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."
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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.)
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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 [email protected] Check out more Central Florida gardening on her blog, DigginFloridaDirt.com, join in the chat on Facebook at Diggin Florida Dirt or follow her on Twitter, @digginpenny.