By SHARON KENNEDY WYNNE
Times Staff Writer
Unlike a certain song, there will be snow in Africa this Christmas when Busch Gardens brings back Christmas Town, a series of holiday-themed evenings that dress up Tampa's tropical theme park in more than 1 million lights, hundreds of Christmas trees and a supersized snow play area.
The big surprise in the park's first Christmas Town last year was the huge popularity of the snow. You could walk right onto the SheiKra ride, but there was a two-hour wait to throw a snowball.
This year, the park has added more nights for Christmas Town and expanded the snow play area, giving suntanned visitors 15,000 square feet of specially made snow to play in, with eight snow slides in 108,000 cubic feet of ice crystals to make a snowman or two.
"It's going to be in a completely different area and triple the size, so we anticipate the crowds moving much more efficiently than last year," said Busch Gardens spokesman Travis Claytor.
The separate-ticket attraction runs from 6 to 11 p.m. for 18 nights through Dec. 23. Part of the park will go dark, so the only coasters open will be SheiKra, Gwazi and Cheetah Hunt. The Sesame Street kiddie rides will be open, as will some of the smaller rides in Timbuktu such as the Scorpion, Sand Serpent and the Sky Ride.
New this year is a cashless wristband system to make paying easier. The Jungala area, which was dark during last year's festivities, will have a new huge Christmas tree that comes alive every 15 minutes with dancing lights.
There is also a new show, Elmo's Christmas Wish, and Madagascar Live! Operation: Christmas Vacation features Gloria, Alex, King Julien and the penguins. What the park describes as "fun and colorful holographic ornaments" fill the trees overhead on the plaza pathway leading to the show.
Returning this year are the Christmas carol sing-along train and the Claus family's North Pole home, with Mrs. Claus in the kitchen baking holiday treats and Santa taking photos with families in his study. The Christmas Town penguins will be at the newly expanded Penguin Point, complete with a giant penguin photo opportunity in the Nairobi area.
The ice skating show Angels of Peace: A Christmas Journey on Ice also returns this year.
Local church choirs, school choruses and professional performance groups from around Florida will perform at the Marrakesh Theater. Performance groups will change nightly and feature traditional, classic and new holiday ballads.