Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Busch Gardens Tampa Bay serves up Christmas show with plants as stars

When the sun sets on Busch Gardens tonight, a new glow will light the Dark Continent (as we longtime locals insist on calling our resident theme park).

Virtually every tree has been wrapped in twinkle. A gazillion lights will color a whole new world: more than 5,500 poinsettias, many arranged as Christmas trees; life-size topiaries to rival the sphagnum moss characters at Epcot's Flower and Garden Festival; themed villages featuring mass displays of dramatic blooms.

There will be tons of snow to play in, a kids' train in Gwazi, penguins in Nairobi, special shows, special food vendors, and a special guy in a red, fur-trimmed suit.

But for Joe Parr, Busch Gardens' horticulture director, the stars of the new Christmas Town attraction are the plants. (Okay, and the lights. He's really excited about the lights.)

"I can't wait to come at night," he said. "I have friends from all over the place visiting, and I can't wait to bring them to see it.

"This is long overdue on the west coast of Florida."

• • •

For 13 years, Tampa's theme park has hosted an after-hours celebration of the dark holiday, Halloween. The Christmas transformation is on the same scale, sans the horror. I got a good perspective from Amanda Dodge, a Busch spokeswoman who's been on the job for less than a year.

"I'm so excited for Friday," she said as she walked me through the park a week ago. "I just loved Howl-O'-Scream. It became a totally different park at night. It'll be the same for Christmas Town.

"This shop?" she noted as we strolled through Santa's Christmas Workshop, with its cheery holiday clothing, ornaments and nutcrackers. "It was the Shop of Horrors during Halloween. There were blood and guts against that wall."

Joe and his team helped set that scene, with ho-ho-ho-less strangler figs and eerie, wart-covered gourds. Flipping 180 degrees to merry-merry is brand new.

In all its 53 years, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay (it was Busch Gardens: the Dark Continent from 1976 to the '90s) has never gone crazy for Christmas — at least not that I can remember. And I do remember. Once upon a Serengeti, the park's edgiest thrill ride was the escalator to the top of the brewery. Busch did exotic plants and birds, free beer and, eventually, roller coasters. Christmas was some decorations, a couple of special shows and holiday music.

This is so much more.

Planning for the park's first Christmas party began in January. Joe started shopping just a few months later.

"I spent a lot of time looking at different poinsettias," he said. "If I'm going to have red poinsettias, I want the really vibrant, deep red. Something that will knock your socks off."

He chose the Freedom series.

But he also wanted something different. After lots of perusing, he chose Glitter, a variety with sparkly splashes of white on deep red bracts. He also liked Ice Crystal's marbled peach and salmon hues. And he threw in some Christmas Rose — poinsettias with rounded bracts that kinda-sorta resemble rose petals. (Look for these unusual varieties just past the turnstiles after you enter the park and at the steps of the Crown Colony Restaurant.)

"They all do real well in Florida," Joe said. "If you have the typical warm spell, they'll do well, and if it gets chilly they'll do well."

Joe bought his from Knox Nursery's wholesale division; the company also has a retail outlet, Knox Nursery Garden Center in Winter Garden.

Closer to home, I found Ice Crystal at Duncheon's Nursery in Land O' Lakes. Duncheon's also sells a "rose" variety, vibrant red Winter Rose, which is trimmed as a small standard.

To help make those colors pop, Joe likes annuals — most of which can be perennials here: silver Dusty Miller, alyssum ("It makes a nice, snowy accent … and fragrant, too!" he said), white impatiens and Diamond Frost, a super popular Proven Winners variety of Euphorbia that makes even plant slayers like me feel competent.

For alyssum, I heartily recommend Proven Winners' Snow Princess. It's more heat-tolerant than other varieties, so it doesn't die when we warm up in March. (I've had Snow Princess plants do well in the ground for two or three years.)

• • •

Joe and his team have created displays I couldn't replicate in my wildest dreams. But I'm not above borrowing. In Nairobi, you'll find a zebra harnessed to a Santa's sleigh covered in poinsettias. In my yard, that could become my little armadillo statue toting a kid's wagon full of Diamond Frost. (So what if my armadillo is laying on his back and sucking down a beer? Decorating is all about riffing on other people's big ideas!)

Go for ideas, or go and just enjoy — Joe will be happy either way.

"It's gonna be fun," he said. "Sphagnum moss looking like the Holy Trinity? That's just amazing."

Contact Penny Carnathan at Check out more Central Florida gardening on her blog,, join in the chat on Facebook at Diggin Florida Dirt or follow her on Twitter, @digginpenny.

>> If you go

Christmas Town

When: 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays through Sundays through Dec. 23

Where: Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, 10165 N McKinley Drive, Tampa

Admission: $14.99 for ages 3 to 9; $39.99 for all others (discounts available for online, advance purchases)


Source: Busch Gardens

Busch Gardens Tampa Bay serves up Christmas show with plants as stars 11/29/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 27, 2012 6:39pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. No. 12 FSU, freshman QB James Blackman struggle in 27-21 loss to N.C. State


    TALLAHASSEE — Whatever was left of No. 12 Florida State's College Football Playoff hopes suffered a massive, likely fatal, blow Saturday at Doak Campbell Stadium.

    Florida State Seminoles wide receiver Nyqwan Murray (8) carries during the first quarter of the Florida State Seminoles game against the North Carolina State Wolfpack on September 23, 2017, at Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee, Fla.  At the half, North Carolina State Wolfpack 17, Florida State Seminoles 10.
  2. Trump tells Warriors star Stephen Curry that White House visit is off


    SOMERSET, N.J. — Stephen Curry and President Donald Trump agree on one thing: The Golden State star is not going to the White House anytime soon.

    Golden State Warriors' Stephen Curry poses for photos during NBA basketball team media day Friday, Sept. 22, 2017, in Oakland, Calif. [Associated Press]
  3. For starters: Rays at Orioles, facing another old friend in Jeremy Hellickson


    UPDATE, 3:29: Here is the Rays lineup, with Duda at 1B and Morrison the DH:

  4. Pinellas construction licensing board needs to be fixed. But how?

    Local Government

    LARGO –– Everyone agrees that the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board needs to be reformed. But no one agrees on how to do it.

    Rodney Fischer, former executive director of the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board Rodney, at a February meeting. His management of the agency was criticized by an inspector general's report. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]

  5. Charles Bradley, acclaimed Florida soul singer, dies at 68


    Acclaimed Florida R&B powerhouse Charles Bradley, whose raw, pained voice earned him the nickname the Screaming Eagle of Soul, has died of cancer at 68, his representatives announced Saturday.

    Charles Bradley performed at the 2016 Gasparilla Music Festival.