Busch Gardens Tampa Bay ★★ [kds] -- Although its heart-pounding thrill rides get much of the ink, this venerable theme park (it predates Disney World) ranks among the largest zoos in the country. It's a don't-miss attraction for children and adults who can see, in person, all those wild beasts they've watched on Animal Planet -- and they'll get better views of them here than at Disney's Animal Kingdom in Orlando. Busch Gardens Tampa Bay has more than 2,000 exotic animals living in natural-style environments. Most authentic is the 65-acre plain, reminiscent of the real Serengeti of Tanzania and Kenya, upon which zebras, rhinos, giraffes, and other animals graze. Unlike the animals on the real Serengeti, however, these grazing creatures have nothing to fear from lions, hyenas, crocodiles, and other predators, which are confined to enclosures -- as are the hippos and elephants. The park's seventh roller coaster, SheiKra , was the nation's first dive coaster, carrying riders up 200 feet at 45 degrees and then hurtling them 70 mph back at a 90- degree angle.
New in 2011 is Cheetah Run, a Linear Synchronous Motor (LSM) Launch Coaster, which uses the force of repelling magnets to launch riders from 0 to 60 in a matter of seconds. Located in the area that formerly housed the Budweiser Clydesdales, this new habitat will give visitors the opportunity to get closer to cheetahs than ever with elevated, glass-paneled viewing areas.
The park has eight areas, each with its own theme, animals, live entertainment, thrill rides, kiddie attractions, dining, and shopping. A Skyride cable car soars over the park, offering a bird's-eye view of it all. Turn right after the main gate and head to Morocco, a walled city with exotic architecture, crafts demonstrations, and an exhibit featuring alligators and turtles. Over in Egypt, you can visit King Tut's tomb, with its replicas, and youngsters can dig for their own ancient treasures in a sand area. Adults and kids 54 inches or taller can ride Montu, the tallest and longest inverted roller coaster in the world, with seven upside-down loops.
From Egypt, walk to the Edge of Africa, home to most of the large animals. Go to the Adventure Tours tent and see if you can get on a Serengeti Safari, one of the park's most popular zoologist-led wildlife tours.
Next stop is Nairobi, where you can see gorillas and chimpanzees in their lush rainforest habitat in the Myombe Reserve. In the middle of all the excitement, you will find Timbuktu, where two of the smaller roller coasters are located: Scorpion, a high-speed number with a 60-foot drop and 360-degree loop (42-in. height minimum); and Cheetah Chase, a five-story "wild mouse"-style coaster (46-in height minimum). For visual amusement, there's Sesame Street Presents "Lights, Camera, Imagination!"
Now head to the Congo, where the highlights are the rare white Bengal tigers that live in Jungala, the park's 4-acre attraction within the Congo featuring a colorful village hidden deep in the jungle, up-close animal interactions, multistory family play areas, rides, and live entertainment. The Congo is also home to Kumba, which plunges riders from 110 feet into a diving loop, where you get a full 3 seconds of feeling weightless while spiraling 360 degrees, before tearing through one of the world's largest vertical loops (54-in. minimum height for riders). You will also get drenched -- and refreshed on a hot day -- by riding the Congo River Rapids, where you're turned loose in round boats that float down the swiftly flowing "river" (42-in. height minimum).
From the Congo, walk south into Stanleyville, a prototype African village, with a shopping bazaar, and the Stanleyville Theater, featuring shows for all ages. Two more water rides here are the Tanganyika Tidal Wave (48-in. minimum height for riders), where you'll come to a very damp end, and the Stanley Falls Flume (an aquatic version of a roller coaster), or if you're really crazy, check out the floorless SheiKra, where for 200 feet up and 90 degrees straight down, you can view the world -- from a floorless perspective and a water-feature finale, all packed into a half-mile of steel track. Also, the Zambia Smokehouse serves ribs and chicken -- some of the best chow in the park.
Up next is Sesame Street Safari of Fun for the young ones and those, ahem, too frightened to partake in some of the other rides. You'll see Sesame Street characters in a family-friendly African adventure filled with kid-size rides, cool water fun, and other adventures. Dip and dive through the desert on the Air Grover junior coaster. Climb and play in Elmo's Tree House. Splash and refresh in Bert and Ernie's fun-filled water play area. The Sesame Street characters take part in shows, and you can have a meal with them.
The next stop is Bird Gardens, the park's original core, offering rich foliage, lagoons, and Florida flamingos. New this year is Walkabout Way, an immersive animal attraction that gives an up-close look at animals indigenous to the Land Down Under. Hand-feed kangaroos and wallabies in Kangaloom during scheduled feedings throughout the day. Laugh with a kookaburra and other Australian birds in the free-flight aviary, Kookaburra's Nest.
If your stomach can take another hair-raising ride, try Gwazi (48-in. minimum height for riders), an adrenaline-pumping attraction in which a pair of old-fashioned wooden roller coasters (named the Lion and the Tiger) start simultaneously and whiz within a few feet of each other six times as they roar along at 50 mph and rise to 90 feet.
Added up-close tours are available, including a 6-hour zookeeper-for-a-day program and a nighttime safari by lantern light. Tour components and prices are subject to change without notice and park admission is required, but not included. For reservations, call tel. 813/984-4043 or 984-4073.
You can exchange foreign currency in the park, and interpreters are available. Note: Daily round-trip transportation is available from Orlando to Busch Gardens Tampa Bay (a 1-hour ride). Buses pick up at Orlando-area hotels between 8:30am and 9:40am, with a return trip at park close or 7pm during peak seasons. Round-trip fares are $10 per person and free with Busch Gardens combination tickets. Call tel. 800/221-1339 for schedules, pickup locations, and reservations.