During our stay at Walt Disney World in 2007, we took a day to go to Busch Gardens in Tampa. I was nervous about leaving Disney property and their glorious transportation system to go to Busch Gardens. As the valet had suggested, we were outside at 7:45 am to get a taxi. Taxis were always lined up outside AKL, so there was never a wait. Our driver wasn't sure where the SeaWorld bus depot was; when I told him we were catching the Busch Gardens shuttle, he wanted to take us to one of the malls to catch it instead! I insisted that, no, we had reservations for the shuttle bus that was picking up at SeaWorld. The ride to SeaWorld itself was quick, but I couldn't get him to drive into the bus area which I could clearly see was where we needed to be dropped off at. He stopped the taxi, walked around a bit, asked a couple of guys where to go. Finally I got him to drive to where we needed to be, and $36 later he was gone. It was only 8 am. The shuttle bus wasn't coming until 9 am. Oh my.
So we wandered around the front of SeaWorld, where we would be going tomorrow. Then we wandered back to the bus stop. Then we stared at our feet. Then we watched the SeaWorld employees coming on the I-Shuttle to work. Then a big Mears bus showed up and the driver said it was the Busch Gardens shuttle (it was missing the Busch wrap that you see on TV; apparently this bus' wrap had the day off). So we get on the bus...and the driver tells us we have to wait until 9:15 for the next pick-up.
Booking this shuttle was so confusing as there was so little information on the website. I thought multiple buses did pick-ups, so I choose the 9 am one. However, this bus was picking up for both 9 AND 9:15 am. Maybe it was because it was the slow season??? Anyway, after we left SeaWorld at 9:15, we went to the Premium Outlets to pick up the 9:30 stop there! Premium Outlets is closer to Disney, so we not only could have slept in later but saved a few bucks by getting the shuttle there.
Finally, we were off to Busch and were there in about an hour and a half. Tampa is a strange place; it looks just like any other American small town but with this zoo/theme park in the middle. They have a water park, too, but otherwise there wasn't any indication that this was a tourist destination.
We were given tickets as we departed the bus so we could get back on the bus, which would leave at 5 pm. So we had over 6 hours to explore. The park was really empty; at times we were the only people on the paths. We were able to linger at the animal exhibits, and we didn't have to rush to eat or shop.
Since Busch is really a zoo with attractions (whereas Animal Kingdom seems like it's an attraction with animals in the backdrop), you get to see many more animals here and you see them much closer. We started in the Myombe Reserve, where the gorillas are. They were still pretty tired and laying around, but the baby was with it's mother right up against the glass inside on of the caves! He wanted to play and his mother kept shooing his hands away; so cute!
Next we headed towards Rhino Rally, stopping for a funnel cake first (hey, a funnel cake is really a donut...and it was still technically morning!). They had two sizes of funnel cakes; the big one was the size of a pizza! Plus you could add toppings; the guy ahead of me got the large with strawberries, and they had a giant bowl of strawberry goo...the clerk put about 3 giant spoons on it. Ewww! The guy looked mortified!! I stuck with the small size, plain.
Off to Rhino Rally, which is a really rough jeep ride around some of the animal areas. You get really close to the elephants, as well as rhinos (duh). There were a lot of animals around during this, but to be honest I can't really remember much as I was holding on for dear life. It is REALLY bumpy; it's a real truck they drive through a path (which was muddy that day). What I did like here was that the guides knew their speil was corny, they knew we knew it was corny, and they really hammed it up. There is one part where the truck crosses a bridge, the bridge seems to go out, and the truck turns into a boat and you are white water rafting! It was really cool!!
We tried to get on the train (it goes throughout the park and gets you close to the animals on the Serengeti Plain, but we had missed it and would have to wait another 40 minutes. We stopped off at the Clydesdale stables, and I got to pet one and talk with the handler (she said they rotate the horses out for public viewing, and move the various Clydesdales around to the shows and events...so no one horse is ever stuck doing one thing or in a stable).
Afterwards we went on the SkyRide, which takes you to the part of the park where all the rides and roller coasters are, including SheiKra, which goes down 90 degree drops twice, then underground, then through water that splashes anyone standing near the coaster. That was fun to watch...especially the clueless people who wandered near it and got soaked (obviously not seeing the huge puddle of water beneath them).
We were finally able to board the train at another station and made a bad decision to sit in the front of one of the cars. Why was this a bad decision? Because a few moments after the train started, it started to rain. No, pour. The rain flew in to the front of our car and filled our seat with water...and there was nothing we could do. By the time we dug out the ponchos and attempted to cover ourselves, it was too late. We were completely, miserably SOAKED. We got off the train and ran for cover, where we desperately tried to wring out our clothes.
It's one thing to be cold or wet...but to be cold AND wet? Now I was in a really bad mood and sulked for a good hour!
After the rain let up, we made our way back towards the front of the park as we had a 2 pm reservation for the Serengeti Safari, where you ride a truck and get to feed giraffes. This was what we were most looking forward to on the trip, but we still had some time to kill so we went to the Crown Colony for lunch. This restaurant has two sections: a sit-down full service part, and a counter service part. Since we were a wet mess, we opted for the counter service. We shared a club sandwich and found a seat overlooking the Serengeti with all the animals. We were finally drying off and our moods were much better as we made our way to the safari.
The Serengeti Safari is an extra $40 per person in addition to admission. It's a private ride out onto the area where the giraffes, zebras and other "safari" animals are. There were only 10 of us total, and we had to stand in the back of a truck with a guide who told us all about the animals. Yeah, learning is okay and all, but give me some lettuce so I can feed the giraffe!!
One giraffe came lurking toward the truck as soon as she saw it; her name was Tango (nicknamed Tango the Terrible) as she was a greedy girl who wanted that lettuce! Our guide, Chad, had a big bag of romaine, and since the tour wasn't completely booked, we all got extra changes to feed Tango. She wasn't shy, either; she plunged her head right down into the truck and took the lettuce right out of our hands! If some fell on the floor she just stretched down to lick it us. It was amazing to feed her and pet her; at one point she practically knocked me over trying to get to someone else's lettuce. Then she had my dad pinned in a corner with her neck. We all got to pose for pictures (not Busch taking them, us taking pics with our own cameras), and after about 10 minutes the truck started moving...just as another giraffe started to come over (none of the others seemed to interested - only Tango). We found out this other giraffe was the oldest they had at 28, and, oops!, had recently gotten pregnant! Mama-to-be was late to the party, though, so no lettuce for her as we headed off to see more animals.
Also on the safari were two kinds of zebras, rhinos (including mom and a baby!), lots of birds, and lots more giraffes. When we came upon the Kudu we were able to feed those through the gate of the truck (although only a couple were interested). As we were doing this, who shows up again but Tango! She'd walked all the way to the other side of the plain for more lettuce and would try to eat it out of our hands as we feed the Kudu. When that wasn't working she started eating it from the Kudu's mouths!
We had the BEST time on the safari; it was definitely the highlight of our trip (sorry, Disney!)!!
After the safari we walked the trail of the Serengeti Plain for more animals, including hyenas and two lions that came right up to the glass enclosure. The keepers were there explaining that they rotate the lions and hyenas in their respective areas periodically so they maintain their sense of predatory smell. They have decorative trucks on the sides of the lion glass, which are actually used to slip treats in to the lions. A couple keepers were having trouble getting the door where the food goes in to open, and the female lion was roaring and scratching at them through the glass. Another amazing site; we stayed here a good 15 minutes to watch the lions.
After the Serengeti, we decided to walk once more through the Myombe Reserve to see the gorillas and chimps, and this time they were much more active. Five of them were chasing each other around, pushing and playing. The oldest one had been at the top of a tree branch the first time we walked through, and when the younger ones started playing, he climbed right back up! It was a single tree truck and he was able to perch right on top of it.
By now we had about an hour to kill before it was time to board the bus back to Orlando, so I got dad seated under some shade with some popcorn while I went shopping. Even though I wasn't sure I could fit them into my suitcase, I couldn't resist two different styles of plush giraffes, plus a plush gorilla and a chimp! My plush souvenier habit would grow worse as the trip continued!!
Finally it was time to go back; the bus trip was uneventful and we were soon back at Disney via another $35 cab. I have since leared that Mears operates a shuttle that will pick you up at your Disney resort and take you many area attractions for only $16 round trip. So, if you are without a rental car and need to catch the Busch Shuttle or go any where else in Orlando, definitely give Mears a call.
While it's tempting to spend your entire vaction on Disney property, I strongly encourage to you try Busch Gardens at least once. You'll find the same wonderful service and cleanliness at Disney, and you have some great experiences!