Busch Gardens & Tampa, Florida

Wednesday, December 23,2009-Ft. Myers, Florida
	We were up early at 6:30 A.M. It was 59 degrees and cool out. We read the News Press, had coffee and watched the News on the Today Show. A snowstorm was raging across the Midwestern United States, dumping tons of snow and causing traveler's misery. We cleaned up, finished packing and then set out at 8:30 A.M. for Tampa and Busch Gardens. The sun was shining brightly as we sped North on Rte. # 75. The holiday traffic was heavy just two days out from Christmas. Lots of people were “headed for grandma's “ for the holidays. 
         Driving the interstates in Florida is always an adventure. Scores of drivers raced by us at 15-20 mph above the speed limit, cutting in and out of traffic without turn signals or a by your leave. We narrowly avoided two accidents with careless drivers. A thin grey line of state troopers was on patrol attempting to rein in the speeders, but they were clearly over whelmed.
        In Tampa, we passed by the I-4 interchange and got off at exit # 265 for Fowler Avenue. We drove westward across Tampa and then followed McKinley Ave to East Busch St and the confines of the Holiday Inn Express Hotel, which sits just across the road from Busch Gardens. A car accident on McKinley had tied up traffic into a snarl. It was only 11:15 A.M. but the hotel checked us in and allowed us entrance to the room. It was clean and neat, room 424. The Inn had offered a deal we couldn't refuse, three nights for the price of two. They also included length of stay tickets to Busch Gardens for each of us, a value of $65 each per day. In addition, they threw in a hot breakfast. We unpacked our things and settled in for our three-day stay. 
       The hotel even provided three daily shuttles to the Park at 9 A.M, 9:30 and 10:00 A.M, but we had missed them so we drove the one-mile route to Busch Gardens. The parking area off McKinley Drive is enormous. We entered the lot with a continuous stream of other visitors. Several lanes led into five tollbooths that collect a $12 per day parking fee. Then, orange pylons and park employees direct the traffic stream into two huge parking areas. We ended up securing the car in area #2- section F.
       It was 69 degrees and sunny out as we followed the passenger stream to a small covered station. From here we boarded a people trolley for the one-mile ride into the Park, disembarking at the Main Nairobi Gate.
       The gate area is set up like Disney. Visitors stand in a long line for ticket purchase and then use several gates with turnstiles for entrance. At each entrance your ticket is scanned by a computer and then your fingerprint taken by an attendant. Security is everywhere these days.
       The Park was crowded with holiday visitors just two days before Christmas. We walked by the entrance area wandering through several shops and boutiques that were hawking their wares. A large food court, a performance stage and a coffee and sweet shop fikk out the entrance area. Photographers stand along the paths offering to record for a fee your family's “day at the Park.”
       We were headed for the “Nairobi Express,” a park train, to get an overview of the entire park. We walked by the “alligator enclosure.” Several of the grey leviathans lay about the small pond, inert and waiting for prey or food. A few of them were over 15 feet in length. Curiously, a dozen or so small turtles wandered amidst them, impervious as a food source because of their hard shells. The Ape habitat looked interesting but we were in a hurry to catch the train. There are floral attractions, kiosks selling stuffed animals and of course food along the way. We joined the throng in line for the train at the “Nairobi Station. The small building is a red tiled expanse that would pass as a train station anywhere. Families with strollers and small children were everywhere. The rapid paced patois of Spanish was heard everywhere around us, testifying to the Parks international appeal.
       We waited in line with the families, their children excited and expectant. Soon enough, the attendant admitted us to the boarding area. In the distance we could see the elevated “sky ride.” Small blue cupolas carried passengers in twos and threes about twenty feet above the park on a suspended wire. It reminded one of the Swiss Alps and their ski gondolas. Indeed, a later guide said that's where the cars originated.
        From a small bend around the tracks appeared an apparition. The miniature steam train is a replica of the old iron horses that used to drag rail cars across America in the 1800's. Steam erupted from the engine as she chugged along. Later, the guide would inform us that the engine runs on Propane. The steam is used as a cosmetic effect.
        About ten open-air cars followed the train. The cars are equipped with long bench seats and can carry over 300 passengers. The train came to a stop at the gate and many passengers from the previous 40-minute ride got off. Some stayed for another round or to get off at the two succeeding gates. When they cleared, the attendants waved us aboard. It is a scramble for seats as the entire waiting area tries to board, strollers and children hanging everywhere. When the train was completely full, the engineer told us to stay seated, keep kids in interior seats. Then, we were off.
       The train chugged along at a leisurely pace through the first clearing. We could see the attractive, two-story Crown Colony restaurant as we passed by the first pedestrian crossing. A huge roller coaster careened above us with the accompanying shrieks of terrified coasters. Four of the enormous metal-railed monsters ring the park.
	Then we headed on out into the hilly and wooded Serengeti Plain. Across a wide expanse of grass and trees we could see a multitude of animals grazing, sleeping or pacing in the noonday sun. A herd of 18' giraffes caught our eye first. They have a stately elegance as they much on treetops and walk stiff legged through the grass.  Zebras, antelopes with huge horns, Thompson gazelles, all grazed contentedly. If you suspended your disbelief you could well be riding a train across darkest Africa.
         Wildebeests, with their enormous horns, a huge Rhinoceros with its baby cub, two tall ostriches and some long horn cattle posed for pictures and our enjoyment. The kids on the train were agog with the animals and peppered their parents with all manner of questions.
         The train pulled into the “Congo Station” disgorging some passengers and picking up others. The Kumba Roller Coaster, the Congo River Ride and the log Flume ride are all located in this area.  We continued on to the “Stanelyville Station.” Here, the enormous and frightening “Sheikra” roller coaster screamed above us. The ride takes passengers to a 200' elevation and then drops them on a near vertical fall. We could hear the shrieks from terrified riders as we passed by the coaster as it zoomed along at 70 miles an hour through twists and overhead turns that intimidate everyone who see it.
        There are a number or ideas, attractions and shopping venues surrounding all three of the train stations. Topiaries and flowers are scattered along the walkways in and out of each area. There is also an attractive aviary with exotically colored birds in this area.
          On our last leg returning to the Nairobi station we could see a flock of brilliantly colored Pink Flamingos in the distance in a small pond area. Cape Buffalos, gazelles and other veldt creatures dotted the attractive Serengeti Plain. We then arrived at our starting point, the Nairobi Station after a 45-minute ride. This train ride is the most interesting attraction at the park for first time visitors. We disembarked and let hundreds of other patiently waiting visitors get on the train for their ride around the perk.
         From the Nairobi station we walked along the crowded paths, again looking in on the enormous alligators lying in their shaded pond. We found the “Sultan's Sweet Shoppe” where we purchased some very good coffee. All manner of baked good are available for the waistline as well. After coffee, we walked though the Park to the “Egyptian area.” It features another monster coaster, a performance theater and several boutique selling their wares. We saw a sign for “Tut's Tomb” and entered. A surprisingly accurate portrayal, of all of the golden artifacts found in Tutankhamen's royal tomb, was artfully displayed in the small three-room enclosure. It included a gilded sarcophogus and mummy of Tut painted in gold and full royal regalia. A voice-over narrative is available at each site. It is attractive and interesting. As we exited, we passed through a gift shop that offered miniature replicas of all the golden statuary within. It is a really interesting attraction.
         From Egypt, we walked into the Anglia Preserve. A raised walkway, with all manner of kid attractive nets and climbing areas, was available for the restless little monsters. Then we came upon the eye appealing Flamingo  pond. The brilliant pink of their feathers catches one's eye. Their long necks craned in contorted shapes as they fed or searched for pests. Some stood on one leg, balancing in sleep. The others squawked and carried on. Vets had clipped their wing feathers of these brilliantly colored birds to keep them at home. Ibises, wood storks and herons were sprinkled amidst the flamingos. 
        We walked on, looking in on two giant vultures and a large red Hyena that was evil looking on out way to the Lion's enclosure. Here, across a deep moat sat three females and one male lion with his elegant mane. All of them looked sleek and hungry. They eyed us curiously, wondering if we were bringing food. I would not want to meet one of these sleek and powerful cats in the wild.
       Next, we visited the Hippo enclosure. It is a small pond about five feet deep. One wall of the enclosure is glass, so that visitors can look at the many species of fish swimming in the pond. The chief attraction is the funny looking, 3,000 pound Hippopotamus. The creature swam delicately along, bouncing on its front, three-toed feet and dragging its hindquarters. It “swam” in a surprisingly elegant ballet as it moved along the glass wall looking for food. Its skin is rough, gray and spotted with algae and growths form spending so much time in the water. A keeper tossed some food into the pond and the animal opened its enormous jaws to chomp away at the feed. The Hippos are said to be territorial and among the most dangerous creatures in Africa. Here, in this setting, she was innocuous with her funny soft nose and Manatee like appearance.
        It was nearing Three O'clock and the hunger bells were sounding. We made our way to the attractive looking, two-story expanse of the Crown Colony Restaurant. Its balconies were festooned with Christmas wreaths. It looked festive. Holiday carols were emanating from within. The first floor area is a large, open-air cafeteria area with a small pub. On the second floor is a more traditional and nicely appointed restaurant. It features a glassed in patio looking out over the Serengeti Plain.
      We put in our names with the hostess and sat on the balcony, waiting for a table with the other visitors. It didn't take too long, about 20 minutes. But then this was 3:00 P.M.. The wait at noon and 5:00 P.M. would be more considerable.
       The hostess seated us at a nice table on the enclosed veranda. Most of the seating is in the interior of the restaurant and not as attractive. Large families, from a dozen nations, sat all around us, their curious accents delineating the Parks international attraction.
        Brody, a clean looking college age lad, was our server. He cheerfully supplied us with rolls and iced tea and took out orders. It didn't take very long. We enjoyed grilled salmon platters with grilled vegetables and a small side order of French fries. The food was tasty and well prepared. We much enjoyed the meal and the service as we watched avian life zoom by the windows. The tab was a reasonable $45, with a good tip included. We enjoyed the meal and would recommend the place to others for a nice respite from walking through the park. 
        After lunch, we walked to the Timbuktu section. The enormous Sheikra Coaster screamed above us. We watched the riders at the very apex of their ascent as they hang suspended for teen seconds over the 200 ' precipice. They then dropped at 70 mph an hour down the vertical descent. Just watching the precipitous ride made my stomach queasy. There are all manner of shops and attractions in the area, each featuring clothing or jewelry or something with a Timbuktu theme. We were headed for the small amphitheater here. It featured a skating production of “Christmas on Ice. “ The small amphitheater was SRO and had standees stacked three-deep, each craning their necks to watch the pleasant review of skaters. The performance featured skaters with various colorful Christmas costumes, singing pleasant Christmas carols. The children were enthralled by the performance. You would have to come back to the park many times to take in all of the presentations and entertainment venues offered.
       After the performance we watched the Sheikra and flume rides for a time. In one area, both rides sped through a shallow water expanse. Their passage sprayed a huge curtain of water onto surprised walkers nearby. You have to watch where you are walking in some areas of the of the park or get drenched.
        Then we found a very attractive Avian enclosure. A large netting covers a small expanse of shaded trees. We walked in and were impressed with the beautiful Hyacinth Macaws, who sat in a mated pair. Their rich blue feathers are beautiful. Then we came upon a small flock of wildly colored Lorries and lorikeets. They have rich bands of green, red, blue and yellow coloring that is very attractive to the eyes. A few storks and other Macaws are also of interest. 
       From the Aviary we walked to a nearby enclosure that featured a 15' Komodo Dagon and a smaller baby. These antediluvian lizards looked lethal as they crawled about with their tongues slithering like a hungry snake.
      The Park was crowded with visitors now. We made our way through the pathways past any number of interesting enclosures and exhibits. We could see small jeeps ferrying visitors onto the Serengeti Plain for a closer look at the grazing animals. The ride is included in your admission price but you have to wait for room aboard the small jeeps and trucks.
      It was 5:00 P.M. It was sunny, 71 degrees and beautiful out, but we were tired both from our drive here and our day at the Park. We made our way back to the Nairobi gate, left the Park and waited for a trolley ride back to the parking area. Like most lines departing a crowded venue, the aura of the “last life boat” leaving was already setting in. We got on after a small wait and were ferried back to our car in short order. We exited the parking area and drove the mile back to our hotel on east Busch Ave,
       There, we relaxed in our room, watching the local news and sipping on a small “toonie” (Martini). We read out books for a time (“Lost Symbol” Dan Brown) and then surrendered to the sand man. It had been a long and interesting day.

Thursday- December 24,2009-Tampa, Florida- Christmas Eve.

    We were up by 6:00 A.M. It was 59 degrees out at sunrise. We prepped for the day as we watched the U.S. Senate vote, in special session at 7:00 A.M., to approve the National Health Care Bill 60-39. We then breakfasted in the first floor lobby area of the hotel. Scrambled eggs, biscuits and gravy, cinnamon buns, coffee and apple juice made for a substantial breakfast. Cereal waffles and fruits are also available. This place feeds you well.
     Later that morning President Obama gave an address on national television lauding the Senate's efforts. He and his family then jumped on Air Force One for a speed run to Hawaii for a few weeks vacation.
          At ten A.M. we set off along East Busch westward to Nebraska Ave. We followed it south to 7th Avenue and the home of picturesque Ybor City (EEBOR). Spanish Cigar Manufacturer Joseph Martinez Ybor had developed the area in the 1880's. He had been making cigars in Cuba and Key West before selecting the Tampa area as a newer and more stable base of operations. Around his plant, he built housing for legions of imported Cuban and Spanish cigar workers. Other cigar manufacturers followed and a local industry flourished. 
         The Great Depression crippled the cigar industry and started a decades long decline for the area. Then, in the 1980's, gentrification and redevelopment brought the area back to life as a trendy hot spot for restaurants, bars and other late night attractions. The venerable Columbia Restaurant located its first site here on 7th Avenue. It is still open today after 100 years of service. The food at Columbia is ethnic Cubano and wonderful.
         We walked first along 8th Avenue near Hillsboro Community College. Renovations had refurbished the façade of the Cubano Collective nearby. This building and others like it are interesting period pieces from the late 1800's. A small open-air trolley runs up and down the tracks here for about a mile to encourage and amuse the tourists.
          7th Avenue however is the heart of the district. “La Sieta” the locals call it. Like Calle Ocho in Miami, Bourbon Street in New Orleans and Duval Street in Key West, it is loaded with scores of restaurants, bars and entertainment venues. Several cigar stores still survive, selling their aromatic products. Newer commerce in the form of a head shop, with a giant water bong in the window, introduced the counter culture to the area. A Christmas tree with beer can ornaments was also of interest. A substantial gay and lesbian community thrives further down 8th Avenue. There is also a Florida State History Museum and a visitor Center Complex for tourists.
            The architecture here is classic late 19th century, overlaid with French style wrought iron railings and sprinkled with a few 1950's era Art Deco buildings. It reminds one of the French Quarter in New Orleans. We wandered up and down “La Sieta” enjoying the look of the street. There were few people about. This area rocks after dark until the wee hours. Only the tourists like us wander through the place in the day light hours.
            We had thought to have lunch in the famed Columbia restaurant but were still on carbo over load from breakfast. Maybe we would come back later for an early dinner.
            From Ybor City we drove down Nebraska to Kennedy and headed west towards Tampa Bay. Kennedy is also Route # 60. It runs into the pleasant Causeway that crosses Tampa Bay that leads to Clearwater. We followed it along, enjoying the blue of the Bay and sky and feeling the sea air rush past us. Tampa Airport abuts Rte # 60. It was awash in holiday traffic.
          The traffic in Clearwater was building. Last minute shoppers were scurrying to fill their lists in the Malls and shops along Route # 60. We peeled off onto Rte. #19 North. It is one of the principal coastal arteries in the area. It too was wall-to-wall traffic. The pace was getting more frantic by the hour. Further north on Rte. # 19 we exited for the picturesque little town of Dunedin. Its roots are Scottish. An ethnic festival is held here yearly.
        We parked in the angled parking section of the small main street area. Then, we browsed a few of the gift and antique shops, looking for nothing in particular. Two young women were playing Christmas Carols on their violins in front of the small train station, hoping for tips from tourists. A Celtic shop drew us in. We browsed its merchandise. A strolling guitar player entered the shop and entertained us with goofy versions of Christmas Carols. The pace is slower here in this small town on the Bay.
        From Dunedin, we followed Rte # 19 A North to Tarpon Springs. It is another picturesque tourist town founded by Greek Sponge Fishermen in the 1800's. We had enjoyed a few lunches and a Bay Cruise here on previous visits. The traffic today was heavy, clogging the small streets. It was cooling off and the skies were clouding over, promising rain. It was time to head in to the barns. We veered right onto rural route #582 east and drove across the top of Hillsboro County. It is rural here, speckled with horse farms and islands of affluence. It led us back to commercial Route #41 south and then on to East Busch Avenue and our hotel. Three hours of driving in heavy traffic had tired us somewhat. We read our books and chilled out for an hour or so, enjoying the respite.
       Five O'clock rang the dinner bell for us. Next door to the hotel sits an Olive Garden Restaurant. We had enough driving for the day so we decided to give it a try. It was comfortable enough in the manner of all chain restaurants. We were seated right away and sat down to some iced tea and their trademark bread rolls. We opted for a house salad and a wonderful dish called Shrimp Calabrese. Mussels and scallops also added flavor. It was a good choice with pleasant service and came in at a reasonable $40.
      After dinner we sat outside the hotel for a time enjoying the 75-degree temperature and the soft breezes. We could see the tops of two roller coasters in nearby Busch Gardens. We watched the silent visage of several roller coaster cars racing around their high metal tracks. We couldn't hear the screams of the riders from this far away but knew them to be there.
      Reluctantly we repaired to our room. We enjoyed a glass of Cabernet and read our books for a time. A huge snowstorm was crippling the Midwest this night and we hoped that all of those poor denizens of the Snow Belt would make it home this Christmas Eve. We appreciated as always being together in this warm and beautiful environment. Merry Christmas Florida Style!

Friday- December 25th, 20009- Christmas Day in Tampa, Florida.

	We were up early this Christmas morning at 5:30 A.M. We exchanged cards and Christmas wishes. Mary had arranged for my book “Westward From Eire” to be printed. It looks good. We had coffee in the room as we watched the news on television. We then prepped for the day and wandered down to the lobby at 7:00 A.M. for another hot breakfast. Several of the guests were already assembled, planning their trips for the day. One large family of eight children was planning their park excursion. God Bless them all. Rain arrived as we breakfasted, so we returned to the room, read our books and enjoyed the slower pace of the day. 
It was still raining at 11:00 A.M. as we gathered up our things and drove over to Busch Gardens. The rains had kept away the huge crowds, so we gained easy access to the park through the Nairobi gate. We walked along the park pathways to the Nairobi train station and waited twenty minutes for the train to arrive. Even the iffy weather couldn't keep folks at home. The train was filled to capacity. Large family groups of Hispanics sat all around us. We could hear and sometimes even understand the rapid fire back and forth of Spanish.
        We focused on different things on this our second ride around the park. The flowering hibiscus and the orange, red and yellow blossoms of a dozen flowers all caught our attention in the surrounding flora. We passed under the huge “Montu” coaster in the Egyptian area. Four of these enormous metal monsters frame the park and its attractions. The shriek of terrified passengers is a constant tonal counter point to the other sounds of the park. 
        The Giraffes meandered gracefully. The Rhino and his baby snorted as we chugged past them. Wildebeest, gazelle, they grazed or yawned or meandered about the plain, seemingly oblivious to the train full of gaping passengers. It made me think of the movie Jurassic Park and the ride through that fantastic preserve. We could see jeep loads of  park goers in the distance. They got a closer look at the animals in small groups. The animals didn't seem to mind.
          A light mist was falling as we arrived back at the Nairobi station. We had rain jackets on so we walked along the park lanes to the “Myombe Reserve.” It is an enclosed Chimp habitat. It has a moat separating the funny looking simians from the crowds. I always wonder who is which side of the bars in these situations. The animals stretched, looked back at us. It was a curiosity to both sides. Strewn shred of Christmas wrapping lay about the enclosure. The chimps had made short work of their Christmas presents. Several of the older chimps sat in a small stone hut. All I could think of was the classic “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” pose. Strewn along the walkway are small, bronzed statues of chimps and apes in the bushes.
We were near the park entrance area so we ducked into the Sultan of Sweets shoppe and enjoyed some good coffee and chocolate chip muffins. The skies over head had darkened and then opened as we sat underneath a covered patio. Park goers scattered for cover. The rain lasted twenty minutes or so before becoming merely a fine mist.
         From the sweet shoppe, we walked nearby to a large glassed in enclosure harboring an enormous Siberian Tiger and a smaller Bengal tiger. They were busy eating something or other as hundreds of us marveled at their size and power. They are beautiful animals. 
          Next ,we walked over to the Congo Station area to get on the Congo River Rapids ride. In small circular rubber rafts, groups of eight of us floated down a simulated rapids filled section of water, getting splashed and soaked by the spray. Unbeknownst to us until after the ride, park goers along the route could, for $.25 a shot, aim water canons at our boats drenching the occupants if their shot struck home. In the summer months this ride must be a real attraction.  We enjoyed the ride but were completely soaked by ride's end.
        Soggily, we walked on to the Timbuktu section of the park. There in the Timbuktu Theater, we watched a 20-minute 3-d pirate movie in an enormous theater that seats well over 1,000 people. The seats were equipped with interactive spurts of air and water that sprayed viewers at moments in the, movie where action made you feel a wave or a wind. It is innovative technology and the kids loved it. You don't get soaked just sprayed.
        We continued on through the park, enjoying the many novel sights and sounds all around us. The park had become crowded during the afternoon hours. We were wet and soggy and getting tired. We had planned to have lunch or an early dinner in the park but the chocolate chip muffins had done us in. We made our way towards the main gate. The skies were threatening to open again so we called it quits for the day around 3:00 P.M.. We boarded a trolley for the ride back to our car and then drove to the hotel. It felt good to shed the sodden clothes and change into dry ones. We sat for a time and read our books.
         Mary called the Columbia Restaurant in Ybor city to see if they were open on Christmas day. They were. We suited up and drove the few miles over to Ybor city expecting to dine in this comfortable restaurant. Alas, they had neglected to tell us that reservations were necessary. An hour wait faced us. We passed. We drove back through the surrounding streets hoping to find something else open. Except for s few small convenience stores everything was closed for the day. Resourceful as ever, we found a CVS Drug store. They are always open. They also offer a surprising array of snacks and edibles. We purchased a bag full of junk food and drove back to the hotel, where we settled in with some decent cabernet and munched the crunchies. We watched a movie on television and then read our books until the sandman called. It had been a nice Christmas day in Florida. The Northeast was getting pounded with snow and ice, God Bless them.
Saturday, December 26th, 2009- Tampa, Florida

	We were up by 6:30 A.M on this our last day in Tampa. W started packing and then broke for another great breakfast in the hotel lobby. It was as good as the other days and a nice amenity to our stay.
           By 8:30 A.M, we were ready to leave. We checked out, loaded up the car and headed back across McKinley and Fowler to pick up Rte. 75 south. The Tampa Traffic was light this morning. We sailed along southwards. A garbage truck from Waste Pro had a hydraulic leak and was spraying any vehicle near it with a noxious mist when passing. The stench was revolting. Ugh!
        A brief two-hour ride brought us into Ft. Myers. We had the car washed to get rid of the awful smell of garbage and then arrived at the homestead about 11:00 A.M. We unpacked and settled back in. We checked our e-mails and  read the Christmas Cards that had arrived in the mail. It was 65 degrees and cloudy out. We changed our clothes and then went for a three-mile walk to the clubhouse and back. Later, we settled in with new books (“Water Witches” -Dan  Bohjalian) and then watched the news until the sand man claimed us. It had been a pleasant Christmas excursion to Tampa and Busch Gardens.

			(5,135 words)
			Joseph X. Martin
  			Ft. Myers, Florida
			December 31, 2009