TAMPA — The new, star attraction at Busch Gardens isn't finished yet, but the themed land surrounding it is ready to debut.
Pantopia opens Thursday in the former section of the park called Timbuktu. The new area of shops and restaurants was designed to complement the park's highly anticipated Falcon's Fury, a 335-foot drop tower ride.
The focal point of Pantopia, Falcon's Fury was scheduled to open May 1 but has been delayed to allow for additional testing. No opening date has been set.
"Safety is our primary concern and once the ride has undergone all the ride and safety testing, then we'll open it up to guests,'' said Busch Gardens spokesman Travis Claytor.
Pantopia expands the park's food and retail offerings and gives a much-needed facelift to one of the park's oldest sections. The idea was to give visitors too scared to go on Falcon's Fury new places to dine and shop while the rest of their party waits in line for the ride.
The park repainted the buildings bright red, orange and yellow and added lanterns, mosaic work and other decorative elements. A few structures are new, but the rides and layout are about the same. Busch Gardens hasn't disclosed how much the Pantopia project cost.
Food is a major focus. Executive chef Ron DeBonis said he looked at the hottest culinary trends to bring to Pantopia, which of course means bacon. The Twisted Tails Pretzels, a bakery with fresh-rolled pretzels and craft beer, sells the Bacon Pretzel Fury, a soft pretzel braided with extra thick, dry-aged, cherry wood bacon.
Also new is Lynx Frozen Treats, with snow cones and smoothies, and the Kettle Korn Market, with homemade popcorn, foot-long corn dogs, loaded fries and other carnival-inspired snacks. Outside the Desert Grill is the Dragon Fire Grill, which serves meat on a stick, vegetables and pitas.
The main gift shop, the Painted Camel Bazaar, sells gifts from around the world, many of them made from recycled goods. The park incorporated many salvaged items into the store, including old doors, wood pieces and yard sale finds, said Brian Kilpatrick, vice president of merchandise.
Going into the busy summer season, Busch Gardens is expecting a big boost from Pantopia and the Falcon's Fury, described as the tallest free-standing drop tower in North America. The newly imagined area will be the park's first rebranded land since Sesame Street Safari of Fun opened in 2010.
Pantopia comes as other central Florida theme parks prepare for their own big attractions. Opening soon is Disney's Seven Dwarfs Mine Train at the Magic Kingdom and Harry Potter's Diagon Alley at Universal Studios in Orlando.
Susan Thurston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 225-3110.