Who knew Tampa nightlife could be so animalistic?
Busch Gardens' new Serengeti Night Safari is an evening out gone wild. The only stipulation: You have to be 21 or older, and you should probably keep your clothes on.
The laid-back excursion — a welcome contrast from the daylight park routine — kicks off Saturday night, immediately after sunset, and will run most Friday and Saturday nights through February.
For $60, you get an after-hours tour of the park's majestic creatures on a pleasurable, make-believe safari that includes snacks, informational tidbits, libations and a campfire break.
Bill Street, Busch Gardens' coordinator of education and conservation, came up with the night safari idea two years ago when he participated in a nighttime tour in South Africa.
Street got to work this past summer, working out the details and conducting research. His goal was to mirror as closely as possible an authentic nighttime safari.
"I thought, 'That's something we could bring to Tampa,' " Street said. "It's a fun time followed by a night cap and camaraderie, the ideal date-night option for couples looking for something new to do."
The safari starts with a meet 'n' greet in the Safari Club, a lounge that resembles a VIP gentleman's club. The food is surprisingly good for theme park fare. Some of it is familiar, like kebobs, hummus and spinach pies, and the rest is a little exotic, like kibbe and extra-yummy stuffed dates.
And to answer the question on just about everyone's mind: Yes, Anheuser-Busch beer is served during the Serengeti Night Safari — before the tour, at the campfire and afterward. So are soda and water. A comforting cup of coffee with African liqueur, served in a souvenir mug, plus sumptuous pastries, await at the end of the evening.
From the Safari Club, Busch Gardens staffers take you on a guided stroll through animal exhibits. Many animals are more active at night, a plus for those who bemoan slumbering beasts during daytime visits.
We're told the animals on display will vary. A visit this week featured hippopotami and an intriguing staredown between a lioness and a hyena.
An elaborate shutdown of lights helps provide an authentic outdoors ambiance and excuse to hold hands. The sky is star-studded and an outline of the tree-lined plain is a little breathtaking. Guests with night-vision challenges should have no trouble navigating the clear and well-guided paths.
After the stroll, trucks carry guests across the plain (like on the Edge of Africa tour) to get up close to giraffes, ostriches, bongos and other creatures. Night-vision monoculars help people see what the guides don't illuminate with their soft red flashlights.
Halfway through, the trucks stop at a campfire near a crash of rhinos. On our visit, a park employee showed off a furry friend, Jack Hanna-style. It was a hyrax, a creature that looks like a guinea pig but is more closely related to manatees and elephants.
After the hyrax show-and tell session, the two actor-tour guides on staff, "Victoria" and "Charles," tell old African fables, projecting heartily in faux British accents. It can get old quickly, but on the whole, the guides' warmth and trusty leadership will win guests over.