Jenny and I enjoyed a brief trip to Florida this past weekend, attending to family business and spending time with good friends. Among the highlights of this adventure was a day spent at Busch Gardens. This was my first visit to the park in over 20 years, and I was amazed by how much the place has changed.
Expanding from its humble beginnings as a garden and zoo tacked onto a brewery, Busch Gardens has struggled to compete with nearby Disneyworld. The fact that the park charges Disney-like prices probably doesn't help matters. Still, Jenny and I hold fond memories - and even a few photos - of this local landmark.
Back then, Busch Gardens borrowed liberally from colonial-era "Dark Continent" language and imagery. I especially remember wandering through an Arab "bazaar" where piles of tourist trinkets were strewn along narrow streets. Unlike the fantasylands of Disney, this place attempted to produce a sense of reality whose fakery, undoubtedly tacky and maybe even offensive, was nonetheless alluring.
Busch Gardens has changed a great deal over the past couple decades, now attracting guests with increasingly spine-bending rides, ritzy performances, holiday themes, and pop culture tie-ins. Sesame Street characters remind visitors that, "A is for Africa," and signs advertise a Vegas-like "cirque" show that plays every couple hours. Whatever. Jenny and I went primarily to see the animals.
No matter how much the park has changed, Busch Gardens delivers plenty of jaw-dropping encounters with the natural world. We enjoyed the skyride and train trip through an ersatz Serengeti Plain, gazing upon giraffes and antelope, we ambled along a verdant walkway to peer into the lives of orangutans and apes, and we stared awestruck at the sight of tigers and cheetahs who seemed to size us up as potential snacks.
In one viewing area, we saw a kid peering at a lion through the glass, and I just had to snap a pic. The scene was just so cute. Only later did Jenny and I regret not arranging to share the photo with the kid's parents. Oh, and one little detail: a few minutes after I took the cute kid pic, that very lion leapt and clawed at the partition after spotting a dude who wore a bright yellow shirt.
Nearby, a community of meerkats stared at a man's blue t-shirt, following him as he played peekaboo with them for about 15 minutes. Yeah, I always feel guilty about the concept of zoos, but I shamelessly snapped photos at almost every stop. Busch Gardens is in this business to make money, sure. Yet there's no doubt that generations of future biologists, veterinarians, and conservationists have found their inspiration at places like this.
As the sun began to set, we spotted the kid whom I had photographed earlier in the day. His parents were wary at first but soon understood that we just wanted to share a nice pic, so they offered their email address and I sent the image along soon thereafter.
We wrapped up our visit with returns to our favorite exhibits and some nighttime encounters with rides that impressed us the most (SheiKra's 200-foot 90-degree plunge was an especially heart-wrenching thrill that we had to try twice). Then at last we headed for the gate, exhausted but satisfied.
Want to see more photos? Check out my Busch Gardens Facebook album!
(Photographs by Andrew and Jenny Wood)