Disclosure: As part of a Busch Gardens® Christmas Town™ Blogger Preview Event, my family was provided with complimentary tickets, a meal, photos with Santa, and an ornament painting experience at Caribou Pottery. All opinions are my own.
Each night during Advent, our family reads from a devotional. In addition to the usual prayers and lessons, it poses questions for deeper thought and discussions. The other night, the author asked us to consider what made us feel alive, alert, and at our best versus what made us feel like we were merely going through the motions in life. Interestingly, we all found that traveling is one of the things that makes each of us feel vibrant.
Yet, at Christmas time, we find ourselves loathe to travel, for we are also traditionalists, and we prefer to be in our own home, with our own tree, attending services at our own church, waiting for Santa to come down our own fireplace — rather than hitting the road to visit our relatives who live several hundred miles from us (and who also feel the same way.)
Which is why Busch Gardens® Christmas Town™ in Williamsburg, Va. was such a wonderful fit for us! It was an opportunity to travel outside the DC area and imbue ourselves with the Christmas spirit, while not disrupting our traditional Christmas routine. I can see now why the marketing team is pushing the hashtag #CTTradition (Christmas Town Tradition) as this may very well become a new family tradition for us.
We have never been to Busch Gardens before — not even in the regular season. So, it was with wide-eyed anticipation that the JavaKids and I hopped into our minivan and made the trek down on opening day to check things out. I prepped the kids with this YouTube video that told us about the many wonders we would see. Skeptics may see the video as all marketing spin, but I can tell you that upon arrival, my family quickly got caught up in the awe of everything and I dare say that anyone who spends an hour at the park and doesn’t feel more light-hearted, may have a wee bit of the Grinch inside.
Rides and Roller Coasters to Remember
We arrived at daylight and since we were there as guests of the park we had a schedule to follow, so heeding the advice of my theme-park-expert sister, I headed toward the rear of the park and tried to hit one of the more popular rides instantly — the Verbolten. Well, here’s the thing, though I am a thrill-seeker and love scary rides, my kids, ages 7 and 9, don’t really like roller coasters. They are slowly becoming acclimated to them, with each park we visit, but it’s just not what they gravitate to. A friend casually mentioned to me, “Be sure to ride the Verbolten,” and without doing any homework, I begged my kids to give it a try. So, I didn’t realize, for example, that you instantly go into a dark tunnel that then assaults you with psychodelic lights. Or that there is a section where the cars drop straight down for what feels like six feet. Or that there is an 88-foot plunge. I’ll blame the adrenaline rush of having just driven 155 miles for not calculating until just before we got onto the ride that there were three of us (as JavaDad had to stay home for a work emergency) and that this meant JavaBoy would have to ride alone in the car ahead of JavaGirl and me. In other words, this was a really, really terrible parenting choice on my part, and when we pulled into the station at the end, my kids looked like PTSD victims. Yet… for all their souvenirs (pressed pennies, trading pins), my children chose Verbolten items! Go figure! (And yes, I’ve learned my lesson!) The kids got to ride far tamer rides later on!
Learn from my mistake, and plan ahead. Many, but not all rides are open for Christmas Town. Roller coasters are a little more weather dependent. See this link for more details. Roller coasters will require you to put your items in lockers, which are conveniently located and require three tokens ($1).
Up-Close Look at Animals
In addition to rides, there are many things to see at Busch Gardens and the Highland Stables were a big hit, especially with horse-loving JavaGirl. Here you can see some of the world-famous Clydesdale horses. Busch Gardens is divided into “countries” and this is part of Scotland. During warmer months, you can enjoy tours and shows to learn more about sheep herding and how Busch Gardens trains their border collies. The public is able to pet and take pictures with the Clydesdales during Christmas Town, and though I have seen the famous Busch Clydesdales before, I am always awestruck by their size whenever I am near them.
Another fun animal we got to see: penguins! The Ice Palace: A Penguin Paradise exhibit is not large, and depending on when you go the line may be long, so adjust your expectations accordingly, but this will most likely be the closest you will get to penguins. They are housed indoors and the only thing that separates you from them is a piece of glass. We happened to be there in time to see some of them being hand fed, which was quite special. There is one enclosure where the penguins have access to a pool of water so you can see them both above and below water (assuming the penguins cooperate!) A behind the scenes tour available for an extra fee.
Though I am really not a shopper, the kids and I fell in love with Germany and its large selection of nativity scenes, nutcrackers and cuckoo clocks. It brought back a memory of a cuckoo clock my great-grandfather had, giving me an opportunity to share a bit of my childhood with them. Each country had its charm and specialty, but MY specialty seemed to be getting us lost, so we didn’t really linger in the shops (and since I was driving us back to Northern Virginia the same night, I also didn’t get to sample any of the wonderful wine tastings in each country). We thoroughly enjoyed painting a clay ornament at Caribou Pottery, which was in keeping with our family tradition of buying a Christmas ornament from any place we travel to.
Don’t Forget Santa Claus
Our schedule called for all the bloggers to reunite at Castle O’Sullivan (Ireland) for dinner and Santa’s Fireside Feast. This is an assigned seating, buffet meal with an opportunity to get up close to an “Irish” Santa and listen to him read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas while Mrs. Claus hands out cookies. Our family has an understanding that mall Santas are usually “helpers” for Santa but after spending time talking to this Santa and carefully looking at his beard, JavaGirl (7) confided to me, “The elf is not real because I could see where his pointy ears were stuck on, but I think that Santa is the real one!” She’s my skeptical child, so if he was real enough to her, so be it! Everyone has their own theory on theme parks and food, but the meal was good, the kids enjoyed seeing Santa (there is another opportunity to see him at Santa’s Workshop), and by having reservations, you know that you are going to have a specific time and place to eat.
You could spend all your time at Christmas Town and never catch a show, or you could spend all your time at Christmas Town ONLY going to shows. I like that they have a mixture of secular and religious-themed shows and exhibits, but due to my getting us lost frequently (even with a map, I have no sense of direction), we only made it to one show — Deck the Halls. In addition to fabulous singing and dancing, it had the convenience of being in Germany’s Das Festhaus, which means that if you have hungry family members, you can feed them while watching the show (seating is at essentially long rows of picnic tables). Or, if they get restless, you can also get up and leave without it being a big disruption. My kids really enjoyed it, however, so it was a great way for us to take a break from walking around (especially since I kept getting us lost!)
Night fell and the park, which was already lovely, transformed. Though we had noticed the garland all over the park (3 miles of it!) and the fresh-cut Christmas trees (more than 1,500 of them) as well as artificial wreaths and trees (700+) in daylight, the darkness allowed us to see the six million Christmas lights sparkling throughout the park. (For the eco-minded, you might be interested to know that approximately 85% of the lights are energy-saving LED lights and the fresh-cut trees are turned into mulch at the end of the season and used in the park’s planters and flower beds.)
Although we thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of our trip, my favorite moment was stopping on one of the long bridges (don’t ask me which one because I kept getting lost!) and looking across the water at all the lit trees and the Peace on Earth sign as Joy to the World played over the speakers, with my arms around my kids. I would never have expected a theme park to make me feel so connected to my children and my spirituality as I did in that very moment.
Christmas Town is open Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through December 8 and then daily from December 13 through December 31 (closed Christmas Day). For more information about ticket and vacation package pricing visit http://www.christmastown.com/va.
J.J. Newby has no fear of hopping in a car with her kids to go just about anywhere as long as she is well caffeinated. You can read more of her musings at Caffeine and a Prayer, and follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.