Adventure Island (4500 E. Bougainvillea Ave., 813/987-5660, Mar.–Oct., hours and days vary; closed Oct.–early Mar., $49.99 adult, $45.99 child age 3–9, free for child 2 and younger) will wet your whistle, and pretty much everything else. It’s a 30-acre water park, with slides, corkscrews, waterfalls, a monstrous 17,000-square-foot wave pool, and a children’s play area. There are 50 lifeguards on duty, but it’s still only appropriate for the truly water-safe. There’s also a championship white-sand volleyball complex. If you buy a ticket to Busch Gardens, you can combine it with a ticket here for a discount.
Busch Gardens (E. Busch Blvd. and 40th St., 888/800-5447, winter daily 9 a.m.–6 p.m.; summer daily 9:30 a.m.–10 p.m., $81.99 box office adult, $71.99 online adult; $73.99 box office child age 3–9, $63.99 online child age 3–9; free for child 2 and younger; $14 parking) is expensive. Is it worth it? Definitely. It is a wonderful full-day extravaganza for people of any age. Busch Gardens can entertain you for a full two days, but if you do just one day, everyone will be clamoring for more. A 14-day 6 Park Orlando FlexTicket ($329.95 adult, $309.95 child) is a fairly good deal if you have the stamina to hit SeaWorld Orlando, Universal Studios Florida, Aquatica, Islands of Adventure, and Wet ’n’ Wild along with Busch Gardens.
Rides for Little Kids: The amusement park has a huge section of the park geared to children ages 2–7 called Sesame Street Safari of Fun (to the far left when you’re looking at the map), near Stanleyville, as well as in sections near the Congo. This is one of those parks where there are those vexing height limitations that preclude you from riding if you’re taller than the marker.
Rides for Big Kids: Major coasters are the biggest draw for those over 48 inches tall (or over 54 inches for Montu, Kumba, and SheiKra roller coasters) and with no serious health problems. The rides at Busch Gardens are either little-kiddie or pee-your-pants huge. The following are the roller coasters, in descending order of excellence. The Montu, at the far right of the park, is one of the tallest and longest inverted roller coasters in the world. You are strapped in from above, so your feet dangle while you travel at 60 mph through 60-foot vertical loops and stuff. The SheiKra has an incredible 90-degrees-straight-down-from-200-feet-up thrill at the beginning, an underground tunnel, speeds of 70 mph, and water features late in the ride, but overall the ride is too short. It went “floorless” a few years back to add another level of thrill, but it still doesn’t make top billing in our book. Kumba is third best, with a full three seconds of weightlessness, an initial 135-foot drop, and cool 360-degree spirals. It has good speed, a long ride, and one of the world’s largest vertical loops. And the Gwazi is for purists: An old double wooden coaster, it’s got that tooth-rattling charm as it barrels over the boards in 7,000 feet of track. Opened in early 2011, the newest coaster is Cheetah Hunt, which zips riders up to 60 mph three different times over a track stretching more than 0.8 miles. Paired with the ride are live cheetahs, trained to race along for up to 200 yards, next to a glass-walled observation area.
Beyond the coasters, the Tanganyika Tidal Wave, Stanley Falls, and Congo River Rapids boat rides are guaranteed to saturate you with water—so time them for the hottest part of the day.
Animal Attractions: Busch Gardens contains about 2,700 animals. Colorful lorikeets will land on your shoulder or flirt shamelessly with you in the Lory Landing aviary. There’s a Myombe Reserve, which lets you get up close with gorillas and chimps. But the best animal attraction is the Serengeti Plain, which really takes up the whole right half of the park—you see it all by getting on the Serengeti Express Railway (or the Skyride or a Serengeti Safari). Ostriches may race the train; there are big cats, huffing rhinos, and gracefully awkward giraffes. It’s thrilling and a wonderful opportunity to sit down a spell and regroup. (The lamest attraction at the park, though, is Rhino Rally. Don’t bother.)
The four-acre Jungala is set in the Congo area and has guests mingling with exotic creatures, exploring a “village” hidden deep in the jungle, and connecting with the inhabitants of the lush landscape through up-close animal interactions, multi-story family play areas, rides, and live entertainment.
If you visit in the summer, count on heavy rains in the afternoon. Bathrooms are plentiful and clean, there are scads of strollers to rent, the food is much better than it needs to be (and there’s an all-day dining deal that seems reasonable if you’re spending all day at the park), and they even have a dog kennel to watch your pet while you enjoy the rides.
Excerpted from the Second Edition of Moon Tampa Bay & St. Petersburg.