Florida 2012 – day 8 – Busch Gardens

With all the parks we were going to do in Orlando out of the way, it’s time to go further afield (though not by much, especially by American standards) to Busch Gardens in Tampa.

Now, the vast majority of people going to Florida for the parks will stay around Orlando. Why go further afield? You’ve got the Disney parks, Universal, Islands Of Adventure, SeaWorld, Aquatica, Wet n Wild and Discovery Cove all in the general area. What does Busch Gardens have to offer? It’s not even based on anything really.

But, for those willing to travel the extra mile (well, extra around sixty miles from where we’re staying), Busch Gardens Tampa is an exceedingly nice park with some great thrill rides, as well as rides more suitable for everyone. To be honest, I find it fortunate that not as many people know about Busch Gardens – it makes the queue a lot less.

I’ve just gone into Magic Kingdom in a fair bit of detail – as pointed out in there, we go to each park twice during the holiday and it’s during these second visits that I’ll go into the park in more detail. As of now, it’s worth writing more about the day and the rides we go on.

Busch Gardens in Tampa is, basically, themed around various parts of Africa apparently, with it’s Williamsburg counterpart themed around Europe (though we went there in 2011 and it wasn’t that good, not to mention there’s a mysterious “New France” section which is all very log-cabin rural – I have no idea what that’s supposed to represent). It was opened a good while ago – before the Magic Kingdom, I think – and originally started out as a welcome area for the Busch brewery. Over time the beer went and the rides were added. Good thing too, as I don’t like beer, freak that I am.

Finding Busch Gardens seems quite easy, but isn’t really. You definitely need directions. Basically, you go along the I4 towards Tampa and it’s down one of the roads near the university (they’ve got a HUGE stadium, as it seems all American universities do). It’s not well signposted – in fact I think the nearby Dinosaur World has more signs to it – but on the way, at the side of the road as you get near Tampa, you can see various old mobile home trailers impaled in the ground, presumably near some sort of dealership. The general reason why they’re like that isn’t obvious, as it really does look like they’ve been catapulted into the ground.

Arriving, we are quietly assured by how empty the car park is – which is pretty usual at Busch Gardens as it’s not situated near Orlando. The park is on the other side of the road and we have to take a tram, which goes under the road, to get to it. As it’s near Halloween the park is decked out in various Halloween decorations and adverts for their Halloween events, including a car in the car park just outside the park which has been smashed by zombie hordes. Or perhaps it just looks like that anyway.

We head in and immediately arrive in “standard African market area number 1”. I don’t know what it’s called. In any case, it’s got nice looking buildings with domes and balconies and all, looking like the standard African market area. It does look nice, but I can’t really think how to describe it. In any case, we know a fair amount of the park off-by-heart and so head over to our right, through the Crown Colony area (looks very green and quaint) towards the Egypt area, which looks all Egypt-ish (without the KFC outside the pyramids) and our first ride of the day – Montu!

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(rubbish picture, I know)

Montu is a good ride. It’s a very good ride. Definitely our favourite of it’s kind. The queues are normally very quick – we wait a cycle or two on average, just a few minutes if any – and when we get on we find a very good suspended looping coaster.

I must admit that I’m not overly keen on SLCs – I usually get the feeling that they try and bombard you with effects. A roll here, then a loop straight afterwards followed by a flip and a few more bits until we very quickly get to the end. And I must also admit that the only other coaster of this type I rate highly is Infusion at Blackpool Pleasure Beach. Nemesis at Alton Towers is one I’ve been on once and for whatever reason that didn’t leave a lasting impression. Dragon Challenge is a bit meh. The Six Flags SLCs (Batman, Mind Eraser) are also meh. Raptor at Cedar Point was pretty forgettable. Kumali at Flamingo Land just drove us insane with having to wait over two hours to get on it and is pitifully short. Alpengeist at Busch Gardens Williamsburg also seemed standard.

Montu though is a decent length. It doesn’t bombard you with too much going on, leaving a bit of breathing space between elements. And it’s in a pretty good setting, with large amounts of it diving down into trenches in the ground before taking to the skies. I count about seven inversions on it, and it is pretty brilliant. Somehow it even feels therapeautic – going on this ride several times in a row, with a good breeze as we do.

Leaving this, we head back to the Crown Colony area and Busch Gardens’ newest ride, Cheetah Hunt.

Cheetah Hunt, as you may have gathered, is based around cheetahs. Basically, as SeaWorld’s Manta wants you to imagine you are a manta ray, and Kraken wants you to imagine you are… a giant fictional squid (yeah, that works well), Cheetah Hunt makes you want to imagine you are a cheetah.

With it’s station sharing the same building that the park’s cable car system uses as a terminal, Cheetah Hunt advertises a pretty short wait considering how new it is – about 15 minutes. However, as we’re waiting it does suffer some breakdowns and it takes us about 45 minutes to get on, though a fair number of people leave the queue ahead of us because they can’t be bothered waiting. Which is fine by us – means we get on that bit quicker.

The trains are long and sit two to a row, with a HUGE amount of rows (forget cheetah, this thing needs to be themed after a snake). I forget to mention that we watch it’s promotional video about a hundred times, and there are a fair number of obvious photoshops done in there that look laughable.

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So we manage to get on, set off, and immediately we’re launched. At first this coaster doesn’t hang around and has some nice straights and bankings that work reasonably well. Then we go into some sort of concrete trench and are launched again, up towards the giant pretzel thing which we go round, and back down the other side. Later on there is a portion where we travel down a stream, the track weaving as we’re meant to believe we are hopping gracefully over stones, as a cheetah would. At some point there is another launch, and a heartline roll – apparently some sort of world first.

And that’s it. Which would be alright if the thing wasn’t so overly long. Okay, I think even the promotional video has said how quickly cheetahs can turn, but this has lots of straights and long bankings and not much else. There’s also lots of industrial catwalks and so on in a fair number of areas. I suppose that, when on Manta, right at the end you can see the inner workings of the aquarium area, and rides do need a lot of maintenance – especially this one as it keeps breaking down all the time.

I know I said that I’m going off rides a bit now that bombard you with elements all the time, and also ones that are over too quickly, but there doesn’t seem to be much here to justify it’s length. We’ve got one inversion. ONE. It would be better to have none at all. Either have none, or go and put a few in – some more rolls, and imagine if the car flipped over when coming out of the weird pretzel bit. Having one token inversion smacks of wimping out.

But I can’t say it’s a bad coaster. It’s alright. Half-decent at times. It’s a good length, and okay for when we don’t know what we want to do and are on our way to another coaster. It’s just a bit disappointing, not living up to it’s potential. A bit wasted.

One thing though that is cool about Cheetah Hunt is that it actually goes round other rides and has other rides going through it. Well, okay, the Skyride (cable car). Which is cool – looks decent from the Skyride as the Cheetah Hunt passes overhead. Which you don’t see much of in parks that aren’t Blackpool Pleasure Beach.

Ho-hum. We head back to the entrance area and grab something to eat. I can’t remember exactly where we eat and what we eat (food, I presume). Probably at Zagora Cafe, a place we ate at in 2009 which does some of the less usual theme park offerings (fajitas, for instance) but in 2009 lost my order and got my wife’s wrong. Fortunately no such problems existed this time.

And off we head to Gwazi!

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Now, I’ve had to look up some stuff on Gwazi so here we go. A wooden coaster, it opened in 1999 shortly after Dueling Dragons at IoA, and I think it’s currently the only dueling coaster in Florida. Not that you notice, as whenever we’ve gone on it there haven’t been enough people on it to run two cars. There are apparently six fly-bys and the coaster reaches 51mph. In the past, Gwazi has been quite rough and, like Rolling Thunder at Six Flags Great Adventure, fitted into the category of “ow ow ow my spine” as it seems the entire thing vibrates. Since then, in 2011 new cars were added to make it gentler. And you know what?

It does absolutely nothing!

Well, it certainly doesn’t seem to. I get the feeling that Gwazi would be a much better ride if it was a lot gentler – it’s got a good speed, some great bankings and suchlike. Make it smoother, make the trains duel, and I think it would be a winner. In the meantime though, we’re only doing this because we’re here and want to do all the main rides at least once.

However, Wiki does now say that one side of Gwazi has been closed since summer 2012 for budget purposes, and Gwazi itself may be closing. Which does seem like a wasted opportunity. I would really like to go on it when it was less rough (I’m not talking the satisfyingly-painful roughness of Big Dipper or Ultimate, but a juddering, vibrating, constantly nauseatingly roughness).

Now, one thing that Busch Gardens in Tampa has that a lot of parks don’t is a cable car that is actually good. Leaving from the Crown Colony area (as mentioned before, it shares the same station as Cheetah Hunt), it takes you from around the bottom-right corner of the park to Stanleyville – or thereabouts – in the top-left (not counting the Jungala area). It passes through and around various bits of Cheetah Hunt, as well as over various animal habitats, and you can get some good pictures of the animals. This provides a very good trip that we take quite regularly between Montu and our next coaster, Sheikra.

Sheikra then, contained in Stanleyville, is reasonably new. I don’t think it was open when we first went to Florida in 2004 – in fact I think it was being built at the time. In the times we’ve been between then and now it’s become one of our favourite coasters in the park – well, it’s in the top three, which isn’t bad considering the park only has five major coasters, but the quality of our top three is excellent.

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Sheikra’s cars have three rows and, I think, eight seats per row. It’s a vertical drop coaster, which drops from a height of 200 foot. We make it up here and have a bit of time to admire the view, before the obligatory few moments of dangling over the edge followed by the 90-degree plummet. Which is pretty cool, and I always love the feeling of weightlessness.

But unlike a certain other attraction (cough – Oblivion – cough), Sheikra isn’t done. Like it’s sister coaster Griffon at Busch Gardens Williamsburg, Sheikra has a bit still to go. We have an inversion and then another drop, this time a paltry 138 foot one, into a tunnel. Then a moment of skimming a pool of water, throwing it up into the air as the car dips a bit of metal into it, and then back to the station.

It’s not an active coaster by any means – not compared to the likes of Montu or even Cheetah Hunt – but these coasters never are. But the things that it does do are pretty good. I always think these coasters – even Oblivion – are decent little time-killers. They’re more disposable than the likes of Montu and Cheetah Hunt and Kumba (which I’ll review later), like a quick and satisfying snack between meals. Going by the snack routine, if I were to think of Sheikra as a snack I’d think of it as a Snickers Duo chocolate bar – pretty good and filling.

Speaking of Oblivion, before we went on Sheikra we did hear another British couple in the queue with us, with the man telling the woman “oh it’s just like Oblivion at Alton Towers, but Oblivion must be better ‘cos it was first”. Stupid people. As said, as good as Oblivion is as a quick, disposable coaster, it’s feeble compared to Sheikra.

I should however clarify that, of course, Oblivion was first. You can’t expect anything brilliant on a first attempt unless it’s a complete fluke, and Alton Towers must have made a fair bit of money from having the first nigh-on vertical drop coaster in the world.

The Stanleyville area of the park does also have some water rides – a log flume and a shoot the chutes – that we’re not bothered about. As I’ve said before, we generally don’t do water rides unless we’re bored, we can dry quickly or it’s a spectacularly brilliant water ride (ie – Valhalla). So we head over to the Timbuktu area, themed as an African market and bazaar. Probably my favourite themed area, it has a decent amount of small stalls, attractions and flat rides, as well as two tiny coasters.

The first is the Scorpion, a tiny little coaster with a single loop. Not bad, and it’s always fun to see things like this. Again, just a small portable coaster that’s been shipped in and assembled, and can just as quickly be disassembled and shipped out. There’s also the Sand Serpent (which we thought said Sandy Pants), a steel wild mouse spinning coaster (though I think describing it as a wild mouse is an insult to the Pleasure Beach’s Wild Mouse), like Twister at Lightwater Valley. Again, a cheap and disposable bit of fun. Again, it seems that British couple were on this at the same time as us and said it’s just like that ride at Alton Towers (Spinball) but not as good. Which I’ll kinda agree with them on that – it’s not as good as Spinball.

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The final coaster of the day is located in the Congo area, at the top of the park. It’s a difficult one to find, not one that’s well signposted, and is the completely ferocious Kumba.

Opening in 1993, Kumba featured the world’s tallest vertical loop at the time and was also the tallest, fastest and longest in Florida. In 1995 Dragon Khan at PortAventura took the world’s tallest vertical loop, and since then the tallest and longest in Florida were lost to, surprisingly, Montu, and the fastest to Hulk.

But despite these losses, Kumba is still one meaty coaster. A standard sit-down coaster sitting four riders to a row, it features seven inversions and can reach up to 60mph, pulling 3.8g’s and lasting nearly three minutes. Also it apparently features a vertical loop that winds around the lift hill – only one other ride (Riddler’s Revenge at Six Flags Magic Mountain) in the world features this.

In any case, it’s impossible to remember much of this ride in any detail, but it is definitely quite intense. When you finish you really do feel as if you’ve just been on something substantial. Somehow Montu remains our favourite coaster in the park and Kumba does tend to be neglected a tad when we do our trips between Montu and Sheikra, but it’s still one that is worthy of the praise bestowed on it – apparently it’s never left the top 50 steel coaster rankings worldwide since it opened in 1993.

Our second-to-last major attraction of the day is the newly-opened Jungala area, a great playground for kids of all shapes and sizes with lots of foliage and cargo netting. There are a few animal encounter areas, including a turret where you can look into the tiger enclosure. The Wild Surge is a family launch tower that is set in the middle of a rocky cave, and Jungle Fliers is at the top and is a zip line. It’s a nice little area with a few fountains as well for kids to play in.

And our last major attraction is, I guess, the park itself. There are three things that I think deserve some notice, the first being the bird garden area that we normally walk through at least once. There is a Sesame Street area which is usually quite deserted, but the bird gardens are quite tranquil and nice. Peacocks and other birds walk around the area seemingly not bothered at all by humans, beneath the shade of the tree canopy above and sticking close to the ponds.

Secondly is a gorilla reserve area which would be quite educational, had we not been at a theme park and all our attention taken up by the rides. Still, a good area for photos.

The final thing is the train, which on it’s own would probably be an alright train for getting about the place except for, between two stops, it goes into the animal enclosures. Yep, it goes into the main zoo area where the animals roam free, providing a great photo opportunity. Our train had to stop at one point because a rhino had decided to stand on the track right in front of the train.

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There is still a fair bit to this park – I want to cover that when we return to it in a few days time. Short overall review – Busch Gardens Tampa is a great park. It’s not completely geared towards families or the various intellectual properties of Disney or Universal, which I think gives it a good amount of freedom. It also “features” animal conservation, like SeaWorld, but unlike SeaWorld isn’t completely about animal conservation. And being in Tampa, away from the main area of Orlando, makes it nice and quiet compared to the main parks. Yet somehow it still remains in the top 20 most visited theme parks in the US, which says a lot for how good it is that a lot of people come to it from Orlando, where there are many other parks (which a lot of people perceive to be better) there to take their custom.

We stay until closing, doing re-rides on Montu, Sheikra (both classics) and Cheetah Hunt (which we’re unsure whether we can warm to it, but decide it’s new and we haven’t done it as much as other rides so we may as well get our money’s worth). Cheetah Hunt queues do decline during the day, though they don’t disppear. The other rides we can practically walk onto. Sadly we don’t really do Kumba, but this is our fault – I did mention that we tend to neglect this ride and I don’t honestly know why.

We leave and make the trip back towards the villa, stopping off at Wendy’s on the way. With the parks out of the way, we do return to them all a second time (apart from Magic Kingdom) so I’ll cover them each in more overall detail on their respective days.

Previous – day 7 (Magic Kingdom, Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party)

Next – day 9 (Siesta Key, Sarasota)

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