By Meghan McCloskey, Taking the Kids Contributor
If you arrive at night, you might not recognize Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Virginia. The millions of lights that cover 1,500 Christmas trees give the theme park a fantastical holiday makeover and transform it into Christmas Town. Seven themed villages, ranging from Italy to Oktoberfest, capture the spirit of Christmas with special activities and events on top of many of the regular rides. With mugs of hot chocolate in hand, (which, by the way, tastes like melted fudge) my family sets off to discover the excitement of Christmas Town.
Before the sun sets, we meet up with some of the animal trainers by the Wolf Haven and meet three of the young gray wolves in the pack. One of the wolves, 1 ½ year-old Boise, was rescued from the side of the road in Idaho when hikers mistook him for a lost German Shepard puppy. He is shy compared to Kitchy, the alpha dog of the pack. Kitchy is pleased to participate in wolf training with each of us. “I really like the psychology behind the wolf training techniques, especially how we only use positive reinforcement to ask the wolves to do tricks, “says my mom, Colleen.
We wander from the green lights and shamrock adorned Ireland village where we are serenaded by bagpiper playing Christmas carols to the France village where a very special animal species is found. Pete and Penny, a Magellanic penguin duo, traveled from Sea World San Antonio by plane to reach Christmas Town and now inhabit Christmas Town’s Ice Palace. Playful African Penguins haling from South Africa can also be found swimming about at the Ice Palace.
As the sun sets, we head over to the rides. Christmas Town is perfect for families with younger ones, because most of the smaller rides, like the Snowman Summit, are open, while many of the bigger roller coasters are closed. Older kids and adults can get their thrills on the roller coaster Verbolten, which takes riders through the Black Forest and frighteningly close to the Rhine River.
For those who can’t stomach scary rides, the Nacht Tower is open but operating a little bit different than usual. It slowly lowers riders, giving a panoramic view of the lit up park at 240 feet. “It was fun to see everything from above. I liked how slow the ride was going so you could be aware of how high up you are,” says my brother, Nathan.
We decide to warm up inside so head over to the Dasher’s Diner in the vintage Holiday Hills village. The village brings to mind a 1950’s Christmas card and its holiday diner serves up hot comfort food like fried chicken, mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese.
Theatrical and musical shows are offered every hour to give families a respite from the cold. We catch the tail end of the uplifting ballet, “Miracles” and end our night with the Christmas story told in song at “Gloria.” For those still working on their gift list, there is plenty of shopping with artisans from Italy painting Capidimonte porcelain and handmade gifts from local Virginian artists in the Mistletoe Marketplace.
Christmas Town is open on weekends until December 15 and then every day (except Christmas) until December 31, 2013. When visiting Christmas Town, I recommend the Kingsmill Resort. I found that it’s an ideal lodging option while visiting Busch Gardens because of its proximity and frequent shuttles to the theme park. To make planning even easier, Kingsmill is offering packages to stay at the resort and visit Christmas Town. During the season, the resort is hosting various holiday activities like a nightly s’mores fire pit and ghost tours.
I like that Christmas Town gave my family the chance to enjoy being together in the crisp winter air, with the promise of heated areas and hot chocolate around every corner. I’ll take another mug, please!