The Best Busch Gardens Tampa Bay Tips and Tricks
Founded in 1959 by Anheuser-Busch Busch Gardens began as a collection of tropical gardens and a bird sanctuary. Both were adjacent to the new Anheuser-Busch (as in Budweiser) brewery, which was the main attraction. Visitors could admire the wildlife and the flora while touring the brewery and enjoying free beer samples.
The park quickly expanded, and became the first free-range habitat for herds of animals in the United States. In 1965, an official Serengeti Plain exhibit opened, and hundreds of African animals were roaming more or less uninhibited across the massive park.
More zoological attractions were added, and soon there were also roller coasters and other rides. A decade after the Serengeti Plain exhibit opened in Tampa, Florida, a second Busch Gardens opened up north, in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Despite being founded by a beer company, the adult beverage became less significant to Busch Gardens in the early 2000s. So-called “Hospitality Houses” scattered across Busch Gardens Tampa Bay — where visitors of legal drinking age could claim a free cup of beer during their visit and enjoy a lesson about the brewing process — were converted into restaurants and the complimentary taps stopped flowing in 2009.
Now, the Busch Gardens Tampa Bay theme park is decidedly more family-friendly: The original Busch Gardens hospitality center is now a pizza and pasta buffet.
“Busch Gardens Tampa Bay has something for the entire family,” a representative told Travel + Leisure. In addition to animal encounters and wild thrill rides, there are plenty of diversions for little ones, including a Sesame Street Safari of Fun and a water playground.
Busch Gardens is busy all year long, but prices rise crowds tend to swell during school vacation weeks and the summer months. Be sure to cross-reference your travel dates with any on-site events, like the month-long Howl-O-Scream event around Halloween.
For expert tips and tricks to planning a perfect trip to Busch Gardens Tampa Bay — including park hours, the best rides and restaurants, how to use a Quick Queue pass, and the can’t-miss attractions — check out our definitive guide. We promise, all your Busch Gardens Tampa Bay questions will be answered.
Getting to Busch Gardens Tampa Bay
For visitors arriving by car to Busch Gardens, parking is easy enough. There are nearly 5,000 parking spaces available (each spot gets a number and each row gets an animal to help you keep track). General parking, whether you’re arriving by motorcycle, sedan, or a camper van, costs $20.
If that all sounds like a bit of a headache, Busch Gardens does offer valet parking.
Avoid the extra fee (and hassle) by taking advantage of the Busch Gardens shuttle, which is included with your admission ticket and services a number of pick-up and drop-off locations as far away as Orlando. Book your round-trip motor coach transportation well in advance.
Purchasing Busch Gardens Tickets
One day at Busch Gardens may not be enough for visitors — especially those with young kids in tow — so consider purchasing at least two days worth of Busch Gardens tickets. You won’t need to spend an entire week exploring the park, however, especially when you consider the Busch Gardens’ nearby sister parks, SeaWorld in Orlando and Adventure Island in Tampa.
Busch Gardens sells single-day, individual park tickets (starting at $89 for guests 3 and up) as well as annual tickets (starting at $99 for guests 3 and up) that give you access to Busch Gardens Tampa Bay and adjacent Adventure Island Tampa Bay for the entire year.
There are also tickets that give you multiple visits to all of the SeaWorld-owned parks in Florida (Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, Adventure Island, SeaWorld Orlando, and Aquatica Orlando) for a fixed price. Prices start at $110 for two visits, $120 for three visits, and $150 for unlimited visits to all of the Florida parks.
Regular visitors and Busch Gardens fans will love the parks annual pass options, which can be paid for in monthly installments and include 10 percent off dining, shopping, and select tours; free parking; discounted guest tickets; and unlimited admission.
Busch Gardens ticket prices are rarely discounted, but check the website for seasonal discounts and promotions. Beware of third-party resellers, which often sell discounted Busch Gardens tickets that cannot be used.
Busch Gardens Hours
Busch Gardens hours range, but the park’s normal operating hours are from 10:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. Hours are extended on select weekend, summer, and holiday periods, and the park may be open as late as 11:00 p.m. The park is open 365 days a year.
Busch Gardens Quick Queue
Visitors can skip the line at Busch Gardens’ most popular attractions by purchasing a one-time Quick Queue. Starting at $16, and skyrocketing to $50 during peak vacation days, this pass allows ticketholders to skip the line once at each of the park’s most popular attractions. Rides available for Quick Queue include Falcon’s Fury, Cheetah Hunt, SheiKra, Montu, Kumba, Stanley Falls Flume, and Congo River Rapids.
For an even more VIP experience, visitors can splurge on the Quick Queue Unlimited. Expect to spend between $21 and $71 (during peak days) for the luxury of unrestricted front-of-line admission at each of the park’s most sought-after rides. In addition to the attractions valid for Quick Queue, Quick Queue Unlimited pass holders can jump to the front of the line at the SandSerpent and Scorpion attractions.
Quick Queue and Quick queue Unlimited passes can be purchased online or upon arrival, and must be used in conjunction with a Busch Gardens admission ticket.
The Best Busch Gardens Rides
There are nine major thrill rides at Busch Gardens, the most popular of which include Cobra’s Curse, Cheetah Hunt, SheiKra, and Falcon’s Fury.
The newest ride at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay is Cobra’s Curse — a serious spin coaster with a 70-foot vertical lift. Set in the Egypt-themed area of the park, Cobra’s Curse takes rides on an adventure through an archeological dig.
SheiKra — another mega rollercoaster — is hailed as the first dive coaster in North America, and has a major 90-degree drop. Fearless visitors will love the clear car floors (unobstructed views of all the drops, twists, and loops) and the surprise water feature.
After seeing real-life cheetahs at the Cheetah Run attraction, grab a seat on Cheetah Hunt. As Florida’s first triple launch coaster, you’ll speed along the Serengeti on a wild 4,400-foot-track.
Theme park visitors who prefer drops to spins and flips should ride Falcon’s Fury, which is the tallest freestanding drop tower in North America. You’ll slowly climb to a height of 335 feet, pivot to a face down position, and plunge back to the ground at a cool 60-miles-per-hour. Just remember to eat after, not before.
Park visitors in need of something more tame should ride the Sand Serpent (a family-friendly coaster with a top speed of 22 miles per hour) or the traditional log flume-style Stanley Falls. The junior Air Grover coaster has mini-dives for kids and low-key grown-ups, while the entire family can ride together on the Congo River Rapids’ 12-person rafts.
The Best Busch Gardens Attractions
Before there were rides, Busch Gardens’ main attraction was its wildlife habitat. And this remains true today. After all, Busch Gardens is considered one of the largest zoos in North America. Here, park visitors can get close to the park’s wildlife and learn about the SeaWorld and Busch Gardens conservation efforts.
To this day, the Serengeti Plain remains one of Busch Gardens’ most popular exhibits. Guests can explore this 65-acre habitat by foot, cable car, railway, or on an epic Serengeti Safari. On a safari-style journey, you’ll be sure to spot rhinos, zebras, antelope, wildebeest, and even hand-feed giraffes.
Animal attractions also include the Myombe Reserve — home to gorillas and chimpanzees — and the historic bird gardens, where visitors can see nearly 500 birds from across the globe.
Kids of all ages will love Treetop Trails, a ropes course with a multi-level maze, crawl tubes, bridges, and climbing nets, while the on-site shows are geared toward small tykes.
Best Busch Gardens Restaurants
Arguably the best restaurant at Busch Gardens, visitors should absolutely grab a table at the full-service Serengeti Overlook.
Here, guests can watch the wildlife on the Serengeti Plain while enjoying dishes from the hot buffet or the a la carte menu. The signature dishes (herb-grilled salmon, braised short ribs, a seafood tower) will transport you far away from whatever you expected from traditional theme park food. Sweeten the meal with a signature safari-themed cocktail.
For a hearty feast, the 500-seat Zambia Smokehouse is the perfect dining destination. Order everything from chicken and ribs to beef brisket, all of which are smoked over an open barbecue pit.
Dine with Elmo and Friends is a seasonal food and beverage option your little ones will love. On select days, families can enjoy a buffet while mingling with favorite Sesame Street characters. Make reservations well in advance for this experience.
Tampa does have a seriously creative food scene, however, and visitors should absolutely consider heading to the city’s Hyde Park neighborhood after a day spent on themed rides and attractions. Here, Tampa’s culinary renaissance is anchored by Elevage restaurant at the Epicurean Hotel.
Drinking Alcohol at Busch Gardens
It may no longer be free, but Busch Gardens does in fact serve alcohol. Parents in need of a break can even find restaurants — like the Dragon Fire Grill — with a full premium bar and impressive craft beer line-up.
Special Events at Busch Gardens
Special events take place all year-round, so be sure to plan ahead if there’s something in particular you’d like to experience.
Between late September and late October, for example, Busch Gardens visitors will be treated to the annual Howl-O-Scream Halloween experience. Creepy creatures will roam the grounds, there will be live entertainment, and pop-up haunted houses.
Christmas Town is the park’s holiday event, which stretches from late November until December 31. Expect Christmas-inspired entertainment and attractions, holiday shopping, and a theme park covered in over two million twinkling lights.
The Best Busch Gardens Hotels
For travelers who don’t want to waste a minute of their trip to Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, consider booking one of the park’s preferred nearby hotels: the Embassy Suites Tampa USF, the Hyatt Place Tampa, the Hilton Garden Inn Tampa North, and the Holiday Inn Express & Suites on East Busch Boulevard.
If you’d rather skip the economy hotel scene near Busch Gardens, consider staying at one of the park’s partnered beach hotels in St. Petersburg. We love the iconic Don CeSar Beach Resort, with its unmissable flamingo-pinks façade and Moorish bell tower.
Another popular place to bed down by the beach is the Tradewinds Island Grand resort, also in St. Petersburg. Guests will love the 20 acres of beachfront and tropical-inspired hotel rooms with contemporary furniture and no less than 300-square-feet of living space.
Visitors interested in one of the Busch Gardens hotel partners should check out the vacation packages, which might include free shuttle service, free parking, and 10 percent off dining and merchandise.
Busch Gardens Insider Tricks
Want to see wildlife on your trip to Busch Gardens? Plan for an early-morning visit — or wait until after sundown. The animals will be more active when the temperature is cooler.
For something really special, join an animal keeper on a special insider tour. You can spend 75 minutes on a walking tour of Africa, or behind the scenes with tiger trainers and penguin caretakers.
If your primary goal during a day at Busch Gardens is to avoid as many crowds as possible, think ahead. In addition to reserving Quick Queue passes, visitors should eat an early or late lunch (restaurants are busiest between 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m.) and head straight to the back of the park. Most visitors, according to Busch Gardens, approach theme parks in a clockwise pattern — so do the opposite to skip long lines.
Another way to avoid wasting time in line is to book your ticket ahead of time, online. “We always suggest guests purchase [tickets] in advance,” recommended a Busch Gardens representative.
Travelers with young kids in tow should get a wristband from Guest Relations, where they can write contact information in case of an emergency.
Selfie sticks are — thankfully — not permitted on any ride at Busch Gardens.
Birthday boys and girls should get a special pin from Guest Relations upon arrival — that way, everyone in the park knows to help you celebrate accordingly.
Still need a serious beer fix? One of the best attractions near Busch Gardens Tampa Bay is Cigar City Brewing. After checking out this brewery, crack open a can of the world-class Jai Alai IPA.