By Katie Moosbrugger

What do you get when you combine a fantastic zoo with fabulous rides and roller coasters? You get Busch Gardens, of course! Our family visited this amusement park in Tampa, FL, and it made for a memorable vacation that’s worth sharing.

Obviously a trip to Tampa requires a good deal of planning since it’s about a 10 hour drive from the Triad.  However, if you’re still searching for a summer vacation idea, the drive is easy and St. Augustine (another destination I blogged about HERE) makes a perfect half-way summer stopping point.

Tickets and Hotels

The Busch Gardens Tampa web site allows you to purchase tickets online which is less expensive than buying tickets at the park. There are also online options to add additional Tampa and Orlando-area parks (SeaWorld Orlando, Aquatica Orlando and Adventure Island Tampa Bay) to your purchase for even more savings.

Per the Active Duty Program, you can get one free single day admission for the active duty member plus free tickets up to three dependents. Offer expires December 31, 2017.

In addition to our tickets, we purchased the “Eat Free All Day” tickets which are only $15 more per ticket, but you’ll immediately see the difference in savings if you plan to stay at the park for more than one meal (plus it comes with free snacks).

Similar to other parks, Busch Gardens offers “Quick Queue” passes to let you skip wait times at rides. We did not purchase this pass, but it’s only $15.99.

The web site also offers hotel and vacation package deals that are worth checking out. TIP: Some hotels (not part of this program) offer discounted tickets with your stay. Not all hotels do this, and it’s not guaranteed, but you can always ask in advance!

Know Before You Go

Busch Gardens is open 365 days a year, including days with inclement weather. Refunds and rain checks will not be issued due to inclement weather, so plan your trip accordingly!

Arrive early and consider taking two days to fully see everything within the park (this includes rides, attractions, and shows).

You will see from the map HERE that Busch Gardens is divided into smaller themed regions that feature animals specific to each region. TIP: They say most people approach theme parks in clock-wise patterns (ironically that is exactly what we did!), but to beat the lines, it is suggested you go all the way to the back of the park and work your way forward following a counter clock-wise pattern.

However, you will get wet if you decide to ride Stanley Falls or the Congo River Rapids, so plan accordingly, and maybe save those two for the end!

TIP:  A good idea would be to take the Skyride first so you can get a bird’s eye view of the park and how it’s all laid out.

We visited the park during spring break and did have a wait at each ride. Some lines were more significant than others, but it wasn’t horrible. If lines aren’t your thing, then consider the Quick Queue pass!

The park is very strict about not bringing items on the rides with you, so consider that as you prepare for the day. The park offers lockers and even a kennel for pets.

You are not allowed to bring in any outside food or drink, except water bottles.

All of the restaurants are very decent, but make a point to dine at Serengeti Overlook restaurant for the views!

This summer there are special themed party nights at the park starting June 16 and running through August 6. The event is called Summer Nights, and details can be found HERE.

For the Animal Lovers

I’ve had several friends tell me how much they love the unique zoo exhibits at Busch Gardens, and I couldn’t agree more. In fact, Busch Gardens Tampa, one of the largest zoos in North America, is home to more than 12,000 animals – more than 30 of which are listed as threatened or endangered.

The park is designed to feature animal sightings no matter where you are. We spotted elephants while on the Skyride. We flew fast over giraffes on the Cheetah Hunt roller coaster. We saw zebra and antelope, among other animals, while relaxing on the Serengeti Railway. And in between each attraction, we took part in the Heat of Africa Tour that features just about every species you can think of, plus a bird garden, as you make your way from ride to ride.

To get up close with the animals, Busch Gardens offers tours like the Serengeti Safari (day or night tours) as well as educational attractions like Elephant and Penguin Insiders, Keeper for a Day, and Behind the Scenes. Some of these tours and attractions cost extra and it’s recommended you book your spots in advance.

TIP: It is recommended that you visit the animals in the morning or the evening when the weather is cooler. We happened upon the hippos at feeding time and it was an amazing sight.

TIP: Members of the zoo staff love for visitors to stump them with trivial questions. Just look for someone in a green shirt with a name tag, and feel free to ask them for random facts about the animals.

For the Thrill Seekers

If you like to get your adrenaline pumping, then you will not be disappointed with the rides at Busch Gardens. Inside the park, there are six top-rated roller coasters and I am hard pressed to say which one was my favorite. Everyone in our family rides, and none disappoint. You can click HERE to see quick descriptions of all the coasters.

As with any park, be sure you check height and health restrictions online before you go, or locate the height stick at the front entrance of the park.

There are also other attractions not to be missed. One ride that, to this day, still turns my stomach is Falcon’s Fury (pic to left). Not only does it drop you 30 stories at 60 miles an hour, but it also suspends you at the top in a face-first tilted angle for, what seemed like, several LONG minutes. Needless to say I rode that ride only once, but my kids dared it twice and loved it!

For the Little Ones

There is no shortage of things for the little ones to do, and many are enjoyable for the big kids and adults too. Since my kids are ages 10 and 13, we did not spend a lot of time on these attractions, but we did take part in Jungle Flyers, Treetop Trails (pic to right), and the Wild Surge. Most of these rides and attractions have no height restrictions, but Air Grover does require an adult to ride with a child.

For the Dramatics

Busch Gardens is known for its word-class performances, and if you have the time, definitely try and catch one. We enjoyed the Rock a Doo Wop at the Dragon Fire Grill – a place we stopped to rest and refuel. Although my kids were not familiar with the songs, they were mesmerized by the theatrics. Plus, after every show, the cast hangs around for meet and greets and autographs. Click HERE to see more show options.

For More Local Ideas

Busch Gardens is situated just outside the heart of Tampa which makes for a vacation in itself.  Click HERE for vacation ideas in the Tampa Bay area. After our Busch Gardens trip, we headed to the beautiful beaches of Clearwater Beach for the rest of our vacation (less than one hour away). For more fun and adventure this summer, you can add on a side trip to Orlando (just 90 miles from Tampa), or a visit to LEGOLAND in Winter Haven (just 45 minutes from Tampa).