I think it’s natural when you live in Central Florida to start comparing all attractions to Disney World. After all, there is no bigger attraction – anywhere, possibly – than the House of Mouse located in our own backyard. It makes sense that an icon in such close proximity would begin to color your view of everything.
My husband and I have lived in Central Florida for three years now, which explains his initial review of Busch Gardens in Tampa Bay. “Well, it ain’t Disney.”
A polite parking attendant had just taken our money and instructed us to “follow the arrows and find a spot”. You would never be expected to find anything at Disney World; your every move is carefully guided by a seemingly endless parade of “cast members”. But, as my husband pointed out, this wasn’t Disney, and we quickly found our own spot in the large parking lot and made our way over to the nearest tram station.
Because some of our tickets were given to us in exchange for a review on a local blog, our first stop once exiting the tram was the Guest Services counter. We stood in line outside the square cement hut and waited our turn. While waiting, we listened to one man rage about some customer service problem for a good 15 minutes or so. This man didn’t just complain; he complained loudly.
My husband and I exchanged looks. “It ain’t Disney.”
You would never hear an unhappy guest at Disney. I don’t know what they do with them – because surely it happens with that many visitors – but either through a series of trap doors and secret tunnels or incredible customer service, Disney manages to maintain a constant illusion of perfect happiness from the moment you enter the parking area.
Busch Gardens, it seemed, was shaping up to be the Central Florida Amusement Park That Wasn’t Disney. As we entered the gates, my husband was chortling about “at least the tickets were free!” and I, as the travel blogger charged with reviewing the attraction, was bracing myself.
We sailed through the gates without the lengthy wait we’d expect (huh, that’s not like Disney, I thought) and found ourselves surrounded by adobe style gift shops. I’m embarrassed to tell you how much time we spent pawing at merchandise that didn’t seem to belong in an amusement park. Instead of magnets and t-shirts stamped with corporate logos, we found beautiful artwork crafted from wood, glass, beads, metal and recycled gum wrappers. A good thirty minutes later, we finally made our way into what appeared to be the heart of the park.
Or was it a zoo? Because we had forgotten to pick up a map upon entering the park, we found ourselves stumbling down whichever path looked most interesting. This method brought us straight from the gift shops into an elaborate rain forest in the middle of Central Florida. And were those…. gorillas?
Gorillas and chimpanzees rolled in open fields and chased one another around rocks and over waterfalls. I have, naturally, seen primates before, but never in such a natural-looking habitat. I stood in awe as I watched a “baby” gorilla chase an adult gorilla and debated with my girlfriend whether or not the adult gorilla was playing or disciplining with the hearty smacks it gave in return. We tried to guess if the rolling around in the grass was a form of play or something with a practical purpose, like cleaning. We marveled at the methodical way one of the animals ripped a palm tree apart in order, it seemed, to eat something inside.
I think we watched those animals for a full hour before anyone even remembered that we had come to ride roller coasters. Finally, my husband could no longer be contained. ”I want to try that roller coaster! Come on, come on!”
He couldn’t recall the name of that roller coaster, but he was certain he’d heard that Busch Gardens had a good one, and he was determined to fit it into our day.We left the gorillas and chimps in search of the ride.
And stumbled onto the elephants.
We happened to arrive at the elephant enclosure during feeding time, which gave us an opportunity to see them dance and salute on command. It also allowed me to take about 100 pictures.
“The ride! The ride!” My husband moved us along.
We passed a group of children playing with hula hoops. There was music blaring, a DJ encouraging dancing, and signs promoting the evening Kinetix show. When the music changed to a familiar “line dance” song, I hopped into the courtyard to play along.
“The ride! The ride!”
At last, we found ourselves in front of what was quite obviously The Ride.
“Sheikra! Yes! I knew it had a name like a lion or something!” my husband, who was celebrating his 30th birthday, was beside himself with excitement and smug satisfaction at having found The Ride. We waited the extra five minutes to get into the first row, reminding each other that “this ain’t Disney!” and how grateful we were not to have to spend hours in line.
And then – well – let’s just say that I, at 30 years old, came closer to peeing my pants than I have in a very long time. The Sheikra is, I believe, one of the best roller coasters I have been on. That’s the best description I can give. We screamed and laughed and shut our eyes and opened our eyes and did not, thank you very much, walk away with an instant headache – which is a difficult balance for a really good roller coaster to achieve. (Also, to be clear, I did not actually pee my pants.)
We were more than satisfied with The Ride and came to a group consensus that Disney or not, Busch Gardens was a success.
A short while later, while chatting with a sales clerk in yet another gift shop, we found out what really makes Busch Gardens different from Disney. The Ride, it seemed, was just one of many really great roller coasters in this park.
For those who don’t live in Central Florida, let me explain: this is not how it’s done at Disney. Each Disney park has one or two main “adult” rides or coasters, and then dozens and dozens of other rides, shows, etc. to fill in the park. This was just the way we had come to expect amusement parks to be built. But when we asked the sales clerk if there was another coaster in the area, we were shocked when he started listing them all and had trouble deciding which of the many were his favorite. There are four major roller coasters in the park, in addition to other water rides and your classic bumper cars, pirate-ship-swing type rides. Any one of these four roller coasters could be a headliner ride on its own – and there are FOUR of them.
Of course, even if other parks in Central Florida had that many super coasters in one park, there’s almost no chance you’d be able to get to them all in one day – unless you were willing to spend several hours waiting in line and forgo anything else the park had to offer or pay extra fees to wait in shorter lines. Unfortunately, by the time my fellow tourists and I realized that The Ride was one of many, we had just enough time left to grab a bite to eat and head to the Kinetix show and fireworks.
Still being without a map, we followed the signs the best we could and made our way to Gwazi Park, a field that reminded me of state fairs I’d attended growing up in Iowa. A large stage faced rows and rows of bleachers which were surrounded by food and souvenir vendors. We bought two glow-in-the-dark sticks (or light sabers, as we called them) for about $5 and made ourselves comfortable on the bleachers while we waited for the show to begin. I was amazed that there was plenty of actual seating available for this show. No one was wrangling for a prime seat on a curb or elbowing children for a chance to lean against a tree.
The Kinetix show was better than anticipated. It was an energetic combination of singing, dancing and circus-type acrobatics. (You’d be amazed what some people can do with a jump rope!) I kept thinking how amazing it was that a show of this caliber was included with the price of admission.
After the show, we followed the crowd towards the entrance. Ironically, my husband finally located a map. As we made our way to the exit, we were practically sick to realize all of the rides and attractions we’d missed out on. We decided immediately that we had to come back to Busch Gardens – with a map and a plan.
We also decided to skip the line for the tram and walk to our car. It wasn’t that far of a walk and the parking lot wasn’t too large. On our walk back, we again reflected on the fact that Busch Gardens wasn’t Disney – and how that wasn’t, come to find out, a bad thing.
Fair or not, those of us who live near Orlando tend to look at all amusement parks through the Disney lens. But in doing so, we initially missed a lot of what makes Busch Gardens an extraordinary destination. Busch Gardens is the perfect amusement park for people who love rides. It also offers animal attractions that could earn it a separate distinction as a pretty great zoo. The animal attractions combined with the recent opening of the Sesame Street Safari area make it a great place for a family with kids to spend a day or a weekend. And we got to enjoy all of that without excessive crowds or lines.
No, it ain’t Disney. It’s Busch Gardens Tampa Bay – and they’re doing a great job of being exactly that.
All photos by Britt Reints