The first theme park out of the gate with its special holiday offerings is Busch Gardens, now in its 11th year of drenching the Tampa theme park in lights, sugary treats, finely decorated trees and a holiday fireworks show for Christmas Town, starting nightly on Saturday, Nov. 11.
Running through Jan. 7, the park transformation is included with admission and offers seasonal entertainment, unique encounters with animals, and even its coasters, such as the new Serengeti Flyer and Iron Gwazi, decorated in Christmas lights.
All new this year is a light display in the Jungala area that extends all the way though Pantopia featuring a light-up walk-through dragon. Located in the Bird Gardens area of the park, “guests are sure to step into wonder through a marvelous light tunnel ... composed of thousands of glimmering LED lights seamlessly synchronized to a symphony of holiday tunes,” a news release said.
There’s also a new 40-foot pixelated tree at Cheetah Plaza and some new menu items such as a Holiday Poutine, served with gravy cheese curds and cranberry relish, and a Mistletoe Margarita.
Some returning favorites include:
- Character meet-and-greets, including Santa and his elves starting at 3 p.m. daily and Storytime With Mrs. Claus. Rudolph and Clarice and even Bumble are available over at Patagonia beginning at 5 p.m. for Rudolph’s Winter Wonderland.
- For the younger Sesame Street fans, their favorite characters are dressed in their holiday best at Sunny Day Theatre. This photo opportunity at Christmas Town is at various times earlier in the day, usually around lunchtime.
- The holiday-themed live show “Elmo’s Christmas Wish” has returned with Cookie Monster, Rosita, Grover and Zoe helping Elmo in the outdoor Sunny Day Theatre.
- While it doesn’t have the Disney princess power, the Busch Gardens holiday princesses are gorgeous and have their own fan base that lines up for pictures. They include the Ice Princess, Poinsettia Princess and Sugar Plum Princess. Over in the realm called Land of Sweets, you’ll find the Sugar Plum Ballerina on stilts and her cavalier soldier. They’re available throughout the evening for photos beginning at 5 p.m.
- The Holly Jolly Express is a fun experience where families can board the open-air train for a ride around the park and sing along to favorite Christmas tunes.
- Over at Dragon Fire Grill, the “Three Kings Journey” show brings to the stage the journey to Bethlehem. This will be performed on select nights Nov. 11-Jan. 7. Check the park’s calendar for the schedule.
- The popular ice-skating show “Christmas on Ice” at the Moroccan Palace Theater is one of the longest-running holiday shows at Christmas Town.
As far as the light-drenched park, don’t miss the light tunnel that connects Congo to Stanleyville. It’s fun to stand in the middle as the lights dance along to the music. Many of the Christmas trees around the park are themed for great photo opportunities. One is composed entirely of poinsettias; others have decorations with tiger stripes and cheetah spots on their globes and ribbons.
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The evening highlight is “Holiday in the Sky, a Nighttime Spectacular,” presented by Bad Boy Mowers. It has a colorful display of festive fireworks choreographed to a soundtrack of classic holiday tunes. The fireworks display will take place on the Festival Field on select event nights, usually weekends.
For eating and drinking, some of the new menu items besides the Holiday Poutine include: chicken coq au vin served with red bliss mashed potatoes; smoked turkey, stuffing, cranberry relish, gravy and Texas toast; seared scallops, ruby red couscous and goat cheese crumbles.
Themed cocktails include a hot cocoa spiked with Kahlúa, peppermint schnapps or Baileys Irish Cream. Specialty cocktails include South for the Winter (Jack Daniel’s, Jack Daniel’s Honey, Monin cranberry, ginger and lime), the new Jack Frost (coconut rum, blue curacao, mint and a splash of lime) and a Ginger Snap Mule (spiced rum, amaretto, ginger and a splash of lime).
One way to save money is a sampler lanyard that starts at $44 for a five-punch card. If you’re a pass member, you can pick up a 12-punch lanyard for the price of a 10-punch lanyard.
If you go
Christmas Town: 10 am.-8 p.m. weekdays, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. weekends. Included with admission, $89.99, ages 3 and younger free; $134.99 for Fun Card offering unlimited admission. Parking is $30; $35 for preferred lot. 10165 N. McKinley Drive, Tampa. 813-884-4386. For information and tickets, visit christmastown.com.