A Little Bit of Ireland in the U.S.
By John Kernaghan, Contributor
August / September 2001
Williamsburg: The challenge for Busch Gardens in adding an Ireland theme to its park at this colonial oasis was to steer clear of shamrockery, yet still create a family environment that was fun and vibrant.
“Ireland” was opened to the public May 18 and in the opinion of Sean Counihan, mayor of Killarney, steered that midway course pretty well.
“What I like about it is that it doesn’t have that leprechaun image,” he said of the new theme area, which boasts a 900-seat theater, 4-D adventure, castle, pub and grille and several shops as well as roving Irish “characters.” “It’s fun but not a stage Ireland.”
Counihan flew from the real Killarney to participate in the opening ceremonies of the mock village Killarney in the theme park.
Ireland is the sixth theme area at Busch Gardens, Williamsburg, which already has areas representing England, Scotland, France, Germany and Italy.
Officials here are hoping for the kind of numbers that visit the real Killarney each year.
“We go from about 14,000 to 50,000 people in summer,” noted Counihan, adding he hoped the theme park experience would encourage more Americans to visit his town. “There are 40 million people of Irish ancestry in America, so this park will be good for Busch Gardens and good for us in Killarney.”
You enter the Ireland area over Brittany Bridge, where a manufactured mist seeps out of the banks of a pond underneath. The shops, pub and grill are located closest to the entry point, the usual marketing strategy of theme parks, and the entertainment portion beyond it.
The park has borrowed the usual architecture from Ireland’s history, with thatched roofs and Norman towers mixing with feudal and Georgian themes.
The best part of a visit on opening day was Irish Thunder, the high-energy show at the Abbey Stone Theatre. A chorus of 21 talented young singers and dancers from Dublin’s O’Shea School of Irish Dancing set a full house of 900 to clapping and toe-tapping through a 45-minute show.
Billed as “honoring the retelling of Celtic folklore by showcasing traditional Irish dance and infusing it with contemporary music,” the show was choreographed by Dara O’Shea, an original member of the Riverdance company.
The performance is fast and furious, with images of Ireland projected on the back of the stage and some interesting interpretations of traditional songs.
“Danny Boy,” for instance, begins with a heavy bass beat backing it, but proves why it is a classic when the music stops and singers are permitted to render it a capella.
O’Shea troupe member Nicola Byrne, a 21-year-old singer-dancer from Dublin, will spend six months working at the theme park, doing four shows daily. She likes the park. “It’s brilliant. It’s like I haven’t left home.”
This summer the park will employ even more young people from Ireland, including three from Killarney, in jobs ranging from entertainment to food services and security.
Some will lend a hand at Castle O’Sullivan, the second entertainment element at the new park. It is billed as “blending state-of-the-art animatronics and special effects” and, despite Counihan’s assurances, does have a leprechaun as a central character.
The show is a small morality play about young American Aaron O’Sullivan who inherits the castle in an uncle’s estate and proceeds to auction off the contents until the leprechaun, Clancy, intercedes. Clancy, bemoaning the young man’s greed, gives him a lesson in Irish heritage, one that involves many special effects and an evil uncle cast in the Darth Vader mold. The leprechaun, a creation of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, steals the show, which at 20 minutes is fast-moving and fun.
The single “ride” in the little town of Killarney is Corkscrew Hill, which is touted as the first to use large-screen 3-D digital projection, sensory special effects and motion-based technologies “culminating in an incredible 4-D experience.”
Not to give too much away, but Busch design and engineering chief Larry Giles describes an experience in which “guests feel like they have been miniaturized to the size of tiny fairies.”
Street characters include a saucy Molly Malone. A second animated leprechaun is centered in a gypsy caravan called the Killarney Sound Machine, mixing music and mischievous wit as he engages visitors in conversation.
In Grogan’s Pub, the faces of Yeats, Joyce, O’Casey and Wilde soberly view proceedings from the walls and Killarney Red Lager is served from behind a turn-of-the century (meaning 1900) bar, which was located in St. Louis, the home of Busch brewing. You can also take a short course in beer-making in a pub side-room. It has some Irish flavor but, of course, pushes the Busch product.
Meantime, over at the Emerald Isle shop, Fred Curtis is showing how Waterford Crystal is turned into art. The master designer and sculptor says he doesn’t feel out of place in a theme park because the experience underscores how much the product is appreciated.
“When you do demonstrations like this and talk to the people buying it, you see the appreciation for the work. That’s wonderful to see after you create it and come to take it for granted.”
Curtis’s commissioned pieces have been presented to luminaries such as Mother Teresa and James Galway.
His most interesting request on his American tour?
“I had one young man come in and ask me to inscribe a marriage proposal for him. I did it near the bottom of a champagne flute. When the young woman tilted her glass to drink, she would see `Will you marry me?’ He came back the next day to tell me she said yes.” ♦