TAMPA — After 36 years, Busch Gardens is retiring its Timbuktu section of the park and replacing it with Pantopia, a themed land with shops and eateries anchored by Falcon's Fury, a 335-foot drop tower ride.
The newly imagined area will be Busch Gardens' first rebranded land since Sesame Street Safari of Fun opened in 2010. Both Pantopia and Falcon's Fury are scheduled to open in late spring.
"This is considered a major expansion for the park,'' said Brian Morrow, creative director of SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment, who is heading up the project at sister park Busch Gardens. "It's a big deal.''
The project gives a much needed facelift to the park's center section known as Timbuktu, which opened in 1978. Vibrant colors like sunlit topaz, crimson velvet and plum jam will replace the outdated peach and light blue.
Inspired by a mystical "Key Master'' who dropped from the sky in a hot air balloon, Pantopia will expand the park's retail and food options and give people too scared to ride Falcon's Fury a place to relax, shop and eat. The Painted Camel Bazaar will sell souvenirs, jewelry, toys and apparel; Lynx Frozen Treats will have snow cones, sweets and smoothies, a first for the park.
Busch Gardens is repainting some of the land's existing rides and adding new venues. Twisted Tails Pretzels, a bakery selling fresh-rolled pretzels and craft beer, will take over Timbuktu's arcade, and the "Sitting Place'' rest area/beer garden will replace Sahara Snacks. Most of the carnival games will remain, and the carousel's canopy will be revamped to resemble a caravan tent.
Outside the to-be-renamed Desert Grill, Busch Gardens is adding the Dragon Fire Grill with meat and vegetables served on a stick. A new snack shop will serve kettle corn, turkey legs, potato twisters and chicken strips. Thousands of keys of varying sizes will be scattered throughout the more than 5-acre section devoted to the spirit of animals and adventure-seeking travelers. Jewels, twinkling lights and lanterns will adorn the buildings and attractions.
A key part of the project is the renovation of the Timbutku Theater, which has previously held shows involving pirates, Sesame Street and a haunted lighthouse. The Pantopia Theater will house a new animal show called Last Chance Critters based on the Critters Castaway show that's relocating from the closing Bird Gardens Theater.
Park officials started developing Pantopia a year ago after creating plans for Falcon's Fury, which will be the tallest, free-standing drop tower in North America. It will lift guests into the air in seats that tilt forward 90 degrees when it reaches the top, putting riders facedown as they fall to the ground.
"It's the closest experience to skydiving without having to get into an airplane,'' said Jeff Hornick, Busch Gardens' director of design and engineering.
Falcon's Fury will accommodate about 800 people an hour, compared to nearly 1,200 for the SheiKra roller coaster. The ride will have a shaded queue area designed for a 45-minute wait, but officials expect initial lines to be much longer.
Designed by Intaride, a U.S. subsidiary of Swiss roller coaster maker Intamin, the Falcon's Fury has a lightning protection system that directs strikes to the ground and is capable of withstanding Florida's hurricane-force winds, Hornick said. It will have a height minimum for riders that hasn't been set yet.
The opening of Falcon's Fury, and the entire Pantopia, marks Busch Gardens' newest attempt at competing with Central Florida's top theme parks. It follows the opening of SeaWorld's Antarctica and Disney's Fantasyland at the Magic Kingdom.
Pantopia is expected to open a few months before another highly anticipated new land: Harry Potter's Diagon Alley at Universal Studios in Orlando.
Susan Thurston can be reached at email@example.com or (813)225-3110. Follow her on Twitter @susan_thurston.