Busch Gardens is a hybrid theme park and zoo. The one in Tampa is actually a sister park to the one in Virginia. The Tampa location is Africa themed, with mostly animals from Africa, while the one in Virginia is Asia themed. You can ride some of the best coasters in Florida at Busch Gardens, and also see rhinos, elephants, gators, flamingos and more up close. This park is typically the cheapest of all the FL parks (although I think the fairly new LegoLand park now wins that title).
Unlike Disney & Universal, Busch Gardens is only one park, not split into multiple. There's just the one ticket, and you can usually do the whole park in one day. However, I suggest you plan for two because you can enjoy shows (something Mr. Puma and I rarely take time for at theme parks), relax and enjoy the animals more. Plus you have a backup day if it rains. Busch Gardens does partner with Adventure Island water park across the street and Sea World in Orlando. You can buy combo tickets for these with Busch Gardens on any of their websites.
My biggest tip for visiting FL in general: Go during the middle of the week and the off-season (Generally late September - first week of May). During the summer it gets really hot and humid in Florida, and it typically rains at least a little in the afternoon every single day. Also keep in mind it's hurricane season through November, although I'd bet you're mostly in the clear by October. The two tropical storms that hit while we lived there (no hurricanes!) hit in early-mid September.
Tickets in general:
-If you live in FL, you can get cheaper resident tickets purchasing from the park websites
-Other ticket discount options: Military, Federal government employment, credit union members, universities (buy direct from some schools, like USF or UCF), AAA (can combine this discount with FL resident discount), employers (some corporations tie into a discount site, like restaurant groups & schools)
Busch Gardens Specific:
Tickets & Parking:
- This park offers discounts to residents of nearby states (last I looked it was GA & TN)
- They often offer Buy 1 Day, get the year for locals or Buy 1 Get 1 for non-residents
- You can come & go from the park all day, so don't feel pressured to get the meal pass because you can leave for lunch.
- There is no free parking ($15/day), but buying a year pass gets you free parking. You can also risk parking at the hotel across the street and walk.
- Look for hotels that aren't right by the park to save money. For example, the Embassy Suites by the park is regularly more expensive than the one near downtown Tampa. Be careful around the immediate park area as well. While on the north side you have USF and the science museum, the rest of the area can be a little sketchy. We like to stay at the Hyatt Place by the airport (they call it Westshore). The Hyatt is usually between $70-100/night, but it's a suite with free parking, free wifi and free breakfast. It's also close to the Tampa International Mall and has easy access to the highways.
- Take quarters in with you! They make you put any loose items, including cameras and usually hats/flip-flops, in a locker before you ride the coasters. These cost 50 cents each time you open them. But you can save a little money on these. Plan to leave your stuff in your locker at the Cheetah Hunt coaster while you also go ride Montu nearby. Each coaster has their own locker set, but they're so close it's pointless to pay 50 cents extra each time you ride. If the only loose items you have are on you, like shoes and a water bottle, then take them to the coaster and you can leave them in a cubby while you ride (at your own risk of losing them, they're open & unmonitored cubbies).
- Try to keep all loose articles in one bag, because the locker areas get crowded and it's much easier to just grab your stuff and go.
- Our favorite place to eat is the BBQ place near Sheikra. It's the best food in the park and the portions are good for the price compared to other places in the park.
When to Go:
- Visit during the middle of the week and the off-season (Late September-First week of May). We visited in late June and got rained out for a day. The second day it was really hot & humid and rained a little. We visited again in October and December and it was absolutely perfect each time.
- Check their website here before purchasing tickets and going to see what rides they know will be closed. Right now they have closures listed through the end of September. They'll also have a sign with closures at the gate when you arrive.
- Know the park hours & events. They're open later during the summer. While you'd think this is the best option if you only have 1 day, think again. It evens out to the same amount of time either way because you'll spend the majority of your longer hours in the summer waiting in long lines. The longest wait time we had during October/December was 30 minutes, and that was for the new ride at the time (Cheetah Hunt, which opened summer 2011). Be prepared for a slightly busier crowd during events, especially Howl-O-Scream. This is a separately ticketed event they have at night, but the crowds begin to build up in the afternoon for it.
Other great things to do in Tampa:
- Lowry Park Zoo: Regularly acclaimed as one of the best zoos in the country, this one offers the regular zoo animals, plus local Florida animals. They also offer rides! Take a safari train, ride kiddie coasters and even get wet on a large log flume water ride. Pick up a Tampa guide book outside the zoo exit for a coupon because this zoo is the most expensive I've ever visited.
- Beaches: Tampa offers some of the nicest beaches in FL, and some are regularly on the best of the U.S. lists. The Clearwater and St. Petersburg areas are great for this.
- Hyde Park: One of my favorite areas in Tampa, this neighborhood offers local dining and one of the few Publix Greenwise markets in the country. Publix is a grocery store chain out of central FL that seriously has a cult following (not in the creepy way). The Greenwise markets are like giant Whole Foods versions of the regular stores. We like to stop in and grab black & white cookies from the bakery and pick up a bottle of wine for the hotel room. Also in Hyde Park is one of our favorite FL restaurants, Ceviche. More on Ceviche & our first Tampa trip here.
- Orlando - only about an hour northeast of Tampa, straight up Hwy 4. More on Orlando when I talk about Disney & Universal.
- Sarasota - about an hour south of Tampa on Hwy 75, this is a smaller town with some nice outdoor activities and the Mote Aquarium
- Naples/Fort Myers - two hours south of Tampa on Hwy 75. Also a smaller area, this is where Mr. Puma and I lived for a year after leaving Miami. It's primarily known as a retirement place, so it actually gets busier in the winter as snowbirds (people who live in the North but come down during winter) move down. The area offers great golfing, access to the Everglades, really nice beaches, fantastic kayaking and some decent outlet shopping (Orlando is better though). You can also go out to Sanibel/Captiva just north/west of Fort Myers to find the best sea shells in the country.
- Katie from Ruffles & Truffles
- Krystal from Krystal's Kitsch
- Tiffany from Makes Me Blush
- Meghan from Little Girl in the Big World