Category Archives: Travel

Cool Yule Review: Kings Dominion Winterfest

You might be familiar with the Virginia theme park, Kings Dominion. Located in Doswell, Virginia, just outside of Ashland and about 20 minutes from Richmond, VA, the theme park is transformed into a winter wonderland called Winterfest for evening visits only from late November to New Year’s Eve (see 2022 dates and hours below). I highly recommend a visit this holiday season.

Winterfest Schedule

November 25 – December 18 (Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays) – 5 pm – 10 pm

December 19 – 30 (Monday – Friday) – 5 pm – 10 pm

(Closed on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day)

December 31 (New Year’s Eve) – 5 pm – 12:30 a.m.

I visited Winterfest with my family on New Year’s Eve last year. I found a diverse crowd where everyone seemed to be having a good time and no one acted up or was obnoxious.The Kings Dominion staff were friendly, too.

Things to see and do —

  • Strolling around to look at the lights and decorations.
  • Ice skating. We didn’t do that but the ice rink was huge and not crowded at all. I think I would try that next time.
  • Watching and dancing to live music.
  • Watching the modest but fun parade (it still went on even though it was raining!)
  • Viewing the Nativity and visiting the nativity animals in the petting area.
  • Shopping – really decent shopping in the boutiques. Lots of sales. If you are a Snoopy fan, you’ll be very happy. A terrific assortment of Snoopy plush dogs and holiday items.
  • Seeing shows and walk-around characters. Because of Covid, we opted out of the indoor shows but I have heard they are very good, especially the Peanuts progam. There were plenty of entertainers outdoors to see.
  • Riding some of the rides that were open.
  • Reading letters to Santa displayed at the North Pole post office (warning: you may get emotional!)
  • Fireworks (may be just on New Year’s Eve). The best place to watch the fireworks, my sister discovered, was near Candy Apple Grove next to the funnel cake stand there. No crowds and a great view!
Tips
  • Wear good walking shoes! You’ll be covering a lot of ground.
  • Get a gingerbread funnel cake with ice cream (I think it will take 3 people to finish it).
  • If it’s in your budget, splurge on an igloo rental (heated plastic transparent enclosures). If it rains, you have a private heated enclosure that is yours for the night. But there are only a few so you have to reserve them for your date.
Where to Stay
  • KOA Campgrounds offer space for RVs as well as roomy, large cabins. They have also offered shuttle transportation to Kings Dominion. We didn’t stay there because it was sold out.
  • There are lots of hotels in nearby Ashland, which is a quick drive to Kings Dominion.

Busch Gardens Christmas Town vs Kings Dominon Winterfest

There are two outstanding theme parks in Virginia that go all out for Christmas — Busch Gardens in Williamsburg and Kings Dominion in Doswell. Busch Gardens calls their celebration Christmas Town and Kings Dominion’s festival is known as Winterfest.

Both celebrations open this month. Christmas Town is open select days and weekends beginning November 11 and Winterfest is open select days and weekends beginning November 16.

I really like both parks – they offer enchanting holiday experiences that are not to be missed. But which is better? Well, that depends on your preferences…

 

  • Holiday hours – Tie! Because it really depends on when you want to go. Winterfest offers a New Year’s Eve celebration with fireworks which Busch Garden Christmas Town does not. Christmas Town is open until 10 pm on New Year’s Eve but the seasonal offerings are the same as on other days.  On the other hand, Christmas Town is open on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, while Winterfest is closed. Both parks offer November preview days in November before Thanksgiving, which I highly recommend, as the crowds are typically far less.
  • ShowsChristmas Town wins! The Christmas Town shows are fantastic and there are more of them, including an outdoor figure skating show when it is not too warm for the ice. If you did nothing at Christmas Town but go to shows, I think you would still leave thinking you had enjoyed a very good value for your entertainment dollar. They really get you into the spirit of Christmas. The trick with seeing the shows is to pick up a show schedule just as you enter the park (or download from the website) and plan your visit around the shows (f you like shows, versus rides, that is). It would be really hard to see all the shows in one visit. But you could see all of them in two or more visits, and I’d recommend splitting them up and visiting twice because otherwise, it’s a bit much to take in. Overall, the more relaxed you are about visiting Christmas Town and really taking your time, the better, because there is quite a lot to see and it’s better to have fun than become exhausted and cranky, right? Again, keep in mind that the ice skating show is usually cancelled if it is too warm. So if it is a cold day, definitely make plans to see that one. Show up at least ten minutes before the shows begin to get good seating.Winterfest has fewer shows and most are indoors. I can’t speak to the quality of the indoor shows at Winterfest, since I avoided those during the pandemic, but the musical performances I saw outdoors were entertaining.
  • LightsChristmas Town wins! Both theme parks have enchanting light displays. But Christmas Town’s light displays are more impressive and varied, depending on what section of the park you are visiting. The lights and shows are the major draws for me at Christmas Town.
  • RidesChristmas Town wins! Busch Gardens has more open thrill rides in the winter months. If you love high speed thrill rides, you’d probably prefer Christmas Town to Winterfest. I am not a fan of thrill rides but I am a huge fan of trains. Christmas Town has a full-sized train that moves around the park at a slow pace while passing by outdoor lights. That train ride is such a nice break for your feet! Christmas Town also has a sky ride that gives you a spectacular bird’s eye view of the Christmas lights below. Winterfest does offer some thrill rides and if you enjoy nostalgic, carnival-style rides like Dodge’em cars, swings, carousels and Ferris wheels, you might enjoy the Candy Apple Grove rides at Winterfest. Winterfest also has an excellent children’s rides section.
  • Food: Christmas Town wins! Let me put it like this. Skip the dining plan. The food at both parks is pricey and you’d be better off eating outside of the parks. Christmas Town has more food options than Winterfest, including German fare at Festhaus and smoked meats at Trapper’s.  Christmas Town also has some charming baked items and sweets. The one place I will stop and have a treat in Christmas Town is in France…there used to be crepes and coffee but I think the offering may be different now. It has an outdoor seating area that is relatively quiet and uncrowded, usually. It is just adjacent to the ice skating show.However, the food service throughout Christmas Town simply isn’t great, nor is the cleanliness of eating areas. In particular, the Squire’s Grill in England and Grogan’s Pub in Ireland are a hard pass (messy, mediocre food, indifferent service and really expensive for what you get). So, you’d be better off spending your time taking in the shows and lights and getting a quick snack. And if you get really hungry, I’d opt for the German food or pizza at Festhaus or the smaller setting of Trapper’s Smokehouse. Winterfest offers fewer and less varied dining options, and while expensive, the service is more friendly and the eating areas are better maintained. You’d still be better off having a good meal before visiting Winterfest. But dessert? Save room. Because Winterfest has funnel cakes with ice cream on them, which pretty much beats anything you’d order at Christmas Town.
  • Shopping: Winterfest wins! Busch Gardens Christmas Town does have a few stand-out shops. The gift shop in England has lots of Beatles and English-style merchandise I really liked. The German shop had Steiff animals, cuckoo clocks and a model train, in addition to German treats. While I enjoyed browsing in the shops at Busch Garden’s Christmas Town, I found more affordable and better quality (overall) merchandise at Kings Dominion’s Winterfest. And lots of Snoopy gifts! Plus, the sales staff were very nice.
  • Other attractionsWinterfest wins! While Christmas Town may have an edge over Winterfest in terms of rides and shows, Winterfest does offer more activities; some for a fee. There is a place where you can write to Santa Claus and read letters others have written, cookie decorating ($23 extra), ice skating at a huge rink ($20 extra), a petting zoo area of of Nativity animals, and a nightly parade. Winterfest also has walk-around characters, like Jack Frost and others who greet you and pose for pictures, which Christmas Town does not have. And Winterfest has fireworks on New Year’s Eve.
  • Meaning of Christmas – Winterfest wins! Winterfest displays a large Nativity scene and live animals from the Nativity. Busch Gardens Christmas Town is the place to go for Santa Claus, on the other hand. Christmas Town boasts not one but two experiences – Santa Claus in Germany and a more woodsy Father Christmas in England.
  • CrowdsWinterfest wins! The layout of Kings Dominion is more open and spacious. The layout of Busch Gardens unfortunately can lend itself to congestion.
  • Accessibility – Winterfest wins! You’ll encounter some hills while navigating Christmas Town at Busch Gardens and that can be tough for those with mobility challenges. But Kings Dominion is a mostly flat park. There are also more places to sit and rest and the pathways are better lighted. Overall, Winterfest feels a bit more accessible, so important for a night festival. Taking the weather into consideration is always a factor when visiting an outdoor theme park. If it begins to rain, ducking into a gift shop is about your only retreat. But at Winterfest, you can rent an igloo with seating for your party for the night, situated next to the Eiffel Tower. They are a pricey add-on ($229 to $259) but waterproof and heated. New’s Eve igloo rentals are already sold out! Another nice perk is that Kings Dominion offers a discount for seniors ages 62 and up.
  • FriendlinessWinterfest wins! From the greeting you receive on entering the park to the cheery farewell, Winterfest is staffed with demonstrably friendlier workers. Service was friendlier and more efficient in the shops and eateries.
  • Kid-FriendlinessWinterfest wins! Both parks feature rides and shows designed for children and the young at heart. Kings Dominion Winterfest features Snoopy characters. It’s important to note, however, that many of the children’s attractions were closed in the evening, at least on New Year’s Eve. Admission for kids to Winterfest is $20. A single day ticket ON SALE for Christmas Town is $60, for anyone ages 3 and up. Busch Gardens really caters more to teens and adults; there is more alcohol there then at Kings Dominion. The problem, according to many Trip Advisor reviews this years, is that, in addition to the high priced tickets, Busch Gardens is not really a kid-friendly park. It’s frankly exhausting to navigate as an adult; little legs can’t keep up. First, just navigating parking, as mentioned, adds so much time to the day. It’s chiefly a night event so kids are already tired. The lines for food and rides are very long. There aren’t a lot of food options for kids other than pizza and what they have is pricey. It becomes crowded and the staff isn’t known for their friendliness. I really can’t recommend Christmas Town for the young ones, unless they go during daylight hours — even then, it’s just too expensive.
  • Cleanliness – Winterfest wins! During my visit, I found that Winterfest bathrooms were noticeably cleaner and better maintained than the ones at Christmas Town, as were the eating areas and grounds.
  • Parking – Winterfest wins! Winterfest has a significant edge over Busch Gardens in terms of parking. You park in the lot and walk straight in. The entry is flat and well-lighted. Christmas Town’s parking system is more complex and you have to ride a bus to your car’s lot, which means waiting in queues before you even get into the park. There’s also a significant  and dark uphill climb back to the lot as you leave Christmas Town that feels like Mount Everest when your feet are tired. And more waiting for a bus to get back to your car.
  • Adjacent attractions – Christmas Town wins! Busch Gardens Christmas Town is located near Colonial Williamsburg, so you can easily see both on a weekend trip. On the other hand, Kings Dominion’s Winterfest is very close to Richmond, which has the Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens holiday lights, museums and other attractions.

So which is better? Well, why choose? Both parks are better BEFORE Thanksgiving. Christmas Town is a a safe bet for adults on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day or after Jan 1. Winterfest is magical for all ages on New Year’s Eve. 🙂

Three Thanksgiving Ideas (that don’t involve cooking)

Not all of us are blessed with large families, but we still want to celebrate Thanksgiving.  How to celebrate Thanksgiving for one or two?  If you don’t really want to cook a huge feast?  Here are some of my favorite past Thanksgiving activities and some new ideas to try…

An Old Fashioned Thanksgiving at Graves Mountain Lodge

Book now for overnight accommodations and Thanskgiving at Graves Mountain Lodge in Syria, Virginia.  Or just drive in for lunch or dinner.  The food is served family style, and is old-fashioned in flavor: ham, turkey, home-made rolls, sweet potatoes, fried oysters.  Lunch or dinner is $40 for adults and $20 for kids.  Be sure to purchase some of their apple butter and green pepper jelly for holiday gifting.  During the day, there is the farm to explore.  At night, there is usually a frosty hay ride into the mountains.  Luray Caverns is nearby, for a Friday side-trip.


A Historical Thanksgiving in Williamsburg

Hotel rates are generally quite low ($35-$50/night is not uncommon) and you can find bargains for this weekend. Explore Historic Jamestown and be transported back to a village of Native Americans and a 17th century English settlement.  You’ll really get a feeling of what the times were like around the time of the earliest Thanksgiving observations.  Colonial Williamsburg is also worth a visit, especially on Friday for shopping, and you don’t have to pay the admission fee to enjoy much of it.  We’ve enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner at the Fireside Chophouse in Williamsburg. The prix fixe dinner included a creamy soup, a plate of Thanksgiving favorites, and coffee and pie.  I thought it was just fine. We poked around the Christmas Mouse afterwards (open Thanksgiving night) and looked at the hundreds of Christmas ornaments for sale there.  A post-Thanksgiving visit to Christmastown Busch Gardens is a must (opens at 3 pm on Friday) and a bus from the historic area takes you right there, so you don’t even have to drive.

A Cultural Thanksgiving in Richmond

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is open 365 days a year, including Thanksgiving.  You can enjoy a rather sophisticated meal in their upscale restaurant, Amuse, for $52/person — 3 courses includes offers like an appetizer of roasted oysters, an entree of game hen, and molasses cake with pumpkin ice cream.  Or head to the Patrick Henry Pub & Grill for deep-fried turkey on their buffet.  I haven’t tried either of these restaurants, actually, but the menus sound delicious to me. Afterwards, check out VMFA’s exhibit on Hollywood costumes and fashion, “Made in Hollywood,” and explore their fabulous gift shop for unique and artsy holiday gifts.  At night, catch a movie at the Byrd Theatre. Shopping at the Carytown boutiques would be a perfect way to spend Small Business Saturday.

Any ideas?

If you don’t cook on Thanksgiving or get together with family, how do you celebrate?  Share your tips and ideas!

Winter driving tips from AAA

It’s going to snow in the Washington, DC area, and there may be ice.  If you, like me, are inexperienced with driving in snow and ice, and you don’t have anywhere you must be, consider not driving in the winter weather.  I’m getting milk and doing a laundry run tonight!  🙂

If you are planning to drive some place in the Washington, DC area, expect trips to be longer (tip: go to the bathroom before you get on the Beltway!)  You may be a good driver, with a weather-hardy car, but you can be sure there will be plenty of accidents out there.  However, if you must drive in the snow, here are some winter driving tips from AAA…

In addition to common sense (wear your seat belt! and routine car maintenance…

  • Never warm up a vehicle in an enclosed area, such as a garage.
  • Keep your gas tank at least half full to avoid gas line freeze-up.  (Also check your washer fluids.)
  • If possible, avoid using your parking brake in cold, rainy and snowy weather.
  • Do not use cruise control when driving on any slippery surface (wet, ice, sand).
  • Watch/listen to weather reports before driving. Delay trips when especially bad weather is expected. If you must leave, let others know your route, destination and estimated time of arrival.
  • Good to have in your car: a cellular telephone with your local AAA’s telephone number, plus blankets, gloves, hats, food, water and any needed medication.  (I would add road maps, a GPS, first aid kit, car emergency kit, battery or hand-crank operated radio, change of clothing, umbrellas, and flashlight, and possibly a bag of non-clumping kitty litter for traction if your wheels get stuck).

Tips for driving in the snow:

  • Stay home. If you really don’t have to go out, don’t. Even if you can drive well in the snow, not everyone else can. Don’t tempt fate: If you don’t have somewhere you have to be, watch the snow from indoors.
  • Accelerate and decelerate slowly. Applying the gas slowly to accelerate is the best method for regaining traction and avoiding skids. Don’t try to get moving in a hurry. And take time to slow down for a stoplight. Remember: It takes longer to slow down on icy roads.
  • Drive slowly. Everything takes longer on snow-covered roads. Accelerating, stopping, turning – nothing happens as quickly as on dry pavement. Give yourself time to maneuver by driving slowly.
  • The normal dry pavement following distance of three to four seconds should be increased to eight to ten seconds.  (This is my emphasis because I think it’s so important!)  This increased margin of safety will provide the longer distance needed if you have to stop.
  • Know your brakes. Whether you have antilock brakes or not, the best way to stop is threshold breaking. Keep the heel of your foot on the floor and use the ball of your foot to apply firm, steady pressure on the brake pedal.
  • Don’t stop if you can avoid it. There’s a big difference in the amount of inertia it takes to start moving from a full stop versus how much it takes to get moving while still rolling. If you can slow down enough to keep rolling until a traffic light changes, do it.
  • Don’t power up hills. Applying extra gas on snow-covered roads just starts your wheels spinning. Try to get a little inertia going before you reach the hill and let that inertia carry you to the top. As you reach the crest of the hill, reduce your speed and proceed down hill as slowly as possible.
  • Don’t stop going up a hill. There’s nothing worse than trying to get moving up a hill on an icy road. Get some inertia going on a flat roadway before you take on the hill.

If you are traveling in a remote area and become snow-bound…

  • Stay with your vehicle. It provides temporary shelter and makes it easier for rescuers to locate you. Don’t try to walk in a severe storm. It’s easy to lose sight of your vehicle in blowing snow and become lost.
  • Don’t over exert yourself if you try to push or dig your vehicle out of the snow.
  • Tie a brightly colored cloth to the antenna or place a cloth at the top of a rolled up window to signal distress. At night, keep the dome light on if possible. It only uses a small amount of electricity and will make it easier for rescuers to find you.
  • Make sure the exhaust pipe isn’t clogged with snow, ice or mud. A blocked exhaust could cause deadly carbon monoxide gas to leak into the passenger compartment with the engine running.
  • Use whatever is available to insulate your body from the cold. This could include floor mats, newspapers or paper maps.
  • If possible run the engine and heater just long enough to remove the chill and to conserve gasoline.

Cool Yule Shopping Review: Colonial Williamsburg

Christmas ornament at The Santa Mouse

Williamsburg is a three-and-1/2 hour drive from the Washington, DC area — and 95 South is never any fun until you pass Fredericksburg — but it may be worth a visit for you if you are in the mood to mix holiday shopping with historic sightseeing.   I just spent the Thanksgiving holiday with my mom in Colonial Williamsburg and Jamestown and we discovered lots of treasures in the local shops, in addition to wonderful dining and sightseeing.  Best of all, everyone was amazingly friendly to us.

On Thanksgiving night, The Christmas Mouse was open and we explored two floors of decorated trees and walls of ornaments.  The prices were reasonable, and the staff was helpful. Some ladies were visiting from Canada (where the dollar is stronger) and were buying out the store.  I found a sparkly green sea horse ornament for my tree, and mom took home a bevy of ballerina ornaments for her ballet buddies.

Christmas Mouse

Decorated trees at The Christmas Mouse

Mom making her purchases at The Christmas Mouse

There is all kinds of great shopping in the Colonial Williamsburg area.  One of the best Christmas music compilation CDs I have seen is available at Everything Williamsburg for $14.95.  I also liked their seasonal soap set ($12 for a set, $2 for each small bar) in scents like orange and clove, fig pudding, and pomegranate.

Saturday Morning Farmer’s Market

Check out the outdoor farmer’s market on Saturday morning in Merchant’s Square (adjacent to the historic section of Colonial Williamsburg).  Vendors offered everything fro holiday greenery, fresh goat cheese, Greek pastries, honey products, and handmade gingerbread houses.

Gingerbread houses for sale at the Farmer’s Market in Williamsburg

Mom checks out the greenery for sale

 

Binns of Williamsburg, a local fashion boutique, presented a beautiful selection of gifts at their outdoor display at the open-air market, including Faberge-style Christmas ornaments (about $36 each), wooden German pyramids (the kind that are candle-powered), and Christmas candies.  The display reminded me of a Christkindl Market from Germany.

Binns of Williamsburg outdoor display

German pyramids at Binns of Williamsburg

Faberge-style egg ornaments

A Christmas Carol

If you go, try to catch one of the free, street performances of “A Christmas Carol” presented by two gentlemen from Virginia Theater Machine.   It’s only 17 minutes long and it’s hilarious!