Theme Park Ranger
9:44 AM EDT, April 8, 2010
Muppets make your day brighter. Go ahead, try to deny it.
That's what makes the addition of Sesame Street Safari of Fun so smart for Busch Gardens in Tampa. Even if a big furry isn't a thrill for you, just watch a transfixed preschooler as Cookie Monster approaches. It's good enough for me.
Safari of Fun, wedged between the Bird Gardens and Stanleyville sections of the theme park, mixes new elements and repurposed attractions from its Land of Dragons area. The safari aspects blend with the park's African theming.
The centerpiece is Air Grover, a new junior coaster sized so children and parents can ride together. The train seats 16 passengers — eight rows, two across — and is fronted by a propeller and Grover in aviator gear. (A camel brings up the rear.)
The ride's storyline is that you're flying over the Sahara, and the sand-colored surface below reinforces that.
Out of the gate is a lift hill (23 feet high) that might be harrowing for the youngest patrons. It drops gently into two loops at a decent clip before heading back into the gatehouse. It's less than 30 seconds, so there's not much time to freak out.
Most kids I observed screamed — but with delight. That includes a particular little one, who could barely have been the required 38 inches high, whose mom told her that she was proud of her daughter taking her first roller coaster rider. The kid merely smiled wildly and pointed at the way-more-intense SheiKra coaster in the distance.
Ah, Busch Gardens, getting them young.
Also new is Bert & Ernie's Watering Hole, a colorful water-play area and a good reason to stock the double-wide stroller with swimsuits. It's the usual array of geysers, bubblers and jets that kids find so entertaining because they haven't learned the value of dry clothing yet.
On the plus side, parents won't necessarily get soaked in this area. A ledge for sitting and observing is located perfectly: close enough to monitor, but just out of the splash zone.
(Tip: The nearby bathroom is larger than the one at the entrance to Safari of Fun.)
A new pavilion is the home for character breakfasts or lunches. Here are buffet-style meals and the opportunity for more one-on-one time with Sesame Street residents.
Several carnival-style rides from the Land of Dragons era have been appropriately and effectively rethemed into kooky Muppets-meet-Africa looks. (Its lines for Snuffy's Elephant Romp and Big Bird's Whirly Birdie were significant and approaching wait times seen over at Air Grover.)
There's Muppety merchandise for sale that's exclusive to Safari of Fun and more items that are generically Sesame Street.
Two shows play periodically. In "A Is for Africa," characters hit the stage with ambitious choreography and act as a kid magnet. Seating is limited, and although Busch Gardens has added benches, some sight lines are poor. That leads to one of my pet peeves: Parents putting kids on their shoulders, blocking the view of all people behind them. But the show is cute and engaging, from what I could see.
Less convenient but more comfy is "Lights, Camera, Imagination!" It's a little hike to the Timbuktu's 4-D theater, where the film shows. The plot involves scenes from the Sesame Street Film Festival, and the effects include the usual wind, buzzing seats and water spritzes, which managed to soak my collarbone repeatedly.
Oh, my inner Oscar the Grouch is showing. That's something I had to keep under control during my visit because — duh — there were scads of little ones around. Be ready for childlike wonder and loads of strollers.
See for yourself
Sesame Street Safari of Fun
Busch Gardens, 40th Street and Busch Boulevard, Tampa
Park hours are 9 a.m.-8 p.m. daily.
Included in regular park admission — $69.96 general, $59.95 ages 3-9. Children ages 3-5 can get into Busch Gardens for free throughout 2010, but they must be registered at the Web site below first. The deal is not available at the gate.
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