Glen Young smiled as kids pointed down at the orangutan sacked out in a hammock just below their feet or peered eye-to-eye at a tiger with a head as big as a beach ball.
"Everybody says they cannot believe how big these animals are because we can get people so close to them," Young, vice president of zoo operations, said as Busch Gardens Africa showed off the theme park's new $40-million Jungala area to the media on Thursday.
Jungala will open to the public on Saturday. Its short-term mission: to give repeat visitors another reason to come back to Busch Gardens.
Today, a pack of 120 media, many of them from the United Kingdom and Brazil, move on to Orlando for the official opening of Aquatica, Anheuser-Busch Cos.' new water park, and to hear sketchy plans for opening a new coaster at Sea World Orlando in 2009.
A new headliner every year has become the cornerstone in the economic model of today's theme park. In the world's theme park capital of Central Florida, dropping out of the arms race can be fatal.
All five parks at Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando outperformed the industry in 2007. But Busch Gardens needed a big finish from its Halloween event to report a modest 1 percent increase in attendance to 4.5-million. Busch stretched a big attendance lift from the SheiKra thrill ride to three years by taking out the floors and marketing the new experience.
Jungala, which has space for 2,000 visitors, includes a huge splash area, a rope-climbing tower and two family rides designed to dish out thrills to kids ages 6 to 13. The Vivi Storehouse is now the Bengal Bistro, and a former ice cream stand serves up fresh-made sandwiches, salads and wraps as Orang Cafe.
"Guest research told us we had a gap to close for kids too old for Land of the Dragons and too young for SheiKra," said Donnie Mills, executive vice president and general manager.
The park's orangutans had been confined to a small, barren island, and parkgoers squinted to see the half dozen tigers snoozing in a sunny pit.
But Jungala is a verdant, waterfall-laden upgrade that doubles the number of tigers and orangutans and gives them up to 10 times more space to roam on rocky, multiple levels. Double chain-link fences, thick glass windows and steel or aluminum posts painted like bamboo allow people to get within a foot of the animals.
"It's the most unique habitat I've even seen," said Mark Gebel, former chief animal trainer for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. "You can get eye-to-eye with a tiger here like you would never want to in real life."
Mark Albright can be reached at email@example.com or