With Busch Gardens' new Christmas Town extravaganza, running weekends through Dec. 23, the Tampa haven of scary coasters turns light and bright — and even snowy — to entertain the family. Yes, you can still fa-la-laaaa 200 feet down on SheiKra. But now you can do it while wearing a zebra-print Santa hat.
Considering the relatively low price point (advance online tickets with promo codes sell for $29.99 for adults, $9.99 for kids), we were impressed with the quality of the dozens of light displays at the event's opening weekend, though we wonder if there's going to be a crowd control issue if this becomes a massive hit.
The new separate-ticket attraction runs from 6 to 11 p.m. Fridays through Sundays. The top half of the park goes dark (alas, no Jungala) but BG's entrance and lower half are all Griswolded up with real snow, special shopping, themed food (hubcap-sized s'mores) and 80 miles of lights.
The crowds were small on opening night, which meant we literally walked right on the three major coasters that were open: Cheetah Hunt, SheiKra and Gwazi. That seems to be the trend for the non-Christmasy attractions, which is a boon for thrillseekers. But over in SnowWorld? Jammed. Santa's House? A looonnng wait. The Sing-A-Long Train? Be patient, carolers.
Our recommendation is to beeline for SnowWorld first. That's where they let 50 people in at a time to frolic in the snow and go tubing down small ice slides. Groups play for 10 minutes at a time, but the wait can grow to an hour-plus.
The same was true in the snow ball target range, where the line moves even slower. The park's elves hand you a bucket of snow and you get to make projectiles and hurl them at targets, ranging from faux store fronts to spinning weather vanes, until the bucket is empty. This took care of about eight people at a time who usually took five to eight minutes to empty their buckets — or until, as one kid cried out, "I can't feel my hands!"
Bring gloves to play in the "snow," since it's the consistency of the shaved ice of a Snow Cone. And don't think you can get away with lobbing a snowball at your hubby's head. The grinches at the gate warn no throwing snowballs at people.
Some more tips:
• Grab the 3-D glasses at the park entrance. They make the lights look like snowflakes.
• Even if you skip the Angels of Peace ice show at the Moroccan Palace, don't miss this section of the park decorated in icy blue and white lights. They are stunning. And a living angel statue in front of the giant white ice tree was a hoot, slyly gripping the back of a kid's hoodie as she stepped away from picture taking or caressing a little one's cheek.
• The Sesame Street zone has lots of characters roaming about, as well as kiddie rides. The trees here are in the colors of the characters. Big Bird's yellow tree is the tallest, natch.
• End the night with Christian rock band Jars of Clay, who perform a tight, tuneful 30-minute set each weekend. Or bring Grandma over for Jimmy Osmond's Holiday Jukebox in the Stanleyville Theater, where he offers a twice-nightly, half-hour revue.
Times staff writer Sean Daly contributed to this report.