Non-Tech Fun: Vacationing in the Mid-Atlantic Area

It’s that time of year when vacations are starting and you are looking for great places to take your family and relax and have some fun.  And, what better places to take them than to the amusement parks, right?  Well, sure, but there are new types of amusement parks that do not involve rollercoasters or ferris wheels.  First, though, I am going to talk about rollercoasters.  BIG ONES, at that.

Overview of Carowinds entranceThe tallest giga-coaster on the East Coast, and one of the tallest in the country, is called Fury 325 and is located in the very nice Carowinds theme park located near Charlotte, North Carolina.  This thing is 325 feet tall, has an 85 degree first drop and is over 6600 feet long. It towers over the park.  Now, Carowinds isn’t a one trick wonder. No, it also has another tall coaster: the Intimidator. Named after the late, great Dale Earnhardt, this out and back coaster features a first drop of over 200 feet and, prior to Fury 325, was the south easts tallest and fastest roller coaster.  Rounding out Carowinds collect are Nighthawk, a coaster where you lay down and Flightdeck, a hanging rollercoaster that is very fast and features many inversions.  Carowinds is a delightful place to take your family and won’t break the bank.Overview of Carowinds entrance

Charlotte is also home to an NFL team and, of course, NASCAR.  The NASCAR Hall of Fame is located in downtown Charlotte, just minutes from the theme park.

Travelling north, to Virginia, you will find not one, but two world class theme parks, lots of museums, and history, a ton of history from the revolutionary war era, to the Civil War and both World Wars. 

Griffon, at Busch Gardens WilliamsburgStarting in Williamsburg, you have Busch Gardens, a true world class park.  It’s theming, food, service and, of course, its rides, all make it THE best theme park to visit, period.  For its rides, you have Alpengeist, a daring hanging coaster that was the tallest of its type for many years.  The Loch Ness Monster, which, when it opened, was the tallest and fastest coaster in the country. Then, there is the Griffon. Griffon takes you up 205 feet, dangles you over the edge and then lets you drop down an almost 90 degree drop.  It’s a real heart stopper.  Apollo’s Chariot is hypercoaster that will never cease to thrill.  Busch Gardens has terrific food as well.  Oktoberfest lets you sample German cuisine while Festa Italia gives you a taste of Italy.  Down the road from the park you will find Water Country, USA, a huge water park.

Also in Williamsburg, you will find Colonial Williamsburg for a sampling of life in the 1700’s.  There’s also shopping, fine dining and more touristy things to do like the Ripley’s Believe it or Not Odditorium. Finally, there’s mini-golf, go kart parks and the famous Williamsburg Pottery Outlets.

Oh, yeah, I’d me remiss if I neglected to mention Great Wolf Lodge.  This nice resort features a good sized indoor waterpark, included in the price of your room. 

And, don’t forget, to the east is Virginia Beach, about a forty minute drive. And Norfolk, which contains even more things to do, including an aquarium and battleship.  Virginia Beach also features an even better aquarium that also has zip lines and a rope course.

Loch Ness Monster, BGWJust north and west of Williamsburg is Richmond.  Richmond is rich in history, culture, fine arts and food. Lots of restaurants with everything from soul food, to country food to anything European, Korean, Japanese or Chinese.  There’s also a tremendous amount of Thai food restaurants.  You name, you can likely find it in Richmond.  In addition to shopping and food, you’ll find many art museums, history museums and the Edgar Allen Poe Museum.

There’s minor league Baseball, NASCAR twice a year (in April and September) and several short tracks for that weekly dose of speed.  There’s adrenaline junky places like Jumpology, a trampoline fun house.  Coming soon to the area is an indoor park featuring an American Gladiators type course, several zip lines and rope courses. 

A few minutes north of Richmond takes you to Virginia’s second world class theme park, Kings Dominion.  Kings Dominion is a sister park to Carowinds and, as such, contains many of the same types of rides and attractions.  It includes a nice collection of Dominator Rollercoaster, KDrollercoasters, including what was the tallest and fastest giga coaster on the east: Intimidator 305.  This 305 foot tall beast, also named for Dale Earnhardt, gives you the feeling of the high banked turns of Talledega and Daytona.  The first drop takes you into a sharp right turn that may cause a momentary ‘grey out’ in which you lose vision for a fraction of a second. This is normal and is not harmful, just weird. It is caused by blood flow and is harmless. 

Edgar Allen Poe MuseumThe park also features many ‘launch’ style coasters, where, instead of the train being pulled up a hill and released, linear induction motors propel the train forward at tremendous speed.  One of them, the Volcano, shoots you out of the station, around the base of a volcano mountain and then up and through the Volcano itself.  Quite thrilling and was my favorite coaster until I rode Fury 325.

Kings Dominion also features a nice but small collection of wooden rollercoasters, including the Rebel Yell, which is featured in the motion picture ‘Rollercoaster’. 

In addition to nice collection of rollercoasters, the park also features shows and a good collection of flat rides including a Ferris Wheel, a Carousel from the 1920’s and a smaller replica of the Eiffel Tower (this one is one third size at 300 feet.)  For thrills, there is the 300 foot tall Drop Zone tower and the 305 foot tall Windseeker, a swing that takes you up nearly 300 feet.

Richmond, VA - richmondcitybook.comRichmond is nicely located with Washington DC to the north, the beautiful Skyline Drive to the north and west and, of course Williamsburg and Virginia Beach to the east.  All of these destinations are within a two hour drive.  The Outer Banks of North Carolina are just three hours from Richmond.  But, there’s certainly plenty to do in the city and one could spend a week here doing it all.

The East Coast from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina all the way up to Ocean City, Maryland (two of my favorite vacation spots as well) offer up a tremendous opportunity for a fun filled vacation pretty much any time of the year (the amusement parks are seasonal, however) and none of it will break the bank either.

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Halloween Haunt: a Kings Dominion favorite is back

WP_20140926_18_41_42_ProI have not written about theme park related things for quite awhile.  I do so now as I have a personal connection and am excited to share it with you.

For a decade, I have taken my oldest son to the haunt events at Kings Dominion and, for a lot of that time, to a similar event in near by Busch Gardens Williamsburg.  For at least half of that decade, he has wanted to work as a ‘scare actor’ at Kings Dominion. Well, this year, he got his chance.  He is a Zombie in the Zombie High maze, which is already one of the favorite mazes at the park.  To my delight, he is really good at immersing himself in the part.  It is a long, tiring and dirty job, but, he loves it. WP_20140927_20_38_09_Pro

Enough boasting, lets talk about what they are doing.

This year, they five ‘scare zones’  and eight mazes.  The best mazes include Cornstalkers, Zombie High and Club Blood.  Cornstalkers is a maze made out of corn husks, bales of hey and other similar items. Most of the actors blend into the environment and are difficult to see until it is too late. They really get into character and are very enthusiastic.  Zombie High takes place in a high school setting where zombiism has broken out due to a lab experiment gone wrong. Student zombies are seen in various states and you never know where they are waiting.  The theming is excellent and the atmosphere is foreboding. Club Blood takes place in a vampire themed night club. Scantily clad ladies and beefcake vampire dudes fill the building. As with the other mazes, you never know where they are.  The exit is, perhaps, the most hair raising…if you catch it right.WP_20140927_20_28_06_Pro (2) 1

The first night we went, the park was deserted. The Virginia State Fair opened the same night and it is just down the road. I suspect that, a slew of local high school football games and other events took away from the crowd.  As such, we got way more scares than we did the next night we went.

The following night, a Saturday, the park was packed.  Long lines were everywhere. We only went through Zombie High, mainly for my son. Again, he and his co-scare actors, were on their game and we got some good scares and laughs.  The park was letting too many through at one time, which did detract from the experience.

We decided to go through the ‘scare zones’ that we did not hit up the night before. We also spent a lot of time in the ‘Clever Brothers’ zone, themed to a circus.  That was fantastic. I had as much fun watching the others getting scared as I did going through the mazes.WP_20140926_21_41_47_Pro

I anticipate this weekend’s visit to be even better as the actors know what to do and will be more comfortable.

If you are in the area, go out there and give it try.  And, hit up Zombie High, but don’t eat the meatloaf!

Rollercoaster Odyssey

WP_20140417_089It’s that time of year again when the amusement and theme parks gear up for a summer of fun and BIG, BIG rides along with the flow of greenbacks. Yes, it’s rollercoaster time again. For some, it’s a year ‘round thing, for most of use, however, it is from late March until about the end of October.  It’s no different for Half-Byte. This year, Half-Byte took a rollercoaster filled vacation, an odyssey, if you will.

Now, before I go on, I have to admit that it was more of Half-Byte’s family who did the coastering and not Half-Byte.

WP_20140417_064We spent a week in what could be the Coaster capital of the world-certainly, North America. Yep, we went to Orlando, Florida.  Let me tell you, that is NOT a place that Half-Byte wishes to relocate to, if the opportunity arises. Crowded, construction everywhere and LONG LINES for even entry into local restaurants.

I’ve been there several times in the past, but my oldest doesn’t remember them and my newest family members have never been (save my wife, she went when she much younger.)  My son’s girlfriend came along as well.  So, this was quite an adventure. I’ll spare the gory details about the trip down and back-we drove, ‘nuff said.

WP_20140415_100The main attraction is, of course, The Magic Kingdom, Disney World. The problem with Disney World, and coasters, is that there are only three (with a fourth to open shortly.) BUT…they are pretty killer coasters.  First, there’s the Barnstormer, a ‘kiddie’ coaster that manages to pack some light thrills even for adults. Then there’s the Big Thunder Railroad. Boy, that’s a terrific ride. Fast, lots of turns and great theming all around. I rode it first, years ago, with my son and, this time, with my step son. Brought back wonderful memories and I’m really glad that he LOVES rollercoasters. Lastly, there’s the big one: SPACE MOUNTAIN. I stayed off it this time, my wife rode with my step son and they had a blast. I sat it out with the Xanman, my infant son.  WP_20140417_028Can’t wait to do this with him.

Disney done, we headed to Sea World. They have three rollercoasters, but none of us did the ‘kiddie’ coaster this time. I rode Kraken with my son and his girlfriend. That was quite a thrill, fast and furious…but, it felt dirty.  In fact, I was a bit shocked by how dirty the whole theme park ‘felt.’ Oh, there wasn’t any trash strewn about and you can tell the park makes an effort to keep the place clean, but…it felt dirty, rundown. Like Six Flags America in Maryland.  My wife, son and his girlfriend rode 076Manta, a ‘lay down’ coaster. They loved it.  I sat it out with my son and step son.

Next up was Epcot, which I loved for the atmosphere but, it’s more of a shopping experience and has little for the kids.  Not much on the thrill rides either. Mission Space was off limits to us as we all have conditions that would preclude us riding it.  Test Track, however, my son and his girlfriend rode and appeared to like.

Lastly, we hit up Busch Gardens in Tampa.  Now, this is a theme park I’ve been wanting to visit for years. Well, since I started going to the one here, in Virginia. Busch Gardens Williamsburg is a sprawling, wooded, and just gorgeous place to visit. It has great rides and wonderful food.  The staff is top notch-on par or better than Disney.  So, I expected the Tampa park to be the same or better.  So, imagine my surprise when we pull into its parking lot…boy, were we shocked. The park is land locked in what appears to be University area.  The parking lot we were shunted into is dilapidated and did not give us a good first impression. Upon entering the park, however, we realized it was not quite as bad as the parking lot. BG Tampa is themed to the African wild. The theming is well done, but, like Sea World in Orlando, it felt a bit run d152own.  The staff, while nice, wasn’t as good as the staff here in Virginia.  We got mixed signals about the use of our BGW season pass, what it could and could not do.  However, once we got into the park proper and began riding the rides, we knew it was good park.  The Cheetah Hunt rollercoaster, one in which all of us but the Xanman rode, was top notch. This thing has four linear launches, quite a kick In the butt.  Several inversions and lots twists and turns later, it was over. It was the only coaster that my step son rode multiple times and wanted more. He would have ridden it all day if he could.  The other coasters in the park were met with various thumbs up from the family, with Sheik-Ra being a favorite of my oldest son (it is very similar to his favorite coaster, the Griffon.)

WP_20140417_073Rides aside, the other astounding thing about this odyssey was the cost of food: it was outrageous. The most expensive ‘lunch’ I think I’ve ever had was at Sea World: $75. We can have dinner at Outback and save money, compared to lunch at Sea World.  Oddly, Disney’s food was more moderately priced. A similar lunch at Epcot was about $25 cheaper.  Busch Gardens Tampa was similar to the park here in Virginia.  The food was good and cost about what Disney did. Interesting since Busch Gardens and Sea World are the same company.  But, it was vacation and we had budgeted for eating at the parks.  Still, it was a bit of sticker shock.  Makes me appreciate our two parks here in Virginia.

So, we did four major parks in a week (and a local attraction called Wonder Works) WP_20140412_009and it was both too much and not enough.  Ticket prices are very expensive with Disney costing the most.  If you want a multi-day, multi-park ticket, be prepared to shell out a HUGE chunk of change. We only did a two day pass and it was outrageous.  We skipped Universal for this reason: it is nearly as high.  We got lucky with Sea World and Busch Gardens: fifty bucks per person per park. Much cheaper than anyone else.  Of course, if you JUST want Disney or Universal, then the multi-day tickets are a bargain: you can come and go as many times as you want. Add park hopper and you can visit all Disney parks in a day. Don’t do that, you will miss a lot. Looking back, we should have hit up Animal Kingdom or Hollywood Studios instead of Epcot. Maybe next time.

Of all the parks we went to, Busch Gardens had the best thrills.  Disney was, well Disney.  Those two make a great pair and book ended our odyssey. Great way to start and a great way to end.  It was fun.

I am glad to be back home.

Busch Gardens Howl-O-Scream: Much improved

IMAG1221Boy, what a difference a week can make.  Last week, we paid a visit to Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s Howl-O-Scream event. It was beyond lame and lackluster.  There were few scares and was generally a waste of time. However, I am happy to report that the park seems to have gotten the kinks worked out and it showed.

More decorations, more ‘scare-actors’, more scares and, better, they put the scare zone back in the area by the wildlife preserves.  The werewolves are back and the overall atmosphere was much more macabre than last time.

Perhaps the most improved maze/haunted house was Bitten. It was our favorite last week, but it was much better this time since they managed to scare my wife multiple times as well other guests. “Deadline” was much better as well. There were more Scare-actors than last week and they were doing a much better job at scaring guests.

The two shows we got in, ‘Fiends’ and ‘Night Beats’ were fantastic. ‘Fiends’ is a more IMG-20120921-00953 - Copyadult oriented show, featuring scantily clad nurses as well as eye candy for the ladies.  Sexual innuendo abounds, there is also plenty of song and dance and comedy. The ‘story’ is a spoof of the Frankenstein story. While the singing is about what you might expect at a theme park, the choreography was pretty decent. Ditto for ‘Night Beats’. ‘Night Beats’ features a live band and it appeared that the actors were actually singing whereas the performers in ‘Fiends’ were not.  Either way, the dance and comedy bits were worth putting up with the IMAG1225singing.  Again, Ulrich the host in Night Beats was funny and his interaction with the audience was spot on. 

The roaming hordes were larger and we actually saw them several times.  They still do not adequately make up for the loss of the scare zones, but they were-like the rest of Howl-O-Scream-much improved.

Overall, it appears that the park took its criticism-and there was plenty-to heart, listened to customers and began to fix the issues.  One employee told us that they doubled the number of Scare-actors and horde performers and ‘worked the kinks out’.  Glad to see that they did. While they still are not as good as their competition in Richmond, they are vastly improved over the opening weekend and we will return for a third visit.

Busch Gardens disappoints with Howl-O-Scream

Halloween. A time when people WANT to be scared. In the United States, it is traditional to start seeking out venues to PAY to be scared, usually starting toward the end of September.  Amusement parks around the country gear up for this time of year by replacing normal attractions with those of a more macabre tone. My two local parks, Cedar Fair’s Kings Dominion and Sea World’s Busch Gardens Williamsburg are two parks that generally go all out for October.

Clown HordeBusch Gardens Williamsburg (here out to be called BGW) slants toward a more family friendly environment while Kings Dominion warns parents not bring small ones after 6pm and, in fact, shuts down it’s kiddie area (Planet Snoopy.)

At a ‘passholder appreciation’ event recently, the GM for BGW promised that this years Howl-O-Scream would be the best yet. Scarier, a new maze, scare hordes instead of scare zones would cover the entire park and leave no stone unturned. A new show in the Oktoberfest area would replace last years bawdy and very adult themed ‘Fiends’ show, which was being moved to a smaller venue (Abbey Stone Theater) and better signage warning parents about the nature of that show. This years event sounded great. In addition, the whole thing started earlier than last years Howl-O-Scream and the first night allowed pass-holders to bring a friend for free.  Wonderful.

Problem is that they failed miserably.

BGW is my favorite park, I need to say that right away. I love them. They are consistently a great place to take your family. Good food, great atmosphere, spectacular rollercoasters (but not enough of them) and the place is just gorgeous. They do a terrific job during the season.

Halloween events, however, are the weak spot and this year, oh my.  I don’t know if they just don’t have enough people or if it was just first night jitters, but it seemed amateurish and more like a dress rehearsal than the real thing.

Many of the mazes, where you go to get scared, were light on fright, weakly themed and poorly covered by ‘scarachters’, the cast members who dress up to scare. In fact one maze, Fear Fair, which is supposed to look like a county fair, had just four such scarachters. IMAG1183

The newest maze, made up of thousands of plants and trees, was supposed to be the scariest. We waited just over an hour to get into the maze.  My wife was startled twice, but only because she was diverted by another guest. Too many people were let through at once, which spoils the scare for most in the group, especially if you are near the end of the group.  In one case, in the Thirteen maze, the whole thing just stopped. Standing in one of these things, for five or more minutes, with nothing happening, really ruins the experience. Add in non-functioning effects and you just get bored.

For a major theme park to have this many problems during a highly publicized event is not good. Yes, I realize that nothing is perfect, but when you drive hours to such a place and pay good, hard earned money, you do expect something close to smooth and somewhat what was advertised, not what was delivered during the opening night. The park is a fifty minute drive for us and we have season passes, so we will go back and try it again, but what about the family who drove two, three or four hours to there, spent $64.95 a person to get in, plus whatever the food costs are…I’d be pretty mad and would want a refund.

Perhaps the worse part about it are the hours.  Most of the mazes open at 6pm, but the whole park closes at 10pm. That gives you just four hours to do it all.  We spent over an hour waiting in line for ONE maze.  Imagine if you had to endure that, plus thirty to forty minutes for two or three others. That gives you little time to do anything else. When asked about changing the hours, the GM shrugged his shoulders and said something about the family nature of the park and that no time change was planned.

While this park has never had a spectacular Halloween event, at least when compared to, say, Kings Dominion, they have done much better in the past-like last year’s event. It is very disappointing that they failed to pull this off in such spectacular fashion.

I will write a follow up to this after we go back, so, stay tuned!