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From his first time soaring through the treetops as a teenager on the Loch Ness Monster, this writer was hooked on all things Busch Gardens, now a year-round experience for kids and adults
By Jeff Yeates
Click, clank, clank, clickety, clank! Is there another sound that inspires such a combination of fear, anticipation and nervous/brave smiles as a roller coaster clanking up that first enormous hill?
I turn my head to look out at the fluffy treetops and tidewater marshes. There’s the James River off in the distance. It looks so peaceful. Ahh. Then the screams begin. I feel the coaster car start to hurtle forward, the peace disappears, and I remember: I’m not floating over the countryside, I’m on the Loch Ness Monster at Busch Gardens Williamsburg.
I was still unlearned about the dark arts of roller coasters when my family first visited Busch Gardens in the 1980s. Fourteen years old, trying to posture some courage in front of my younger siblings, I couldn’t avoid getting on the Loch Ness Monster with my (braver) younger sister. I’m happy to say that I was never scared of a roller coaster again.
My sister and I were so enthralled by the Loch Ness Monster that we rode it seven times that first day. In those days, Busch Gardens would stay open until midnight on summer nights. As the crowds dispersed and park lights blinked on, we delighted—as teenagers do—in careening through the darkness, jumping off the coaster and speed-walking out the exit right back in to ride it again.
Busch Gardens has added many more coasters since the 1980s, including the extremely high-flying Pantheon this year to bring the current total to eight, but it’s not just the coasters and nostalgic teenage memories that make Busch Gardens my favorite theme park.
Opened in 1975 by Anheuser-Busch and offering free beer tastings at the adjacent brewery, Busch Gardens Williamsburg debuted the infamous interlocking loops of the Loch Ness Monster (“Nessie”) in 1978 and never looked back. The beer continues to flow—it’s always Oktoberfest in the Germany Bavaria section of the park—but Busch Gardens has transformed into something much more.
Though Busch Gardens has since dropped the prior “Old Country” moniker, the park has preserved the European country themes which offer a relaxed and enjoyable charm to visitors: Scotland Heatherdowns, San Marco Italy, Aquitaine France, among others. Surrounded by American accents, you can’t forget that you’re still in the USA, but munching on a German sausage platter, watching a polka dance and oom-pah band in the Festhaus is close enough.
A large part of the appeal of Busch Gardens is the geography of the park itself. One of the loveliest spots in the park is the peaceful “Rhine River” walkway, disturbed only by the periodic screams right above you from Nessie’s loops.
You can also take in the view from above along the footbridge or, as my wife loves to do, ride the train that passes over a high trestle on its tranquil journey around the park. Making such inspired use of the terrain and with copious landscaping, it’s no surprise that Busch Gardens has locked down the “Most Beautiful Park” award for nearly 30 years running.
Animals, from wolves and bald eagles to magnificent Clydesdales and surfer dude-looking Highland cattle are another one of Busch Garden’s attractions. The highlight from our last visit was not a roller coaster but a pair of plump, fluffy birds quietly minding their own business in the aviary. I’ll pause while you take a moment to Google photos of the Australian tawny frogmouth. You’re welcome!
Highlighted by Howl-O-Scream, Christmas Town and other seasonal events, Busch Gardens has moved to a year-round schedule. The park has also added a springtime Food and Wine Festival featuring food tastings above and beyond the usual European-themed choices. In the 2021 edition, while their teenagers screamed on a nearby roller coaster, parents could sample small bites from Mexico, Brazil, Jamaica, South Korea, and more, often paired with a custom cocktail.
Busch Gardens has added much since I first visited as a nervous teenager. But walking back out of the park after another humid Virginia summer day, feeling the cool of night descending, hearing the far-off screams and whoosh of coasters in the darkness, well fed with ribs from New France or sausage from Oktoberfest, and smelling the last pastries of the day in Banbury Cross– well, that hasn’t changed at all.
Learn more at BuschGardens.com/Williamsburg.
Behind the scenes with a pyrotechnics expert about how your favorite fireworks displays light up the sky over Harborfest and beyond
By Angela Blue
“You push a button and fireworks fill the sky. People on the shore of a beach or at the ballfield squeal and scream with their approval,” says Hill. “That you can bring so much joy to so many people…it’s about the last form of entertainment that’s still rated G for all audiences.”
For many people, fireworks are as much a hallmark of summer as the glow of lightning bugs in the backyard or the promise of ants at a picnic. No matter your age, you’ll likely feel a rush of excitement when that flaming trail of fire zips upward in the sky, exploding in a multi-colored burst of illumination. Thankfully, there’s no shortage of fireworks displays in Coastal Virginia, whether on the 4th of July, during a baseball game or closing out a beloved event such as Norfolk Harborfest.
As a spectator, the act of viewing fireworks can feel like a simple pleasure. Behind the scenes, however, there’s nothing simple about launching thousands of explosives hundreds of feet into the air for public viewing. Curious about behind-the-scenes aspects of a professional fireworks show, we reached out to Lansden E. Hill, Jr., president and CEO of Tennessee-based Pyro Shows, Inc., which launches fireworks displays in multiple states and competes in prestigious international competitions. Locally, their company launches fireworks displays for several Festevents gatherings, including Norfolk Harborfest, 4th of July Great American Picnic and Shore Thing Independence Day Celebration & Fireworks.
A Booming Backstory
Before the Pyro Shows business was booming, it was a simple side hustle that Hill launched in 1969 at the age of 18. In addition to working as a janitor, taking on a paper route and selling vegetables from his family’s farm, he started selling fireworks—mainly firecrackers and bottle rockets. Back then, Hill explains, fireworks were most popular during Christmas and New Year’s, and since tobacco farmers in his hometown cashed out in November, the timing worked in his favor
A few years later, he reached a point where he was earning more from fireworks sales than from his job at the family insurance business. That’s when he decided to shift his focus from consumer to display fireworks. He put on three shows a year for his hometown and surrounding areas. Now 53 years later, Hill’s business has soared to 2,000 fireworks shows a year.
From Factory to Firing
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Pyro Shows crew members would visit a dozen or so factories in China to select fireworks for the upcoming year. Through his experience in the business, Hill has come to learn the most popular colors and patterns. “If you’re doing fireworks for a wedding, you’ll have lots of twinkle, gold willows, chandeliers and heart patterns,” he notes. “At a 4th of July NASCAR race, you’ll have a lot of red, white and blue booms.”
Once all the fireworks are delivered and sorted for various shows, it’s time to launch. Orbs resembling cardboard-covered cannonballs are loaded into a tube-shaped mortar. A lit fuse ignites black powder located at the bottom of the shell, which launches the explosive into the sky at about 200 miles per hour. This process also lights the timer fuse located inside the shell, which slowly burns before igniting the colorful explosives that we know as fireworks.
“We’re dealing with a commodity that has obvious and not-so-obvious hazards,” Hill says. An obvious risk is premature detonation, which could lead to severe and/or fatal burns to both crew and spectators. A not-so-obvious risk is heat exhaustion.
“Our guys work outside all day every day,” Hill says. If a crew member isn’t hydrated or isn’t accustomed to the physical requirements of the job, the results can be dangerous. Another underestimated risk is insect bites. “In Georgia, there are fire ants everywhere,” Hill explains.
If a person has an allergic reaction, results can range from hives to anaphylaxis. Crew leaders must be aware of team members’ allergens and remind them to stay hydrated so that everyone can be on their A game.
During Hill’s 53-year career and especially during the last two years, the fireworks industry has had its challenges: factories temporarily shutting down during the pandemic, the cancellation of fireworks shows due to COVID health concerns, travel restrictions limiting in-person factory visits, supply chain disruptions delaying delivery times for supplies.
Throughout it all, Hill’s infatuation with fireworks hasn’t fizzled. “From day one to today, you push a button and fireworks fill the sky. People on the shore of a beach or at the ballfield squeal and scream with their approval,” he says. “That you can bring so much joy to so many people … it’s about the last form of entertainment that’s still rated G for all audiences.”
During the more stressful times, Hill has asked himself, “Why in the world do I do this? Until I push that button,” he pauses. “And then I remember, oh yeah…I remember why I do this.”
Get Ready to Rock Summer
Live concerts are back in a big way. Here are a few don’t-miss shows of the season in Coastal Virginia
By Hannah Serrano
There is truly nothing else in this world like singing a favorite song in unison with the person who wrote it, the band that made it famous and a venue full of fans to whom that same song means so many different things.
“That’s one of the great things about music,” Dave Grohl once said. “You can sing a song to 85,000 people and they’ll sing it back for 85,000 different reasons.”
Following the death of Foo Fighters’ drummer, Taylor Hawkins, the call to return to concerts is even stronger. Life is too short to miss the opportunity to see your favorite musicians play live, as it feels like those opportunities are becoming less and less abundant these days.
After two years of cancellations due to COVID, weather events (including Bonnaroo 2021, which Foo Fighters were headlining), and politics (which seemingly influenced Pharrell Williams to move Something in the Water Music Festival), this summer’s stacked concert schedule seems to indicate that maybe—just maybe!—we’ve finally returned to some semblance of normalcy.
Country music lovers have a very exciting season to look forward to between the Patriotic Festival and the Virginia Beach Amphitheater schedule, which is like always, crowded with names like Kenny Chesney, Thomas Rhett, Luke Bryan, Keith Urban, Zac Brown Band and many others.
Jam fans will dig Rebelution, Dave Matthews Band and Dispatch & O.A.R.’s summer tours making stops at the Amphitheater, as well.
The NorVa is back into the swing of things, with events once again lined up for any given night of the week and a ton of diverse talent coming through town, including Aly & AJ, Jimmie Allen, The Struts, mewithoutYou, Rise Against and more.
In Portsmouth, the Pavilion is having one of its best years ever. Jack White opened the season in April, and the summer schedule continues with music giants like Smashing Pumpkins, Chaka Khan, Maren Morris and The Black Crowes.
And after losing a year to the pandemic, The Virginia Arts Festival is back for its 25th anniversary season and in full swing. Highlights yet to come include Cowboy Junkies, The War & Treaty and Renee Elise Goldberry of Hamilton fame.
If there was ever a time to develop a habit for supporting artists and experiencing live music, that time is now. Venues and performers have suffered without our support. And after the mental and emotional drain we’ve collectively experienced these past couple of years, there is no better cure than a live music concert to rock your socks off!
Here are my top 10 concert picks for this summer in Coastal Virginia…
May 7 at the NorVa
Michelle Zauner has already had a huge year with a best-selling memoir that she’s now adapting into a feature film and two Grammy nominations for her experimental pop/rock band, Japanese Breakfast. Catch them at the NorVa before they appear at festivals like Governors Ball, Bonnaroo and Fuji Rock later this summer. The NorVa.com
Marc Broussard, North Mississippi Allstars and others at Bayou Bon Vivant
May 20-22 at Town Point Park
Formerly known as the Bayou Boogaloo, this Cajun food, music and art festival is always a huge highlight of the Festevents season. Crush some tasty crawfish while enjoying New Orleans jazz, Southern rock, Delta blues and Bayou Soul. The music lineup features 18 performers on two stages over three days. Festevents.org
May 26 at the NorVa
Though he may not be a household name, Tech N9ne is well-known to hip-hop heads as an indie rap superstar with a career spanning three decades and collaborations with the likes of Eminem, Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dogg and Busta Rhymes. Chances are you’ve heard his “chopper-style” flows in your favorite video game or tv show. The NorVa.com
Jon Pardi, Kane Brown and Morgan Wallen at Patriotic Festival
May 27-29 at Norfolk Scope and Waterside Drive
Though the Patriotic Festival is moving from the Oceanfront to downtown Norfolk this Memorial Day weekend, this massive event is certainly not scaling down in result. Headlining are country music stars Jon Pardi (who’s performing at Norfolk Scope), Kane Brown and Morgan Wallen (who are both performing on an open-air stage on Waterside Drive). PatrioticFestival.com
The War on Drugs
May 30 at the NorVa
With their fifth studio album, I Don’t Live Here Anymore (one of the best albums of 2021), The War on Drugs seemed to really hit their stride; embracing a bright, warm classic rock sound and epic scale; and graduating from indie hipster guitar band to bona fide stadium headliners. The NorVa.com
June 2 at Perry Pavilion
Another stunning album from 2021 was singer-songwriter Alison Russell’s solo debut, Outside Child, which tells stories of pain and survival in a style that blends Americana roots, country and blues—it was nominated for three Grammy’s this year. She comes to the Perry Pavilion in Norfolk as part of the Virginia Arts Festival. VaFest.com
June 7 at Atlantic Union Bank Pavilion
With 21 Grammy nominations, five wins and an Oscar for Best Original Song, Filipino-American R&B crooner H.E.R. is on her way to megastardom. This year she’s touring in support of her album, Back of My Mind (including this stop in Portsmouth), as well as opening for Coldplay on their (mostly sold out) world tour. PavilionConcerts.com
June 12 at Atlantic Union Bank Pavilion
This will be the tweflth time the Avett Brothers play in Coastal Virginia, and fans certainly still can’t get enough. The acclaimed North Carolina folk rock band returns to Portsmouth in support of their EP, The Third Gleam—an intimate, stripped-down album that brings them back their roots. PavilionConcerts.com
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, with Waxahatchee at Williamsburg Live
June 18 on the Lawn of the Arts Museums of Colonial Williamsburg
Williamsburg Live is a three-day music festival featuring Mandy Moore on Friday and Martina McBride on Sunday. If you have to pick just one night to attend, Saturday’s ticket featuring alt-country favorite, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, and indie folk darling, Waxahatchee, offers the most bang for your buck. VaFest.com
July 23 at Veterans United Home Loans Amphitheater
The amphitheater in Virginia Beach has become a well-known venue for showcasing country music’s biggest superstars, but millennials like me also have a major treat in store because Backstreet’s Back, alright! The beloved boy band is finally on the road again with their “DNA World Tour,” which was rescheduled due to COVID. VirginiaBeachAmphitheatre.com