I am an Ambassador for Busch Gardens Tampa. I was not compensated for this post, but my family received complimentary tickets to Busch Gardens. All opinions expressed here are 100% mine. Please see my Disclosure Policy for more information.
Family vacations are a weird thing.
They always seem like a good idea when you’re planning them, right? You imagine the fun, the laughter, the happy family memories that you’ll be creating. So you plan, you pack, you count down the days with anticipation. The kids are so excited they can hardly sleep.
And then vacation day arrives, and nothing seems to go like it did in your head. It’s still fun, and you still create lots of amazing memories, but…well, let’s just say that family vacations can be more
of a pain in the butt challenging than they appear in travel brochures.
Earlier this summer, my family traveled to Busch Gardens. I want to tell you about our day – and also share a few tips about visiting theme parks with kids that we learned along the way.
Busch Gardens is in Tampa, on Florida’s west coast, about a 3-hour drive from my home. My kids were attending camp the week of our vacation, so we decided to leave after camp on Thursday afternoon, drive to Tampa that evening, and spend all day Friday in Busch Gardens.
I’d booked our hotel online but because of a snafu, we had to change hotels and didn’t end up getting up to our room until after 9:00 p.m. It worked out okay because we ended up staying in a hotel that had waffles at breakfast, versus our original non-waffle hotel, which is how my 8 year old categorizes hotels. But because of our late evening, we ended up getting a later start than we’d planned.
Tip #1 - Remember that you’re on vacation. Some families approach theme parks like it’s their job. We’re not one of them. Is the park going to be less crowded when it opens at 9:30 a.m.? Of course. Is it worth the mid-afternoon meltdown to drag everyone out of bed after to avoid the crowds? Nope. At least not to me. This is especially so at Busch Gardens for two reasons: 1) The wait times for rides are much more tolerable than at some other theme parks, and 2) There are so many things to do that don’t involve waiting in line at all.
We arrived at Busch Gardens around 10:15 a.m. Parking was $17, which seemed a bit high to me – but I checked later and found out that parking at Disney World and Universal Studios in Orlando is also $17. We took a tram to the park entrance, picked up our tickets, had our bags inspected, and then we were off!
Tip #2 – Find out the rules about outside food and drinks before you get there. This varies widely from park to park, ranging from some that allow you to bring in coolers to others that don’t permit any outside food or drinks. Busch Gardens doesn’t allow outside food, but they do allow water bottles, which you can refill at spots throughout the park and also (mini-tip) inside the first aid stations. Snacks are technically not permitted – but like most moms of young kids, I almost always have some granola bars and fruit snacks floating around at the bottom of my purse. I didn’t take them out, and I wasn’t asked to remove them at bag check. My unofficial impression? Baggie of Cheerios? Yes. Picnic lunch for 4? No.
The day we went to Busch Gardens was my daughter’s sixth birthday, so our first stop was Guest Relations so that she could pick up her birthday button. Throughout the day, she was greeted and wished a happy birthday by Busch Gardens staff, including this guy:
Most how-to guides would tell you to check out a map of the park, to get a idea of your top activities, and to make a general plan for your day BEFORE your arrival at the park. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, it should come as no surprise to you that we didn’t do this. (Say what you must, but I like to think of it as being spontaneous, not disorganized.)
We headed toward Morocco, where our first stop was the Gwazi Gliders, a kid-friendly ride that both girls enjoyed. It was already quite hot, so my husband and I enjoyed watching them from the shade.
Our next stop was the Myombe Reserve, where we spent some quality time with the gorillas and chimpanzees. As you can see from the photos, the large viewing area allowed us to get very close to the animals.
And then my 6 year old started asking for snacks – which makes sense because it had been two whole hours since breakfast!
Tip #3 – Eat when you get hungry. Obviously, right? But what I mean is that you shouldn’t push it. When the kids start asking for food, when your stomach starts to growl – that’s when you eat. Even if you’ve only been in the park for an hour, even if the restaurants are crowded. The lines aren’t going to get shorter, and the food isn’t going to get any cheaper. Full tummies make happy families, so suck it up, Buttercup.
We stayed in Morocco and ate lunch at Zagora Cafe. The food was good, with lots of kid-friendly choices – cheeseburgers and chicken fingers, plus a nice a la carte selection of salads, fruit, and dessert. The restaurant was outdoors in a large, shaded pavilion with plenty of seating. We enjoyed our lunches and made some general plans for the rest of the day.
Tip #4 – Try to see a show or two, especially the ones in air conditioned theaters. A show is the perfect place to rest, rehydrate, and reapply (sunscreen). Since we’d just done all 3 at lunch, it wasn’t really the optimal time for a show. But we were already near the Moroccan Palace Theater and everyone wanted to see Iceploration, so we stuck around until the next show.
It was totally worth it – we all really loved the show, and it was one of the best parts of our day. Iceploration is a 30-minute ice show featuring world-class skaters and live animals! The costumes were amazing, and the plot was very kid-friendly. After the show, some of the animals, ice skaters, and cast members came into the theater to meet and take photos with audience members. If you visit Busch Gardens, put this one on your must-see list!
By then we’d done a lot of sitting, and everyone was ready to MOVE! It was time to see some animals. We stopped to see the Cheetahs, and then we moved on to the Edge of Africa, where we got to observe hippos, lions, hyenas, lemurs, and crocodiles. We were able to watch the hyenas as they were given lunch by their caretakers. We stood behind the observation window and watched the hyenas leap for their food right on the other side of the glass. Have you ever seen a hyena up close? They’re really rather frightening (especially when they eat).
We were ready to ride some rides…but unfortunately, the rides weren’t ready for us. While we were with the animals, storm clouds had gathered and lightning was spotted in the distance. This meant that all of the rides (except for the train) were shut down for safety.
Tip #5 – If you’re traveling in Florida, remember that during the summer it rains nearly every afternoon. No exaggeration. You should expect it to rain at some point during your trip. You may get lucky and experience a light rain or a quick downpour, but often the rain is accompanied by a thunderstorm. Also remember that even though the skies may appear ominous, these storms tend to pass by very quickly – so don’t panic. Just wait it out and do your best to stay dry.
Since the train was still operating, we decided to hitch a ride to the other side of the park. First we walked through the Serengeti Plain, where we saw giraffes, zebras, rhinos, and more. Then we boarded the Serengeti Railway.
Our day at Busch Gardens was only half over, and there was lots more fun to come. But I’ll share that with you in another post, along with some more of my non-expert tips for visiting theme parks with kids. Do you have any tips to add to my list?
Until then… xoxo