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Get into Busch Gardens in a flash

Self-service cash registers are a big hit in supermarkets. Self check-in is standard at airports. Now Busch Gardens has deployed self-service ticket kiosks at the front gate.

Stick in a credit card. Press a touch screen for the admission or pass of your choice. Head for the turnstiles.

"We want people to get in the park faster," said Dan Brown, executive vice president and general manager of the Tampa theme park. "Many people today are accustomed to technology and not standing in line."

Indeed, Busch pass or ticket holders will have a side express entrance of their own. They swipe their pass. A scanner records a topographic map (not fingerprints) of their hand in two seconds and compares it in a Busch database to ensure the dimensions match the passholder.

Otherwise, the only human intervention is a bag check by security.

"The biometric handprint allowed us to eliminate all the time getting a passholder's photo," Brown said.

Not all of the gee-whiz enhancements are up and running, but they are part of an overhaul of Busch Gardens' sprawling front door. The goal is to speed patrons into the park faster. In addition to the new self-serve kiosks, the park will increase the number of staffed ticket booths from 16 to 23, for those who want the personal touch. The improvements, which include rebuilding parking lot access roads, cap what has been the biggest five-year upgrade of the park's infrastructure in its 45-year history.

Even "Gift Shop 1" _ basically unchanged since the park was nothing more than a brewery tour, beer-sampling room and a bird show _ has been remodeled into Xcursions, a Nature Company-style store with some hands-on conservation exhibits and small animal displays for kids.

Since 1989, Anheuser-Busch Cos. stuck mostly to adding attractions at Busch Gardens each year while pouring bigger money into bringing the Sea World parks up to Busch standards. Since 1999, Busch Gardens has been the focus with a series of major but lesser noticed upgrades.

"We're not making the park larger, but going back in to freshen it up," Brown said.

The sprawling Serengeti Plain was overhauled in stages. The old dolphin arena was rebuilt as the indoor Haunted Lighthouse attraction. The old ice show was converted into a theater with Broadway-stage level equipment.

Now the Stanleyville area is being rebuilt around the park's next big thrill ride: SheiKra, a towering dive coaster that debuts in May as the first of its kind in North America.

While Busch's attendance slipped by 5 percent to 4.1-million in 2004, per capita spending by its guests increased and they stayed longer thanks to concerts and special events such as fireworks. The park, however, is counting heavily on SheiKra to get the turnstiles clicking faster.

In the theme park business, a new thrill ride has always been the easiest way to get a big bump at the gate. Typically, theme parks get as much as a 10 percent increase in attendance from a highly promoted coaster, a trend that lasts until the novelty wears off in about 18 months.

SheiKra, which will offer two almost-straight down drops at 70 miles per hour, is rising out of the ground quickly. By the time it's done, the top of its lift hill will be twice as high as the Gwazi wooden coasters next door. The steel track will twist over and around a new 400-seat Smokehouse BBQ restaurant before its unconventional cars zip into a hole and kick up a water rooster-tail crossing a pond.

In addition to the steep stairs for maintenance workers, SheiKra has an eight-passenger elevator to evacuate passengers in case of a mid-ride shutdown.

In the next few months, however, many less flashy bread-and-butter park upgrades will be completed that have been under construction for more than a year.

The biggest is the front entrance, where it can take patrons as much as 30 minutes to get from their car to the park on peak days. Brown hopes to shave 10 minutes or more from that with a host of changes:

+ Busch has built two tunnels under 40th Street where park trams used to wait for a long traffic light. The tram tunnels are scheduled to open today. In addition, 40th Street is being widened in front of the park, a project that will be done by the end of February, and the traffic light will be removed. That is supposed to eliminate time-consuming backups on nearby Busch Boulevard, where patrons lined up to get in the Busch parking lot.

For the next two months, however, widening work will block 40th Street. So Busch is advising patrons using I-275 to use the Fowler Avenue exit to get to 40th Street rather than the Busch Boulevard exit, which will have a marked detour.

+ Different types of front gate traffic _ pedestrians, buses, park trams and taxis or motorists looking for handicapped parking spots _ will have separate paths. That's supposed to speed up traffic flow. While some disabled customers complain they will have to travel farther to get to the front gate, Busch is expanding the number of handicapped spaces to more than 200 and reopening many handicapped spaces that could not be used while the front gate is expanded.

+ The capacity of the front gate ticket counters and park access points have been more than doubled to handle peak time crowds.

Mark Albright can be reached at or (727) 893-8252.