By Audrey Brown
This month’s Retro Orlando is a bit more broad than usual. I typically try to take a look back at rides I can remember with perfect clarity, detail for detail. But I stumbled across some old vacation pictures that got me thinking about Busch Gardens. I tried and tried to come up with one ride to talk about, and then it occurred to me how vastly different my experiences there as a kid were from any other theme park. Thus began some seriously sappy pondering on the theme park industry …
In all fairness, Busch Gardens is one of my earliest memories. I find that most of my early memories revolve around tourist attractions and celebrations. Perhaps because they are the most sensory intensive, I’m sure. We visited Busch Gardens in the heavy Florida heat of the 1989 summer. It was our last stop on a jam-packed Florida vacation.
It also had the unfortunate luck to be following a trip to Walt Disney World. Being 7 at the time, I quietly wondered to myself if any place on the planet could possibly be as good as Disney World. I worried, even then, that I would be ruined forever for my mid-western theme parks and State Fair log flumes, having now tasted the glory and atmosphere of the happiest place on earth.
You see, the white elephant in the tourism room, even today I think, is that no theme park can ever hope to live up to a Disney theme park. Though I suspect that Universal may be creeping up on them with the addition of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Also, I believe it’s only us park geeks who could reap the benefits of some good healthy competition for our affections. But I digress. When it came to Busch Gardens in 1989 they didn’t have to compete with Disney. At least, not for my affections.
Why? Because they were so different from Disney World that it was hard to make comparisons. In all fairness, I am remembering that time through the filter of childhood memories, and combined with the mugginess of the Florida weather and my ever-present pair of rose colored glasses, it’s entirely possible those memories are foggy. It’s also possible I’m not remembering the rides with more emphasis because I was too young to ride any of them.
I only remember a single ride when I try to recall that vacation in 1989, and even in that case, I don’t remember what it was called. But it was a skyway attraction, the type where you board a gondola and are whisked across the sky in a similar fashion as a ski lift. I boarded one with my mother and three sisters. It was no thrill ride. But I can recall every detail the way you only can during a slower experience. The small gathering of dust where our white plastic seats met with the fiberglass walls of the gondola. The view of grazing animals below, specifically gazelles. I even remember the jokes flying around between my teenaged sisters. “Hey, I can see my gazelle from here.” I especially remember the stiff breeze that blew my mother’s straw sun hat off of her head and down to the gazelle pen below, causing the animals to jump and scatter. Mom’s version of the story still goes that the gazelles ate her hat. All I knew was that my high-school aged sisters weren’t sassing mom about anything at all. They were laughing with her. It’s a rare site to see a trio of teen girls relaxed enough to enjoy a moment of harmony with their mother minus the glaring and sarcastic remarks that inevitably come at that age.
The differences in my memories of Busch Gardens and Disney World are in the amount of stimuli. My earliest Disney memories are parades and rides. My Busch Gardens memories are of watching otters swim in their exhibit, posing for pictures with colorful parrots, and watching the then iconic Busch Gardens band – each activity was something for the whole family to do together. Not that rides aren’t, but on a ride, your attention isn’t on each other. It’s on what you’re viewing. In each memory, I have a sister attached to my hand or a parent carrying me on their hip. There was something relaxing about Busch Gardens in the ’80s. Something that was more zoo or museum-like. A quality that asked you to stop and watch. Listen to this band. Watch this belly dancer. Look at these animals.
Even my dad, decked out in summer gear that rivaled Magnum P.I.’s wardrobe, was calm and enjoying himself. Dad always had fun on vacations, but he was also the one who kept us on track, on budget and on time. So if there was enough breathing room for dad to truly be able to relax at a tourist destination, then somebody behind-the-scenes was doing something right. Somebody was planning in such a way that would create interests across all age demographics.
Disney encourages you to do. Busch Gardens encouraged a more passive experience back then. Neither one is better than the other, and if you’ve read any of my columns thus far, you know how obsessed I am with rides and attractions. But I’m glad I have the Busch Garden brand of memories too, the slower kind. Heck, I would even say the educational kind.
I remember being encouraged by my mother to walk up to the Busch Gardens band and meet the performers after they were done playing music. I still remember one of the musician’s gloved hands in mine. We shook hello as he graciously smiled at me. I felt like I was meeting my first rock star and there was a sense of awe that someone surely so important and famous (in my eyes) wouldn’t stop and talk to me. He wasn’t a recognizable figure, and yet, I was enchanted. I wonder, do theme parks today offer enough unrecognizable enchantment to children? Or do we only trust they’ll be in love with syndicated images?
But this is getting far too, “in my day, we had to walk to school” for my tastes. The point of recalling Busch Gardens in 1989 is that other than that breezy ride across the hat-eating gazelle pen, I don’t connect my memories of that place with any rides. Just with family. And really, though I hate to go into such sentimental territory again, isn’t that what families all over the world pack up and go on vacation together for? Isn’t the goal just to have a little quality time together?
I haven’t visited Busch Gardens since then. I know they’ve become renowned for their coasters, but I don’t know the state of their dark ride collection or their film and television tie-ins. I haven’t been back maybe because of how much I love Disney dark rides and movies and pop culture in my parks. (And boy, I do. I really really do.) But when I think of having children someday in the near future, you can bet as soon as they’re old enough to retain somewhat cognizant memories, I’ll be taking them to Busch Gardens – to see the animals, to hear the music and to hold my hand.
How do you remember Busch Gardens in the ’80s and early ’90s?
• 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. 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.