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Jungala, a new four-acre addition to Busch Gardens Africa (formerly Busch Gardens Tampa), threw open its doors for a soft opening this past weekend. What was odd about the soft opening was that it was announced through the press, and amounted to a regular opening, albeit with a few rides, play areas, and animal exhibits not yet ready.

Most of Jungala is leafy and shaded.

The announcement must have galvanized every Tampa resident. By noon, we were parking in the overflow lot across the street, something I'd never seen before at this park. At the end of the day, when we were bused back over, I saw they'd even had to use (and almost fill up) a second overflow lot. It was indeed busy inside the park, much busier than I'd ever seen it before, but I was hugely impressed with the ability of the park to absorb that much humanity. Lines were not that crazy, and while people crowded the walkways (perhaps they were there to see Charo?) it never got out of hand. I can only imagine the insanity if this park used a ride-reservation system like FastPass.

I came with low expectations for the much vaunted animal experiences, and high expectations for Jungle Flyers, the zip line ride, which sounded cool. In brief, I was exactly backward. The two new rides here are explicitly for (older) kids, and in fact the zip line ride requires passengers to be between ages 6 and 13, as well as over 48 inches tall. No one older than 13 can ride. And you know what? The ride would be boring for an adult, I'd wager (and besides, adults can't ride). I was expecting a high-speed, twisting, winding course that squeaked through a canopy of trees. Um, no. It's a straight line path, there's but one tree, and it looked to go slowly in testing. I suppose being high up may add a thrill (I didn't ride it, obviously, and in fact it was still not open on our Saturday visit). But on the whole, I was quite disappointed, compared to my vision.

The zip line is largely unthemed.

The Wild Surge is the other ride in the area, and it can be compared to the space-shot rides for kids that doesn't go crazy with insane speeds going up or down, and does some bouncing around. You can ride at 38 inches if an adult comes along, or 42 inches all by yourself.

It's good for a lark, and the line did seem to move fast.

It pokes its head above a caldera, which adds some visual thrill to the area. Adults can ride this one, and I was surprised that the line was not longer, even on a crowded day such as this.

A waterfall around the other side reminds that water is part of conservation efforts, too.

But forget all that. Let's talk about the animals. When you normally think of Busch parks, you might be forgiven for thinking that their animal exhibits are not tremendously interactive. You can touch rays and perhaps dolphins at Sea World, but most of the time you're looking at the animals with a fair amount of space between you and them, partly because so many of the animals are visible in formal shows. So you watch, passive, in most cases aware that the animal doesn't really see you.

Not exactly a close encounter of the dolphin kind.

At Busch Gardens parks, it's usually worse than that. Busch Gardens Europe (in Williamsburg) has animals around, but mostly the park exists for its breathtaking scenery and tremendous roller coasters. It does have a lorikeet area for feeding colorful birds.

The Tampa park has a lorikeet glen, too.

Busch Gardens Africa (in Tampa) has a great deal more animals, including an entire veldt, but it comes across as a traditional zoo in a lot of ways. In fact, the mixture of zoo plus thrill park seems a likely candidate for an inspiration for Disney to build Animal Kingdom (DAK).

But oh, how DAK could learn from Jungala. Busch has raised the bar substantially, and lurched suddenly to the limelight in zoo design. It will not shock me in the least if they win major awards from Jungala.

What's so different? The animal encounters are up-close and personal. I came in knowing about them theoretically, but I had dramatically underestimated the power of the interaction. You can actually touch an orangutan through a mesh screen (and with a handler nearby).

This feature is not open full-time, but only at certain intervals.

But that's nothing. You can come within inches of a white tiger, making you feel like you've come within inches of your life. This particular tiger was just as interested in the people as they were interested in him.

It's called pop-up viewing, and it certainly had a line!

We didn't see it in use, but there's a tug of war facility in the tiger enclosure.

The gravel walkway in the middle separates the big cats from the big pansies
(the humans), so there is no possibility of an accidental mauling.

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2008 Kevin Yee

A Different look at Disney...
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