WILLIAMSBURG — For those of us who are longtime fans of Busch Gardens Williamsburg (BGW), it is hard to conceptualize that Ireland has been a village in the park for more than twenty years. Instead, we reminisce fondly about Hastings, which was the original occupant of this pocket of our home park.
Today, we will take “a journey back to days of yore” to learn more about Busch Gardens, the Old Country, and what guests found when crossing Brittany Bridge into Hastings. Be sure to come back WYDaily next week for the second of this special two-part Landmark Lost to revisit some of the popular attractions in this village and more.
The Busch Gardens Brand
By the time that our home park in Williamsburg opened in 1975, the name “Busch Gardens” was already considered synonymous with other titans in the theme park industry. In fact, Williamsburg was the fifth park to bear the name.
The original park, located in Pasadena, Calif., was founded by brewer Adolphus Busch. It opened in 1906 as a sprawling garden getaway. The beautiful oasis featured a wide variety of plants and fairy tale-themed statues throughout its grounds, stone walls and stairs, and a Tudor-style building dubbed “The Old Mill.” During its life, the Pasadena park played host to a variety of different people and activities before its closure to the public in 1937. For a few years following, the grounds were used to film several major motion pictures, including “Gone With the Wind.” Today, an upscale neighborhood sits on the grounds that used to house the original park with a hint of some of the original park features still remaining.
In 1959, a second Busch Gardens park was opened in Tampa, Fla. This park was what defined the brand as a place for animals. It offered tropical gardens with a variety of exotic birds on display. In 1965, the Serengeti Plains exhibit opened, featuring wildlife indigenous to Africa and, within three years, the Tampa park was the most popular tourist attraction in the Sunshine State. The park would go on to call itself, “Busch Gardens: The Dark Continent” and the African theming continued through the park’s continued growth. It eventually abandoned “The Dark Continent” moniker in favor of just Busch Gardens Tampa. Today, the park remains a very popular destination.
In 1964, a second California location was opened in Van Nuys. Unlike its defunct nearby counterpart, this park had a tropical theme and included a monorail, boat ride, a very popular bird show, and more. The Van Nuys park was closed in 1979 due to the expansion of the adjacent Anheuser Busch brewery.
The fourth park was Busch Gardens Houston (Texas). This park had the shortest lifespan of all that carried the Busch Gardens name. It opened in 1971 near the famed Houston Astrodome. The park was themed with Asian-inspired architecture and advertised with slogan, “Where Far East Meets West.” Like its counterparts, it focused heavily on wildlife, particularly birds. There was a popular bird show and a handful of rides. Due to poor attendance, the park only lasted two years. Its bird park remained opened to the public until 1976.
The fifth and final Busch Gardens park was scheduled to open in Williamsburg, Va. Continuing the tradition of transporting guests to some far off place without ever leaving the United States, this park was to be The (European) Old Country.
The Old Country
Like the other parks that bared the name, Busch Gardens, the Williamsburg location was to have elaborate theming. While the others relied on locations that were considered wildly exotic and inaccessible for the average mid-20th century American consumer, this one was something that more relatable to guests coming to the Colonial Capital.
The James City County-based park was to feature theming with villages that were representative of the European settlers who came to the New World. Featured throughout the park were different villages meant to reflect the history and architecture of England, Germany, Scotland and France.
There was much anticipation leading to the May 16, 1975 opening. On hand to dedicate the park were Virginia Governor Mills E. Godwin, Jr. and celebrity host, Ed McMahon. John and Betty Rose plus their two children of Bel Air, Md. were chosen as the first family to walk through the gate. However, a local newspaper reported that it took a little longer than anticipated for the family to enter the park because the couple’s son, Stephen, was attempting to out dance the costumed character, Happy Eagle (based on the eagle icon used by the park’s parent company, Anheuser Busch).
The approximately six thousand guests to come to the park on opening day were immediately treated to a European adventure. They were carried from the parking to the park’s entrance on bright red, double decker buses. Once inside, they were surrounded by architecture, costumed characters and rides that paid homage to the regions that they were meant to reflect. From Shakespeare’s Tudor England to the German Rhineland, within a few short paces, a guest could travel from country to country without ever leaving Williamsburg.
Among the most memorable of the park’s villages sat just across the Brittany Bridge from Scotland: Hastings.
A Journey Back to Days of Yore
The Hastings village was supposed to be reflective of the transitory period in England’s history, marking the last successful invasion of England in the 1066 C.E. battle between the William, Duke of Normandy and the Anglo-Saxon King Harold
With a water crossing meant to resemble a castle’s drawbridge, guests were magically transported back to a fairy tale-like medieval era filled with knights, magic and mystery around every corner. There were colorful tent covers that served as roofs for the kiosk buildings, a center square with games, and strolling performers, like the fan-favorite “Rat Catcher.”
Guests could go to a penny arcade, shooting gallery, and, in 1976, a puppet show at the Magic Lantern Theatre. At the far end of the village stood a large building that had a castle façade and was home for a “scrambler” flat ride which was themed after the famous battle in which the village was named for.
The “scrambler” ride has had three locations in the park: Hastings, Germany and its present day location in New France under the name, Le Catapult!
The Hastings village was a fan-favorite but, within ten years, the park wanted to add something that was sure to bring in the crowds while entertaining the families that flocked to the park each season… An attraction meant to be a “…mystical, magical show, a feast for ears and eyes…”
Make sure to check out next week’s Landmark Lost where we will visit the Enchanted Laboratory of Nostramos the Magnificent, take spin on Questor, watch musical reviews at the Magic Lantern Theatre and then what happened to make Hastings a Landmark Lost!