As with many of you, I grew up in southern California, and, analogous to Ralphie in "A Christmas Story," for us the entire kid year revolved around making the annual treks to Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm.
As soon as school let out, the planning started. Ticket books were examined after Fourth of July fireworks, over some apple pie alamode. I'd read and re-read my souvenir picture books until they were dog eared. My sister and I planned our routes, and salivated thinking about Monte Cristo sandwiches.
And so it went, year after year, decade after decade. The Annual Pass came along, and then I could go to Disneyland whenever I wanted (although we'd still go to Knott's once or twice a year as well).
These two theme parks were my themed entertainment universe. They were all I knew.
And then, three years ago, we moved to North Carolina.
As a great fan of Disneyland (much to the contrary of some who post here), I was very saddened that I would not be able to go to Disneyland as often as I had with my annual pass. But the move was for the kids' welfare, so it was a sacrifice I was willing to make.
But where would we take the kids when we wanted to hit an amusement park? Well, Busch Gardens Williamsburg was up the road, just a few hours away. But I knew (or thought I knew), that it was simply going to be a Magic Mountain clone.
Boy, was I wrong. As I have experienced the Park over the past two years, my eyes have been opened. I thought that there were only two types of theme parks in the world: Disneyland, and everything else.
There is no doubt Disneyland knows the theme park business. But Disneyland has something lots of parks don’t: a "captive audience" (locals, folks from farther away who will ONLY attend a Disney theme park, etc.). I have come to the conclusion that this captive audience has given Disney free reign to lower the quality of what they offer, and at the same time, raise prices dramatically.
Some examples: The dining experience at Busch Gardens was beyond superb. While there was no sit-down service (with waiters/waitresses), the food itself was immaculate. Lunch was at the Festhause, a German themed restaurant with a cafeteria-style line. I had a sampler platter that included two German sausages/bratwurst, German potatoes, and smoked ribs. All of this was cooked on a grill in front of us. Here’s the menu:
Baby Back Ribs
Authentic German Sausages
Mile High Corned Beef Sandwiches
Hand Carved Turkey Sandwiches
Turkey Entre Salad
Turkey and Ham Club Sandwiches
Child's Hot Dog
German Potato Salad
Mixed Green Salad
Hash Brown Casserole
Cherry Chocolate Cake
German Chocolate Cake
Strawberry Short Cake
Chocolate Pudding Parfait
Fresh Cut Watermelon
Assorted Pepsi Products
Coffee, Milk, Water
Anheuser-Busch Beverages on Draught.
For dinner, we went to the Smokehouse, where, yes, the meat is smoked over oak and hickory coals beginning in the morning—actually barbequed—unlike what Disney tries to pull off as BBQ. Here’s the menu (minus the desserts and drink selections, as they’re nearly the same as above):
Smoked Chicken (quarter or half)
Baby Back Ribs
Beachwood Chip Grilled Salmon
Sliced Brisket Sandwich Platter
Pulled Chicken Entree Salad
Child's Chicken Tenders
Child's Hot Dog
Creamy Macaroni and Cheese
Mixed Green Salad
Corn on the Cob
Smoked salmon? Sliced brisket? Hand Carved Turkey Sandwiches? Chocolate Pudding Parfait? These options, and more, put the majority of Disneyland's so-called "eateries" to shame.
There are 22 permanent restaurants and snack shops in the park. There were no ODVs that I saw. While the Blue Bayou certainly is a top restaurant, the fact is that it’s the only one. The dining in the rest of the park is mediocre at best, and downright bad at worst. The hamburgers at DL are so bad as to be nearly inedible; as you can see above, Busch Gardens doesn’t even serve them, even at the BBQ. The food is so far above what can be found in the majority of DL that it can be nearly a destination for dining.
Prices? Again, Disney appears to be shafting their “guests.” I paid $10.99 for a large rack of five baby back ribs, freshly smoked, with a large side of fries and a huge freshly-baked roll. My family of four got away with a dinner that left us more than full, (including a draft beer for yours truly and dessert for the kids) for $40.00.
Again, the “captive audience” has no idea that such delicious food is available at parks other than Disneyland.
(BTW, the German meal was accompanied by a massive stage show, including a live “Oompah” band playing traditional Bavarian songs, with dancers that really got the audience involved. It was a 25 minute show, and really made the meal enjoyable).
Oh…and another thing: All the restaurants—near as I could tell—were open from park opening to nearly closing. I remember being in DL, on the west side, when Rancho had closed. I think I ended up eating a box of popcorn for dinner…)
Now, to change tack: The shops. Being that a beer can plush is probably not the cuddliest of treasures, there really weren’t shops all over the place selling exclusively “Busch” souvenirs. Certainly there were a few, selling cool glasses and mugs and the like. But the fact is, 95% of the shops were displaying wares appropriate to their themes (Busch Gardens’ has a European theme, with “lands” that represent various European countries). Frontier-themed toys in “New France (Quebec); mythical dragons and leprechaun merchandise in Ireland; importer Italian ceramics in Italy. Beautiful steins in Germany. The variety of different merchandise was truly amazing. It was a great feeling to be able to enter different shops in the different lands and not see the same thing.
Oh…and another thing…All the shops remained open, near as I could tell, from opening until after closing.
Again, Disneyland has cheapened the shopping experience, because with their captive audience, they don’t need to distinguish themselves or the shopping experience.
Next: I truly respect the DL cast member. I think they are tasked with an impossible standard, at the lowest wage Disney will pay. Truly a challenge for those who want to work there. But, I don’t think it can be disputed that quality at DL seems to be ebbing.
The CMs at Busch Gardens (and they are called CMs, obviously a term appropriated from Disney), were absolutely splendid in every way. From the cashier at the front gate who told me that my youngest son “was going to be three” so I wouldn’t have to pay for him (after I told her that he was three so I could pay for his ticket), to the food servers to the entertainers, everyone was so friendly that it seemed as though they were actually having a great time on the job! Certainly some Disney CMs seem like they are truly having fun, but I never came away from the Park with the overall feeling that everyone, from ride op to tram operator, was simply having the time of their lives.
As a family theme park, which caters to families better? I don’t know…it might be a toss-up.
First of all, the parking lot trams. Busch Gardens simply thought through their trams much better than Disney. There is a separate line for folks with strollers, and the tram is designed to accept them without folding them. If you have a stroller, you know that’s just awesome. The stroller queue is delineated with rails, and it’s single file. Once you get to the tram, a CM will assist you with loading the stroller.
Now, I can’t tell you how absolutely frustrated I’ve been with Disney. One must very nearly fight with others to defend a spot in line, and then when the tram arrives, all hell breaks loose in the mad dash to lift massive folded-up strollers into the cramped space provided. Fists nearly fly in the process 10 people try to fight for the space of two. The day begins on a sour note, and ends the same way. Really terrible design.
Now, Disney certainly does better than Busch Gardens in several respects: The theming, at least in some lands, is better than others, although it is definitely declining to the Busch Gardens level. And foremost, Disney definitely does a better job with attractions that can be experienced by the entire family. Pirates, HM, TSI, Nemo, etc. are all great in that respect. At Busch Gardens, we definitely had to separate so that the adults and older kids could do things that the younger set could not.
What it all comes down to is that the Captive Audience Disneyland enjoys has allowed it to rest on its laurels. Guests who don’t know any better give Disneyland a pass. Disney then takes advantage of their guests’ good will by limiting options in shopping and dining, and raising prices. People who only patronize Disney theme parks have been brainwashed since children into thinking Disney is the best in all respects—as I was. But the sad truth is, there are theme parks out there that are consistently besting Disneyland in many areas where Disneyland once reigned supreme, including in dining, shopping, and customer service. Only when folks realize that Disneyland has done better and can do better, and demand such quality by tightening their purse strings, will Disney realize that they need to not just meet the minimum standard, but to excel as they once did.
Because of the captive audience, however, I don’t see that happening any time soon.