Florida 2012 – day 11 – Busch Gardens (again)

It was only a few days ago that we went to Busch Gardens, but we’re off again. Why not? Loads of people who go to Florida for the Disney parks just go to Magic Kingdom repeatedly, and in some ways Busch Gardens is more deserving.

There is another reason – we’re off to a gig afterwards in Tampa, which I’ll describe later.

In any case, back to Busch Gardens, and time for a more thorough review of the park.

Of all the other parks we’ve done on this trip, I would have to say that Busch Gardens is probably most like Universal Studios, in that there seems to be one overarching theme. However, Universal Studios throws off mixed signals as to what it is actually supposed to be – a working film studio (which was one of it’s original intentions), with rides, but themed like a studio that is themed like films? In any case, the “lands” at Universal Studios were barely discernable in their theming – at least when we went, with the removal of the Amity area and the new Harry Potter area not being around.

Busch Gardens, however, is themed around Africa. I should mention that this is Busch Gardens in Tampa, obviously, which is known as Busch Gardens Africa (or at least used to be). Busch Gardens Europe (or Busch Gardens Williamsburg) is a different story with areas that are much easier to identify.

I haven’t been to Africa, therefore can’t really differentiate between all the different areas. There’s the Egypt area, of course, and the Timbuktu area, which are only different because the Egypt area is themed like Egypt (with the tombs and all) and Timbuktu is themed like an old market town. Everything else is, more or less, pretty similar but with differing levels of foliage.

This isn’t to say that the park looks rubbish, far from it. It is a very pleasant park to walk around and, whilst you may think that it sounds boring, it isn’t. It’s pretty. For an African themed park, from what I gather from looking at photos, seeing it in films and games and so on, it looks the part. Lots of nice foliage all over the place, and then some buildings and shop areas which look like outposts. So you start off at an outpost in the Nairobi area before going out to explore the park, encountering the other outposts at Egypt and Timbuktu.

So as far as the park looks, I can’t really imagine it looking any better – for what it’s supposed to look like at least. There really is lots to the park, including stuff we haven’t looked around before. Mainly because we’re looking at other things. But the main one that I remember is coming back out of the park from towards the back, and there is a relaxing bird area to walk through with lots of ponds for birds to wade through and lots of tree shelter.

In a way, it’s a shame that the park is located in Tampa. Well, it definitely is a shame for Busch Gardens – they’d get LOADS of cash. Seriously. Compared to Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Busch Gardens is the better park. Or more rather the better all-round park, having a far higher amount of thrill rides. Busch Gardens is criminally overlooked, there’s no two ways about it.

In some ways this is good. We who have discovered Busch Gardens get to feel all smug and superior, of course, but it also seems that prices are cheaper (I think) and that there are less queues.

It also, I assume, means that the park can cater more towards thrill seekers.

Yep, the rides. Busch Gardens doesn’t really have any theming that can be marketed the hell out of. There’s no Mickey and Donald, Harry Potter is nowhere to be seen and, for newer parks, even Lego is absent. Busch Gardens simply has “Africa”. No stories to theme stuff around, no cute characters doing photo opportunities (well, there probably will be somewhere). Nope, Busch Gardens’ latest ride is themed around cheetahs. And they will kill you. And, because they will kill you, there’s no point having a cute story about Charlie the Cheetah having to rescue his family from hunters. Nope, screw that. We’ll build a nice, thrilly rollercoaster instead.

Of course, Cheetah Chase isn’t the best coaster at the park, but it’s pretty good. But it does show a bit of a disparity between Busch Gardens and the Orlando parks which will basically concentrate on theming and storytelling. Busch Gardens doesn’t really pay attention to that and just does what it wants. There are no intellectual properties to satisfy, no characters to market and no (as far as I know) souped-up dark rides that move through static scenes from a movie (hello Cat In The Hat, and a lot of rides at Magic Kingdom).

I can’t say this for all parks in Orlando though – SeaWorld is starting to discover thrill rides (being part of the same company as Busch Gardens), and Islands Of Adventure and Universal both have a small handfull of pretty extreme rides, and the Disney parks have a small amount. But Busch Gardens really does seem to take the biscuit. Seriously, if you like your rides, Busch Gardens is the park you shouldn’t miss whilst in Florida.

The rides themselves, or at least the attractions, really do provide something for everyone, probably more so than any other park in Florida. There are extreme roller coasters. There are less extreme roller coasters. There are water rides. There are static rides. There are shows. There are animal exhibits.

And it’s not just a token water ride, or a token less extreme coaster – no, there’s a collection of each, spread around the park. The collection of coasters is unparalleled within Florida, and this is the one that I will concentrate on as it’s the one I’m most interested in. Kumba is pretty damn good and probably as good, if not better, than SeaWorld’s Kraken. Sheikra is definitely the best vertical drop coaster I’ve been on, and Montu is the best SLC. Gwazi – I will say that the less said about that the better, though I feel bad about saying that – if it was stable I think it would be good. Cheetah Chase is good, but not great. The other coasters – small, disposable flat coasters squeezed into small areas to beef up the choice – which can only be a good thing.

Okay, that all doesn’t sound that good when I read it like that, at least compared to parks we went to on the road trip. Compared to, say, Cedar Point, the ride variety and choice isn’t great. But compared to other parks in Florida, it’s brilliant. So long as you can go to a park which isn’t Disney-themed (or indeed Universal-themed), there really shouldn’t be a reason not to go to Busch Gardens.

There’s a good atmosphere around the park too – at least when we go. As I say, the park doesn’t have as many people there as the Orlando parks. And, as a plus, the animals themselves seem to be happy too. Well, as happy as animals in captivity can be. I mean, it’s not like they’re bouncing off the walls, performing dances and so on (hi SeaWorld).

Animals in a theme park, or indeed animals in any form of captivity, always makes me feel a tad uneasy. Sure, I can walk around a zoo well enough and all, but in most zoos the animals have a fair bit of space. SeaWorld always makes me feel uncomfortable, as if everyone going to the park is going to be damned to Hell.

Busch Gardens isn’t like that. The zoo bits in it are, essentially, a zoo. I don’t really recall any shows with animals being made to perform tricks (or “encouraged”). They may well have been there, but I definitely don’t recall any. Nope, we’ve got animal exhibits (and, from the looks of it, pretty spacious animal exhibits) and even the chance to go through the Serengeti on the train, which is definitely something I’d recommend.

Before I conclude this incredibly random review (it is a bit all over the place, isn’t it?) I will mention again the theming, specifically the new Jungala area. An area made apparently for kids, it’s still pretty good for adults too. A small rocky jungle area with a huge climbing frame, one or two small rides and a tiger exhibit to look out over, it is exceptional. Busch Gardens doesn’t have to try looking like an elaborate film set, or a fantasy castle – it’s got Africa (or at least an idealised version of Africa) down pretty well. Obviously I say idealised, because it does avoid the rotting animal carcasses, villages covered in mud and disease-ridden insects which is the grim portrayal of Africa we see on the charity adverts…

To sum it all up – Busch Gardens is probably the most rounded of all the parks in Florida. It’s themed around Africa (again, an idealised version) and it does it very well. It also really does have something for everyone, from kids rides (also, there’s a Sesame Street area) to shows to animal exhibits to family rides to huge roller coasters. It’s position in Tampa is a blessing and a curse – somehow the park manages to keep going on what must be a fraction of the customers Magic Kingdom, Universal Studios and the rest of the Orlando-area parks receive, and it does mean there are shorter queues… but it really does seem that the park is being ignored compared to it’s brethren, unfairly so – and it really does deserve the attention. Those going to Florida and being able to go to Busch Gardens (because let’s remember, not everyone hires a car) – and not going to Busch Gardens really are doing the park, and themselves, a great disservice.

So following that, we’ve got a gig in Ybor City to go to. I must say that I’m not into music, but my wife is, so off to the venue we go. It’s the Orpheus, a decent place in what seems like an area of Tampa where Cubans have settled. Which doesn’t seem like a bad thing. I’m sure lots of people in Tampa probably think it’s a hotbed of crime and social deprivation, but as we found with Chicago, we found it a nice area to have a stroll through, trying to find something to eat (to be safe we settled on a Subway) before the gig itself.

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The gig was probably the longest I’ve been to. Doors at 6-ish, starting at 7, so we got there shortly after 7. I thought it’d be finished around 11, but NOOOOO, there were several encores, the main band were practically force-fed shots and beers and went on until I think 1-ish – probably a bit after.

Somehow there wasn’t really much, if anything, in the way of drunkenness. Which is odd. I haven’t been to many gigs but of the ones I’ve been to (which have all been in the UK or Florida), you can pretty much guarantee there will be some people getting noticeably plastered. Not so here – it just seemed a lot more friendly.

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And sorry, that’s pretty much all I remember for the gig. Look, it’s a theme park blog. I don’t really pay attention to music, as I said. But, as I seem to have a problem around large, noisy crowds, I think I’d probably enjoy going to gigs more (and be able to pay more attention to the music, as I did at this one) if they were more like this one.

God, I sucked writing that day. All you need to know is – it was all fun. Busch Gardens – great park. Stay tuned for the next day, where I review Aquatica and SeaWorld!

Previous – day 10 (US and IoA again)

Next – day 12 (Aquatica, SeaWorld and Downtown Disney)

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