Although its heart-stopping thrill rides get much of the ink, this venerable theme park (it predates Disney World) ranks among the largest zoos in the country. It's a don't-miss attraction for children and adults who can see, in person, all those wild beasts they've watched on Animal Planet -- and they'll get better views of them here than at Disney's Animal Kingdom in Orlando. Busch Gardens Tampa Bay has thousands of animals living in natural environments that help carry out the park's overall African theme. Most authentic is the 65-acre plain, reminiscent of the real Serengeti of Tanzania and Kenya, upon which zebras, giraffes, and other animals graze. Unlike the animals on the real Serengeti, however, these grazing creatures have nothing to fear from lions, hyenas, crocodiles, and other predators, which are confined to enclosures -- as are the hippos and elephants. The park's seventh roller coaster, SheiKra , was the nation's first dive coaster, carrying riders up 200 feet at 45 degrees and then hurtling them 70 mph back at a 90-degree angle. Yikes.
The park has eight areas, each with its own theme, animals, live entertainment, thrill rides, kiddie attractions, dining, and shopping. A Skyride cable car soars over the park, offering a bird's-eye view of it all. Turn right after the main gate and head to Morocco, a walled city with exotic architecture, crafts demonstrations, and an exhibit featuring alligators and turtles. The Moorish-style Moroccan Palace Theater features KaTonga, a Broadway-style musical show featuring original music, dance and puppetry that many families consider to be the park's best entertainment for both adults and children. You can also attend a song-and-dance show in the Marrakech Theater. Overlooking it all is the Crown Colony Restaurant, the park's largest.
Over in Egypt, you can visit King Tut's tomb, with its replicas, and youngsters can dig for their own ancient treasures in a sand area. Adults and kids 54 inches or taller can ride Montu, the tallest and longest inverted roller coaster in the world, with seven upside-down loops. Your feet dangle loose on Montu, so make sure your shoes are tied tightly and your lunch has had time to digest.
From Egypt, walk to the Edge of Africa, the most unique of the park's eight areas, and home to most of the large animals. Go immediately to the Adventure Tours tent and see if you can get on one of the park's zoologist-led wildlife tours.
Next stop is Nairobi, the most beautiful part of the park, where you can see gorillas and chimpanzees in their lush rainforest habitat in the Myombe Reserve. Nairobi also has Jambo Junction -- which the park's Animal Ambassadors call home -- turtle and reptile displays, an elephant exhibit, and Curiosity Caverns (with bats, reptiles, and other small mammals that dwell in dark places). The entry to Rhino Rally, the park's safari adventure, is at the western end of Nairobi.
Now head to the Congo, where the highlights are the rare white Bengal tigers that live in Jungala, the park's newest, 4-acre attraction within the Congo featuring a colorful village hidden deep in the jungle, up-close animal interactions, multistory family play areas, rides, and live entertainment. The Congo is also home to Kumba, the largest and fastest coaster in the southeastern United States (54-in. minimum height for riders). You will get drenched -- and refreshed on a hot day -- by riding the Congo River Rapids, where you're turned loose in round boats that float down the swiftly flowing "river" (42-in. minimum). Bumper cars and kiddie rides can be found here, too.
From the Congo, walk south into Stanleyville, a prototype African village, with SheiKra a shopping bazaar, and the Stanleyville Theater, featuring shows for children. Two more water rides here are the Tanganyika Tidal Wave (48-in. minimum height for riders), where you'll come to a very damp end, and the Stanley Falls Flume (an aquatic version of a roller coaster). Also, the Zambia Smokehouse serves ribs and chicken -- some of the best chow in the park.
Up next is Land of the Dragons, the most entertaining area for small children. They can spend the day enjoying a variety of entertainment in a fairy-tale setting, plus just-for-kids rides. The area is dominated by Dumphrey, a whimsical dragon who interacts with visitors and guides children around a three-story treehouse with winding stairways, tall towers, stepping stones, illuminated water geysers, and an echo chamber.
The next stop is Bird Gardens, the park's original core, offering rich foliage, lagoons, and a free-flight aviary for hundreds of exotic birds, including golden and American bald eagles. Be sure to see the Florida flamingos while you're here.
If your stomach can take another hair-raising ride, try Gwazi (48-in. minimum for riders), an adrenaline-pumping attraction in which a pair of old-fashioned wooden roller coasters (named the Lion and the Tiger) start simultaneously and whiz within a few feet of each other six times as they roar along at 50 mph and rise to 90 feet. If you want to experience the park's fifth roller coaster, head to Timbuktu and climb aboard the Scorpion, a high-speed number with a 60-foot drop and 360-degree loop (42-in. height minimum). Or if you're really crazy, check out the floorless SheiKra, where for 200 feet up and 90 degrees straight down, you can view the world -- from a floorless perspective. For visual amusement, there's Pirates 4-D, an animated 4-D special effects movie and theater production starring comedic actor Leslie Nielsen.
Added attractions are a 6-hour zookeeper-for-a-day program and a nighttime safari by lantern-light. You can exchange foreign currency in the park, and interpreters are available. Note: You can get to Busch Gardens from Orlando via shuttle buses, which pick up at area hotels between 8 and 10:15am for the 1 1/2- to 2-hour ride, with return trips starting at 5pm and continuing until the park closes. Round-trip fares are $10 per person. Call tel. 800/511-2450 for schedules, pickup locations, and reservations.
- © Frommer's 2013
- Highly Recommended 2010