Florida – Day 10, February 13 (part 1) – Busch Gardens Tampa

Last Day.


But a new park to explore, yea!

So, why are the cheapskates spending a bunch of extra money to go to a different park for just one day? Well, here’s how the whole thing transpired:

I’d been watching airline fares for three months prior to our trip, and prices were okay for our outgoing flights, but the return flights on Sunday the 12th were astronomical. I went ahead and bought our outbound tickets with Southwest since they were darned cheap, but held off on the return. I tried every airline out there, and nothing was within the price range I was comfortable paying. Then, at 4 weeks out, the prices jumped UP instead of dropping like everyone said they should! Great.

But the prices for Monday the 13th were half that of Sunday the 12th, so why not stay an extra day? Except Pop had no rooms available. Well, what about one of the All Stars? Nope. Okay, what if we moved offsite? Well, that would mean either renting a car or using a taxi and then paying our own ride to the airport – not cheap. So, what if we added TWO days, rented a car, and went somewhere else? Ah, Disney Math at its finest!

Then we thought about Busch Gardens. Mike asked if Southwest flies out of Tampa, and yes they do, and flights are half what they cost from Orlando the same day. Score!

Rental car was next, we’d be picking up at the Car Care Center and dropping off at Tampa Airport, with a coupon code from UPS, $80 was cheap enough for me.

Busch Gardens tickets. Well, this place is only cheap if you want to go two days or more – in fact, you can purchase a one day ticket and get a free entry for the following day. Unfortunately, we were only going one day (in hindsight, we should have just taken another extra day). Another issue is that Busch Gardens says they don’t allow outside food and drink (except water). So, no sack lunches. Hmmmm. After checking all the options, the two cheapest were buying tickets direct from Busch online, or from AAA which offers a one-day ticket with lunch for only $4 more. We went with AAA.

Then, there’s those special safaris. Busch offers upsell Safaris which includes some relatively rare animal interactions. Daytime safari is $34 per person for a 30-minute experience. The sunset safari is $40 each, is also 30 minutes, but includes beer and is only open to the over-21 crowd. Since we don’t have kids, I thought the evening option sounded cool. But $80 for 30 minutes and the possibility of hand-feeding giraffes? Well, if you look at what Disney offers that is similar, with less animal interaction, for over $100 per person, then this would be a smokin’ deal, am I right? Score another point for Disney Math!

Our final good deal was the hotel room at $43 a night for two nights.

So, in order to save about $250 on airline tickets we have spent approximately:
$100 Room
$160 Park Tickets
$80 Special Safari
$85 Car Rental

I think this is within the “cheap” range when you consider how much extra fun we get out of the deal. Watch me justify my expenditures!

Okay, enough of the number crunching, on to the fun stuff!

Park hours are a measly 10am to 6pm, so we’re really going to have to cram a bunch into our one day. We get to the gates by around 9ish, and there are only 2 other cars there, we are first in line on our side of the pay booth.

Mike does his usual rant to me about the price of motorcycle parking, which SHOULD be half the cost of cars. Blah, blah, blah, yes dear, I’ve heard it all before, and I do agree with you, but most couples ride on ONE motorcycle together so the price isn’t so bad, I know we’re different and this would be expensive for us, but we’re not on a motorcycle, we’re in a rental car. Sigh. Fortunately he calms down before the attendant takes our money at 9:30, or the poor guy would have been subjected to Mike’s dissertation on how “motorcycles take up half the space and should be charged accordingly”!We ride the first tram from our front-row parking spot to the park entrance (across the street). We have e-tickets, which need to be exchanged for regular tickets. Only two booths are manned, and we choose the one who unfortunately has computer problems, they are finally sorted out and we have tickets in hand, we go through security which does make someone throw out a bottle of soda, so I’m glad all we have is water.Park entrance is similar to DW, with a ticket scanner which some people simply cannot figure out. They only have one worker manning about three scanners, so when there’s a hitch it doesn’t get taken care of as quickly as it would at DW, but it’s still a decently quick operation.

Walking through the gates, our first order of business is to figure out the map, the signage, and where the heck we are in comparison to where we want to be. This would be much simpler if Busch used the names of their “lands” on the signs, instead of specific rides. With the ride names I end up having to try and find the ride name on the map and then figure out where it is in comparison to where we want to be. Pathways are winding and the park is really beautiful – but not easy to navigate for first timers.

Wandering through, we come to the hyena exhibit. Busch does an AWESOME job of getting you right up close and personal with the animals, and we are both amazed at how big these guys are. For some reason, I’d always thought they were about the size of a regular dog, but when they’re standing right next to you with only a pane of glass in between, you can see why these strike fear into people’s hearts in the wild.

We turn around and see an aardvark on a leash!
We find out now just how different Busch Gardens is from Animal Kingdom. They encourage you to interact with these animals, yes, petting is allowed! The handlers are very professional, friendly, and knowledgeable. We find out that aardvarks don’t have soft fur, they feel as bristly as they look.
Our first stop on my plan (yes, I’ve done a plan just like Disney World of course!) is Rhino Rally. Unfortunately we find out this particular ride and section of the park doesn’t open until 10:30 – information that is not available anywhere that I found online. So, we walk back towards the front of the park and I get to ride a few of the biggies while Mike waits (sorry Mike!).
I ride Montu and I think Kumba, both of which are fun, but don’t really pack much of a punch.

But they’re a REAL looping coasters that go fast enough to bring tears to my eyes, so I’m a happy camper.

Ride load procedures at Busch are radically different than DW. They have one worker at the front of the line, but all he does is keep the area from getting too congested. You enter and pick your own row. I got really good at doing head counts in each row of the more popular rides so I could get in the shortest line. Obviously front and back are the most popular. Avoid these and during the slow season you can get in tons of re-rides in a very short time.

Re-rides are also allowed, but only if there are fewer people in line than there are seats on the car. So, you have to exit and wait until the ride fills, then re-enter if there’s room. Ride operators don’t really do much but keep a semblance of order. Controllers all look bored and not exactly professional, but better than the average carnie. Every one of them was cordial and professional when I spoke to them, but they won’t go out of their way to smile and be “on stage” like Cast Members at Disney.

What I am amazed at is how beautiful this park is, and it looks much more effortlessly gorgeous than Animal Kingdom. The grass is green, even in the animal enclosures (unlike Animal Kingdom, where they seem to struggle to keep grass growing in some areas).

We get back over to Rhino Rally, which is Busch’s version of Kilimanjaro Safari’s. The start is nice, the driver makes punny jokes like you’d hear on Jungle Cruise, and there’s some good animal interaction – then suddenly it’s over. I mean, the ride is less than 5 minutes long. Until last year, this was actually quite the complex experience, including a water section, but the water portion was always problematic from a maintenance standpoint, and was removed when the new coaster Cheetah Hunt which opened in 2011.

If you are there on a busy day, this one is not worth even a 10 minute wait. I think the train or sky ride will give you similar interaction and a much longer experience.

Busch Gardens really focuses on the “garden” side of beauty, although the buildings are beautifully painted and well-themed, there is not the attention to detail like you would see at Animal Kingdom.

Here’s the entrance to the Timbuktu area at Busch:

Contrast with a door in an out-of-the way spot in Animal Kingdom:
Although I’m liking Busch better for the animal interaction and verdant beauty, I’ll always give the nod to Disney Imagineers for their complex theming and design.

Next up, Tiggers! I love me some tigers, and the Busch display is supposed to be one of the best.

Oh my, yes, these guys are right there in your face:
With the way they set up the ground on either side of the glass, it is nearly impossible to tell where tiger space ends, and human space begins:

Here kitty, kitty, kitty:

There are some great photo opportunities here too, including a pop-up bubble where tigers sometimes lay on top and your buddy can get a shot of you with a tiger hat:

(not my pic)
Another option could make for a very cool family photo:(this is my pic, but not my family)
We are totally impressed with this exhibit. The cats seem very happy,
and have tons of space to roam, much of it in areas that aren’t accessible by guests, which is nice because you feel the tigers are making a choice to hang out and watch the humans.We get to the elephant exhibit just in time to catch the keeper interaction

Busch is the first park in the country to utilize positive re-enforcement exclusively with their elephants (no hooked canes). The experts here are very committed and excited about their program, and are excellent to talk to.

We got to watch them do a blood draw on two of the elephants, which was accomplished without any kind of restraint, just a little “sweet” reward for good behavior:

Everyone working this exhibit was friendly, professional, intelligent, and had answers to all our questions. They were thrilled to be here and show the work they are doing. We were VERY impressed.

Next up, Mike tries to get bit by a flamingo:

But fails.We spend some time checking out Jambo Junction:

(I have no idea what this thing is)

Jambo Junction includes smaller animals and also any babies that have been recently born or introduced to the park. If you’re going, be sure to see what’s new here so you don’t miss any cute and cuddly babies.

Next, we headed back to the front of the park so I can ride Cheetah Hunt. Mike enjoyed watching the cheetahs in the Cheetah Run exhibit so much that he didn’t even take a nap!

Cheetah Hunt is one uber-awesome coaster with the world’s slowest load times. The workers seem to have their feet stuck in molasses, and since no one really has any feeling of urgency, visitors take ages loading and unloading while I stand and stew and think of better ways to get more people on this ride. Once you’re strapped in, oh boy oh boy oh boy!! This ride uses LSM launch system three separate times to boost the coaster to its 60+ mph speeds. The air time is sooooooo sweet on this coaster. The twisty sections in the canyon are fast and silky smooth, with great transitions and no head-banging pain. Oh, I could ride this one all day long. Sooooooo fun!!!

I’m dragged away from this incredible coaster only because my poor hubby is waiting, and we have a show to catch. The new Icesploration, which opened the day before our arrival. This 30-minute show incorporates ice skating, acrobatics, animals and a few other tricks to show how a young boy learns about how more fun reality is instead of his video games.

It is a cute show, and well done, but just doesn’t pack that extra special oomph that only Disney seems to provide. I’d recommend it if you’re there for more than a day and would like some time off your feet and inside an air-conditioned theater.

After Icesploration, we head to the Garden Gate Cafe for lunch. When I started doing research on Busch Gardens, I was surprised by their lack of vegetarian offerings. They literally have NOTHING vegetarian (except dessert) at many of their restaurants. Finally, I decided on the Pizza and Pasta buffet at Garden Gate, hoping they would have a decent salad.

This is actually a very good deal at $10 per person and includes non-alcoholic beverages. Pizza is decently good, pasta is pretty basic but does include a whole wheat option. Available sauces were red, red with meat, and alfredo. Salad is pretty much that cheap bag version with no condiments to speak of. Well, it was good enough and Mike was satisfied, which is a very good thing!

After lunch, it’s time for Critter Castaways, which is a 30 minute show similar to Sea World’s Pet’s Ahoy, but with a few more exotic animals, like this guy:(I have no idea what this is)

The show is well done, includes some singing, and the actors all are well cast. The animals are extremely cute, and it is definitely worth your time if you like cute.

If you don’t like cute, go ride Cheetah Hunt instead! But one added bonus at the end of the show is that when they bring the animals out to the edge of the stage like they do at Flights of Wonder, you don’t just get to look at them, you get to pet them!
Yes, I got to pet this guy:(the owl, not the dude!)
We’re ready for a little more animal interaction, so we head over to Walkabout Way to check out the Kangaroos and Wallabies.

They do rock the topiary thing here, that’s for sure.

This area is another beautiful spot in the park, you walk past a formal garden, then over this bridge:

towards an enclosure that’s playing all-Australian music. So, get ready to groove along to INXS, Men At Work, and all your 80’s Aussie faves while you interact with these little guys:

And no, they’re not all in cages:

This wallaby was so incredibly cute. He would grab your hand and sniff it, or move it to where he wanted to be scratched:

Although here I think he’s stealing Mike’s watch.The roo’s enjoyed lazing in the sun and belly rubs were welcome:

Mike must have rubbed this guy for 5 minutes, and the roo had such a relaxed expression on its face the entire time. So much fun!!

I was petting one of the kangaroos when it grabbed my hand and moved it to a different spot on its side. I started scratching there and a ton of loose fur came off. Yes, I am paying for the privilege of being a personal roo groomer.

Hmmm, yea, that’s the spot mate!

As we’re leaving, Mike decides to try his luck with an ostrich:

And comes away with all fingers intact. I swear, he has crazy stupid luck with animals.

Next up for me is Sheikra.

Words and photos cannot express the awesomeness that is Shiekra. This B&M Floorless Dive coaster takes you up 200 feet, then stops you at the lip of the first drop, just as you begin to roll forward, you stop again – over the edge of the drop! You’re hanging there for what seems like minutes before suddenly, swoosh – you’re dropped STRAIGHT DOWN. Yeeeeeeeehaw!!!!! What a rush. Your butt is off the seat and your shoulders are against the restraints, not from negative G’s, but simply because you are falling straight down. Got my adrenaline pumping, for sure.

The ride is baby smooth, and includes some nice loops and a second near-vertical drop just in case you didn’t soil yourself on the first.

Oh, please, let me ride again and again and again!!! I am so lucky we’re here in the off season, I’m able to re-ride a few times before I start to feel guilty about Mike doing his “homeless on a bench” impression.

Oh dearest Sheikra, I’m a cheapskate, but I almost think you’re worth the price of admission alone. I LOVE this ride!

Sadly, we are running out of time. Our Safari starts at 4:45 and we need to be there by 4:30. I get done with my last ride on my new love and wave goodbye with tears in my eyes (wind, really, it was the wind) and we head to the other side of the park, but are stopped because there’s this sloth we need to pet:

Squeeeeee! Omigosh he is so flippin’ cute.

Okay, focus dudes, we’ve got to get to the Safari! But one second for another picture of the awesomeness of this park:

See; train, elephant topiary, a coaster peeking out of the trees in the distance, lonely paths at a time when every park at DW would be crammed full of people, shaded picnic tables. This may not be Disney, but I’m figuring out that not everything has to be Disney to be its own brand of incredible.

Next up, is it worth $40 to have a giraffe slobber on you?


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