Theme Park Insider

A Californian's Florida Adventure - Part 5

Edited: November 18, 2017, 11:40 AM · If you missed Part 4, click here to go back and read about Disney's Animal Kingdom.

When most people think of Florida's theme parks, they are usually thinking of Walt Disney World or Universal Orlando. It makes a lot of sense...after all, these are among the most popular theme parks in the world. However, much like California, those who restrict themselves to the destination resorts are missing out on excellent regional parks. After three consecutive days at WDW, I was ready for a slight change of pace. Did I say slight? I meant polar opposite.

Part 5: The Roller Coaster Capital of Florida

While most theme park enthusiasts like roller coasters, there is a group called coaster enthusiasts who are all about high intensity thrill rides. To them, a ride that is built over a parking lot but pushes their body to the absolute limit reigns supreme over one that can convincingly transport you to another world. I happen to land in the intersection of these two groups, and while I definitely enjoy the highly themed experience that destination parks provide, I also can get just as much fun from a lesser themed iron ride park.

When it comes to roller coasters, Six Flags and Cedar Fair dominate the market. Six Flags Magic Mountain in Southern California has perhaps the best coaster collection in the world, with sister parks in Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Texas also boasting stellar line-ups of extreme scream machines. Cedar Point, however, gives any Six Flags park a run for their money, with a nearly equal ride line-up complimented by superior guest service and an unmatched location. Carowinds, Kings Dominion, and Kings Island, all members of the Cedar Fair chain, also feature coaster collections containing several rides that would be the top coaster at 90% of smaller parks. However, neither of these chains operates in Florida, so their place is filled by a member of the SeaWorld chain: Busch Gardens Tampa.

Operating since 1959, Busch Gardens Tampa predates Walt Disney World by over a decade. Much like Knott's Berry Farm, the park didn't start out as a theme park. Initially, it was little more than a hospitality facility for Anheuser-Busch, where guests could participate in beer tastings and take in a couple additional minor attractions. Eventually, there was enough traffic that the Serengeti Plains were added, allowing visitors to view free-roaming African wildlife (predating the Kilimanjaro Safaris by over 30 years). From there, the park grew and grew, until eventually it resembled a modern theme park (and, just like Knott's, their first coaster was an Arrow Corkscrew). Today, the park is over three hundred acres and is known for their thrill rides as much as anything else.

Getting to Busch Gardens Tampa is a bit of a hassle. From where I was, it was a bit of a drive down US-27, followed by around 50 miles on I-4 West. Once you get off the freeway, getting to the park then requires about 10 minutes navigating local roads. It is by no means impossible, but it will require a rental car and some time (allow 90 minutes from Orlando). The destination, however, is worth the journey, particularly for those who seek the sort of adventure only a menacing structure of steel can provide.

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Upon arrival, we were greeting with the absence of something all too common at Disney...crowds. While the park did get busier as the day went on (especially during the nighttime Howl-O-Scream event), I don't recall waiting more than 10 minutes for anything (at least during the day). This was a very pleasant contrast to yesterday's nearly four hour wait, and it enabled us to get multiple rides on everything while enjoying the park at a fairly leisurely pace.

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The rides, however, were anything but leisurely. Dan, Evan, and I headed directly to the Edge of Africa to take our first ride: Cheetah Hunt.

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An Intamin Blitz Coaster, this ride's closest relative in the states is Cedar Point's impressive Maverick. Cheetah Hunt does dial the intensity back a bit, with a ride more similar to California Screamin', but it is still an exceptionally smooth and very enjoyable thrill ride. Starting out with a pair of launches, the ride pauses briefly to give a scenic view over the park before plunging into an out-and-back race across the park. The ride constantly dives through tunnels, twists through trenches, and even leaps over the Skyride. It is a long ride, but it goes by fast. Thanks to an obscene 5 minute wait time, we were able to ride a number of times throughout the day, but for now it was ride twice and move on.

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Beyond Africa lies Egypt, and within the desert sands of this small area lie two of the park's roller coasters. First off, the park's newest: Cobra's Curse.

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A completely custom Mack creation, this ride features a seven story elevator lift and three distinct segments. First, riders travel forward through a fairly tame coaster section.

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Next, the cars spin backward before sending trains through an awkward helix and up a lift hill.

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Lastly, trains are released to spin freely through the final section of the course. The ride is mostly an oversized junior coaster (almost a modern reimagining of Knott's Jaguar), but it is a fun diversion that we ended up riding several times (Dan is a huge fan of this one).

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In the back of Egypt, however, towers the park's most extreme coaster: Montu.

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A Bolliger & Mabillard inverted coaster, Montu stands 150 ft tall and features seven inversions during a three minute ride. When it debuted, this ride dethroned Cedar Point's Raptor as the world's tallest, longest, and fastest inverted coaster, titles it would hold until Alpengeist opened at sister park Busch Gardens Williamsburg the next year (or, in the case of the length record, Pyrenees at Parque Espana in Japan).

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With a layout not too different from a typical B&M, Montu soars through inversion after inversion while diving in and out of themed trenches placed strategically along the course. The first half of the ride is nearly perfect, with just the right level of intensity and just the right pacing to provide extreme thrills without discomfort. While the second half is a bit tamer, the coaster never lets up, and by the time it hits the breaks you're ready for a breather.

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This ride debuted as a top 5 steel coaster, and even today it still routinely places in top 25 lists, mine included (I rank it 20th on my steel list, out of over 400). Montu is simply a phenomenal ride...the best of the 16 B&M Inverts I've ridden (Afterburn and Banshee rank just behind), and my favorite ride at Busch Gardens Tampa.

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But Montu is not the only legendary B&M at this park. Way back in the Congo, with a roar that can be heard from some distance away, Kumba terrorizes those who dare to venture back here. Another B&M masterpiece, Kumba essentially defined the modern looping coaster. The ride begins with a 135 ft drop into a 114 ft loop (the world's largest upon the ride's opening), followed up by a rapid-fire sequence of dive loop, zero-g roll, and cobra roll. After a brief pause, the ride dives into a pair of interlocking corkscrews, then wraps it up with a helix.

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If this sounds familiar, you're not wrong...every B&M sit down coaster with five or more inversions has roughly followed this sequence of elements (some with a slight variation), with the sole exception of Hydra the Revenge. Unlike the park's other major coasters, Kumba is utterly devoid of theming, but it doesn't need it. It debuted as a top 5 coaster, and even today it holds a place on some top coaster lists (I rank this one 41st). While the ride has developed a mild rattle, it still runs great for a 24 year old coaster, and I ended up riding this one more than anything else (6 rides throughout the day).

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Not to be overshadowed by its brethren is SheiKra, North America's first dive coaster. Towering 200 ft over Stanleyville, SheiKra dives straight down (literally) like the hawk it is named after. This plunge is followed up by an Immelmann inversion, then a second near-vertical plunge and a water splash finale.

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While the ride doesn't pack quite as much of a punch as Kumba or Montu, it is a graceful ride with a much higher intimidation factor. This seemed to be the popular favorite, as it consistently had the longest line among the park's coasters. As a result, I only managed three rides, but that was enough. While I do have a very, very slight preference for Griffon (at least for now...that might change after I re-ride the latter next year), SheiKra is a better fit for its location and has far more theming and landscaping surrounding the ride. After all, how many other coaster stations are accessed by suspension bridge? I actually rank this one above Kumba on my personal list (37th), but both are absolute must-rides.

Two smaller coasters also thrill visitors at the park. Sand Serpent and Scorpion, both located on opposite sides of Pantopia, provide milder rides for those who aren't quite ready for Cheetah Hunt or the B&Ms.

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The former is a Mack Wild Mouse (the original prototype, in fact), with a few too many trim brakes to be considered a wild ride.

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The latter is an old Schwarzkopf Silverarrow, a single loop coaster that was good for its time yet pales in comparison to bigger and better rides that came later. Both are reasonably fun rides that are worth a ride if the line is short, but neither is worth much of a time investment.

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Sadly, the non-coaster collection at Busch Gardens Tampa is a bit lacking. The park lacks a dark ride and modern flat rides (though Wild Surge, despite being in the kids area, still offers a mild thrill).

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However, right in the center of Pantopia stands Falcon's Fury, the most intimidating drop tower ever built. A 33 story free fall is intimidating enough on its own, but this ride takes that one step further: On Falcon's Fury, you plummet while facing straight down. The ride is unlike any other drop tower, with a legitimate "Oh s***!" moment for even the most seasoned riders when the seats tilt forward prior to the drop. While the drop isn't quite as extreme here due to the immense drag on the carriage and the magnetic brakes kicking in earlier than normal, falling in the prone position is something different. I personally prefer Lex Luthor or Acrophobia, but still rode Falcon's Fury several times...it's just such a unique ride.

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Beyond the coasters, it is the animals that are the main draw at this park. While there is less variety than Disney's Animal Kingdom, many of the exhibits are right off the main walkways, making it easy to glimpse a variety of animals during a visit.

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For those who want to see even more, the Serengeti Train Ride takes guests out across the Serengeti Plain.

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If Disney perfected manufactured nature, this is a better representation of real nature. There is no attempt to lure animals over to the train, they are free to wander the huge area as they see fit. If memory serves correctly, the entire train loop is 45 minutes, but the segment from Nairobi to Congo features the best views of animals.

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The Skyride also passes directly over the Serengeti Plains, but it was unfortunately closed for maintenance when I visited.

Truthfully, there isn't a whole lot else to say about this park. The whole place has a reasonable Africa theme, but it is more through consistent decoration and architecture styles than immersive themed areas. Food is fairly average, consisting largely of standard theme park fare with the occasional oddity mixed in. Operations are subpar compared to Disney or Universal, but still superior to many regional parks (despite the complete lack of crowds, everything except Scorpion ran at least two trains). The park is huge, and even though it was completely empty there was still enough to fill a whole day. They've also got a solid Halloween event, but that will be covered separately.

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Overall, Busch Gardens Tampa is probably the least unique of Florida's major parks. That said, I enjoyed it immensely, and would probably rank it third among the parks in the state (and better than any of the secondary Disney parks). It's not as nice as the Williamsburg park and certainly doesn't have everything, but what BGT does offer is very well done and is crafted with a bit more care than most regional thrill parks. Those who need immersive dark rides to enjoy a theme park need not apply, but for everyone else I'd highly recommend adding a day here to your next Florida trip...if getting there isn't too difficult, that is.

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Busch Gardens Tampa Scorecard:

Animal Exhibits (as a whole): 8/10
Cheetah Hunt: 8.5/10
Cobra's Curse: 7/10
Falcon's Fury: 9/10
Kumba: 8.5/10
Montu: 9/10
Sand Serpent: 6.5/10
Serengeti Train Ride: 8/10
Scorpion: 6.5/10
SheiKra: 9/10
Wild Surge: 7/10
Overall Park Score: 8.5/10

Busch Gardens Tampa closed for the day at 6 P.M., but that would not be the end of my visit here. Part of the reason for a late September/early October visit was to check out Florida's Halloween events, and Howl-O-Scream would be the first of three I'd visit on this trip. However, I'll be covering all three together toward the end of the report in order to do a proper compare and contrast, so next week's report will be my day at the most well-known theme park on Earth.

To see the entire photo album from this park, click here.

Replies (8)

November 18, 2017, 11:30 AM · Busch Gardens is part of my Seaworld pass so I try and get over a couple of times a year. As I mentioned in a previous BGT enquiry the I4 drive is to say the least awful, but as long as you can keep way from the rush hours it’s tolerable .... just !! Last month I spent a lot of time taking photos for my roller coaster screen saver at work :) so with no camera in hand in January I’m looking forward to much more ride time.
My favorite at BG is cheetah hunt. Being such a unique ride it’s takes my top spot at the park but very closely followed by Montu and Kumba. I’m one of the inverted fans that still believes the Raptor far exceeds the Montu for the very reason you mentioned ... it’s intensity dies off during the later stages whereas Raptor never gives up.
I’m not a fan of dive coasters, having riden Oblivion, Sheikra and Valraven .... none have actually knocked my proverbial socks off. Maybe if one went up and over 300ft ?? it might peak my interest.
Sheikra is such a smooth ride it’s sometimes difficult to believe you are actually riding it !?!? I like the 2 dives of Sheikra but also like the water splash element. It’s great to sit in the shade of the nearby stores and watch the kids enjoying get soaked as Sheikra zips by.
The novelty of Falcons Fury wore off for me after the first drop. It had so much potential but all of that got nullified when they decided to turn the cars back upright about 1/2 way down. It should have plummeted all the way down face first and then once stopped have the cars return to a sitting position. Another 100ft wouldn’t have gone amiss either ... :)
The one enduring thing for me about BG is the way the rides are intermingled with the animals. Some of the photos I took of cheetah hunt are great with the animals in the for and/or back ground.
It’s a shame the sky ride wasn’t working as it takes you over the top of cheetah hunt for some awesome photo opportunities.
Orlando really needs a coaster park .... we got close a couple of years ago, but local residents squashed that with concerns about the noise. And fare do’s to those people. It wasn’t the best of places at the top of I-drive.
Of course we have Skyplex coming, with the “tallest coaster in the world” .... but I’ll reserve all thought and comments on that until its built .... if it ever gets built !!
I’m glad you liked Busch Gardens, for me it’s my favorite park in Florida. I would happily do a transplant swap ... BG to Orlando and Seaworld to Tampa. I’m OK with a new water ride but I do wish Seaworld would have continued along the coaster building path.
Great write up as always AJ
November 20, 2017, 9:02 AM · "Another 100ft wouldn’t have gone amiss either ... :)"

Really?? It's already the tallest free standing drop tower in North America, and you want another 100 feet? I agree with both you and AJ that it would be cool if you could stay in the face-down position longer, but it's simply not practical nor safe.

I find SheiKra to be superior to both Griffon and Valravn because of that second drop through the tower. The additional height of Valravn doesn't add that much to Griffon's design, and Griffon has the advantage of the 10-across trains, which put more seats over the edge of the track. However, once SheiKra converted to floorless trains, it's superior themeing is what make it the best dive machine in the US.

This is the second time we've gone to BGT when the Skyride has been closed (last visited in October 2014). For me, the Skyride is far superior to the train in terms of viewing the animals, though the best is along the walking paths between Egypt and Pantopia.

I was really impressed with Cobra's Curse, with our trip last month being our first time on the coaster. We were there on a Sunday, so the park was much more crowded than what you experienced AJ, so we only got 1 ride (line was pretty steady at 45-60 minutes all day). I thought the queue was really well done, and the loading platform and lift design helps to maximize throughput of an otherwise slow loader. The only other Mack spinner I've ridden is Sierra Sidewinder at Knott's back in 2012, so I really liked this experience in comparison, along with the progressive stages of the ride. I did wish the giant snake at the top of the lift did something more than just stare at you, but the layout and terrain of the coaster make it a top notch family ride.

Montu is a beast, and sadly has been toned down a bit. From the elimination of the crocodiles beneath the turn to the lift to the trims (most notably the one added after the zero-g prior to the batwing) and the heavier MCBR, it's not as intense as it was in its heyday, but is still easily one of the best inverts in the world. Cedar Point fanboys will always give props to Raptor for its all out intensity to the end, but for me, Montu trumps it with a superior theme and all of the near misses with the tunnels and trenches. Montu's batwing still tops any element on Raptor, and for me is one of the best coaster elements anywhere.

I'm hoping the park eventually decides what to do with Gwazi. The park is not very balanced right now with the southwest quadrant severely lacking in rides. Gwazi takes up a big chunk of real estate right in the middle of the park, yet the rumors still are leaning towards the long-reported hyper coaster to run along the back perimeter of the park, and not a renovated (RMC) or replacement of Gwazi.

November 20, 2017, 11:15 AM · Apart from a couple of Keyholes, theming isn't really on the radar of Cedar Point ... :)
.... I suppose I'm going to have to visit SFGA and try the Zumanjaro drop of doom, or maybe wait for the 450ft Skyfall drop inside the Skyplex coaster tower to get beyond the FF's 350ft
It would be nice to think RMC would do a convert for Gwazi, but not sure if that's something BG would entertain. I still wonder about that structure, and the fact some of the surrounding stalls retain the Gwazi name. It odd to see it still standing, 3+ years after it closed.
November 20, 2017, 11:42 AM · Just because Cedar Point doesn't do themeing doesn't mean they should be let off the hook when comparing similar coasters. FWIW, I like Dragster a whole lot more than Kingda Ka, not only because of the lap bar, but because of the themeing. Maverick is a pretty decently themed coaster by Cedar Fair standards, and it backs it up with an excellent, one of a kind ride. Cedar Fair can theme when they want, but have gotten lazy recently, and because of that, I feel that other parks with similar coasters that at least attempt to theme their attractions (not just giving them a story, but making the coaster fit into the park through terrain building) will always rank higher in my book even if Cedar Point's coaster might be a bit taller or faster.

The extra height on Zumanjaro/Lex Luthor makes a bit of a difference, in that you get the "will we ever slow down before we crash at the bottom" feeling that you don't always get from a 200-250 tower. However for me, Falcon's Fury is the pinnacle of straight drop ride design. Designers keep talking a big game about going bigger, but the Skyplex isn't happening any time soon, and multiple groups have attempted to go bigger in Las Vegas without much luck.

Gwazi just doesn't seem long for this world, but it doesn't make any sense why it's SBNO unless it's going to get a remake sometime soon. The relatively new Millennium Flier trains were shipped off to Williamsburg for InvadR, so the likelihood of it returning in its current form is next to zero. RMC has a busy 2018, but their 2019 schedule is unknown. Perhaps BGT wasn't able to get on the schedule when they gave up on the original design after the MF trains didn't solve the roughness problems, and does have a conversion on the horizon with RMC, just further down the road, and they don't want to tear down the structure to allow for the most cost ravings from reuse. That's the only reason I can come up with why Gwazi is SBNO.

November 20, 2017, 1:54 PM · Ahhhh Yes BGT... Great park... Montu is fantastic...

I have always said if this were located in Orlando, BGT would be so much more popular....(And probably not called BGT, hahaha)

Nice park, coaster's, water rides, shows.....

November 20, 2017, 9:13 PM · I personally didn't find the drive that bad, but then again I'm used to driving to Six Flags Magic Mountain with some frequency (that drive is typically 2-2.5 hours depending on traffic). For the typical Orlando visitor, however, it probably would be a challenge, especially if they don't drive long distances on American freeways on a regular basis.

For reference, here is how I rank the B&M Inverts:

1. Montu
2. Afterburn
3. Banshee
4. Alpengeist
5. Raptor
6. Talon
7. Flight Deck (California's Great America)
8. Batman clones (I've ridden 6)
9. Silver Bullet
10. Great Bear

While I do wish Montu didn't have as much trimming, I still really like the layout and the way it interacts with the terrain. Raptor maintains the intensity, but the second half of the ride isn't that interesting and the whole thing is in an open field. It's still a very good ride (I rank it 4th at Cedar Point and 34th overall), but Raptor just misses the cutoff of what I consider a top tier coaster.

Falcon's Fury would probably have been a little more thrilling if I hadn't done the Fun Spot Skycoaster a couple days earlier. It is still a really good drop tower, but because of the design of the ride it doesn't provide the weightless sensation found on a more typical tower. I don't think height is the issue, but rather the deceleration forces limit how fast and far the ride can actually drop. I can't imagine hitting the brakes in a face down position at 70+ miles per hour would have been very comfortable.

I may re-evaluate my stance on SheiKra vs Griffon (and Valravn) after I ride the latter next year. My memories of Griffon are from 2010, and at the time I'd only ridden about 1/3 the coasters I have now. SheiKra definitely has better theming and the layout isn't as repetitive, but I remember Griffon giving a slightly better ride. Perhaps my memories are just out of date.

I really wish the Skyride was open, both because it looked like it would have excellent views and because I really like those types of attractions. Supposedly it has been having more issues lately, so hopefully it just needs a good refurbishment and isn't becoming too problematic for the park to keep.

Cobra's Curse is a very good junior coaster, and excluding those with extensive theming it is probably my second favorite in that class after Dollywood's FireChaser Express. The ride does a little of everything, and while not as intense as many similarly sized coasters it doesn't need to be. I think doing four rides on it may have caused it to get a little old, but it definitely exceeded expectations.

My gut feeling on Gwazi is that the park intends to demolish it, but they don't want to spend the money to do so if they aren't ready for a replacement. It is odd to simply leave a perfectly good roller coaster sitting there, but from most accounts the ride was horribly maintained and just wasn't very good. I've heard from a couple people that they've looked into working with RMC, but that isn't likely the direction they'll choose to go (something about it being too expensive to convert the whole ride and not good enough to just make one track out of it). We shall see what happens, but I wouldn't hold your breath on a RMC Gwazi.

And yes, if Busch Gardens Tampa was in Orlando (or at least closer), it probably would have twice the attendance numbers it has now. The park is a little too far away for the typical tourist without a rental car, but I think it provides a superior experience to a majority of the other parks (especially for those who don't require heavy theming).

November 21, 2017, 6:32 AM · If you take into account theming as well as pure on the ride experience, I'd put Nemesis on top of my list, with Montu just slightly ahead of Raptor. But I like to take away the "trimmings" and that's why Raptor is my #1 inverted. It's 3rd on my CP list ... behind MF & TTD. Gatekeeper 4th and Maverick 5th ..... of course that may well change in May ... :)
November 21, 2017, 7:28 AM · Thanks for writing these fantastic well detailed stories..

I know they are time consuming and we appreciate all of them..

The sky ride is pretty decent, it makes something like an "L" pattern instead of a straight line...

I have driven to BGT 3 times from Orlando\Lake Buena Vista area and there was no traffic so it took about 75 minutes...Also Floridians only think those speed limit sighs and more of a suggestion... I will be doing 85 on the highway and get passed like I am only doing 50 mph or so......


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