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Retro Orlando: Revisiting Busch Gardens after 20 Years

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Column by Audrey Brown

I went back to Busch Gardens Tampa Bay this month, for the first time in more than 20 years. One of my recent columns was dedicated to the patchwork quilt of memory that was my distant recollection of Busch Gardens. I remembered the pale pinks of stucco walls, the animal habitats of Sea Otters and parrots, but more than anything else, I remembered selected images of my family members. Mostly from shared moments during our day at the park in the late ’80s.

Going back to Busch Gardens to see how things had changed, I didn’t really know what to expect. Would I get overly sentimental and find the experience bittersweet? Would I find any spark of recognition at all?

We arrived on a pleasant fall day, warm and sunny, which may be standard procedure for the citizens of Florida, but coming from Indiana, it was already a vast difference from our temperature in the mid-50s and cloudy skies. The crowds were light and the park was filled with draped figures and displays from their Halloween event. Mannequins and large broken hearts and stages covered with signs and tarps were reserved for the decidedly more mature activities of Howl-O-Scream. It made the experience somewhat surreal, I mean, I’m a writer after all … I could hand you a lot of analogies about the draped mannequins being like my cloudy memories … but I’ll spare you.

Having no plan at all, we decided to walk the park in a big loop and right away we ran into the Kangaroo exhibit, where for a small fee, you can hand feed a kangaroo a pleasant little cup of salad. We purchased ours and went through the doors to the display and were immediately greeted by a fuzzy, doe-eyed kangaroo happily dining from our cup of lettuce. You wouldn’t think that a petting zoo would be all that exciting to grown adults, but my husband and I found ourselves giddy like kids as we cooed over the animals and compared them to our lazy housecats back home.

From that point, we strolled through the park, stopping to look at birds and monkeys and children at play. Walking past the draped mannequins and snagging a cup of iced tea, we sat down for a few minutes next to an impossibly twisty coaster called Sheikra. Jake asked me, “So, anything ringing a bell?” All I could honestly say was that the pink stucco of the walls were the only thing, and other than that, a disappointing nothing. But we were having a pleasant enough day, so it didn’t really seem to matter.

After our break, we stowed our belongings in a locker, rode Sheikra and plenty more rides and coasters, and we visited the tigers in Jungala. Something started to strike me there. All the animals were easy to see. The displays at Busch Gardens have been designed in such a way, that the animals are always visible. The elephants line up for a buffet of grass directly across from you, separated only by a trench. The sea otters nap in their log not five feet in front of you, partitioned only by glass, and preening birds look at you as if to say, “What on earth are you looking at? I’m here every day.”

Most zoos have nooks and crannies where the animals can go to be away from the public, and Busch Gardens likely does too, but being able to walk past every animal display and get a good full view of the animals seems unique to me. I noticed on the Tiger Trail, that I had my nose pressed against the glass (don’t tell the custodians it was me) staring at the majestic animals as they lounged and played. When I glanced to my left and right, it was only children that surrounded me. I looked behind me, and noticed some disapproving looks from parents, smiled sheepishly, and backed away to take my rightful place among the adults. Something about the designs of the exhibits, the ease of seeing an entire social group of tigers with their tails dangling in water, rolling around in grass and shade … it was making me feel like a kid again. My inhibitions were down without my permission.

Jake and I started posing for cheesy pictures. He bought me an enormous sunhat, and I started to feel the sentimentality rising in me like an oncoming wave. Theme parks aren’t just special to me for my specific memories, or the coasters, or even the animals. It is their ability to function as a time capsule that keeps me mesmerized. It’s not as simple as I initially thought, thinking about visiting this place with my parents and sisters and how much life has changed now that I’m almost 30 years old and how I, like most other people, wish I could buy a free pass back to childhood just for a day to be with them. It’s not all about getting close enough, spatially, to feel like you might be able to reach back through space and time to touch your past … the people who are gone or changed. (Though yes, that may be just a small part of it.) Busch Gardens is a garden of memories for me, it’s true, but that’s not all.

It’s the overarching idea that even though the displays and promotional materials and rides change over the years, theme parks are places reserved and set aside specifically for kids and families. I’m sure everyone thinks this, but the world has changed since I was small. The public places that feel safe and carefree for parents to take their children are dwindling. Even supermarket lines with their increasingly raunchy tabloid covers, next to the candy, can become a place of anxiety for parents with little ones. And being at Busch Gardens was like recapturing that sigh of relief my parents must have felt when they brought my sisters and I there so many years ago. That sense of ease that says, “Relax and take a day off, the only thing your kids’ eyes will see today are colorful animals, live music, and interesting architecture.”

This is going to seem like reaching, but growing up is like cresting the first hill of a roller coaster. When you start, you only see what you’re immediately surrounded by, your restraints, the platform, and ride operators. (Your rules, your house, your family.) But as you get older, you start to see the world from a different angle, from up high. You start to see the big picture and the world becomes a formidable place to try and do business.

Being at Busch Gardens, this time with my husband, it was nice to go back to that place where the world has been edited. By carefully constructed landscaping and design, your view is limited to only that which can make you happy – adorable animals, plenty of photo opportunities, and food stands that only serve churros, iced tea and French fries. It’s a break from reality, one that can leave you refreshed and reconnected with your childhood self. (And let’s face it, your childhood self would probably be doing things a lot different than you are. There would be at least 25 percent more Cap’n Crunch in your cabinets.)

Just when I had given up being able to connect with anything specific from my childhood memories, we rounded one of the final curves as we were making our way to the exit. We stopped to smile at the alligators (Don’t worry, it’s only crocodiles you’re never supposed to smile at.) and take some more videos of a Moroccan-looking fountain, and then I saw it. A small striped tent over a stage, closed at the moment, but identical to one of my childhood memories of standing hand in hand with my mother and watching a beautiful belly dancer. I took a long moment and tried to stand in the angle of my memory, so that I would be looking at the stage from the same point-of-view. But wouldn’t you know it; the world seems to have gotten an awfully lot smaller since then …

The Park Geeks visit Busch Gardens Tampa Bay after 20 years away

Audrey is a freelance writer and voice over artist. Her work has appeared in “Geek Monthly”, “Animation World”, “Haunted Attractions”, “Orlando Attractions Magazine” (print edition) and more. You can read more of Audrey’s writing at her blog, Born For Geekdom. She is currently pursuing her MA in creative writing in the midwest. She escapes to Orlando as often as humanly possible, where she has spent an inordinate amount of time vacationing and would take up residence in the Haunted Mansion if she only could.

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