For anyone who has said Busch Gardens doesn't have enough for little kids, it's time to plan another visit. • Sesame Street Safari of Fun opened at the Tampa theme park Saturday, with kid-sized rides, water play areas, climbing activities and shops devoted to the lovable Elmo and his friends.
The biggest draw is Air Grover, a mini, but still thrilling, roller coaster that kids can ride with their parents. My 3-year-old daughter loved it for the first few seconds until we plunged down the hill and spun around in tight circles. She screamed (not in delight) the entire time.
Fortunately for her, but too bad for coaster lovers, the ride lasted about 30 seconds and she didn't have the chance to get too traumatized. Seconds later, I'm not even sure she knew what happened.
In any case, it was her first roller coaster ride, and I declared it a success. At least she got on.
Other Sesame rides were just her speed. She loved the swings (Rosita's Djembe Fly-Away), which were not too high and not too fast. And, to my surprise, she wasn't afraid of the flume ride (Zeo-patra and the Hippos of the Nile). Another first.
As a mom of a preschooler, I was grateful to see rides designed for my daughter's age. Never once did I have to drag her away because she wasn't big enough — the most evil words spoken at any theme park. Nor did I give in and let her ride something I really thought was too old for her.
In fact, some rides at Safari of Fun are limited to kids under a certain height. The Count's Zambezi Rally, a mini version of the race car ride at Disney that always seems to have long lines, caps the height at 56 inches. The swings, at 42.
Children who don't fit the parameters still have plenty to do, from character meet-and-greets to the musical show, A is for Africa, at the Sunny Day Theater (the only place the characters speak).
Bert & Ernie's Watering Hole has geysers, jets and dumping buckets that toddlers — and plenty of older kids — love. Forget your bathing suit? Sesame Street, the monster marketer, has you covered. The Cookie Monster's Trading Post sells Elmo and Zoe suits, towels, sandals, waterproof cameras and even underwear. Adorable stuff, to be sure. Just check the prices. Cute bathing suits aren't bad for $19.99. Cute Elmo crocs are pricey at $34.99.
Elmo's Treehouse Trek and Cookie Monster's Canopy Crawl are fun things to do with the kids without having to squeeze through tubes on your hands and knees. The three-story treehouse offers good photo ops and views. I found myself laughing as we traversed the netted canopy as people walked underneath us. Great mother/daughter bonding.
The bouncy room looked fun but proved difficult for my daughter, who got tossed around by the bigger kids and started to cry. No big deal. She found her footing next door at Slimey's Sahara Sand, a big sand box with trucks, shovels and buckets.
All said and done, the Safari of Fun is a park within a park. I could see myself going to Busch Gardens and not venturing outside Sesame Street, although the new Sesame Street Lights, Camera, Imagination! 4-D show is worth the long walk to Timbuktu. Busch Gardens did parents a service by putting Sesame near the park entrance.
Of course, something so fun and new is bound to attract crowds, and I'm sure a ton of people have already signed up for the 2010 free pass for Florida kids ages 5 and younger. (If you haven't, go to sesamestreetsafarioffun.com.)
That leads me to wonder if Safari of Fun will live up to its name on a sunny Saturday during high season. As charmingly small as the rides are, will they be able to handle long lines? Will preschoolers revolt and parents retreat?
All this seemed like party-pooper chatter last week when Busch Gardens offered media, bloggers and invited parents a sneak peek. We whirled in Big Bird's Ferris wheel, rode on Elmo's merry-go-round and splashed in Oscar's Swamp Stomp.
We came and played. Everything was A-OK.
Susan Thurston can be reached at [email protected]