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Busch Gardens Tampa is a different sort of themepark animal

Busch Gardens Tampa is paradise for coaster lovers.
Busch Gardens Tampa is paradise for coaster lovers.
© 2014 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Busch Gardens Tampa is paradise for roller-coaster fans which an extraordinary number and variety.

The surprise and joy of colorful birds that come right to you in Busch Gardens Tampa's Lory Landing
© 2014 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

I'm not one of them.

But Busch Gardens Tampa is like a Garden of Eden for people like me, who love seeing animals in habitat settings. It is home to more than 12,000 animals, including more than 300 species including 35 species that are endangered or threatened.

Even more exciting are the extraordinary, serendipitous opportunities that Busch Gardens provides for close interactions and engagement with these animals.

In my mind, Busch Gardens is more of a zoological park than a themepark (and that's a good thing). But as a themepark, it has all the major/[popular rides you expect as well as topnotch entertainment. But what makes it so special is the enchantment that comes from the serendipity of chance encounters with animals.

As themeparks go, these days, Busch Gardens is fairly low-key, unpretentious, without glitz and artifice. In fact, that is its special charm – it is more “real” and provides a more meaningful experience than most themeparks that strive for fantasy, the fantastic, and the fantastical. In many ways, Busch Gardens has also become the model for zoological parks that copy its formula for engagement and education.

I can see why so many Tampa-Clearwater residents have taken advantage of a two-year pass - they come in for the shows and to stroll the fabulous grounds – it is peaceful and you never know what you will encounter when you visit the animals.

But roller coaster fans will be in heaven.

Each one of the coasters provides a different experience and a different design, and each one has a great following within the coaster community.

This spring, Busch Gardens is opening Falcon’s Fury, which will be North America’s tallest freestanding drop tower, and the centerpiece of a new area, Pantopia, with theming, thrilling rides and attractions, new food and beverage and an indoor theater.

Falcon’s Fury will stand at 335 feet and take riders plunging 60 mph straight down. At the ride’s highest point, riders will pivot 90 degrees in midair to a face-down dive position. An instant later they'll plunge 60 mph at 3.5 Gs straight down with speed and power like they’ve never experienced before.

This themepark is excellent at engaging people in activities and exploration and get physical, apart from the technology.

One of my favorite places is the Jungala, a four acre section in which you get up-close animal interactions, a three story maze of rope bridges and nets for kids to climb, two signature rides and live entertainment. You come face-to-face with orangutans and can test your strength in a tug of war with a Bengal tiger. It’s marvelous mix of discovery and fun in "the only jungle in the world that plays with you."

Similarly, Lory Landing is a photographers paradise - people purchase a nectar and the birds flock over and the images of the colorful birds and the delighted people are marvelous.

Myombe Reserve, Jambo Junction, Edge of Africa, Walkabout Way, the Bird Garden all offer extraordinary opportunities to see animals in habitat settings.

Coasters Galore

It is fun how Busch Gardens coasters also have the animal themes.

Busch Gardens’ two newest rides (Cheetah Hunt and Falcon's Fury) have magnetic braking systems, and Cheetah Hunt also has a magnetic propulsion system, which means it uses magnets to speed you up and slow you down, so the Cheetah Hunt gives a surprisingly smooth ride. Each coaster provides a different experience – by design.

Cheetah Hunt, Florida’s first triple launch coaster, is a “new breed of speed.” It imitates the movements of a cheetah on the hunt, so there are a lot of banks and turns, not to mention three launch points where you go Zero to Cheetah! This mega-attraction begins at Cheetah Run where you are just inches away from the world’s fastest land animals. This one-of-a-kind themed launch coaster climbs high above the Serengeti landscape and then races down along the ground and through a rocky gorge. With another burst of acceleration, you leap over awestruck bystanders and head for home. It’s a 4,400 foot sprint that takes your breath away.

SheiKra, North America’s first dive coaster sends riders through a breathtaking three-minute journey 200 feet up to the edge of a 90 degree drop—and that's just the beginning. The cars are “floorless” so you get an unobstructed view of the 70 mph rush through an Immelmann loop (a simultaneous loop and roll), a second, vertical drop into an underground tunnel and a water feature finale, all packed into a half-mile of steel track.

Kumba starts with the blood-curdling thrill of an initial 135 foot drop, then you plunge into a diving loop, feel a full three seconds of absolute weightlessness while spiraling 360 degrees, and tear through one of the world's largest vertical loops.

Montu is one of the tallest and longest inverted roller coasters in the world. You thrill to an inverse diving loop and a 60-foot vertical loop at speeds exceeding 60 mph.

Gwazi, a classic wooden coaster, delights coaster traditionalists a nine-story drop and upgraded cars.

Sand Serpent a five-story “wild mouse” style coaster in Timbuktu delights families with its curves, drops and corkscrews. With its top speed of 22 mph and 46” height requirement, Sand Serpent is perfect for a child’s first coaster experience.

Air Grover: is a junior coaster full of fun turns, mini-dives, perfect for parents and kids to ride together.

Scorpion stings you with its plunge down a 60-foot drop and 360-degree loop at incredible speeds.

The Wild Surge launches you out of a 35-foot mountain crater above a towering waterfall for a thrilling view of Jungala’s village below.

Jungle Flyers lets young adventurers choose from three different flight patterns to soar high above Jungala’s village.

Congo River Rapids is a classic white water river rapids ride, where you spin through a geyser and face an ominous waterfall and other thrilling obstacles in a 12-person raft.

Stanleyville Falls, a great ride for the family, is a log flume that ends in a 40-foot drop that's sure to get everyone soaked.Tanganyika Tidal Wave starts as a tranquil jungle journey aboard a 20-passenger boat but ends with a sudden plunge down a 55-foot drop, creating a tidal wave that gets everyone sopping wet.

Themeparks love to boast how thrilling their coasters are. I wanted to find coasters that were not that thrilling - I wanted to progress through coaster-going, like a green trail for beginner skiers, to blue trail for intermediates, before I tackled the black diamond coasters.

So far, there isn’t a scale for the coasters, the way ski areas grade their trails (green, blue, black based on difficulty for people like me who are squeamish on coasters). I don’t know why they don't. Just about all have that same “warning” for people with neck or back problems and pregnant women. I tried to get information from the operators (team members they are called) in the parks and at guest services but wasn’t successful. Instead, I try to ask people who have come from the coaster, but the problem here is that so many are coaster buffs, what seems no big deal to them may not sit well with me.

Animal Attractions

The coasters are fantastic but my favorite part about Busch Gardens are the various animal attractions.

Animal Care Center: Busch Gardens welcomes guests to closely observe and even take part in the animal care experience in the Animal Care Center. This is a working, state-of-the-art hospital where you everything from nutrition to treatments, X-rays to surgeries are conducted, much of which in guest view. much of Busch Gardens’ animal care is now conducted in guest view in this new state-of-the-art facility.

Serengeti Plain: This habitat is home to hundreds of exotic African animals, including reticulated giraffes, rhinos, wildebeests, antelope and ostriches, which can be seen from the Serengeti Railway, Skyride, Serengeti Safari and various walkways. The 65-acre environment includes expansive berms; tiered and open landscapes covered with native and African grasses, scrub trees and shrubs; rock outcroppings and bluffs replicating natural formations; and naturalistic creek beds and mud banks.

You can ride the Serengeti Railway, a replica old-time train, that offers a narrated tour as you ride around the park (you can also use it as transportation and get off at different stops; the full tour is about 40 minutes). (There are also special intensive safari tours that you can take.)

Jungala: Jungala is a four acre area that allows for up-close animal interactions, two signature rides and live entertainment. You come face-to-face with orangutans and can test their strength in a tug of war with a Bengal tiger.

The best part of Jungala is Tree Top Trails: With climbing nets, bridges, crawl tubes and a multi-level maze for bigger kids, plus a soft water-play area for younger children, this three-story family play area in Jungala allows visitors to explore the different levels of jungle life.

Myombe Reserve: is a lush forest where you can view gorillas and chimpanzees in a naturalistic rainforest habitat. Tour the Great Ape Domain amid waterfalls and through shrouds of mist and fog to get an up-close look at these majestic primates. Keeper talks are scheduled through the day which are fascinating.

Edge of Africa offers a walking "safari" where you get to see hippopotamus, lions, lemurs, meerkats and crocodiles in natural habitats themed around an abandoned African fishing village.

Jambo Junction: The former Busch Gardens’ Nairobi Field Station now fosters greater interactions between guests and the park’s animal ambassadors. At Jambo Junction, a name inspired by a Swahili greeting, you get to feed animals while learning about husbandry and behavior training. Featured animals include Caribbean flamingos, lemurs, cuscuses, sloths and tamanduas.

Walkabout Way is an immersive attraction where you get to discover animals indigenous to the Land Down Under. You can hand-feed playful kangaroos and free-roaming wallabies in Kangaloom during scheduled feedings throughout the day. (Children must be at least five years old.)

Bird Gardens features almost 500 tropical birds from around the globe. You can get up close to a variety of species in the free-flight aviary, see the brilliant sight of a flock of flamingos.

Lory Landing: is a really fun place that evokes squeals of delight as these brilliantly colored birds – parrots including lorikeets fly right to you (especially if you have purchased a cup of nectar to offer) – you will want to have your camera handy. The domed habitat also showcases hornbills and pheasants in both free flight and observational environments.

At the Cheetah Run, when you arrive, ask an educator when the cheetahs will be running.

Show Stoppers

It is important to check the times for the shows, and organize your visit around that.

The blockbuster, not-to-be missed show is Iceploration, Busch Gardens’ biggest ice show ever. Iceploration combines world-class skaters, larger-than-life puppets, amazing costumes, original music and even animal "stars" to tell the story of tech-savvy pre-teen Austin and his grandfather—an old-world adventurer—who encourages him to put down the smartphone and “explore the world.”

“Madagascar Live! Operation: Vacation” features singers, dancers and a live band who join the rollicking Madagascar characters to amp up the party to full throttle.

Critter Castaways: Using the same encouragement-based training philosophy our animal trainers use throughout our parks, a cast of unlikely characters—including dogs, cats, ducks and doves—comes together to create a side-splitting show with surprise twists that will have the whole family laughing.

A is for Africa is a musical performance that brings tales of imagination and adventure to life starring Elmo, Abby, Zoe, Grover and Cookie Monster presented several times daily at the Sesame Street Safari of Fun's Sunny Day Theater.

There are also headliners who perform - when we visited, we saw a rock-n-roll show by none other than Chubby Checker – the Chubby Checker. It was quite good.

Novel Attractions

While some themeparks seem to be geared to older children, Busch Gardens Tampa is marvelous for young children.

Sesame Street Safari of Fun is an enchanting African-themed area designed for young kids but delights everyone. Sesame Street characters roam the area and pose for pictures. Dip and dive through the desert on the Air Grover junior coaster. Climb and play in Elmo’s Tree House. There is the Bert and Ernie’s water play area. Kids will delight to see their Sesame Street friends in African-inspired shows—and share a hug or a meal with these lovable characters.

Skyride: Another way to view the Busch Gardens' scenery is to fly through the air in a cable car that runs between the Crown Colony area and the Congo on the opposite side of the park.

King Tut’s Tomb: is a realistic replication of King Tut's burial site as it was being excavated in the 1920s. The park’s Egypt area also includes an area for kids to do their own digging.

Up-Close, Behind-the-Scenes, Interactive Tours

Busch Gardens Tampa offers extraordinary opportunities for behind-the-scenes explorations that give a unique insider perspective. Tours range from allowing you to be an animal keeper for a day, to a Coaster Experience tour, to a nighttime safari tour of the Serengeti, to getting front-of-line access at the most popular attractions.

Jungala Insider lets you join the animal keepers behind the scenes as they care for endangered Bengal tigers and Bornean orangutans – a 55 minute tour (children have to be at least five years old; not wheelchair accessible, $29).

Heart of Africa is a 75-minute walking tour where you meet the keepers and join them behind the scenes to get up close to hippos, cheetahs and lions. to truly appreciate the size, strength and intelligence of these amazing animals (age 10+; not wheelchair accessible, $39)

Animal Care Center Tour gives an insider perspective of Busch Gardens' state of the art Animal Care Center and be immersed in the world of Wildlife Docs on this 75-minute behind-the-scenes tour. During the 75-minute tour, you get to see what the veterinary and zoological staff does every day including lifesaving treatments, comprehensive medical exams, and life enriching programs and get a better understanding of what it takes to take care of the animals. (Content may not be suitable for some participants because there you witness live medical procedures; age 8+, $29)

Serengeti Safari is a 30-minute open truck tour of the 65-acre Serengeti Plain habitat. You encounter African wildlife up close and hand-feed giraffes with the help of an expert guide. (Age 5+, $19-$39 depending on season).

Serengeti Night Safari Tour: This tour starts in the exclusive Safari Club, enjoying appetizers and adult beverages. Then, you stroll through the Edge of Africa under the moon’s light and explore the nighttime mysteries of hippos, lions and hyenas. You have a guided expedition of the Serengeti Plain viewing the animals through a night vision monocular, as guides share African folklore at a bonfire. Then you cap off the experience back at the Safari Club with desserts, coffee and African liqueur. (2w ½ hours, begins after sunset on select nights, adults $69; park admission is not required).

Keeper For A Day is a crash course in Zookeeping 101. The adventure begins early in the morning and includes assisting zookeepers in the care, feeding and training of the birds, antelope and giraffes that inhabit the Serengeti Plain. (6 ½ hours; begins at 6:30 am; 13+ years old, at least 52 inches tall and able to climb a flight of stairs, follow instructions and lift 15 lbs; only two people allowed; the program includes park admission, bottled water, snacks and lunch; reservations are required at least one week in advance; $249 pp)

Elite Adventure Tour is a private tour that provides a VIP experience with an expert guide, front-of-the-line, front-row access to all the major roller coasters and water rides including Cheetah Hunt, SheiKra, Gwazi, Montu, Kumba, Congo River Rapids and Tanganyika Tidal Wave, reserved seating at shows, lunch at the Crown Colony Restaurant and a one-of-a-kind experience hand-feeding giraffes on the Serengeti Safari. This program is up to 7 hours, beginning when you arrive; includes continental breakfast, bottled water, and free general parking (5+ to participate, $199 pp)

Guided Adventure Tour is five-hour group walking tour that includes a Serengeti Safari, front-of-the-line access to most major rides, lunch and 20% off most merchandise purchases. (Departs daily at 10:30 am from the Up-Close Adventure Center; $99/adults, $89/child.)

For coaster afficiandos, Coaster Experience Tour takes you behind the scenes of Busch Gardens’ collection of world-class coasters. This early-morning tour takes you beyond the guest experience and into the coaster barns. Learn what makes Montu, Kumba, SheiKra, Gwazi and Cheetah Hunt so dynamic, and then take a seat and experience the design and engineering in full-speed action. (3 ½ hours, begins at 8 am; offered select Saturday mornings; park in preferred and enter through the Crown Colony Gate; must bring photo ID when checking in; 10+ to participate, $69 pp; admission is not required nor included).

(For additional tour information, contact the reservations center at 888-800-5447.)

Insider Tips

You can get the most out of your visit with advance planning, which you can do at the website, http://seaworldparks.com/en/buschgardens-tampa/.

I would start off with the time schedule of the shows and animal activities (available online), plot them out on a map (you can get online), and plug in the rides and attractions you want to take advantage of (check online if any of the rides are closed for maintenance for when you visit). Keep in mind wait times can be long. You can save time by making reservations for special tours and even purchasing tickets in advance, printing them out at home so you bypass the lines altogether.

Here are more insider tips:

See the animals at their most active: Visit habitats in the morning or evening when the weather is cooler.

Meet an animal trainer: “Meet the Keeper” times are posted at most of the major animal habitats, or check out the schedule on the back of your park map to help plan your day. Typically, up-close encounters are often scheduled around the animals’ feeding times. The trainers clearly love sharing their knowledge and their experience, and the information they provide is fascinating.

Stump the staff: Stop anyone in the park wearing a green shirt and a name tag, and ask them for a random fact about their favorite animal. The Zoo education staff members are experts on cool information about animals.

Know before you go: Check signs in the front of the park to see if any rides are closed for the day. Then, plan your day accordingly.

Make a plan: Most people approach theme parks in clock-wise patterns. Start in the back of theme parks and work your way forward to beat the lines.

Don’t get soaked: If you want to ride water rides but remain dry, you have two options: wear a poncho, or bring a spare change of clothes. Ponchos are available at all Busch Gardens Tampa gift shops. Use sandwich-sized plastic bags to keep cell phones, money and other valuables safe and dry while enjoying water rides. Or, take advantage of lockers located next to all major attractions to keep a change of clothes dry so you can enjoy the rest of your day without squishy shoes.

Stay safe, stay connected: If you are visiting the park with small children, stop by Guest Relations to receive children’s wristbands. Parents can write all their contact information on the wristbands for children, just in case they become separated from their family.

Beat the crowd: Most guests eat lunch between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., so plan on eating lunch earlier or later than usual. Also, peak meal times are the best times to beat the lines at your favorite rides like Cheetah Hunt and SheiKra

Beat the heat: Florida temperatures can get quite high – especially in the middle of the day – and the humid weather can drain your energy. Cool off at misting fans located throughout the park and carry a water bottle with you to refill at water fountains located near every restroom. Don’t forget hats, sunglasses and sunscreen, and save water rides, air-conditioned attractions and shows for the mid-day heat.

Busch Gardens Tampa is located at the corner of Busch Boulevard and 40th Street (address to the main parking entrance: 10165 N McKinley Dr, Tampa, FL 33612). There are all sorts of pricing options, including combination tickets with SeaWorld's other attractions, and the park is worth a multi-day visit if you want to fully enjoy the animal attractions, shows as well as rides, 888-800-5447, buschgardens.com.

Karen Rubin, National Eclectic Travel Examiner

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