Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Farewell, DarKastle

Working as much as I do -- Crunchyroll, Viewster, conventions, and the multiple books I need to finish writing/co-writing this year -- means I'm not going to Busch Gardens as much as I used to. Which is kind of a shame. It's a part of my childhood, and I've always loved it in all its forms.

Recent changes and additions, like Christmas Town and their new wooden coaster, have livened up that joy for me. Of course, with all beginnings come ends. We've seen the end of Le Mans raceway and the Big Bad Wolf in recent years: both rides for which I had some childhood nostalgia, but not a deep-seated childhood love that made their loss especially sad.

My behind-ness on all things Busch means I'm probably the last in the world to find out that The Curse of DarKastle -- my favorite attraction ever in the history of the park -- will be bowing out soon.

Frozen in Time

I'm a sucker for any attraction involving a story -- especially a really heavily integrated story. It doesn't have to be deep or convoluted. It just has to be there and informing the ride, and I'll play along no matter how goofy or dated it is.

The story of DarKastle was always a bit weird, but functional -- young Prince Ludwig went walking in the woods one day and yelled at an old woman for being up in his space. The woman turned into a wolf and granted Ludwig... like... evil wolf future-sight that showed him he needed to turn full evil and take the throne.

That happened, of course, and his parents "mysteriously disappeared." He also spent the royal treasury dry building up his castle, then threw a winter party when his advisers told him to quit it. All the party guests went for a tour of the grounds in golden sleighs. And the next morning, the sleighs were back, but everyone -- including Ludwig -- was gone and never seen again.

As a story it would be salvageable with some workshopping... but as the setup to a special effects ride, more than serviceable.

Riders board (you guessed it) golden sleighs and pop on 3D glasses, and are taken through a scenario that combines digital and practical effects while actually moving them along a track. Think a more high-tech Haunted Mansion, combining physical settings and movement with brief stops for a "4D" scene to play out. It's pretty freaking effective.


When the ride first opened, a friend of mine worked at the park and got one of the first test rides. So I knew before it was even publicly available that I was in for a treat.

I've ridden it enough over its 13 years to remember different versions of the scenes. There's a ballroom scene that came and went, where a butler offers you a drink garnished with eyeballs. Ludwig's scene in the dining hall has changed significantly -- a shame, as it contained one of my favorite little morbid attentions to detail. When he stabs the table in anger, the cooked pig in front of him begins to breathe. (A bit much for sharp-eyed riders, maybe?)

The main shame of digitally-focused rides, especially those heavily focused on 3D animation as this one is, is that they will eventually become dated. In the early naughties, we didn't have as much foresight with regards to protecting against dated looks in CG. Nowadays, we see many projects defaulting to a heavily stylized look, rather than risking a slow-burn Uncanny Valley creeping in over the years.

As a regular rider, the ghostly faces of Curse of DarKastle are familiar to me; but I can see how a new rider wouldn't receive the same thrills and chills after more than a decade of digital advances.

If that's even the reason.


Fans and bloggers have cited a variety of potential reasons for the closure, with the above being a major one. In 2005, Curse of DarKastle was state-of-the-art: literally the first ride of its kind, receiving write-ups left and right in magazines. And rightly so. We'd never seen anything quite like this before.

Sadly, nothing stays state-of-the-art forever. And as other parks build on the innovations made here, the look and feel of this ride ages. The digital effects were stunning in 2005, but we're close to hitting a new plateau of quality in CG (if we haven't already), and there's no fix for that beyond completely scrapping and re-creating the animation. Which is sort of pointless.

The ride has also seen decreased ridership. Great for those of us who want to give it six spins in a row, not great for a park with a massive building that isn't pulling its weight visitor-wise. Combine that with the cost of upkeep and, well... clapping my hands really isn't enough to keep it alive.

What's Next?

The Curse of DarKastle sent its last sleigh out in September, before becoming a haunted attraction for Howl-O-Scream and an event space for Christmas Town. On their Facebook, they've posted one last ride-along video, for those who never got to see it:

They're also taking votes on the same link for the castle's new name: Gartensburg Castle, NewKastle, or Oktoberfest Palaste. You can leave your vote in the comments.

I'm gutted to see it go, of course... but I'm really looking forward to what it will become as the park grows and changes.


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