody's attention focused on rides, arcade games and especially the puppet show. The Magic Lantern Puppet Theater, which is home to Syd and Marty Krofft's puppet “Follies,” is a delight. Veterans of World's Fairs and Hem'sfairs, and in fact fifth‐generation puppet makers, the Kroffts have devised a family show that seems to run much longer than 45 minutes, probably because no one wants it to end. The show is a collage of skits representing familiar show biz personalities—a svelte Gene Kelly dancing, a lusty Pearl Bailey singing, a raucous Ike end Tina Turner rocking. Frankenstein and Dracula make a startling appearance, too, and not all of the action is confined to the stage.

Hastings is also home to the Catapult, an indoor variation of the scrambler ride that is epeclally recommended on hot days for its rush of cool air. Turvey Manor, a fun house intended to pull the ground out from under its visitors, succeeded mostly in getting me lost in the maze. But Carolyn came back to get me. The Jester's Sport and the Battlements are to be avoided. They consist of computer games, pinball and target machines and the like, a long way from the advertised “heaps or medieval rides and games.”

Near Hastings is Heatherdowns; besides housing one of the two train depots; it is home to the Clydesdale stables. I had never seen these beautiful creatures before, and having just left the Puppet Theater, I Was sure my eyes had lost their sense of perspective. No horses could be that big and solid? Petting one Is like petting a warm rock. These regal animals don't actually do anything except walk around an open field, but even that is a show.

If Aquitaine had been kidnapped from France, the citizens of the Cote d'Azur would be paying the ransom. There is a definite Southern air there, both in the openness of the central market area and in the buoyancy of the surrounding shops. Food and drink are major considerations in Aquitaine, another touch of authenticity. At Le Coq d'Or, we picked up some French‐fried chicken and washed It down with wine. Now, here lies temptation. Although wine is available in a plastic glass (65 cents) or by the bottle ($3.75 to $5.75), we had the opportunity to become snobs by buying a bottle of Chateau Moutoun Rothschild, vintage 1967, for only $45. However, it, like all of the wine sold on the grounds, must be consumed there because of state liquor laws. What with the price, and the fact that we were already wobbling from our visit to Banbury Cross, we decided to pass.

The bustle in the streets of Aquitaine is quite different from that in Banbury Cross. People are always having to step around sidewalk artists or dart into open‐air stalls to look at jewelry or glasswear or headgear. It's a great place to bump into people you've never met, mumble apologies and then turn around and bump Into someone else. It's not a question of crowding, just one of activity. In fact, there was never a sense of crowding anywhere in the Old Country though it handles 18,000 people at a time.

New France Is Aqultaine's Canadian cousin, a trapper's outpost highlighted by a candle shop, which invites folks to dip their own candles, and a photo studio, which provides old tintypes (for $4.95). We waited to pose while a group of amiable zanies tried to fit someone into an easily doffed dress and bonnet. Easily doffed, that is, unless the someone is a high school football tackle whose friends have a perverse sense of humor. As they struggled, we straggled out to the Trading Post across the way. There we were confronted with cheap imitation Indian tomahawks and spears with rubber heads—made in Taiwan. There are also authentic Indian crafts, like moccasins from the Cherokee Qualla Reservation in North Carolina, Oglala Sioux dolls and jewelry.

Heading back for Aquitaine, we heard the, sputter of car engines coursing through the hills. Turned out to be Le Mans. Not LE Mans, but a miniaturized replica whose vintage Bugattis and Peugeots (reproductions, of course) race around on fixed tracks. Speed, however, is left up to the discretion of each driver, with possibilities ranging from 1 to 7 miles an hour. This may not seem fast, but the mile‐long track is so winding and accentuated that the maximum seems extreme. There are two lanes, so head‐to‐head races are possible, except that frequently the couples in front of the would‐be daredevils are out for a leisurely spin, and passing isn't possible.

This part of the Old Country houses two large open‐air theaters presenting animal shows. The Three Musketeers Theater hadn't got its show together when we visited. At least, I'm told the horrid choral group there was a lastminute substitute for orangutans and bears that couldn't make it. Just outside Aquitaine is La Jolie Plume, home to trained macaws and cockatoos that put on an amusing show of tricks and skits. The show we saw re‐created the legend of Robin Hood, with such lines as: “The pheasants were being taxed unfairly.”

We ended up in Rhlnefeld, the most vital theme area at Busch Gardens. The liveliness is due to much more than the free beer dispensed at the Willkommenhaus, a re‐creation of a typical German town hall. It comes from the oompah bands, the folk dancing and a general brightness among the buildings. A case in point is the town hall, which is topped with mechanical knights who appear every 15 minutes to joust ferociously, while the art deco Boese fountain in the courtyard below spouts water through a variety of animal mouths. Around the corner is a gingerbread house chock full of and cookies.

Der Tanzbar is the single most interesting shop that we came across in the Old Country. Besides genuine Hurnmeis and Goebel wildlife figurines, we found hundreds of mugs, steins and clocks. Not having $400 to spend on a Hummel umbrella boy or girl, I spent a few minutes in front of a stein, memorizing it for my dreams. It was $1,300 worth of stein, almost as tall as a 10‐year‐old and capable of holding a 5‐year‐old or the equivalent in beer.

Near the Willkornmenhaus are a yintage Herschel carousel and what is unimaginatively called the Animal Contact Area. An unwilling adult, I entered what Is obviously intended as a petting and feeding area for children. Since It had been raining earlier in the day, I was still wearing my old funky rubber raincoat. When I finished feeding the goats, I was wearing half an old funky rubber raincoat—I was so bttsy laughing I couldn't keep the goats from their feast.

Below Rhinefeld is a 60‐acre manmade lake that re‐creates, and is in fact called, the Rhine River. With our day ending, we took a 20‐minute cruise on one of the park's seven 55‐passenger excursion boats. Nothing much happened on the trip—no pirate attacks or wild animals—but It gave us one last, lovely chance to catch our breath before heading home, We could occasion. ally see some wildlife along the shores, as well as the loud squadrons of ducks that cruised the water. But the charm of the ride Is in the observation of nature and in the quiet of the electrically powered boats gliding gently through the water.

That, basically, is the curriculum of Busch Gardens' Old Country, and it is a particularly pleasing experience in conjunction with the history lesson of Colonial Williamsburg down the road. There is nothing much to be learned at the Old Country; it was apparently never meant to be anything more than an amusement park. There are still drawbacks at this point: not enough thrill rides scattered through the park, which makes waiting times stretch sometimes to an hour for the five rides available. There is also not really enough for small children to do. In New France they must even be held up by adults in order to be able to dip candles. There is certainly enough color and liveliness, but just not enough activity for the younger set.

Anheuser‐Busch, with $35‐million already invested, has left plenty of room for future expansion, so these problems are certainly remediable. In the meantime, to misquote Shakespeare, “play's the thing,” and in the Old Country it's easy to pretend that there never was such a thing as a recession, and by golly, $6.50 in American money can get you half way round the world. I might even be able to afford it again next year.

Lord Robert

"Not pet. Wingman."
Apr 18, 2014
This article is certainly a great description of what the park was like in it's first season of operation; and it proves that a lot of things have changed since then. Some for the better, some not so great.
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