Curse of DarKastle

Busch Gardens Williamsburg, Virginia

DarkCastle Ride at Busch Gardens
••• SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment

Think of a traditional amusement park dark ride. On steroids. Curse of DarKastle is a 20th-Century-style romp through a haunted, Gothic 15th-Century castle using 21st-Century technology. As with the dark rides of yore, there are spooky corridors, things that go bump in the faux night, and loads of scary "gimmicks" or gotchas. But Curse's gotchas use 3-D, CGI animation, roving motion-base vehicles, and other new-age features.

It's an impresive achievement, particularly for a seasonal park.

Curse of DarKastle Up-front Info

  • Thrill Scale (0=Wimpy!, 10=Yikes!): 5
    Loud noises and "haunted" theme may frighten young children, virtual freefall, some spinning.
  • Attraction Type: 4-D, roving motion-base simulator, dark ride
  • Height restriction (minimum, in inches): 42

You have to hand it to Busch Gardens Williamsburg. With its rich themeing, stunning landscaping, and superior food, it's a seasonal, more-or-less regional park that thinks it's a year-round destination park. And it doesn't skimp on its rides and attractions either. Thrill-ride freaks love the place for its world-class coasters. And park fans of all thrill-tolerance levels love the park for its highly themed splashdown ride, its unique motion simulator presentation, its elaborate shows, and other attractions that are more typically found at Disney and Universal parks.

With Curse of DarKastle, however, Busch Gardens Williamsburg has raised its own bar. At the time it debuted, the park said that it was the most expensive attraction in its history.

The ride uses engaging 3-D computer-generated imagery (yes, for all the advances made in attraction development, you'll still have to wear those goofy 3-D glasses) and multi-sensory effects like fog, blasts of cold air, and water droplets.

But unlike theater-based shows, which have static seats and a single screen, Curse features nine different screens arranged throughout an enormous 40,000-square-foot building. In dark-ride fashion, guests move from scene to scene (or screen to screen, if you will) in vehicles.

In this case, the vehicles are roving motion bases. DarkCastle's seats move in sync with the projected action to immerse riders in its virtual world. But, the seats are in eight-passenger "golden sleighs" that are on the go. Not only do they pitch and yaw in concert with the screened imagery, but the vehicles speed up, slow down, and spin wildly as they travel throughout the attraction. In one scene transition, they even do a herky-jerky bounce as if they are moving upstairs.

Would You Be Able to Handle the Ride?

The combination of 3-D imagery and roving motion bases gives the attraction's designers an incredible pallet of effects. Crossbows, fireballs, and other projectiles come hurtling at riders. Although the vehicles never leave the ground, they magically appear to rise and freefall. With all of the frantic action, both virtual and real, is DarkCastle exclusively for the stout-hearted?

While the ride is thrilling, and sure to get thrill-ride junkies' adrenaline flowing, it is not a full-tilt thrill ride.

"We believe we've created a unique experience," says Larry Giles, Busch Gardens' VP of design and engineering. "(DarkCastle) is dynamic enough to engage teens, but it's fun for the entire family. For kids, it's a rite of passage."

If you enjoy motion simulator attractions, you should do fine. If you're not sure whether you want to tackle it, I'd recommend that you give the ride a shot. Except for the spinning (which is brief), and the forward motion (which is not particularly fast), the vehicles never really move more than a few inches in any direction. If the action becomes too intense, you can close your eyes and the illusion, along with your anxiety, should subside. But you'll want to try and keep your eyes wide open to catch the wild fun.

DarkCastle uses many of the same features as the groundbreaking The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man at Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure.

Is it as good? No, but keep in mind that I consider Spider-Man to be the single best themed attraction anywhere (and Universal had a considerably larger budget to develop its ride). Spidey does a better job melding its projected virtual imagery with the real environment. And its effects, particularly its freefall sequence, are crisper and more jaw-dropping. The Universal ride also has the distinct advantage of well-known characters with established appeal.

Awoooo. Terrible Things Happen!

But DarkCastle's story is easy to follow. Located in the park's Germany section, the ride is loosely based on King Ludwig II of Bavaria. According to the lore presented in the pre-show, centuries ago, the future king met a mysterious woman who transformed into a wolf and foretold Ludwig's fate as an evil monster. Faster than you could say, "Awoooo," terrible things began happening at the castle. King Ludwig's ghost haunts his castle still, we're forewarned...so step right this way and keep your arms and sniveling psyches inside the moving vehicles at all times.

The sleighs travel through a series of eleven chambers, including Ludwig's study, the kitchen, and a huge fireplace, where the monster who would be king unleashes all sorts of 3-D mayhem. The final scene--sorry, my lips are sealed -- is especially impressive.

The pedigree of the ride's developers is quite impressive as well. Among the creative team are the wizards behind attractions at Universal's parks. Brent Young of Super 78, the L.A. shop that created DarkCastle's CGI animation, says that it took thirteen months to produce the ride's three minutes and twenty seconds of footage. Since 3-D attractions require two separate images (one for each eye), and DarkCastle's scenes were so detailed, it was a race that pitted his computers' processing powers against time to render and manage the digital film's enormous amount of data.

Young says that after bringing DarkCastle's creative team together about a month before the ride opened to merge everything, he was thrilled with the results. "It's even better than we imagined." And, he believes, the technology will continue to evolve. "This won't be the last ride of its kind." To which I say, " Awoooo!"