lackety clackety clackety clackety AAaaaaaaaagggghhhhh!" was the greeting as we first entered Busch Gardens in Tampa, Florida. These screams of delight mixed with terror wafted over us from a massive pink and blue steel roller coaster towering on the right while a blur of dangling legs and waving arms is whisked behind the palm fronds.
My daughter loves frenzy of a heart-stopping roller coaster rides, but I needed to work my way up to Kumba (the largest and fastest top riding steel coaster in the Southeast), so first we headed for Gwazi, a new wooden coaster - in fact a double roller coaster, one of the largest in the U.S. In fact, there are four incredible roller coasters for the less than brave to work their nerve up to - the Python, with a 6-story sheer drop; Montu, which gets you up to a speed of 4 Gs with a few major inverted loops; and the Scorpion which features three 360 degree spirals.
Next stop, Myobe Reserve. I had read about a baby chimp being born there not long ago - maybe we'll see him! Inside was a tropical canopy, complete with waterfall and lush jungle vegetation. Florida's warm humid climate makes natural place to reproduce a piece of the jungle. High up a palm tree, two great apes (like Tarzan's Cheetah) conferred with each other quietly. Eventually Patsy, the female, turned around to reveal a tiny baby clinging to his mommy's hairy chest. Obviously a good mom, she sat proudly with her mini-me. XXX, the grey-bearded papa on the ground below, munched his veggies thrown to him by a caretaker while others waited their turn. Each animal has their own diet and is fed one at a time, so rather than competition, the apes display a spirit of cooperation.
We entered the world of the western lowland gorillas next door. I felt like we were intruding on their family hour, since they seemed so at home in their tropical Florida environment as they observed the silly antics of the humans behind the glass.
Earlier on, we had called ahead for a reservation into the Serengeti, a safari-like excursion aboard a flatbed truck - where antelope, giraffe, ostrich, zebra and a wide variety of African and visiting birds flocked, grazed and moseyed across 29 acres of meticulously recreated savannah. Our expert guide stopped near each group of animals and shared interesting facts . We even had a chance to feed some giraffes - their long blue tongues gently swooping away some broad fuzzy leaves. A curious and friendly ostrich came up and pecked away at our vehicle -- so strangely prehistoric close-up! Five half-hour tours depart daily at 11:15, 1:00, 2:00, 4:00 and 5:00. Though most rides at Busch Gardens are free with admission, there is a separate fee for this one of $20 per person, but sign up for it early, since it's quite popular.
After the safari, we entered the authentically middle eastern-looking area called Morocco, which features our original destination, Gwazi, the giant wooden coaster. Two separate tracks, The Lion and the Tiger, snaked around and crisscrossed six times at a combined speed of 100 mph. It was, needless to say, swift and intense - and at the end we happy to see a bank of video screens - one with a picture of us, mid-scream. We bought the print and it's a brilliantly captures our terror.
Nothing like a little terror to work up your appetite - time for lunch! Our meanderings brought us to the Crown Colony House, a delightful upscalish restaurant that overlooked the plains of the Serengeti. There's a pizza place downstairs for those in a hurry, in fact there are plenty of places to eat in Busch Garden: the German Festhaus, the Zagora Cafe for hamburgers, Vivi's for great grilled chicken sandwiches - and my favorite, the Hospitality House which serves FREE BEER (after all, this is Busch Gardens, as in Anhauser Busch!)
Close by, we spotted the end (or was it the beginning?) of a skyride - the perfect shortcut above it all and over to Kumba, another enormous ride my daughter was itching to try.,
We disembarked in The Congo, where we looked down at an area with a large azure lake which was home two enormous tigers - both white, and one a rare albino with no stripes. It was a pretty hot day, so we thought it would be a good idea to cool off with a water ride. There were a few to chose from - a couple of log flumes (Stanley Falls and Tidal Wave) and a refreshing-looking float down a river.- River Rapids, which we chose. The line was long but enjoyable since it snaked past a tribe of adorable squirrel monkeys who were very busy swinging, climbing, and looking cute. We clambered into a large, round yellow inflatable watercraft that fit 12 of us. Off we floated down some rapids...ahh, this is better! As people watched us gently spin and bump into the riverbank from a high embankment, a water cannon suddenly shot a huge splat of water upon all of us, drenching us thoroughly. Well, at least we were cooler now! (The moral of this ride is: put valuables in a plastic bag and be prepared to exit looking like a drowned rat!)
Busch Gardens is located at the corner of Busch Boulevard and 40th Street in Tampa, Florida, about 8 miles northeast of downtown Tampa.
Open 365 days a year from 9:30 am to 6 pm, parking is easily available for $6 (cars), $5 (trucks and campers), preferred parking at the front gate for $10.
Admission is $45.68 plus tax for adults, $36.74 plus tax for kids ages 3-9 (children under 3 are admitted free). seasonal passes are also available.
For more information, call 800-4ADVENTURE, or 813/987-5082 or 813/987-5171. For vacation packages, call 800-42KUMBA.