I will admit, Busch Gardens was the one place on our list I was not looking forward to going. I pictured an over-hyped tacky amusement park, and (for us) it's prohibitively expensive. I questioned whether it was worth spending hundreds and hundreds of dollars in order to procure a half a dozen Mold-A-Rama figures. But for the whole trip we traveled as frugally as we could, eating mostly peanut butter sandwiches in the car and staying with friends or in hotels that took coupons, so we decided we could afford to have this be our big splurge.
It turns out Busch Gardens is great.
Part of what made Busch Gardens great for us was, because of Ian's military service, we all got in free. I don't even think we were supposed to all get in free, because the woman at the ticket counter started to say something about how Ian and two family members would be free and the additional people would be discounted, but then she said, "Let me see what I can do." She tapped away at her keyboard for a moment, and the next thing we knew she was smiling and handing us five passes and telling us to enjoy the park.
Wow. For us this meant we could relax and not feel pressure to do more than we might like out of a sense of needing to get our hard-earned money's worth.
|Ian's return from Iraq, 2010|
Getting into Busch Gardens for free as a family? I almost cried. It was as if someone had said, "We understand that our freedom to be here and live our lives the way we choose is in part due to people like you who are willing to sacrifice for us. You are willing to risk your life to defend the Constitution, you spent years away from your children while doing your duty and trying to make a difference for our country, and the least we can do is offer you an afternoon of fun in our park with your family." Can I tell you how much I love Busch Gardens?
Everyone in the park was incredibly nice. Even the man who inspected our bag at the entrance and had to tell us we couldn't bring in our sandwiches was friendly about it. He looked genuinely disappointed that he couldn't let us bring in our food, but told us where to find convenient lockers and assured us that we could come back out and eat at the picnic tables and go back in as long as we got our hands stamped.
It was a light day in the park with no lines for many of the rides. Only Ian wanted to do the roller coasters, but he had so much fun he did one of them (with no line) twice. The kids went on their first flume ride! (Unless Pirates of the Caribbean at Disney World counts as one? I don't think so.)
|Aden and Mona at the end of the flume ride|
The highlight of the park for us was the Safari ride. That we did have to pay for ($19 per person), and it was completely worth it. Busch Gardens was Mona's chosen location, and the Safari was why. They have a 65 acre space designed like the Serengeti where many animals roam and you can be driven around in a tour on the back of an open truck. The setting is lovely but amusingly juxtaposed with roller coasters in the background that the animals just ignore. Our guide was well-informed and loved her job, and she taught us many interesting animal facts, including that among poachers the most desirable species of zebra is the one with the greatest number of stripes per inch because they can sell those hides for more.
But the main reason for going on the Safari was to feed the giraffes. Mona has a "touch list" where she keeps track of what animals she's touched, and adding a giraffe to her list was important to her. Everyone in the truck was given lettuce to feed any giraffe that chose to approach. Several of the older people handed off their extra lettuce to my kids which I thought was very sweet. It's a pretty amazing thing to get to pet a giraffe. I sprung for the expensive family photo they took of all of us together in the truck and the giraffe eating out of my hand, mostly because I wanted some photographic evidence that I was on this trip as well. (The downside of always being the one behind the camera.)
|How often are you under a giraffe's head?|
All of the animal exhibits at Busch Gardens were done extremely well. We've certainly been to enough different zoos at this point to have a sense of the range of ways they can be designed and maintained, and this was definitely upscale. The primate displays were beautiful. Their version of the budgie feeding area was a lush aviary filled with stunning birds of every color. Every animal looked as if it had plenty of room and all the environments were interesting. I worried an amusement park with animals might not treat them well, but that's not the case at all. I was impressed with the level of care the animals receive, and wish we'd had time (and energy) to investigate more of their behind the scenes tours.
It's huge park with lots of different areas to explore, unbelievably clean and friendly.... We even got to meet Grover in the little kids' area. (My kids were not interested, but Ian was!)
|Kids in the Moroccan section|
After several hours, a tired-looking Mona declared we could leave Busch Gardens. She was glad it had been "her" place. I'm glad it was, too.
We still had time afterward to spend just over an hour at the Mote Aquarium in Sarasota. The Mote was free with our zoo membership, so we figured if we didn't see enough we could always go back in the morning and see more.
It's a lovely place with some fascinating displays. Jellyfish, sharks, rays.... And my favorite: Cuttlefish. I love cuttlefish. We watched one for a while that looked like a potato, and then it was approached by another cuttlefish and suddenly it turned spiky and was covered with spots. It never returned to potato-mode, but we watched it go through several other interesting transitions before it settled into a stripey pattern that it seemed to want to keep for a while.
It's a great aquarium.
A very full and enjoyable day. One of the best of the whole trip. (Which is saying something since our trip did not have a bad day in it.)
One last stop: Weeki Wachee (a wonderland of mermaids and rain).