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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Next, the cars spin backward before sending trains through an awkward helix and up a lift hill.
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).
In the back of Egypt, however, towers the park's most extreme coaster: Montu.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
For those who want to see even more, the Serengeti Train Ride takes guests out across the Serengeti Plain.
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.
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.
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.
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
Sand Serpent: 6.5/10
Serengeti Train Ride: 8/10
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.Tweet
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