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Busch Gardens plans new Christmas wonderland event

TAMPA — Busch Gardens plans to transform itself into a Christmas wonderland for 12 nights after Thanksgiving this year in a holiday event it says will be worthy of a separate admission.

The Tampa park's sibling in Williamsburg, Va., drew big crowds three years in a row to its ticketed European-look Christmas Town that features live seasonal entertainment, Santa's Workshop, a gift market and special foods. And many of the Orlando theme parks have staged multimillion light holiday extravaganzas and special dinner shows for years. Busch Gardens, however, would be the first Florida theme park to try to turn its whole park into a paid family holiday event.

"We've been successful with Howl-O-Scream as a separate ticket (event) for 13 years," said Jill Revelle, Busch spokeswoman. "This is a natural progression. Our Christmas Town will be a holiday celebration like Floridians have never seen."

Busch will need to put on quite a show to pull it off. All the rival parks already deck themselves out in elaborate holiday finery. Many resorts and local botanical gardens charge extra for special staged events. Busch's corporate cousin Sea World in Orlando stays open late and builds live entertainment and holiday lighting displays into its daily ticket price leading into Christmas.

"This will be the beginning of a unique holiday tradition for the Tampa Bay area," said Jim Dean, park president.

Pricing will be similar to Howl-O-Scream (regular general admission of $77.99 plus tax), meaning it will be close to full daily admission at the gate. But discounts as deep as 50 percent likely will be widely available to stimulate attendance on slower weekends.

"We'll be priced for families, especially those with children 3 to 9," said Revelle. Annual pass holders will have to pay, but at a discounted rate.

Theme parks have turned to the same strategy to boost traffic and revenues in slower months in the fall and spring. Separate ticket events can easily double attendance on busy days.

Except for Christmas and Thanksgiving weeks, November and December are the two slowest months of the year for the local vacation industry.

The Christmas holidays are particularly appealing to Busch, the only major Florida park to rely on locals for about half its annual attendance, because locals are here in abundance in December.

The park normally closes around sunset then. Starting Nov. 30, however, the park and its rides will close for an hour or so every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, then re-open after sunset festooned with thousands of colorful Christmas lights, wandering carolers, gift shops and vendors peddling hot cocoa.

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