First up was Busch Gardens on Saturday. Two summers ago I had purchased a 2-year Platinum pass at Seaworld Orlando, which has gotten plenty of use at Seaworld, Busch Gardens Tampa/Africa, and BGE. Have to love the free preferred parking included with the pass (but at the price I paid, "free" just means I don't shell out at the parking gate)
We knew going in that Griffon wouldn't be open. (I'll likely be returning over Memorial Day weekend, knowing full well I'll probably be hitting massive crowds but also knowing that I'll be squeezing one final use out of the Platinum pass before it finally expires on June 4th).
With that known caveat, we had an excellent time, as usual for Busch. The park looked moderately crowded, but waits were pretty short for all the rides. While we were there, Griffon ran through a few test cycles. If we hadn't seen the train moving, we would NEVER have known this -- I swear the ride is nearly silent. Granted, I realize you'll probably hear it just fine when you're NEAR the ride, but we weren't very far and didn't hear a thing over the regular din of the park.
I've mentioned many times before that I have a condition called celiac sprue -- a rather nasty gluten intolerance which means no wheat, barley, or rye. (Oats are theoretically fine, but they're usually processed on the same equipment used in processing wheat, resulting in large levels of cross-contamination.) In addition, I also don't eat red meat (including pork, before some wise-guy asks :) ). This makes eating out an adventure at times, especially at an amusement park (and as a Type 1 diabetic, I HAVE to eat; go figure...)
I bring this up for two reasons -- first, was pleasantly surprised to note that this year Busch Gardens is serving their new gluten-free beer, Red Bridge, both at the restaurants and at the "beer school". Normally I can't drink beer (barley malt, if nothing else, eliminates the vast majority of beers out there) so I quickly ordered myself one. I hate to say it for a Busch product, but Red Bridge is actually quite drinkable. It's certainly an improvement over the other gluten-free beers I've tried (Ramapo Valley and New Grist; I'm also aware of another one called Dragon's Gold but I haven't tried that one yet).
Red Bridge demonstrates that Busch has joined the growing list of companies that see an emerging market -- it's estimated that 1 out of every 133 Americans have celiac disease and don't know it, not to mention various other conditions that require avoiding gluten. To me, the growing awareness is a GOOD thing (even if cynics might dismiss it as "companies following a trend" -- to celiacs, this isn't some fad diet, it's a lifetime commitment).
However, later in the day I spotted a reminder on why it's important to be careful. Gluten shows up in MANY places, often in unexpected ways (just look at the current ever-escalating pet food recall!). Normally one wouldn't expect it to show up in, say, grilled shrimp. One stand at Busch was serving very yummy looking (and smelling) grilled shrimp with garlic and homemade potato chips. I was about to order some for myself, seeing no obvious sources of gluten in that combination, when I was lucky enough to see them preparing another batch. Frozen shrimp were dumped out on a hot grill. The preparer then popped open a few beers (not Red Bridge ;) ) and poured them all over the shrimp. If I hadn't seen that, I would NEVER have expected that dish to be bad for me, but there it was. This also called into question the grilled salmon salad I had eaten earlier at the Smokehouse (and I definitely WAS bothered by something the next day, although I can't say for sure it was the salmon... It's fortunate that celiac disease isn't a food allergy like a shellfish or peanut allergy, where exposure causes a very severe and obvious reaction, but at the same time the subtle "get sick hours or even days afterwards" nature can make it very hard to trace the culprit. And yes, even a little bit makes me feel somewhat ill, and the more I consume the worse I feel -- a pizza won't kill me but it may make me wish I were dead.)
After leaving Busch Gardens and eating dinner, we headed up to check in at our hotel for King's Dominion. We had chosen to stay at the Best Western King's Quarters, which is just across the parking lot from the park. We did this for convenience, so that we could get up the next day and leisurely walk over to the park and get our passes processed early.
Screw convenience, this place SUCKED. I've stayed at this Best Western before without complaint, but this time they really dropped the ball.
I had a confirmed reservation for a double non-smoking room. We arrived to be told that "the system never assigned a specific room with your reservation", and all that was available was a queen bed, smoking room, but they could put a cot in it. We were about to take it when friends of ours who were checking in at the same time were offered double beds, smoking room, when they only needed one bed. We were able to switch rooms (although we weren't happy about being stuck in a smoking room), and the apologetic clerk gave us 50% off our bill for our inconvenience. Problem solved, right? We get to our room, and find...it's already freaking OCCUPIED. Back down to the front desk wego. The guy working the desk was very sorry at this point, and quickly found us another room -- this time a "family suite", which happened to have double beds AND be a nonsmoking room. Hey, isn't that pretty much what I originally asked for? (I feel sorry for the family that showed up after us with a reservation for a nonsmoking family suite, but at that point it wasn't my problem).
So we go to our "nonsmoking room". Sure enough, it's empty and has two beds. No ashtray in sight, BUT there's a pile of ashes on the clock radio! Nice -- not only did someone smoke in the nonsmoking room, but housekeeping didn't even bother to clean it up. (And then to top it all off, checking out the next morning was another scene of confusion, with our friends getting the wrong bill -- probably the result of playing musical rooms the night before!) I WILL be writing a letter to both this hotel AND Best Western's corporate headquarters about all this, not that I expect much for it. In the meantime, I can't stress enough how important it is to AVOID this hellhole of a hotel. (To top it off, this place has the gall to require 72 hours notice for cancellation -- you'd think they were at Cedar Point or something! :) )
As for King's Dominion itself, the park looks mostly (but not entirely) the same as it did. I can't recall for sure, but I'm pretty sure the entrance area has been redone, with what I believe is a new stone-paved plaza (I thought in previous visits that area had been blacktop). New trashcans with the new logo were evident. The new logo was also visibile on some signs within the park, but other signs still contained the Paramount logo. Additionally, things like napkins, drink cups, merchandise, and the like were still all the old logo. I was actually glad to see that in a way -- I'd rather they use up the old stock rather than just toss it away.
We had been curious to see how the new season pass system would work. Season pass processing was very quick and efficient, and we quickly discovered why. While they DID take our pictures, our passes are simple generic plastic cards with a barcode on the back, NO picture to be seen. Instead, when the pass is scanned at the gate, the picture appears on a screen for the checker. While this is a somewhat cool idea, it seems to me to be more IT overhead than is necessary.
This is also in contrast to the Dorney Maxx Pass one friend has, which is the older Cedar Fair style with her picture and a Maxx Pass logo on it. In fact she still had to go to Guest Services to get a comp ticket, just like the old Paramount system. Clearly the same will be required with our pictureless King's Dominion passes as well. I really truly hope Cedar Fair improves this in the future -- this is one area where Six Flags continues to shine in comparison.
The park itself was in decent shape. Some areas could use some fresh paint (Rebel Yell being the first thing that comes to mind, but also some walkways and the like). All coasters were running (even Hypersonic!), and they were mostly running multiple trains even with fairly light crowds. Hurler and Grizzly both seem to have received some work, and were running well -- Grizzly was running faster than I remember it managing in quite some time, actually. While we heard some mumblings from other people we came across that day that "nothing had changed", our group had a very nice time.
Overall, it was a very good weekend. Far from perfect, of course, but nothing ever IS perfect. The weather cooperated (it rained during our drive back to Pittsburgh Sunday night, but we didn't get wet at the parks), and both parks were pleasant experiences. The 2007 coaster season has officially begun.
The only 'problem' that we had was the expired (on Jan 8 '07) Grape Fanta that Bryan bought from one of the machines, and the lack of a Bartender for the lounge when we wanted a couple drinks. Our room was clean, and for allowing animals on the premises, the yard was clean (although Melvin had to sniff the entire area around the hotel to make sure of that). We were shocked at the courtesy that was extended to us our whole weekend, and I'll have no problems staying there again in the future.
Of course for any other trips we make, we'll be camping :)
The five other things he mentioned:
1) Backwards Rebel Yell very rough
2) View of Anaconda from the back of the pizza place gone due to Tornado slide
3) Anaconda cycled most of the day and opened late
4) Anaconda has seatbelts
5) The irony of a smoking section with three-prop propane tanks saying "No Smoking" behind it for the Italian Job.
Did he ride Hurler? I thought Villain and Mean Streak were rough, they're nothing compared to Hurler.
As Jess said, we had a pretty nice weekend overall.
Does this mean all Arrow rides in the CF chain will now have seatbelts? Corkscrew? Iron Dragon? etc.
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