With each respective chapter of all our annual road trips, I have memories remaining from every stop to varying degrees. We’ve completed so many and I’m so old that I can recall some in greater detail than others. Our 2008 visit to Busch Gardens is very nearly an exception. I’ve spent months straining to summon those images from the recesses of mental storage, but I remember virtually nothing. Not the rides, not the snacks, not the animals, and thankfully not the physical pains I brought with me. For reasons that’ll be apparent by the end of this chapter, that day is largely a blur.
I say “largely” because, as I worked through the “Historical Notes” section, a couple of repressed scenes came back to me. Now I wish they hadn’t.
Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:
Every year since 1999 Anne and I have taken a road trip to a different part of the United States and seen attractions, marvels, history, and institutions we didn’t have back home in Indianapolis. From 1999 to 2003 we did so as best friends; from 2004 to the present, as husband and wife. Beginning with 2003’s excursion to Washington DC, we added my son to the roster and tried to accommodate his preferences and childhood accordingly.
Our 2007 drive down to Orlando had one personal milestone for me: my first contact with the Atlantic Ocean. My moment lasted about ten minutes before thunderstorms chased us away from the coast. As Atlantic beach experiences go, Florida gave me a lousy first impression. For 2008 we decided a second try was in order. Rather than take back-to-back trips to the same state, we researched other east-coast beach options, judged them by their nearby attractions, adjusted for our modest budget that couldn’t possibly afford upper-class oceanfront accommodations, and settled on what we hoped would be a suitable sequel.
Thus in this year of our Lord did we declare: the Goldens are going to Virginia Beach!
DAY FOUR: Tuesday, July 15, 2008.
I didn’t awaken for the day so much as I just decided to stop my sleep attempts and resume vacationing once again.
After those several fitful hours, I was a wreck. Arising was difficult. Walking was a bear at first but gradually improved, though only for short periods. Sitting was never a problem at all. But I couldn’t lie down for more than a few minutes at a time without receiving a neurological klaxon from my right pelvic area. Some of my everyday functions weren’t feeling quite right, either. Suffice it to say I was miserable on multiple levels.
Feeling the need to baby myself with something familiar, I decided we were having my kind of comfort food for breakfast, by which I meant the nearest McDonald’s. I may have worked there for twelve years before I switched career tracks, and I’ll never forget those exasperating times when I couldn’t bear to look at one more French fry no matter how professionally greasily yummy it might be…but I’ve never grown tired of their breakfast menu. A bagel sandwich and a hash brown helped me a little, but not a lot.
Tuesday had been assigned in advance to Busch Gardens Europe in Williamsburg. As with past vacations, we thought it was important to schedule at least one major kid-friendly attraction for our week as a concession to the kid with us, in case everything else on our itinerary bored him to tears. After our underwhelming Monday, this digression would prove a wise move.
We had bought our expensive Busch Gardens tickets in advance, several dozen dollars’ worth of prepaid amusement. I was determined not to waste those tickets on account of my stupid illnesses. Somebody was gonna be amused there.
We parked in the Germany lot and made the most of the day. Agony, schmagony.
At the end of our day, we rode the following attractions and rated them in order from best to worst:
1. The Big Bad Wolf — Suspended steel coaster with pretty scenery. I love coasters that let my feet dangle. And this one’s a little more adventurous than the Reptar’s Revenge coaster in the Nickelodeon section at Kings Island, my favorite among such coasters.
2. Curse of DarKastle — This pod-based simulator of an evil supernatural Bavaria is based on the same design as Universal Studios’ Spider-Man ride. Rides like this need to be so much more commonplace nationwide.
3. Escape from Pompeii — Large log flume combined with end-of-civilization simulator. Our first attempt to ride this in the morning was aborted when the ride broke down moments before our turn. After one more misstart it was finally fixed by late afternoon. Wonderfully detailed decor inside.
4. Apollo’s Chariot — Steel coaster with plenty of hills. As I’m aging and my joints are becoming more rickety, wooden coasters are slowly losing their charm for me. This was competent and unremarkable, which was good enough for me under the circumstances.
5. Roman Rapids — Standard eight-man whitewater innertubing. Timid, uninvolving, and — most offensive of all — I barely got wet.
6. Corkscrew Hill — An interactive CG short where the seats vibrate in an intense simulation of the DTs. Ever try watching TV while aboard a bucking bronco ride? And wearing 3-D glasses? The cartoon alone showed slight potential whenever I could find more than three consecutive seconds to concentrate. Kings Island has had one of these for years that rotates new shows every few years (Stan Lee’s 7th Portal, Spongebob Squarepants, etc.), but what ticked me off about this one were the extensive scenes set on horseback. Long, long period of just KA-CLOMP! KA-CLOMP! KA-CLOMP! KA-CLOMP! KA-CLOMP! KA-CLOMP! KA-CLOMP! KA-CLOMP! KA-CLOMP! KA-CLOMP! KA-CLOMP! weren’t too entertaining.
7. The Globe Theater presents Pirates 4-D — Yet another interactive film/ride, but this one promised the one-two comedic punch of costars Leslie Nielsen and Eric Idle. Wowed at the prospect of a crossover between Monty Python and The Naked Gun, I demanded that this be our first attraction. When it ended, I couldn’t flee the theater fast enough. I hoped unreasonably for much cause for uproarious laughter, or at least a few minutes of self-aware spoofing that would entertain kids and adults on different levels. What I got was Home Alone V: Lost on Gilligan’s Island. The slapstick was painful in ways other than intended by the filmmakers; the kiddie protagonist was a bowel irritant; and both Nielsen and Idle mug for the camera with all the panache of a pair of wacky grandpas vamping it up at a birthday party while their children avert their eyes and go raid the liquor cabinet till it’s over.
The park had plenty more to offer, but my illness wasn’t our chief deterrent from the other rides. As in previous vacations, our family still presents a united front in hating any rides that go upside-down, which all the other rides threatened to some extent. My son had a bad experience in his youth with one of his stepfathers and swore off them ever after. I rely on Dramamine overdoses to accompany him on the coasters that he’s willing to ride, and I’ve never been eager to test Dramamine’s upper limits against more intense rides. The even more sensitive Anne only enjoys rides that are both exciting and gentle. Usually she’s content just being our baggage handler and staff photographer.
Lunch was at the German Festhaus, replete with sausages a-plenty and Oktoberfest ambience in full effect. The Busch Garden bakeries rocked, too. I liked their chocolate-chip toffee cookies more than my Monday morning Dunkin Donuts meal.
Busch Gardens also features a limited number of live animals in enclosures, a mini-zoo of sorts. It wouldn’t be the only animal-based attraction on this trip, but it was arguably the best.
I managed to endure all of this and delight in much of it despite the fact that walking became painful after a while. As did direct sunlight. And rides. And, in one or two instances I failed to mention at the time, breathing.
After overloading on baked goods and running out of attractions, we had only a nominal supper before returning to the Holiday Inn, where I spent the next thirteen hours as a mostly unconscious invalid.
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[For a special report on how that evening went, here’s Anne in her own words.]
By the time we got back to the hotel, my husband was tired and sore. He lay down on the bed in the hotel room while his son and I went to the pool. After about an hour or so, we came back to find him still laying there. As I sat next to him, I could see him breathing. Every time he exhaled, his body shook.
He had done all of the research for the drive to Virginia and back. He drove the rental vehicle and would be driving it back. We were hundreds of miles away from home with a driver in obvious pain. I have never driven out of state before and was not confident in my ability to get us home. I was also growing alarmed at his increasingly deteriorating physical state and started flipping through the Hampton phone book looking for the nearest emergency room. I could drive him to should the need become urgent, assuming I could drive the rental SUV out of the parking lot without hitting something. I went into the bathroom and washed my face numerous times to prevent the tears from becoming obvious and prayed very hard that he would heal soon or at least that I would be able to get us home somehow. When I came out and sat down next to him, my stepson looked over and asked immediately what was wrong. I told him I was worried about his dad and was unconvincing in my proclamations that he would be okay.
He switched to sleeping on the floor and then the chair again for the night. I spent a very difficult one waking up every so often to check on him.
To be continued.
1. Shortly after our visit, Busch Gardens Europe reverted to its previous name Busch Gardens Williamsburg, which remains on the signs today.
2. The Big Bad Wolf enjoyed a 25-year run before it was retired in 2009. Its space was given over to something called the Verbolten. Likewise, my points of comparison — the Reptar’s Revenge at Kings Island’s Nickelodeon section — also no longer exist. Their kiddie section’s Nickelodeon theme was replaced circa 2012 by the world of Charles Schulz’ Peanuts. The erstwhile Reptar’s Revenge is basically the same ride but renamed the Flying Ace Aerial Chase, for all the Snoopy fans out there, most of whom aren’t kids.
3. Like some kind of unearthed curse, snippets of Pirates 4-D returned to me as unwanted flashbacks while preparing this chapter, proving that some terrible things can never be unseen. It was produced in 1999 as an interactive ride template for multiple theme parks, not just Busch Gardens. Their version mercifully closed for the good of all Virginia in 2013. The child actor whose work pained me at the time — and, to be fair, may not have been his fault considering how the pros fared by his side — was one Adam Wylie, costar of the CBS drama Picket Fences. His later, lengthy resumé as a voice actor would include sizable roles on Nickelodeon’s Hey Arnold! and Kids WB’s Legion of Super-Heroes, in which he did perfectly fine as Brainiac 5.]
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[Link enclosed here to handy checklist for other chapters and for our complete road trip history to date. Follow us on Facebook or via email signup for new-entry alerts, or over on Twitter if you want to track my TV live-tweeting and other signs of life between entries. Thanks for reading!]