What cultural responsibilities does an African themed park hold towards both its subject matter and its audience? Should it choose to represent the continent as an alien land of exotic unfamiliarity to appeal to the visitors’ simultaneous curiosity and repulsion when faced with The Other? Does the theme want us to admire the superior authenticity of African culture over western culture for its supposed deep rootedness in nature? Or should it assume a sermonizing theme of global community and shared responsibility of nature and humanity on all continents? If the park keeps living creatures in captivity, how does it present their story to a paying audience? Are animals merely a subject of scientific curiosity to spin a lesson in ecology around, or might the park want to indulge in a bit of showmanship and include an additional philosophical narrative about the “Circle of Life” within nature, presumably to assuage our self-consciously human anxieties over death?
These sorts of questions are rarely points of discussion among theme park fans who often take as a given the theme’s form and content and are more interested in dissecting the technical details that sustain the illusion. Early filmmakers very quickly realized the power their medium had to create emotionally compelling messages simply through the juxtaposition of moving images representing the world around them; sometimes enough to start a revolution, but more often used just to quietly record and comment on some part of human existence that we might have overlooked before. Theme parks by comparison, despite having a much greater level of immersion by constructing the theatrical stage in a space that the audience physically inhabits, never really realized the same potential that film has to create something of social worth that goes beyond the immediate entertainment value. Not that there weren’t some theme park designers who tried, but even in those cases the public generally overlooked or rejected their attempts, and they ultimately didn’t influence the cultural discourse in the same way that other arts have. Whether this tendency in theme parks to overemphasize the mode over the message is a fluke, a conspiracy, or something inherent in the theme park medium, I could write an entire thesis examining and still not get to the bottom of it.
I won’t offer any of my own perspectives on the questions raised in the introduction beyond what you may already assumed by the way the questions were framed. The point is that there are always choices a designer makes over how to present a theme in a park (I want to use the word “theme” here in the literary sense, i.e. “what is it about?”; rather than as a synonym for hyperrealistic decorations, i.e. “what does it look like?”), and these choices can have more significance than simply how they maximize entertainment value. A true theme park is another form of storytelling that interprets an artistic representation of the world to an annual audience of millions, and like any other popular author the theme park bears a certain responsibility for the message it disseminate into the cultural discourse. Even if the themed environment claims total commitment to unbiased authenticity, it still must make selective choices over what to include or exclude, and the context in which we encounter it. There’s no such thing as a neutral theme.
Yet compared to the other animal theme parks in central Florida that are very upfront about having a particular point of view on their subject matter (SeaWorld Orlando and Disney’s Animal Kingdom), Busch Gardens Tampa maintains a relatively neutral relationship to its primary theme. A visitor is unlikely to learn anything particularly deep or compelling about the African condition beyond a few unflashy appeals to conserve the environment and to help feed the children, as could be expected in this age of corporate social responsibility. I’ve never been to Africa, and apart from getting a closer look at some of its native wildlife the continent remains just as much an enigma to me now as it did before I visited the park. Maybe I needed to watch more of their live entertainment?
Nevertheless, there is something to admire in their self-contained neutrality that is missing from its more flamboyant counterparts in Orlando. Unlike sister park SeaWorld, which goes off the deep end in its attempts to ethically justify its animal shows with an all-encompassing, half-assed narration promoting some vaguely defined mystical naturalism, for the most part Busch Gardens allows its animals to simply be animals, without attempting to spin their existence into a story form that makes them more relatable to humans; at least not much more than any other contemporary western zoo. And unlike their primary competitor Disney’s Animal Kingdom, which is all about total immersion into an imaginative story-world designed to feel as if you’ve actually traveled to another continent to view these exotic species, Busch Gardens emphasizes the immediate reality of these creatures watching you on the opposite side of the glass, all amid their luscious botanical gardens that are cultivated here, on this continent in suburban Tampa.
The park is at its most effective when it doesn’t attempt to literally re-create Africa (which, as noted in the first few paragraphs, contains all sorts of moral hazards in terms of selective interpretations of a continent that’s so politically troubled and misunderstood by western audiences), but instead use the influences of African art, architecture, and landscaping to create a wholly unique environment that has no original referent anywhere else in the world. For examples, see the rich floral color palate of the original Bird Gardens, or the whimsical African-inspired artistry that adorns the station and queuing area of the new Cheetah Hunt roller coaster. An added benefit of this approach is that the naked roller coaster structures don’t detract from the beauty of the park’s vistas as they might in a hyperrealist environment like Disney’s Animal Kingdom where the illusion of alternate reality can never be broken. The colorful blue, green, or red waving patterns made by the steel track serve to complement the intrinsic aesthetic appeal of the botanical displays and abstract art designs that line the midways. The end result is a park landscape that I simply found to be pleasant space to spend the day walking around, where I neither felt overwhelmed by the details and visual activity of a more traditional theme park, nor alienated by the unexpressive clutter that defines many contemporary heavy metal amusement parks. Somehow Busch Gardens strikes a balance that, for me, is close to ideal.
Of course it doesn’t all live up to this ideal. Some areas, such as Timbuktu or the northern half of Stanleyville, feel a bit like outdated remnants from when Busch first discovered the easy marketability of mechanical rides in the 1970’s. Some of the cultural entertainment, particularly in the Morocco section, veers too much toward ethnic stereotypes (as hilariously noted by Aasif Mandvi for The Daily Show). The Egyptian expansion, lacking any of the eponymous gardens, overcompensates with some grand but lifeless “Egyptian Themeing” that tries too hard to imitate the style of Disney or Universal and comes up short, especially unaided by the nearby presence of some loud and tacky carnival games to fill in the empty space in the mock bazaar. (Really, a Hi-Striker at Busch Gardens?) Then there’s Rhino Rally, which could have been Busch Garden’s signature animal-based attraction and instead somehow has become such a resounding misfire that’s probably best for visitors to avoid completely. Fortunately, these specific points of critique all become minor issues when spread across 335 acres.
Maybe it’s just because it’s not in the superficial consumerist Mecca that is Orlando (although I’m sure Tampa is hardly any better), but Busch Gardens is perhaps the only theme park in Florida that could make me want to voluntarily return to Florida again just to visit a theme park I’ve already been to. I’m sure much of that is due to the fact that Busch Gardens has far and away the highest caliber roller coaster collection anywhere in the Sunshine State, which I concede perhaps gives away my bias in attraction preferences. But I’ll defend my preference by noting that attractions like Disney or Universal are, by their design, like movies. I can be hugely entertained by them once or twice, but I don’t have any desire to experience the same story repeatedly unless I also happened to become the type that annually pilgrimages to Comic-Con. Roller coasters, by contrast, are more like a pop song. Find a couple you really like, and there’s little shame in putting them on repeat until you have every beat memorized and it’s time to go to sleep.
Before delving into some of those coasters in more detail below, it should perhaps be interesting to note that Busch’s big five includes a terrain-based Intamin Blitz coaster and twin GCI wooden coasters, which normally I’d expect to be the real rocks stars in the park given the quality of similar installations by these manufacturers. Yet these both prove to be relatively weak links, and it’s the trio of B&M designs (Kumba, Montu, and SheiKra) that really shine, despite the firm’s frequent reputation elsewhere for supplying reliable but vanilla-flavored thrill ride hardware.
Many expected that replacing the original two-bench PTC trains with a sleek new set of Millennium Flyers in 2011 would finally solve the “problem” facing this middling GCI dueling coaster, long known for a rough ride that never quite lived up to expectations. Unfortunately, riding it today with the new trains indicates that the problem must run much deeper than just the choice of rolling stock. Is the problem just that it’s still unpleasantly rough? (When I visited, the Millennium Flyers treated the rails like a giant prank hand buzzer; a sensation as uncomfortable as most older wooden coasters that loosely shuffle around the curves, but with none of the character.) Even if it were to be completely re-tracked down to the support ledgers, I suspect that a smooth Gwazi would amount to little more than a lukewarm series of broad swooping turns and drawn-out transitions, randomly repeated until it’s time to call the kitties home. Gwazi was designed at a time when GCI’s layouts were in transition, and features neither the tight rhythmic pacing of their recent installations, nor the uncontrolled bluntness of their earliest work. Instead it takes an RCCA approach to wasting wood on oversized elements built high above the ground, only with just steep enough banking to make sure no sustained lateral forces are felt on the entire layout. The only unique quality is the dueling “fly-by” moments, but even these were improved upon a year later on the elegant Lightning Racer. Here, they look impressive in third-person promotional video footage, but for riders on board the technique is as visually effective as observing dolphins from a water slide.
Very, very good… but not great. It seems the design team’s strategy for Montu back in 1996 was to copy everything they did three years earlier on Kumba, and then make certain features the opposite so that it wouldn’t be Kumba. Inverting the seat orientation, or carving the track down into the ground rather than raising the ground to contour around the track, are two of the more important changes to the design; but I want to focus on the layout sequence. It shares an identical seven-looping arrangement with certain elements turned around or inside out, such as the Immelmann (loop, then twist) standing in for the dive loop on Kumba (twist, then loop), clockwise rather than counterclockwise rotation on the zero-G barrel roll, the batwing functioning as an inverse cobra roll, or swapping a second corkscrew for a second vertical loop. The problem is that none of these layout choices seem to have been made for any reason other than to not repeat themselves on Kumba, and as a result Montu doesn’t flow between elements as naturally as its older brother. The midcourse block brake section is the biggest drawback because it takes the same up-down rhythm established by the inversions preceding it but fills it with dead space instead, not helped by the excessive reduction of speed in recent years that causes the train to crawl around the second half. Padded in length with a lazy spiral and stalling overbanked curve to get between the second loop and corkscrew, the second half feels aimless in addition to slow, and the last corkscrew, while sporting a nice trench location, doesn’t have any better or unique qualities compared to earlier trench-set inversions to make it an adequate signifier that the experience has reached its grand finale. Still, this winged deity maintains a certain ferocity in places that’s unparalleled to any other attraction in the state of Florida, Kumba included. It’s moments like a quick left counterbank between 100’+ tall loops while barreling through an underground crevice at 60 mph that makes it hard to not be wowed; the question is, was I still wowed by the time it reached the brakes?
“It’s a family roller coaster, so it’s supposed to be like that.” Whatever that is. Folks really want to convince themselves that Busch Garden’s 2011 coaster is a good ride. Striking up conversations with some frequent visitors in line, they described it to me as “odd” or “a mixed bag”, not what they were expecting, but have grown to like it more with time. Even the driver aboard the official Busch Gardens shuttle bus admitted during his promotional spiel that it was an unconventional coaster and advised families that it wasn’t nearly as scary as it might look. When it was in development I thought an Intamin Blitz coaster named “Cheetaka” with triple launches making full utilization of the unique setting and terrain features easily had the potential to become the best roller coaster in the southeast. Instead they built an awkward wandering layout for an awkwardly inconsistent family coaster, and even more awkwardly named it “Cheetah Hunt”. And I can no longer convince myself that this is actually a good ride.
I want to break this down in more detail, since it seems to be an unpopular position to say I out-and-out don’t like Cheetah Hunt. Even accepting the idea that this was intended to be a mid-level coaster to bridge the divide between white knucklers like Montu and the more timid animal safari attractions, I still must take issue with a host of decisions regarding the design. For one, despite being padded with long stretches of gentle mine train-like weaving, the upfront placement of screaming LSM launches and a vertical tower, not to mention a big corkscrew in view of the midway, are all specific features that keep many novice riders apprehensive. Many kids are less turned off by sheer size or force than they are by feelings of uncertainty or surprise, which are sensations the Blitz coaster hardware is specialized to produce. Secondly, being a family coaster is no excuse for a poorly sequenced, uninvolving layout. It’s not necessarily that Cheetah Hunt lacks any good or memorable moments, but that the good moments tend to be isolated events that randomly occur throughout the course; most notably a solitary barrel roll, which happens without warning and ultimately foreshadows no similar maneuvers in the future that one might expect could be reprised before the very end. Accordingly, rider’s emotional levels are all over the place, jumping back and forth between the exciting, the entertaining, and the underwhelming, often with little rhyme or reason (although a macro-view of the sequence reveals an experience that starts high and ends low, one of the cardinal sins of coaster design). Especially for a long, multi-part layout like this, controlling the emotional narrative is one of the most powerful devices in the in the designer’s toolbox, but instead it’s left to chance wherever the individual bits happen to fit.
Not helping is the fact that, while it might look great from the midways, most of the decorations in the immediate sightline from onboard are characterized less by the environment of a cheetah stalking its prey than it is by gravel, cement, cinderblocks, corrugated steel trenches, and industrial-looking safety catwalks. There’s a section midway through the layout (after an arbitrary straight-away) when we suddenly find ourselves inches above a rapidly flowing river, agilely skipping back and forth between a narrow canyon, and the moment amazes because it’s the first time the coaster distinguishes itself with a sustained visual and kinetic identity. Following up, the third launch has little visceral impact on the riders, and instead serves a purely functional purpose to help push the cars over the last couple of hills after accidentally running out of momentum at the far end of the course, remarkably similar to a couple of my flubbed designs in RollerCoaster Tycoon. (Now that we have the technology for multi-launch coasters, why hasn’t anyone thought to build a layout that steadily increases the intensity from beginning to end, Stairway to Heaven style?) The finale chosen to follow the third launch seems to match the sensation of driving slowly down a winding country road, when it realizes you’re about to miss the address so it veers a hard left while abruptly slamming on the brakes. Thereupon ends the hunt for cheetahs.
There are enough moments when the coaster randomly does something interesting that most people can mentally edit out the rest of the fluff and conclude that overall it was a good ride after it’s done. I like that it’s long, smooth, and does lots of different tricks. Maybe Busch Gardens was content to build a coaster that would have visitors equivocate over its merits before eventually deciding that it’s decently fun enough, especially when most customers will respond favorably to the mere presence of any technologically impressive roller coaster they happen to plop down. But it could have used its multi-part structure to tell a great and compelling drama, and instead its design was settled by drawing ideas out of a hat to achieve an indifferent equivalent of Coaster Dada.
Boarding opposite the loading platform of Cheetah Hunt, the Busch Gardens Sky Ride is a decidedly gentler experience on the body, although one can’t write off the distinct thrill of dangling on a wire in a steel tub over African wildlife as the wind plays games. Along with the Serengeti Express, this is one of two officially designated ways to view the animals roaming the expansive reserve area, although nearby coaster activity and a route that sticks near the midways mean shutterbugs looking for the perfect angle of the antelope are probably better off staying near the ground.
As far as scenic transport rides go, this is less exciting than the Sky Ride and you have to put up with large herds of tourists to watch the small herds of animals. However, it also offers a route along the back of the Serengeti Plain reserve that’s home to a few species that cannot be seen up close from anywhere else in the park that doesn’t require a VIP ticket, and it drops you off in a different location than you started so there’s some practical value in it as well. If you brought a camera and want to watch the animals, take the train. If you want to rest for a bit in between power-riding Cheetah Hunt and Montu, take the Sky Ride. If you’re here for two days or more, then there’s no reason not to try both.
Busch Gardens probably describes this as some sort of fantastical African safari encounter experience, but let’s be honest: Edge of Africa is a zoo. Its remove from the hustle of the main midways and roar of the steel coasters makes it a decidedly tranquil area of the park to retreat to, and the up-close viewing opportunities of an eclectic array of species (including a number of flightless birds that roamed freely among the visitors; are these native to Florida or intentionally placed here by Busch Gardens?) ensures that anyone who originally intended to use it as a shortcut from Egypt to Timbuktu will quickly find themselves a wandering admirer of flora and fauna trapped for the better part of an hour. I accidentally stumbled upon a feeding demonstration with the lions, where the animal keepers explained that the balls of ground meat had to be thrown at the lounging felines because they only eat food that they can catch moving, and I couldn’t have been more fascinated.
This attraction is a problem and something needs to be done to fix it, fast. The river canyon half was repurposed for Cheetah Hunt, leaving the remaining off-road safari section severely broken and in need of a total overhaul. Admittedly I wasn’t a huge fan of the original Rhino Rally. The flash flood section played too much like a simulated theme park gimmick, one that seemed more pleased with its own cleverness than it’s ability sustain a real sense of peril, and now that the river canyon has been repurposed into the best feature of Cheetah Hunt I won’t mourn its loss in the slightest. However, they’ve now resorted to an overblown Jungle Cruise-style comedic narration to make up the difference in entertainment value, with our guide in particular letting no chance for scatological humor go to waste. “Look at that big pile over there, everyone! Isn’t rhinoceros poo funny? I think this makes it time for another dung beetle joke!” This tone is okay if the gators and hippos we’re made to laugh at are obviously artificial (on the Jungle Cruise the attraction’s semi-cheesy outdatedness becomes a ‘secret’ in-joke between the skipper and the passengers), but when the jokes are at the expense of living creatures held in captivity it just comes across as crass and disrespectful. Additionally, with the river recycled the total safari time takes about five minutes to complete, with roughly as many observable species along the route. So not only is the new Rhino Rally boring and awful, it’s also all over much too quickly. Then again isn’t that true about so much else in life?
Flat rides like this in a big park like Busch Gardens are like stocking stuffers on Christmas morning. Their petite, uncomplicated nature and how they’re discovered as a ‘bonus’ worthy to be presented alongside far bigger goodies makes me want to enjoy them more than I ever actually do. This small suspended scrambler-like ride is the smallest and cutest of the several stuffers populating the Timbuktu section, and does the job of bringing a smile to our face for a minute, even if no one really cares when it’s sent to a recycling plant a week later. (Sandstorm is currently slated for replacement with what’s rumored to be a drop tower attraction.)
I suspect a great many visitors might walk right on by the Scorpion without giving it a ride. Some might immediately dismiss the compact portable steel looping coaster as a diminutive relic from a time when Busch Gardens’ biggest competitor was the Florida State Fair rather than Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and other might turn away after getting a look at the length of the slow-moving queue. But for those that stick out the wait in the tight cattle corral queue (or visit on a quiet day) they can expect a delightfully fun ride at the end of it. Layers of helices that alternate between forceful and leisurely, tied together by the singular vertical loop that is always best experienced with a simple lap bar and nothing more, always make for an enjoyably brief ride. Not quite a classic, but it achieves as much with its succinct layout as certain other single-looping coasters two-and-a-half times its length are able to. Also, credit is due to Busch Gardens’ maintenance department for keeping the Scorpion looking as fresh as the bigger 21st century scream machines built nearby.
I’m not much of a flat ride fan, but there’s often one or two in a park this size that will catch my eye and make me think “I have got to try that”. Usually they’re the flat rides that aren’t very flat, as is the case of the Phoenix, an Intamin Looping Starship that sends you around a vertical loop nearly 100 feet in diameter. The pace is rather slow and leisurely so you get to enjoy the hangtime as you go around the top. While it’s a kewl retro ride, I wouldn’t mind if they updated the seats and restraints, as “ergonomics” was a term unfamiliar to the Intamin of the 1980’s.
This was actually the first wild mouse coaster I ever rode, back in 1996 when it first opened at sister park Busch Gardens Williamsburg with the temporary Atlanta Summer Olympics mascot tie-in as Wild Izzy. My recollection of it from Williamsburg was that it was the only coaster everyone else in my family would not ride again because the lateral switchback turns were too scary compared to, say, the six loops on Drachen Fire, despite the fact that it’s classified as a supposedly milder “family coaster”. The 4-passenger cars have changed species a few times since then, from mice to cheetahs and now reptiles (plus whatever the hell an “izzy” was supposed to be), and it was kind of fun to finally ride it again after all these years. While it’s certainly nothing to be afraid of, I can easily see how the whiplash turns and drops might be off-putting to many new riders, which worries me that they’ll permanently avoid far gentler rides like Kumba or SheiKra for those reasons.
It makes sense that Busch Gardens would want to make reference to the Sahara in some of their attractions, but honestly deserts are one of the worst themes possible; at least, they are if the theme is dryly interpreted as “circling around on an empty lot of sand”, in which case is it really much better than the kiddy coaster they set up on the old pasture for the local 4-H carnival? In all other respects this Zierer coaster is like the one at SeaWorld Orlando, but with a smaller layout that lacks the somewhat violent dips and turns that characterize similarly sized rides from Miler or Zamperla.
Honestly, what most amazed me about SheiKra: a 200 foot tall B&M Dive Machine (painted in bright primary colors) somehow managed to appear perfectly at home amid botanical gardens. Not that I would call these types of coasters eyesores, but the bulking steel track and strong vertical lines created by the support columns do have a tendency to rob the visual attention away from the surrounding environments, and since these machines aren’t built with aesthetic value as the top priority I wouldn’t necessarily call that trait a virtue of their design. Somehow Busch Gardens managed to pull it off, utilizing several tall brick turrets to either hide or balance the visual dominance of the modern steel structure, and uniting it all around a plaza with a water splashdown finale that’s even more fun to watch than to ride. Likewise, riding the coaster is all about the visual experience, whether it be from the top of the lift surveying the surroundings (including Tampa’s skyscrapers in the distance), from the front row watching your feet dangle above 200 feet of open air, or from a coveted edge seat watching the world blur into a colorful impressionistic landscape as the Immelmann inversions torques you around several axes at once. Despite the 70mph top speed it’s quite gentle on the human body, although from the last row it easily wins the award for Most Airtime on a Roller Coaster in the State of Florida. (Considering it only has two weightlessness-producing drops, that probably speaks a lot more about other coasters in Florida.) Yet in the end my feelings toward SheiKra are a bit like watching a Romantic period opera: perfect technique that I could admire all day long, yet I can’t help but feel that I wasn’t the intended audience. It’s a style that values a different set of qualities than those that drew me to the artistic medium in the first place.
Classic 1970’s log flumes by Arrow Dynamics are always a solid entertainment option, and while the same is true here, Stanley Falls unfortunately ranks near the bottom of the bunch. With only two short drops (the largest is 43 feet deep) and a relatively brief three minute layout around a basic plot of subtropical Floridian landscaping, a couple of cool bits like Arrow’s rolling speed flume section after the first drop can’t save it from the feeling that this is an outdated catalog purchase before Busch Gardens knew that they would be competing with big brand theme parks to the east. Perhaps the nearby Tanganyika Tidal Wave makes up for it, but given the chilly temps I wasn’t going to get wet on both.
While some coaster lovers might be still sore from the time that a kid’s climbing playground replaced the classic 1976 Arrow corkscrew coaster Python (you can decide if I intended the phrase “still sore” to be a pun or not), the animal exhibit side of Jungala is worth a stroll through if you’re passing by on the way between coasters. The jungle critters are mostly represented by Bengal tigers and orangutans (not in the same enclosure, obviously), and if you’re lucky you might find yourself separated from one of the residents by a fraction of an inch of Plexiglas; a notable example being a small subterranean lookout in the middle of the tiger habitat, which during my visit one of the big kitties evidently found made a good bed.
Beautiful. The iconic 1993 sit-down B&M looper could be perceived as exceedingly vanilla by today’s standards, especially in the context of the thirty-odd multi-looping coasters the Swiss company produced in the time since that all originate somewhere from Kumba’s DNA. Yet even as new technical innovations and twists on the basic layout came along, Kumba somehow manages to remain the best example of the genre for its grace and simplicity. It’s not a layout about big ideas or a dramatic crescendo. Every element is like a line of poetry, with balanced contrasts between the emotional highs and lows, and not a single length of track either wasted or overemphasized; each moment is an integral component to forming an overall aesthetically pleasing tapestry. The first half could be called “The Young Person’s Guide to the Roller Coaster”, the way it introduces the basic vertical loop and then each subsequent inversion expands on the idea with a new orientation or greater level of complexity until peaking in the two-part cobra roll. Thus the task set for the second half is to gradually wind down the action in a way that doesn’t also feel anticlimactic, and Kumba succeeds in a way that its many copycats have rarely been able to. The interlocking corkscrews (returning to the basics while still injecting a new dynamic on the riders) are simultaneously elegantly paced while biting just a little bit with the snappy rotation changes, and then the lull before the tunnel dive and upward helix satisfies as a grand finale while bringing our adrenaline slowly back down to earth so that the brakes triggering doesn’t come as a shock or disappointment. Even the way the grassy terrain contours around the sky blue track helps strengthen the perception that every piece is part of a perfectly realized whole. The simple looping progression isn’t outwardly a daring idea, but if after a few rides you get hit by the simple beauty of Kumba, it will hit you hard. Kumba is the rare coaster that I could ride a hundred times over without the repetition growing tedious. Thankfully, the location at the far back of the park with an easy to overlook entrance means that on a quiet day there will be little standing in the way of that objective.
While it’s probably not of much cultural value relative to the body of artistic works about Africa from other media, as an amusement/ theme park hybrid Busch Gardens Tampa finds the right balance to be in turns relaxing, exhilarating, and sometimes even beautiful.
Overall Grade: B+