BUSCH GARDENS 10165 N McKinley Drive, Tampa
Tour: Elephant Insider
What you see: Imagine wandering into a barn that is so massive you wonder what could live there. Then you look up. Everything is up high and big because elephants have trunks and they like to play — with locks, gates, light fixtures, hoses, you name it. Nothing is safe in the Pachyderm Palace.
The first thing you see is one of the mammoth animals behind a large steel gate. You must stay at least 8 feet and a trunk's length away from the gate. During the tour, you are close but there are always barriers, or protected contact, between guests and the elephants.
At the gate, you get fruits and veggies to feed the elephants: apples, pears and potatoes. It's one of two chances you have to feed the vegetarians, which consume up to 200 pounds of food and 50 gallons of water each day. You'll be amazed at their delicate touch, picking up a single grape or piece of popcorn without crushing it in their trunks.
As you walk through the health station, where the elephants are weighed, brushed and cared for, it leads you out to the habitat. There the "girls" are able to be themselves while you listen to the trainers talk about keeping them stimulated by throwing them parties or giving them different activities.
Did you know? Because of the nature of Asian elephants, the herd is generally all female. The elephants at Busch Gardens are all females — Tina, Simba, Carina, Karnauldi, Rosie, ages 20-43. Males are solitary.
Wow factor: The elephants are giant. No, you don't understand. You see them from a seat at the circus or from 20 feet away in the habitat at the park, and you think they are big. But during the insider tour, you're less than 10 feet away and the animals are massive. The largest Asian elephant in the park weighs 8,300 pounds.
Another wow: Hearing Simba trumpet as the keepers gave her a sort of "drum roll" on the side gates of her cage. It was magnificent.
What's missing: Well, true contact with the elephants. For that, you'll need to pay nearly $200 and then you can spend about 90 minutes with the elephants and be like the trainers.
Is it worth it: You bet. For about $20, you get to feed the elephants, see them go through their routine and hear about their habits from the keepers.
Details, details: $19.95 for the 45-minute tour. Ages 10 and older; no wheelchairs because of the hike you take to get up close and personal. Park admission is required.
Sherry Robinson, Times staff writer
Tour: Roller Coaster Insider
What you get: This tour is for the gearhead who loves to see how things go fast — really fast. But there's also a lot of discussion about how brakes work, which is really important on a roller coaster that has a top speed of more than 60 mph.
The Montu roller coaster opened in 1996 with two trains and now has four. But one of them is always in the shop. Why? Safety. The seats are taken off and cleaned. Gears and connectors are checked. It takes about eight months to do all the maintenance. On the tour you get to see this train too — or really the skeleton of it.
There's also a lot of geeky talk about things like kicker feeder tires (they move the trains along) and sensors. If you're really into roller coasters, you'll hang on every word. If not, just play along until you get to ride it.
Did you know: If there is lightning within a 5-mile radius, all the rides are shut down. And Montu takes you 150 feet up and then drops you 128 feet to its lowest point.
Wow factor: Climbing the stairs of the braking platform that is just under the tracks as Montu rumbles overhead at about 40 mph. The-e-e-e-e-se st-st-st-stairs g-g-g-get r-r-r-r-really sh-sh-sh-shaky! You think they're going to topple over, but good thing they don't: They are experienced in rescuing riders if the coaster breaks down.
Another Wow: Riding the coaster. Montu is my son's favorite and he enjoyed the chance to ride in the back for the first time. After all, on this tour you get to go to the head of the line and ride wherever you want to.
Anything else: When you're walking back from the stairway to the ride, be forewarned: Riders either spit out or lose their chewing gum as they take a spin. As you walk back, you might step in some gum or find some loose change. Keep your eyes peeled.
What's missing: Getting to operate the ride. But it's probably a good thing they don't trust that to amateurs.
Is it worth it: If you love physics and learning how things go, this is the tour for you.
Details: $19.95 for the 45-minute tour. Ages 14 and older; no wheelchairs. Park admission is also required.
Sherry Robinson, Times staff writer