Busch Gardens unwraps a new tradition this weekend with Christmas Town, a series of holiday-themed evening attractions that dress up the tropical park in 80 miles of lights, with special shows and tons of blown-in snow. • This separate-ticket event, which opens Friday and runs weekends through Dec. 23, has been three years in the making, said Adam Bost, the project manager of Christmas Town. The company's Virginia theme park opened a Christmas Town four years ago. It proved to be such a success that the company soon turned its sights on the Florida park. • The only problem, Bost said, is Christmas is a natural fit in the Colonial-style buildings of Williamsburg, but this park is themed for Africa. • What does Christmas in Africa look like? • "You get to be more creative," Bost said. "I would never have put some of these colors together otherwise," he said as he stood in front of the park entrance's Moroccan archways rimmed with knotted cords of lights in purple, green, red and gold, like a bejeweled necklace found in a Casablanca marketplace. • "When guests come in we want to give them a big 'Wow,' " Bost said.
Over in the Cheetah Hunt zone, designers used the colors of the cheetah in an enormous 30-foot golden tree decorated with black garland, animal-print ornaments and exotic bird feathers.
"In keeping with our theme we had to start looking at what is the emotional feeling we are trying to convey?" director of productions Scott Swenson said, admiring the golden tree. "This to me celebrates the grandeur and majesty of nature."
Other theme parks in Florida have Christmas-themed tickets — Disney's Very Merry Christmas Party is twice the price at $54 to $65, but it also has fireworks, parades and a light show. But this is the first one to offer a snow play area.
Snow blowers have been working in the 10,000-square-foot SnowWorld play area nonstop for two weeks to make a gentle curving field of snow with drifts 4 feet deep. "We have Florida workers shoveling snow for the first time in their lives," Bost said.
The snow play area will have a slide, and kids can build a snowman — kind of like a sandbox of snow, to put it in a frame of reference for Florida parents. The cold stuff has the consistency of the shaved ice of a Sno Cone, so it would be a good idea to bring some mittens (the park will be selling gloves and hats, of course) as well as a change of socks or maybe galoshes. Kids' sneakers are going to end up cold and wet. Across the street from the snow play area will be a snowball target range.
Poinsettia Parkway is sure to be popular for picture taking with 15,000 bright red plants set up around the lane and in a 15-foot poinsettia tree. Large oak trees have their trunks wrapped in red lights — some 10,000 to 40,000 per tree. Follow the pink lights to Flamingo Valley, where dozens of real flamingos are honking in the background as LED flamingos fly overhead.
The courtyard in front of Gwazi will have a kiddie train decorated in "Gwazi green." The park's big Stanleyville train will be a "sing-along train" decked out for the holidays.
One of the most beautiful areas is Ice Wonder Way, a lane of ice-blue lights and special "acrylic ice trees" that are stunning, especially when lined up along a long path that leads to the Moroccan Palace, where an angel-inspired ice show takes place each night. Have the camera handy for this zone.
Along Candy Cane Lane, kids can visit Santa's House to meet the big guy and his elves. This is also where Mrs. Santa's dinner buffet will be held with stories, songs and a front-of-the line pass to Santa's House.
And just for Christmas Town, six African penguins have been brought in for a special display behind glass where you can watch them swim and play above and below water.
• In an unusual arrangement, Grammy-winning Christian rock band Jars of Clay will play every night of Christmas Town. So will Jimmy Osmond, the youngest of the famous Utah clan, who brings his Christmas Jukebox and his own kids and band singing Christmas tunes in the Stanleyville Theater.
• A show titled Carol of the Bells at the park's Crown Colony House restaurant features a choreographed six-minute presentation of music with light dancing across the facade of the stately building.
• Ice skaters will put on a snow-inspired show called Angels of Peace: A Christmas Journey on Ice in the Moroccan Palace.
• Strolling carolers will pop up throughout the park.
• Huggable snowmen will wander around for pictures and dance with guests. During a visit during rehearsals one of the instructors showed us how they had warned the 7-foot-tall snowmen about "the bad hug." A good hug is putting their puffy arms around a kid's shoulder. A giant looming snowman leaning over face-to-face? Nightmare hug.
• Santa's Christmas Workshop is the main shopping destination, with ornaments and stockings you can personalize, as well as gifts. The holiday must-have is bound to be the Santa hats in different patterns: cheetah, giraffe or white tiger.
• The gift shop Xcursions will have a show called Three Kings' Journey in which the gifts of the Magi are told in stories and song. The shop sells replicas of the kings and even a gift box of real gold, frankincense and myrrh.
• "Holiday cabins" that look like gingerbread houses will sell gifts made of carved wood or blown glass, personalized ornaments and food.
• Special food for the series includes turkey legs with a cranberry glaze, a warm ham sandwich on a pretzel roll, individual pot pies, Christmas cookies and decorated cupcakes, a Belgian waffle stand and "s'mores as big as your face," said Kelly Heckinger, park spokeswoman.
• Special drinks include cider, hot chocolate and egg nog — in both kiddie versions and spiked varieties for adults. The kids get a special Sprite Delight, a soda with candy cane flair added to it.