It's date night at Busch Gardens, which means a moonlit visit with nocturnal creatures, hand-feeding giraffes that are as gentle as house pets and tour guides in pith helmets who seem right out of Monty Python's central casting, ready for a silly walk or a tall tale of jungle cats and man-eating hippos.
This month, Busch Gardens brought back its Serengeti Night Safari, a two-hour Saturday night tour for $60 a person, 21 and older only. They lay out appetizers, an open bar of beer, wine and sodas, and set up free photos with our good-natured guides. You get fireside African folktales; take a bumpy ride through the grazing zones of zebras, rhinos and nuzzling giraffes; and end the night with desserts and coffee drinks.
But first, the human creatures graze on shrimp and hummus, and raid the bar. The standard cocktail party fare disappears within a half-hour to get the group moving, so arrive on time if you want your share.
Visitors are given wrought-iron lanterns and head out on foot on a dark "game path" to the home of the hippos, who are starting to wake up for the night, leaving the safety of the watering hole to graze until dawn.
Forget the fat dancers in tutus in Fantasia. The hippopotamuses in the wild are mean, nasty, protective beasts that have been known to tip canoes and chomp in half the boatmen who made the mistake of getting between a mother and her calf, says our guide Charles Hughes, an ex-librarian from Gibraltar who relishes his role as teller of folktales. With a red-light beam of a low frequency the animals can't see, we get to see the cute fatsos as Hughes tells us stories of explorers and their close calls with the hippo.
Then it's on to the hippos' neighbor, a Nile crocodile that looks like the swollen-bellied croc from Hook, and lions getting fed fresh meat.
The downright friendly-looking spotted hyena is in her den with a worker tossing food. She begs for mashed balls of muscle, bone and sinew like a golden retriever.
For the second half of the tour we get night-vision goggles, and Rachel Morrison, 22, is giggly with triumph. The college student is giving her boyfriend his best birthday present ever, she gloats.
"This is like an adventure for adults," she gushes. "I would have spent at least this much on a nice dinner out or something, but he loves animals, and this was perfect."
Her boyfriend, fellow student Robert Rodriguez, 26, is happy to concede as he takes a picture of her trying out the night goggles. "It's a great date night."
We load into the back of a flatbed truck and hang onto the sides for a bumpy ride into the park's Serengeti Plain to see the free-roaming herds of zebra, rhinos and giraffes.
We pull up alongside a half-dozen of the long-limbed beauties with eyes as big as tennis balls staring placidly at the excited tourists flashing cameras. Finally, what looks like a 15-footer ambles closer and puts his horselike face into the crowd, gently pulling lettuce leaves out of eager hands.
For what seems like 10 minutes, he doesn't flinch as the visitors yelp and gush and pose and pet and go gaga.
"Can you believe this?" Rodriguez says. "This was the best birthday ever."