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Busch Gardens reopens to a light, sweaty crowd wearing face masks

The operations were decidedly different as the Tampa theme park reopened for the first time in three months.

TAMPA — For the first time in three months, fans lined up to enter the turnstiles at Busch Gardens on Thursday. But this time, they had to wear face masks and have their temperatures checked before entering.

The crowds were light on reopening day, with no wait time at noon for the super popular coaster SheiKra and only a 15-minute wait for Tigris, the new ride touted as Florida’s tallest launch coaster.

There was a fairly long line to get in as the park opened, full of people who had to make a reservation in advance to be there. A Busch Gardens spokeswoman said the capacity is being capped at 50 percent for the time being, and many days have yet to reach that cap.

On its first day open in three months, visitors in face masks at Busch Gardens enjoy the 200-foot dive on the SheiKra roller coaster.
On its first day open in three months, visitors in face masks at Busch Gardens enjoy the 200-foot dive on the SheiKra roller coaster. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The park’s parent company, SeaWorld Entertainment, also opened its parks in Orlando and Tampa’s Adventure Island water park. Guests will find numerous new hand-washing stations and hand sanitizer dispensers around the parks. All of them are requiring reservations, masks and temperature checks.

A guest has her temperature checked before entering SeaWorld as it reopens with new safety measures in place because of the coronavirus pandemic on Thursday in Orlando. Its sister park in Tampa, Busch Gardens, also had tents set up to take temperatures.
A guest has her temperature checked before entering SeaWorld as it reopens with new safety measures in place because of the coronavirus pandemic on Thursday in Orlando. Its sister park in Tampa, Busch Gardens, also had tents set up to take temperatures. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]

Once inside Busch Gardens on Thursday, there were wide, mostly empty sidewalks, with people keeping their distance and a majority keeping their face masks on. But as the midday sun beat down, the face masks started to droop, and hand-held battery-powered fans were pulled out to provide some relief. The food stations that are open were popular stops because eating and drinking means the masks can come off. One kid with a T-shirt that said “I Got This” had his mask dropped around his neck as he slurped up ice cream.

The Sesame Street kiddie play and climbing area is mostly closed but its stage shows and rides, like Big Bird’s Whirlie Birdy, were running. Every other ride car had yellow “Caution” tape strapped across it to enforce distancing, while workers wiped them down after every spin.

Harlow Graham, 2, of Tampa, takes a socially distanced ride on Rosita's Djembe Fly-Away, a children's swing ride at Busch Gardens on Thursday.
Harlow Graham, 2, of Tampa, takes a socially distanced ride on Rosita's Djembe Fly-Away, a children's swing ride at Busch Gardens on Thursday. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

A new feature in the park are the Face Covering Relaxation Zones, which look similar to the old smokers’ lounges. They are set a bit off the beaten path in three areas of the park. Guests will find some distantly spaced tables where they can take off their face masks and get a breather.

That’s where Bill Androckitis, who runs the Touring Central Florida theme park blog, took a break after venturing to the park on Thursday. He decided to wait until noon to arrive, figuring he would miss a possible crush of people who wanted to be the first in. It turned out to be a good plan.

A sign notifies guests of a zone where they can take off their masks and get a breather.
A sign notifies guests of a zone where they can take off their masks and get a breather. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

“I walked right in,” Androckitis said. “I really didn’t want to be in a crowd, and seeing how light it is I think a lot of people feel the same way.”

There are some ticket deals right now, including 50 percent off admission, running through Sunday at buschgardens.com/tampa. And Busch Gardens upgraded its current passholders from Gold to Platinum during the coronavirus closure, which meant the preferred parking lot was mostly full on Thursday of members enjoying the new perk.

Keeping a distance was fairly easy for patrons of Busch Gardens when it reopened on Thursday. It closed on March 16 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Keeping a distance was fairly easy for patrons of Busch Gardens when it reopened on Thursday. It closed on March 16 because of the coronavirus pandemic. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Another new feature in the gift shops are face masks with tigers, flamingos and animal images on them, available for $10. If you buy three, you get one free.

“They are fun,” said Rebecca Romzek of Busch Gardens’ marketing team. “It makes the safety of it all a little less daunting.”

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