For the first time in the park’s 53-year history, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay is hosting Christmas Town to get everyone in the holiday spirit! As a member of Tampa Bay Bloggers, I was offered V.I.P. passes for 4 for opening night. The tickets & parking were free (nice touch, including parking!) but the opinions below are my own. Most of the photos are not, however. More on that soon.
First, let me set up the scene: everyone celebrates holidays in their own way, and similarly everyone enjoys theme parks in their own way… I attended Christmas Town with my husband and 2 teenage girls – one of my daughters and her super close friend. Although I am Jewish, the rest of my entourage was not, and we can all enjoy the holiday spirit! Our little group also happens to really enjoy theme parks and particularly thrill rides.
I did just a little bit of online reading beforehand of the evening’s attractions, shows, rides and shopping – which are available to you 6 -11 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, now through Dec. 23, 2012. I did not go with a plan, and I knew my group would want to ride the rides.
We hoped to arrive close to the 6pm opening, and were easily within 20 minutes of 6 with the yucky traffic. I was texting RunDMT along the way so I could try to see her there. But really, it was a family night first and a blogger event second, and a blogger meetup way down on the list. I think we all had that mentality.
We easily found our registration next to the Yelper’s registration table. There we were each given a V.I.P. pass to wear around our neck to skip the lines on 3 rides at to enter the special V.I.P. snack area. They also gave the kids small candy canes and paper glasses that look like old 3-D glasses. They have a special pattern on them that makes all the lights you look at turn into snowflakes! We’ve seen them before at Walt Disney World, but they always add a special touch. The entry area had red and purple lights, and the glasses worked extremely well with those colors! They also gave us a park map that was special for the event so we knew exactly where the special attractions were and which regular attractions were open. There was also a separate shopping and dining guide.
We walked along our “blue carpet entrance” through a special VIP turnstile and entered a beautifully lit park. We rounded a corner to our right, heading toward the new Cheetah Hunt ride, which none of us had rode before. A Busch Gardens photographer stopped us for a group photo. After oohing and ahhing over the lights, we saw the sign for an Angels on ice show, which we all said we’d rather skip for rides, but I’m sure was lovely from the photos I’ve seen. If you like figure skating, don’t skip it! You can always leave if you feel like you are missing out on something else.
Outside the theatre was one of those people dressed like a statue. She was in white from head to toe, with angel wings and a Romanesque gown. After watching Doctor Who all Thanksgiving, we all shreiked in mock-terror, joking that it was a Weeping Angel. Don’t look away! I tried to snap a quick photo with my phone, but my phone doesn’t have flash, and it was almost dark outside by then.
Since the last time I’ve been to Busch Gardens, they’ve launched the exciting new Cheetah Hunt, a roller coaster experience that “coaster enthusiasts can’t stop talking about.” We made our way to the thrill machine, and were told that first we would have to check our bag. Apparently the tiny messenger bag a slung over one shoulder, that used to be my daughters lunch box – it’s that tiny, couldn’t go on the ride. OK, it goes upside down, I get that. But there are little cubbies next to the ride and I had planned to put it in there. No, I had to go to the store around the corner and purchase a locker for 50-cents. And I had come without cash! I asked again if I could just put it on the shelf by the ride, but the guy said no. Luckily Brian had a dollar! So we took our phones out of the bag, and I grabbed my I.D. just in case, and decided we’d probably keep the bag in the locker all night. It also held my long sleeve shirt, in case I got cold. But at that point it was 75 degrees.
So THEN we rode Cheetah Hunt. Well almost. We went up our special VIP entrance to NO line, and got right on the ride, and I told Wendy I wanted to snap her photo real fast before the ride started. So I took my phone out of the back pocket of my jeans, snapped a quick photo, and then got told that my phone could not go on the ride and would have to go in the little cubby. So they had to undo all the harnesses – sorry guys! – and Brian stuck my phone in the cubby. And THEN we rode the ride of wonder!!
What’s so great about this ride is that it keeps speeding up. You shoot out, you shoot up, you careen down and around and side to side. There’s no lull, and it’s longer than its predecessor, Sheikra. It’s supposed to be like a Cheetah on the hunt for his prey – and takes riders over towering rises, breathtaking plunges and a trio of launches at speeds pushing 60 mph.
We immediately got right back in the queue to ride Cheetah Hunt a second time. We had figured out where they took our photo the first time, and prepared some primo goofy faces for round two!
We decided to head from there to Sheikra. I had never been on that, but the rest of my group had. It has 2 90-degree, straight down drops. On the way through the park, we first passed Celebration Village. Then we passed the nostalgic Christmas Town Park. Here children could ride tubes down snow and throw snowballs at targets.
There were also Non-Frosty snowmen walking around for photos, and our friend HAD to stop for a hug from a snowman. They were REALLY tall, which I think she liked because even though she is 15 she is 5’10, and this allowed her to feel like a kid for a moment.
Here we also were lucky enough to bump into RunDMT and her brood – husband and 3 kids. They probably enjoyed the snow area more than we did, but I’m glad we took a peek, and it was nice that the snowball throwing area had a VIP line.
I enjoyed Poinsettia Parkway, where there were tall trees made from hundreds of the traditional holiday flowers.
We saw lots of happy Busch Gardens employees selling treats, jewelry, glass blown items, airbrushed Santa T-shirts and more.
I also witnessed the drink of the night – a Candy cane Sprite Delight! Here’s how you can make your own: http://www.buschgardenstampablog.com/enjoy-taste-christmas-town-candy-cane-sprite-delight
Elmo and his friends are at Christmas Town in Sesame Street Season of Fun, ready for pictures and plenty of hugs with kids of all ages. We saw Abby Cadabby, who was quite cute, but her handler kept trying to talk for her, which was weird – and we saw Ernie and Bert, but apparently only I cared about meeting them, no one else wanted to stop for a photo. Here’s one I found online.
Before we got to plunge from the sky on SheiKra, we walked through the tunnel that hides the traffic near the bird house at Busch Gardens. There we saw beautiful lanterns hanging from the top that reminded us of Harry Potter’s Great Hall.
After lots of walking, we made our way to Sheikra. I was a bit scared of the floorless dive coaster because we were in the first row, which makes you feel like you dangling over Tampa before plunging straight down in a pure 90-degree drop. But what’s a good coaster without a bit of terror?!
Again, we did the ride twice back to back before moving on to another ride.
We wanted to find the old Cheetah Chase, which is now called the Sand Serpent. This ride uses the same track as an old Wild Mouse roller coaster. Just across the way was the carousel, which the girls wanted to ride first. So we took a twirl on some pretty horses (and a camel), hit the Sand Serpent, and then found the bumper cars. There I let my 15 year old friend drive me while chasing my husband and 14 year old daughter. We laughted the whole ride!
Now we were hungry, and it was getting close to the 8:30 time we thought we might meet RunDMT at the area we were told would have hot cocoa for VIP. While heading in that direction, we saw the penguin exhibit, and Wendy loves penguins!
We hadn’t quite made it to the hot cocoa yet, when our friend decided she was too hungry to wait, and we popped into the candy and dessert shop near the front of the park. The cashier recommended pumpkin cheesecake, which you can find the recipe for here: http://www.buschgardenstampablog.com/pumpkin-cheesecake-recipe-busch-gardens-tampa-bay. We watched some workers making an edible snow village with frosting, sugar cubes and gingerbread houses. Our friend settled on the black forest cheesecake, and while she ate I found out there the VIP hospitality area was. I decided to wait and see what was being served there before purchasing a snack.
Boy am I glad I did! We followed a red carpet into a small ballroom with 2 buffet lines on either side – but the lines were empty and the center of the room, full of tables, held only about a dozen people. The line had cocoa with whipped cream, egg nogg, cider, coffee, apple pie, vanilla ice cream and an assortment of cookies. We helped ourselves to free goodies, and the girls wondered how hot cocoa would taste mixed with egg nogg. So they tried a tiny cup of both, why not? The apple pie was awesome with very crispy top, the way I like it!
They also had gifts for the VIPs! We got bags with tiny mint canisters and reusable plastic tumblers filled with candy canes that had candy-cane-striped straws. These were in pretty, red bags with Christmas Town art. They also had magnet picture frames and notepads. The girls took magnets for their lockers.
When leaving this area and hunting for restrooms, we bumped into some friends from school. After a brief hello, a peek at the pretty costumes from the 3 Wise Men attraction and a pit stop, we decided to go back on Cheetah Hunt, with tummies full of sugar – uh oh!
Here I bumped into Caroline from My Fascinating Life. She had just enjoyed two back-to-back Cheetah Hunts and needed a tummy break herself. (She also blogged about the event and has much better photos!)
On this ride, Brian tucked his glasses into his pocket, and I had my cell phone in my back pocket. My cell was fine, but Brian realized his glasses were gone when we got off the ride. He looked around a bit before mentioning it to me. I went back to the seat he had rode in, looked under some poor, unsuspecting teenage guy, and pointed to a pair of glasses resting on the floor of the coaster.
“Those aren’t yours, are they?” I asked, as though we all leave our glasses on the floor of roller coasters that go upside down for safe keeping. Of course, they were Brian’s.
When we went to look at our crazy ride photos, we saw Katrina and her friends getting off the ride too.
Across from the ride, after poking around the great gift shop with the cutest giraffe hats and drums, we witnessed Carol of the Bells, the
annoying well-loved tune playing along with twinkling lights in different colors and patterns. “Busch Gardens’ Crown Colony House restaurant sets the stage for a stunning ballet of music and light each night under the stars. The Carol of the Bells features tens of thousands of Christmas lights covering the façade of the stately building, set in motion to a choreographed presentation of stirring seasonal songs.” There was a family with 7 kids dancing around to the tune, and maybe 10 other people. Probably because the show repeats every 15 minutes, so you’d have to be on the opposite side of the park all night to miss it!
Each evening at Christmas Town ends with an exclusive performance by Jars of Clay. We were sleepy and ready to leave, so we decided to head for the car and beat the crowd in the parking lot instead. There were other musical shows we didn’t attend, and carolers we listened to throughout the park that looked like Glee characters. Learn more about the music here: http://www.tampabay.com/blogs/soundcheck/content/review-jars-clay-serves-crisp-clean-holiday-fun-busch-gardens-christmas-town
We saw the angel statue and carolers again on the way out, and probably got to our car at around 10:15pm. Both teens fell asleep on the ride home, I nodded off a bit too, and a lovely time was had by all!