TAMPA — Brightly costumed clowns on stilts greeted their special Busch Gardens guests, directing those stranded by the volcano to guest services.
A long line of European tourists, mostly from England, clutched plastic bags containing passports and printouts of their canceled itineraries, proof they'd been grounded by Iceland's volcanic ash cloud.
Since Saturday, Orlando's SeaWorld and Aquatica and Tampa's Busch Gardens have been offering a free one-day admission to anyone stranded by the ash cloud.
By Tuesday, about 2,500 tourists had taken advantage of the offer, said Busch Gardens spokeswoman Jill Revelle. Another 8,000 visited SeaWorld and Aquatica.
"We heard about the deal from other tourists and went out and looked it up on the website," said Graham Shafto, who has been staying in Orlando with his family and another from England. "We're hoping to get on a flight tomorrow, but if that doesn't happen, we've been told it could take up to two weeks to get out."
It could be worse, he said, but like other Europeans flocking to Busch Gardens Tuesday, Shafto was eager to get back to work and to get his children back in school. Besides, being stranded here is costing a lot more money than they had planned.
Britain lifted its flight ban Tuesday night, though visitors still may have to wait days to return home. Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando also decided Tuesday to offer free admission to stranded tourists through today.
Graham and Coreen Eastes, also from England, were traveling with their 13-year-old daughter and her friend. They were supposed to leave Friday and are $2,000 over budget, they said. Free tickets help.
"We only have a handful of dollars left," Graham Eastes said.
Matthias Daub, chaperoning a group of disabled adults from Berlin, said the group's parents were worried. They were supposed to fly home over the weekend and now hope to fly back Monday to Germany, one of several European countries that allowed incoming and departing flights to resume Tuesday.
Eruptions from the Eyjafjallajokull (ay-yah-FYAH-lah-yer-kuhl) volcano appeared to weaken Monday, Iceland authorities reported, but the volcanic ash in the air continued to blow toward Britain.
More than 6.8 million passengers have been affected, according to European airport officials, and thousands have been sleeping at airports.
Tampa International Airport has only one flight a day to England, spokeswoman Brenda Geoghagan said, so the backup of travelers hasn't been as dramatic as at other Florida international airports. Orlando typically has five flights a day to England, she said.
Sheila McChesney, innkeeper at St. Pete Beach's Inn On the Beach, said she has two British couples who are supposed to fly back home Thursday.
"They don't know what's going on, and everything online is vague," she said. "But there are worse places to be stranded than here. They just don't want to end up being stuck in Newark for however long."
Shafto said his family and their friend scrambled to secure rooms in Orlando when they learned they would be stuck. He also got Thrifty car rental to extend their minivan rental for $40 a day.
Beyond the free Busch Gardens admission, the families would have to come up with more free or inexpensive ways to pass the time.
Across the Atlantic Ocean, Dennis Griffin of St. Petersburg was supposed to fly out of London's Gatwick Airport on Saturday and now is scheduled to fly home April 28. The airport is a ghost town, he said in an e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times, and a nearby launderette is filled with Americans washing clothes.
It's a political and economic mess in Europe, the retired Bay Point Middle School principal said in the e-mail, and "every one is pointing fingers at each other." News reports have said about 100,000 British travelers are stranded abroad.
"Been some amazing stories on the television," Griffin said in his e-mail, "about Brits who have been trying to get back."
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Emily Nipps can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8452.