I was skeptical the first time we went to Busch Gardens because for me, the park has always been the land of roller coasters. But it turns out that it’s actually the perfect amusement park for preschoolers. It’s now become our summer tradition, we go down 3 or 4 times a year and it never fails to disappoint.
The question that I’m always asked is “what is there for a preschooler to do?”. Surprisingly, there are a TON of rides for little ones. Busch Gardens is divided into European countries, each with their own rides, shows, restaurants, and themed shops. In addition to the various countries, there are two sections devoted just to the kids — Sesame Street Forest of Fun and Land of the Dragons.
Sesame Street Forest of Fun is actually what brought us to Busch Gardens on our first trip. My daughter is a huge Sesame Street fan, and the thought of meeting Elmo in person was too much to resist. In fact, the character meet-and-greet area continues to be one of her favorite parts of the entire park. There are always two characters out and ready to meet their fans. Park photographers take pictures that you can purchase, and you can also take your own pictures from just outside the photo area (the characters are great at turning towards parents for the second photo op).
There are 4 rides in the Forest of Fun. Bert & Ernie’s Loch Ness Adventure is a pint sized flume ride (with no scary drop) that kids can ride with a parent or by themselves. Our whole family likes to ride Prince Elmo’s Spire, a kid sized drop tower that really bounces instead of drops and Oscar’s Whirly Worms, a rock and tug ride. Our favorite ride is Grover’s Alpine Coaster. You do have to be 38” to ride (with a parent) and when my daughter finally reached that milestone she rode it 8 times in one day. Safe to say it’s a pretty great ride. Also in the Forest of Fun is Oscar’s Yucky Forest – a small playground – and Elmo’s Castle – a great splash park for kids of all ages. Be sure to pack a bathing suit and towel, it’s really the perfect place to cool off in the middle of the day. There are also shows at the castle. For about 15 minutes the water turns off and all your friends from Sesame Street come out for a show. Fun tip: after most of the shows the characters all come out for a meet and greet.
The Land of the Dragons, located in between Germany and France, features four rides specifically for little ones. Two of the rides parents can ride on with their child – Eggery Deggery, a pint sized ferris wheel, and Flutter Sputter, a circular ride where kids can fly their own dragons. There are also two rides where kids who are able to walk ride by themselves – Bug a Dug, a little ladybug ride, and Chug-a-Tug, a little boat ride. All four of these rides are extremely tame but fun, and my daughter loves the independence of riding by herself like a big kid. Our favorite part of Land of the Dragons isn’t actually the rides. It’s the amazing tree house and net climb. Kids of all ages love climbing through the tree house and across the net climbs. Be warned, while my daughter is not scared of this at all, MY fear of heights kicked in as I made the mistake of looking down and realized just how high up we were. Now this is something that she conquers only with Daddy. There are slides throughout the tree house, as well as ways to get down without braving the nets. There is also a dragon themed splash area in Land of the Dragons.
The rides for preschoolers aren’t just in these two kid areas. There are kid rides spread throughout the different countries as well. In fact, we were pleasantly surprised with just how many rides there were for my daughter to ride. In Scotland you’ll find Lil Clydes, a small horse ride that kids ride by themselves. In Italy there are the Little Balloons and the Little Gliders, along with Elephant Run, a kid sized version of the bobsled ride that you ride with them. In Germany there are kid sized bumper cars, kid sized airplanes, and kid sized swings. All of these rides the kids ride by themselves. There are also rides that you can ride as a family. The carousel, located right by the Land of the Dragons in Germany, is one of our favorites and my daughter has been known to ride it three or four times in a row. We also really like riding the Turkish Delight (a teacups ride) together. For families who like quieter rides, be sure to check out the Rhine River Cruise – a boat ride along the river that runs through Busch Gardens. You can also take a trip on the Busch Gardens Railway or the Aeronaut Skyride. (these are also great ways to get from one side of the park to the other without having to walk!) One nice thing to note is that we’ve found that even on really busy days, the kid rides have little to no wait to ride. Our thought is that most people think of Busch Gardens as a park for older kids or are coming to ride the roller coasters. But for antsy preschoolers, that’s a big plus.
If your kids are daredevils, there are several of the “big” rides that kids can ride with an adult. Our favorite is Le Catapult, a classic scrambler ride, in New France. You can also take your little ones on Le Scoot (a flume ride) and the Battering Ram (an enormous pendulum). As long as your child is walking (and an adult accompanies them), your child can ride these big rides. If the adults or bigger kids in your group want to ride the roller coasters or other thrill rides, the park does offer a rider swap option. One parent rides the coaster, then swaps out with the other parent without having to wait in line again. We’ve never tried this, but all you have to do is ask at the entrance to the coasters and staff will help you make it work for your family.
Busch Gardens isn’t just about rides. The park is known for its shows. All of them are appropriate for the younger set. We like to check out the show schedule when we arrive, and take a break from rides a few times during the day at a show. Don’t miss the Sunny Days Celebration (the Sesame Street show) and More Pet Shenanigans. We also really have enjoyed Entwined (a fairy tales show in Germany) and Mix It Up (a musical show in Italy). We often combine lunch and a show, which helps my daughter sit calmly through both. We also have found that the indoor shows are the perfect way to escape the mid-day heat. The park also has a number of animal experiences. Be sure to check out Highland Stables (we love to pet the Clydesdales!), Lorikeet Glen, and Jack Hanna’s Wild Reserve.
Food options abound. Look through the food options when you arrive to see which will work best for your family. We especially like lunch in Italy, as my daughter has never met a noodle she doesn’t like. Kids meals are offered throughout the park, and we’ve found that a lot of the platters have more than enough food for us to share. If your kids are Sesame Street fans, the park also offers a special lunch or dinner with Elmo & Friends. We did this two years ago and it was worth every penny we paid. The meal itself is fine – it’s a buffet with mostly kid-friendly food, but the character experience was amazing. There’s time for one-on-one interactions and pictures with each of the characters, as well as an interactive show. You can’t really put a price tag on watching your three year old hold Cookie Monster’s hand and lead the conga line!
Some hints from our family
Plan ahead. Check out the Busch Gardens website to see what rides your child will be tall enough to ride, what shows you are interested in, and what restaurants might work for your family. Some kids are pickier than others (mine is the only 4 year old on the planet who won’t eat fast food), so it’s good to have an idea of where to eat and what to do before you arrive.
Buy your tickets in advance. If you’re going before May 31, take advantage of the free 2-Park Preschool Pass. The Preschool Pass (which must be redeemed in the park by May 31) gets your preschooler a free summer fun pass. You do have to bring your child’s birth certificate to the park to redeem it, but it’s a small hassle for a free pass. We buy Fun Cards for the adults in our family, which give you unlimited visits all summer. We also like to buy our parking pass ($15) in advance so we don’t have to worry about it when we get there.
Get there early. The park is fairly empty for the first hour, which is great for kids who hate to wait in line. It’s also easier to get a parking spot close to the entrance or the tram stop (most parking lots have a tram that takes you from the lot to the entrance).
Make your first stop the measurement station, just inside the entrance gates (at the British telephone booths). A staff member will measure your child, give them a color coded wrist band, and a list of rides that they can ride with and without an adult. It’s nice to just flash your wristband at each ride (rather than have to be measured again and again), and even nicer to know in advance what your child can and can’t ride without getting excited for a ride only to be disappointed at the height check.
Hydrate! Williamsburg is very hot and humid in the summer. There are water fountains throughout the park, but we always bring a couple of reusable water bottles in with us. You can ask for a refill of ice water at any restaurant. It’s also a great deal to buy a souvenir cup. Once you pay for the cup (most are $8.99) you can get $.99 refills of any fountain soda or $1.99 refills of frozen Icees all summer. Drinks are fairly expensive – we’ve found that the cup pays for itself by the end of the day.
Bring a stroller. There’s a LOT of walking, and the park is very hilly. There are stroller parking areas in most of the sections of the park, which gives you the flexibility to play without worrying about your stroller but having it for the walk to the next country. Even my four year old, who hasn’t used her stroller in years, likes being able to take a break in it. On our last trip, we walked less than we usually do and I still logged 8 miles on my FitBit – way too much for little legs. It’s also a great spot for a midday nap (if you’re lucky!). Strollers are available for rent in the park as well. One thing that also helps with the walking is to take the train from one side to the other (there are stroller parking sections on the trains).
Bring a bathing suit and towel for your child! The splash parks in both kids sections are really excellent, and Williamsburg gets HOT in the summer. They do sell bathing suits and swim diapers in the Forest of Fun store if you’ve forgotten yours, but it’s much easier to bring them with you.
Bring your camera! Photo opportunities abound. Busch Gardens is consistently rated the most beautiful theme park in the country, and the landscape teams really out do themselves year after year.
There are bathrooms and changing tables throughout the park. Busch Gardens is one of the cleanest amusement parks I’ve ever been to, and the bathrooms are no exception. On a busy day I feel like I always see people cleaning them. And while I’ve never needed a nursing room at Busch Gardens, a friend raved about the one in the Forest of Fun. I’ve seen others throughout the park, but she said it’s worth planning your day to be by this one at feeding times.
It takes about 2 ½ hours to drive to Busch Gardens from Northern VA (including a stop or two at the rest areas). We usually do it as a day trip, as my daughter is an early riser (so we’re on the road by 7 am) and not so great at sleeping in hotels. But Williamsburg has tons of hotels and restaurants if you want to spend the night. If you have Fun Passes you can come back for a second day of fun, or go to Water Country USA, Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown, or Yorktown.
- Have fun! There is nothing like spending a day at Busch Gardens with your family. We always leave exhausted but with huge smiles on our faces!
Photos by Mara Surridge.