If you're looking to escape the fairy tale land of Orlando theme parks and experience something a little less Hollywood, add Busch Gardens Africa to your list while visiting Tampa Bay and the greater Central Florida region.
As a native Floridian who did the annual theme park circuit for family vacations, I count Busch Gardens as the attraction I'd return to most. The park offers something for everyone: screams for the adults while diving face down on SheiKra; laughs for the kids at Pirates 4-D; and plenty of "lighter" experiences for grandparents, like a train ride around the Serengeti Plain.
I lived within a 10-block radius of Busch Gardens for eight years and have watched parking become more bearable with renovated lots and traffic patterns, and the rides become more exciting, with additions like Gwazi, the only wooden roller coaster at the park.
Some things have remained classic must-do's and others you can skip if you're running out of time or forced to decide between one more ride on Montu or catching the last show of KaTonga for the day.
Here are my tips for making the most of your visit.
SELECTING TICKETS: Automated ticket machines have helped eliminate one line while visiting. Go one step further and purchase a ticket on the Internet, print out the receipt and then scan the barcode at the machine to retrieve your ticket and walk right into the park.
The park offers several options for ticket purchases that give guests unlimited return visits for a period of time. The cheapest of theses options is the Fun Card, which offers unlimited admission through the end of the year. For a little more, a year-to-date passport does the same thing, plus gives you several discounts and bonuses that the Fun Card doesn't, like free parking.
For the frugal, an EZpay option online allows you to make monthly payments on your pass. It's useful for a family of many on a tight budget, but advisable only if you plan to return often and make that monthly debit from your checking account worthwhile. Otherwise, you're stuck paying all year for a one-time experience. Unsure which pass is best for your wallet, check out a chart on Busch Gardens Web site that lays it out nicely with the perks of each option highlighted.
WHERE TO STAY: Redevelopment in the neighborhood between Interstate 275 and Busch Gardens along Busch Boulevard has started picking up in the last year or so. But not enough that I consider it a recommended place to find lodging. The neighborhood still remains fairly transient, and having reported on an elderly couple being robbed and beaten in 2001 at a Busch Boulevard hotel as they got ready to spend the day at the park, I'm less than eager to suggest staying there.
Hotels on nearby Fowler Avenue put you in close proximity to Busch Gardens and next to grocery stores, a mall and several chain restaurants. Choices in the area will range in price and quality from a Motel 6 to a LaQuinta and a Best Western.
If staying in downtown Tampa or close to the airport is preferred, the travel time to Busch Gardens shouldn't exceed 30 minutes, barring any major traffic snarls.
FOOD: You already know the drill: theme park food is expensive. But after an exhausting day, you're likely to give in for the convenience of eating and feeding your hungry kids. Busch Gardens offers a decent family dinning experience at its Crown Colony House, where children eat free with a paid adult entree. It has a very southern style to it and outdoor seating so you can look out onto the Serengeti Plain while you eat.
The more adventurous who feel like taking a break from the park for a more economical meal should carefully venture across Busch Boulevard. There, you will find family pleasers like KFC and McDonald's.
If you can't bring yourself to pay upwards of $4 for a bottle of water that you usually buy for 99 cents at the gas station, don't worry. Walk up to an attendant where fountain drinks are sold and ask for a cup of iced water. It's free!
And for the 21 and older crowd who heard about the free beer samples at the Hospitality House, sorry folks. The last free draft got poured the week of Jan. 18.
RIDES: No doubt the roller coasters and water rides give Busch Gardens an edge thrill seekers won't find at an Orlando amusement park.
SheiKra remains the only dive coaster in Florida — a floorless coaster that drops you at a 90-degree angle, topping speeds at 70 mph. The wait for this newest coaster at Busch Gardens can last up to 90 minutes. But it's worth it — at least once. They say stadium seating makes every seat feel like the front way. But there's still something about being at the very front of this coaster that can't be beat. Wait for it if you have the patience and the time. I have yet been able to keep my eyes open on that first dive.
I remember Kumba as a big hit when it first opened. It's as smooth a ride as a Cadillac, and even on days when the park is crowded, the line moves quickly.
Gwazi, the park's wooden roller coaster, is great if you like that traditional carnival feel. But for me, it's a bit too rocky. I've had the most fun on it after it has rained. The tracks feel a little slicker and you tend to zoom a bit faster. This ride has two sides, a lion and tiger. The jury is still out on which side has more speed. Try them both and pick your favorite.
In Timbuktu, you'll find the Scorpion, a jarring little roller coaster whose color reminds me of the old Tampa Bay Buccaneer uniforms. Like those old school Bucs jerseys, this ride is outdated. Skip it. You'll spend more time in line that you will getting a thrill.
Hands down, Montu is my personal favorite. The zigzag line can look a little intimidating, but it's really not that bad. Montu has a longer track than SheiKra and lasts longer than Gwazi.
Check out a more detailed report by tbt*'s Jay Cridlin about the rollercoasters.
If water rides are your thing, the Congo River Rapids is most enjoyable. People who don't get on can stand on a ledge with water cannons and shoot at the riders.
Children too young or too small to get on some of these rides don't have to feel left out. There are splash zones for SheiKra and the Tidal Wave where they can get wet and feel like part of the action — with mom or dad's approval, of course.
If the wait time on any coaster says 30 minutes, go ahead and jump into the line. Chances are it's moving a lot faster, especially if you visit during the week.
There's plenty of rides for children in the Timbuktu area, including an arcade for the gamers. Younger tots may be more suited for climbing around through the mazes in the Land of the Dragons.
SHOWS: The traditional sit-down shows are limited at Busch Gardens. There's Pirates 4-D, best described as a version of the Home Alone series if it were set on an island, with the comedic acting of Leslie Neilson as the No. 1 villain. It's a show that even the adults can enjoy with a few simulated surprises, like puffs of air under your seat and water squirted in your face to go along with the 3-D action on the screen.
Just as entertaining is hearing from some of the zoo keepers who come out and do demonstrations with the animals and tell you information about them. Check your park guide for these encounters, which take place if the weather permits.
The crown jewel of all shows has to be KaTonga. This tale of the jungle involves some semi-impressive acrobatics along with dancing and phenomenal singing. Plus, the Morocco Palace Theater is the nicest theater you'll visit at the park.
• Busch Gardens offers a kennel if you're traveling with your pet. The cost is $7 with a discount for pass holders.
• If it rains, Busch Gardens gives a complimentary ticket valid for a return trip within six days. Stop by Guest Services to get yours. We Floridians have a saying: If you don't like the weather, wait five minutes and it'll change.
• Pack an extra pair of socks if you plan on getting on any of the water rides. No seat is safe from being splashed. Carry a pair of flip flops to walk around in while your sneakers dry. Otherwise, your fresh pair of socks will get wet and you'll still be sloshing around the park. You'll find lockers right near the entrance of the park that you can use for the day.
• Closing times vary for the park depending on the day and the season. Check online before going to make sure you allot enough time to do what you want. Daily park guides are printed with a schedule of the shows for easy references.