Monday, March 3, 2014

Mold-A-Ramas at Busch Gardens and the Mote Aquarium

After our whirlwind day in Tampa, the next two stops on our Mold-A-Rama Road Trip in Florida were Busch Gardens and the Mote Aquarium.  Busch Gardens was Mona's chosen spot where she got to dictate the length of our stay, so we got an early start and hit the park right when it opened.

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
But on a more important level, it was genuinely rewarding to have Ian's service and our sacrifices acknowledged.  I've mentioned all along through these posts when places had a military discount, and in every case it was appreciated deeply.  Ian has told me that he always likes being thanked for his service by other veterans, but less so by regular people from whom the gesture can feel empty.  He'd rather people donate to the USO or volunteer in their own communities rather than thank him as if that accomplishes something.  Busch Gardens has a whole program called "Waves of Honor" that made the biggest effort to acknowledge military service of anyplace we visited.  There was even a small, tasteful display in the park with a flag and a plaque about how important it is to appreciate veterans, but then they followed that up actually giving back rather than just co-opting the symbolism.

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.)               
Ian waving!

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
The Mold-A-Rama machines were all in perfect condition.  It's the only place we've ever seen where the cost is three dollars (instead of the typical two), but they all worked, and there were two more than we were expecting!  Our outdated list said there were six Mold-A-Ramas there, but turns out there are eight.  All the figures were ones we already had, but the giraffe wasn't red for a change!  And it always makes us laugh to add another waving gorilla to our collection.  (That was the last machine we found in the park, and it took a bit of searching because it was tucked away in a tunnel of sorts in the primate viewing area.)

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.

Flamboyant cuttlefish!
They even had something called a "Flamboyant Cuttlefish" that was insane!  Covered with "fringe" and they just kept flashing stripes up and down their bodies like something on the Vegas Strip.
Mantis Shrimp!
There was also a show (oddly called "Survivors" even though a better name would probably be "Bad Asses of the Deep") that was all creatures that were highly poisonous or tough in some way.  We were extremely excited to see a mantis shrimp!  We learned of them in a Radiolab show on Colors (our favorite line from which is, "Sucky rainbow, dog"), that it has the most color receptors of anything on earth we know of.  (We have three, dogs have two, butterflies have five, and the mantis shrimp has sixteen!)  The funny thing about the mantis shrimp is they mostly like to hit things very hard and fast (the glass on the tank was extra thick), so we wondered if you cause something enough pain if it makes pretty colors the rest of us can't perceive.  They also had a blue-ringed octopus which has a deadly poison, and my kids recognized it immediately from nature shows and wondered how anyone managed to catch it.

It's a great aquarium.

There was confusion about how many Mold-A-Ramas were at the Mote.  Our list said one, and when we asked around we got everything from looks of bewilderment to an answer of three.  Turns out there are two major buildings and there is one machine in each (a shark and a dolphin), but when we asked around to everyone as they were closing to make sure we weren't missing some third machine, a woman went back into her office and brought out a manatee figure that she just gave us.  Turns out they had two machines but the dolphin one used to have a manatee mold-set.

Not bad to get three Mold-A-Ramas from a place with only two machines!

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).


  1. I feel about Disney the way you felt about BG. Because we have "Busch Gardens Europe" right down the road and have season passes, and have had season passes since we were first married, I'm a bit blase about amusement parks. Don't get me wrong, I thoroughly love BG and love going for just an hour and not worrying about getting our money's worth. I love the grounds (BGE wins major awards because of their gardening and beautification efforts), and I love how they honor the military (we have all five branches with bases within 50 miles of BGE) and will have days every year when military members can get in free. They are to be commended for their conservation efforts as well. It is a clean, beautiful park and I love it. But, I almost feel a sense of "been there, done that" with regards to theme parks. I'm sure Disney is amazing, but I'm spoiled by being able to leave if the park is "too crowded" or if the girls are simply melting down. And, I HATE waiting in line when it's HOT, and boy howdy does it get hot in the land of Mickey. ;o)

    Forgive me, but I have to whine once more about the lack of M-A-Rs at *MY* BG. Why?!?!!?? I WANT ONE!!!!

    Okay, all done.

    We also don't have cool safari animals at our BG. We do have rescued bald eagles, wolves, and a variety of rescued animals. Oh, and Lorikeet Glen for feeding the birdies. :o) I think I'm just a little jealous of your giraffes...

    Mantis shrimp? Love them! Do you read The Oatmeal? There is a great comic there about why the mantis shrimp is freaking awesome. It is somewhat dark, but still fun. :o)

    1. I have not seen The Oatmeal piece on mantis shrimp! It will be my Google treat after I clean the @#)!#& kitchen.

      "My" amusement park growing up was Cedar Point in Ohio. Best coaster ever is the Gemini. But I've reached an age where roller coasters just feel violent and un-fun. I decided halfway through Space Mountain that I was not enjoying myself, but I remembered the person I was once who liked that.

      If you ever visit the Midwest I will give you a map of where to find all the Mold-A-Ramas.

  2. Ok, so our family loves roller coasters and rides so we go to the Busch Gardens in Williamsburg a lot. We have always thought the park is very clean and well laid out so BG in FL is high on our list eventually. I also love a well done safari. It's so cool to see animals in a bigger setting than at the zoo. I think we are a bit spoiled having the National Zoo free but the space is limited and I always feel sorry for some of the animals like the zebras and cheetahs who have such a small space. Safari zoos always seem a bit more natural.

    Yay! for the free tickets. I totally think you guys deserve it as a family unit. what a wonderful programs.

    I love giraffes. That experience would have made my entire trip.

    The aquarium looked so fun. I am so glad you guys had such a great trip. All because of the mold a rama!

    I am totally enjoying your posts tell the story in such and interesting way with all of the photos and little anecdotes. i'm going to be sad they are done :(

    1. So glad there are people who like these posts. I'm worried they are monotonous, but my kids love reliving the trip on my blog so it had to happen. However, there are other things going on in my life and in my mind that *gasp* have nothing to do with Mold-A-Ramas! But who can tell anymore? Thanks for telling me it's not boring.

      Giraffes are amazing. I'm still amazed I got to pet one. Hope you get to, too.

  3. There isn't a Busch Gardens anywhere on the west coast (after thinking that, I had to Google it to be sure... and it's true) so I've really never heard anything about it one way or another... actually I am not entirely sure I knew it was an amusement park. But, now I am very intrigued :)
    I am soooo glad your family got in for free. That is awesome.

    And, all the pictures are fun, but my favorite is the one with your husband and Grover, which totally cracks me up.

    1. We asked Grover if he knew where the next Mold-A-Rama was, but he just pointed us toward a friendly park worker who had no idea. I love Grover. He was totally displaced by Elmo so most kids today don't have any attachment to him, but Ian and I were so glad to see him there!

  4. Oh, the military discounts! We got many of those when we lived in Las Vegas, and it really did matter. It gave us opportunities to do some really fun things, and we felt appreciated in getting the discounts. You're right that it says something when a company puts its money where its mouth is.

    1. Ian and I get really annoyed with places that do some little sings and things about "Support Our Troops!" as if that alone does something, or those yellow ribbon magnets (made in China) that are literally the least anyone could do. I may write to Busch Gardens directly to let them know how much we appreciated our day. It doesn't make up for all the stress we've been through, but it sure made it feel like someone cared.

    2. (Or, you know, SIGNS. Not sings. I might appreciate little sings.)