Sunday, September 29, 2013

Visiting the Creatures and Coasters of Tampa

This past Thursday, I did something I had not done in close to twenty years. I went to a theme park. More specifically, I went to Busch Gardens in Tampa, FL. The reasons for this suddenly renewed interest were pretty simple: I had a day off in Lakeland, FL, a place where there is absolutely nothing to do, and I found discounted passes for FL residents online. And the roller coasters. Let's not forget the roller coasters.

But to be fair, they have always had those.  That is what I remember most from my long ago visits.  The down side is that everyone else wants onto those coasters, too, meaning that in order to go on a one minute long ride, you have to invest an hour or more waiting in line, usually while being forced to listen to some hyperactive, overly chatty child.

In the cost/ benefit analysis that goes into making such choices, Lakeland's Lakeland-ness, its over-saturation of strip malls and retirees, tipped the scales. We were doing the 30 minute road trip to Busch Gardens and hoping that a well-timed evil eye was enough to shut up those little chatterboxes.
We got to the entrance right at 9:50am, ten minutes before opening hour.  Only a handful of people were lined up alongside us.  The short-lived but exuberant deluge which greeted us in the parking lot might have accounted for the sparse crowd but whatever the cause, my goal was clear. I was going to beat those folks onto Gwazi.  That, for the uniformed (read: me before being handed a map at the ticket counter) is a wooden coaster that just happens to be closest to the park entrance.

Once the doors opened, we bee-lined it (as much as two disoriented people with a sketchy map can bee-line) to the coaster's entrance.  My friend was a bit apprehensive about a very loopy (as in a lot of time spent upside down) coaster we had seen from the parking lot.  He did not want anything to do with it.  He was concerned Gwazi might be it.  I insisted that it wasn't, knowing that a discussion could eat up precious minutes.  Truth is I had no clue if this thing was going upside down or not.  I hoped, for his sake, that it didn't but I also figured that by the time we knew for sure, it would be too late for debate.

With no line, whatsoever, we were being belted in within minutes.  My first thought was that this must be what it is like to be filthy rich or famous- to be able to just strut right onto a ride.  My friend sagely pointed out that the same result can be achieved by hiring a handicapped person to be a "pretend family member". Apparently, this is a thing that people do.

Fortunately, as it turned out, Gwazi had no loops in its repertoire, just the usual wooden coaster jerkiness, with some impressive drops along the way. This was the way to start the day! It was only 10:15 and we were on to our next ride.

As the further reaches on the park don't open until 10:30am, we had some time to take in some of their inhabitants.  Busch Gardens, for those who have not been, has a dual, somewhat schizophrenic nature.  It is part amusement park, with the aforementioned rides, carnival games and funnel cakes at every turn but it also a zoo with plenty of animal exhibits and a wide expanse representing the Serengeti, complete with safari vehicles.

Since for perfectly understandable reasons, camera are not permitted on the rides, I was able to document one facet of the park more than the other but I felt as we were really getting the best of both worlds.

Once the back half opened, we waltzed right onto ShieKra, once the world's fastest dive coaster.

As a matter of fact, we liked it so much, that once it was over, we waltzed right back onto it. We rode it twice.

Photo of a photo: Why pay $15 for a pic when a cell phone pic will (sort of) do.

At the end of the day, I was trying to decide which was my favorite ride.  I would have to say that ShieKra and Cheetah Hunt were neck in neck for #1.

If I had one regret during that day it happened at our next stop, at the tiger enclosure.

It has several vantage points from which to view the cats and it was through one of these windows, that a majestic white tiger first spotted us.  He purposely strutted over as I prepared my camera.

However I was so unprepared for what happened next that I completely missed the shot.  And man, would it have been good.  The tiger suddenly leapt up, putting his two front paws on the glass right in front of my friend.  I think he may have let out a roar.  I am not really certain because all I heard at that very moment was a frightened shriek, immediately followed by the sight of a grown man running for his life.

Missed opportunities.

We continued through the park, now onto Kumba, a beautiful coaster featuring seven inversion loops. By this time, my friend was a natural, riding with only minimal hesitation.  That and since we were still walking right on to the rides- right on there, no waiting whatsoever- there was no time for any kind of rumination.

Look at that!  Look how beautifully empty that park is.

As we were making our way out of Timbuktu and into Nairobi (each section, except maybe Jungala has been named after a either a city or country in Africa), I heard a noise that sounded oddly familiar.  It was an intermittent, guttural sound, more grunt than moan. Every minute or so, UGGGGHHHHHHH...then quiet...then UGGGGHHHHHHHH.

All I had to do was follow the assembled mass of camera phones to realize what it was.  Two giant Aldabra tortoises were going at it.  They were making sweet, sweet love.  Well, technically, he was making sweet sweet love and she was barely tolerating it, but let's not digress.  While in the Galapagos, I had seen two giant Galapagos tortoises similarly engaged and the sound here was, if not identical, pretty darned similar.  I remember learning at the time, that the male's cries of love can be heard up to a mile away.

"Say my name!"

Once again, I found myself playing the role of a tortoise voyeur, watching right on through to the eventual dismount.

From fornicating not-so-ninja turtles, we continued to the smaller, quieter sea turtles...

...who happened to be sharing a tank with a pair of very regular hippos.  Now, when I describe them as 'regular' I don't mean they were ordinary, they were actually surprisingly graceful when viewed from this vantage point.

I mean they were crapping up that tank something fierce. These are the rare photos where the water is not all clouded up with hippo dung.  If I were that turtle, I'd be putting in for transfer, even if it meant rooming up with Don Juan, over in Nairobi.

All of these creatures were on our way to my other favorite ride, the Cheetah Hunt.  Speedy and sleek, like its namesake, this ride also covers a good bit of the park.  It is the first time I have ever been on a coaster and felt the urge to point and yell out "Zebra!".

Apparently, they are putting in a program where you can buy the jpeg of your ride pics for a reasonable price and have them emailed to you, but since that is not in place yet, criminality abounds.

The eastern end of the park is more focused on wildlife, although it is also home to Montu, once the world's tallest and fastest inverted coaster (meaning that you dangle under the rail as opposed to riding atop it).  This was the beast we had seen from the parking lot, but the thrills of the day had been so great that my friend had since overcome his trepidations- either that or as he put it, his brain was too jostled to know better.  This ride was the one we waited for the longest.  I would estimate we were in line for roughly ten minutes.  Doing the math, that would be a total of eight ride we rode with a combined waiting time of 10 minutes.  That means we never had to listen to someone's bratty spawn complaining about being hungry/ needing a bathroom/ whatever it is they complain about, not once.  The day had been all pro, no con.

We were making such good time, that once we got to the end of the park, we went through again, this time focusing more on some of the animal exhibits we had overlooked earlier.

Of the 100+ photos I took this day, this one- a totally unplanned shot, where the flamingo looked away at the last moment- is my absolute favorite.  I am sure there is a metaphor about life and the beauty of the unexpected in there somewhere.

Eventually, we finished off the day by riding the Congo River Rapids, one of those rides whose sole raison d'etre is to soak you to the bone.  It was 4:55pm when we boarded.  The park closed at 5.  The upshot of this was the two of us riding back to Lakeland with wet asses- and let's not forget, happily jostled brains.

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