Now, I love Disney World more than your average person: I’ve been an annual passholder, and I’ve taken over FIFTY trips there, eight this year alone, plus one to Disneyland Resort this summer. But there are just times when (lowering voice) you feel like you need to go somewhere else. Gasp! I know, I know – the Disney parks are the best theme parks in the world, with immersive and imaginative theming, top notch guest service, and elaborate holiday décor. BUT occasionally my family likes to try something new, so last Christmas Eve we found ourselves at Busch Gardens Tampa, a short hop, skip and jump (or one-hour fifteen-minute drive) from Orlando.
We had purposely avoided Disney World at that time frame because it’s the busiest time of the year. The crowd calendars all showed 9s and 10s. And Disney parks have been known to close when they reach capacity. With impatient teens and a crowd-hating husband, I knew better than to try and schedule a trip to Walt Disney World during the week of Christmas. I really like seeing holiday decorations, though. But due to our county’s very late winter break, the first day we could reasonably get to a theme park in central Florida was on December 24th, which also happened to be on a Sunday.
Tip: It pays to check ahead online for discounts or other offers (like Groupon). Buying tickets ahead of time saves money and time at the gate.
Fortunately, because we are an active duty military family, we were able to take advantage of the amazing Waves of Honor program at Busch Gardens, which gives us one free admission to Busch Gardens or Sea World per year. But Busch Gardens and its sister park, Sea World, often run admission specials, even over the holiday time frame. They have discounts if you purchase admission to more than one park, admission as part of the Tampa Bay CityPass, and even an All Day Dining Deal that gives you admission and unlimited food at certain restaurants.
And over the holiday time frame (this year it runs from November 17-January 6, 2019), part of the park turns into Christmas Town, which includes lavish decorations, seasonal shows, special holiday foods, and shopping. There are characters from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Sesame Street, ice skaters, carolers, and even a chance to meet Santa himself. This is all included with regular park admission, it’s not a separately ticketed event.
Tip: Multi-day, multi-park Busch Gardens/Sea World tickets now come with round trip transportation between Orlando and Tampa, making this park a perfect choice if you are staying in central Florida for a few days.
With all of this excitement going on in the park, I was kind of dreading the weekend/holiday crowds, and I dragged my family out of bed so we could be there for Busch Gardens’ version of rope drop.
Well, I needn’t have worried. Lines were scant in the morning hours, allowing my husband and daughters to ride thrilling roller coasters like Montu, Kumba, Sheikra, and Cheetah Hunt several times in a row. At one point, we had to take a rest because even my thrill ride-loving husband was starting to get a little sick from back to back coasters. While the lines did get somewhat longer during the day, they dropped off again in the evening.
You can upgrade your admission ticket and buy Quick Queue unlimited for $19.99 per person, allowing you to skip the lines for almost every ride, but in our case, it was simply unnecessary.
Tip: Download the Busch Gardens app for wait times, ride and attraction information, and dining information.
There are no FastPass+ equivalents for the park, but again, in our case it was not necessary. The app now does have wait time functionality. When we went, this feature was not offered.
Busch Gardens is also famous for its more than 300 species of animals, and we were able to take both the Serengeti Express and the Skyride to observe them. If we go back, I will probably try and take one of the many, many behind the scenes tours that are offered.
We got so much accomplished ride-wise that we ended up taking a break and going back to our hotel in the late afternoon. Frankly, I wish we had timed our break during lunch hour, because quick service meals are one of the few places where we found the park to be sorely lacking. Not only was the food not anything great, there were sometimes things listed on the online menu that did not exist in real life.
While Disney restaurants are discussed endlessly, and there are entire blog sites devoted to Disney foods and new menu items, I found very little information on dining at Busch Garden. Even the park’s own app and website are very uninformative and do not describe menu items or give prices. Information on holiday offerings was almost completely absent. We had a very hard time finding healthy or vegetarian options.
Tip: Consider taking a break during the day, perhaps during the lunch time frame. There are many nearby restaurants, and food in the park isn’t as appetizing as at Disney.
As the park got dark, though, it was all about the holiday decorations. We were able to wander around and see the decorations and sample some of the seasonal foods in a little over an hour. My kids were uninterested in the entertainment, but there are at least six different shows, including ice skating, Elmo’s Christmas Wish, Christian music, and the Three Kings Journey.
While Busch Gardens food and entertainment quality may not quite be up to Disney standards, the park is very clean and well-maintained, and employees were by and large friendly and helpful. The costs for food and souvenir items were generally less than at Disney.
Despite feeling a little guilty for going outside the Disney “bubble,” my family had a great time at Busch Gardens, and we plan to go to Sea World in Orlando right before Christmas this year. Either of these parks would be a great place to spend an “extra” day when you’re in central Florida and want to escape the crowds or simply try some place new.
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