By Susan and Simon Veness
Say “goodbye” to Timbuktu and “hello” to the lush oasis of Pantopia! Busch Gardens’ newest land opened its gates to media on Wednesday for a full run-down of what’s in store. From snowcones to mischievous monkeys, painted camels to the nation’s tallest drop tower, enter through the Key Gate and you’re in a whole new world.
“Pantopia is physically in the centre of Busch Gardens, the heart of the park, and it tells the stories of animals in the park and in the world,” Brian Morrow, Corporate Director of Creative Development told us. “It’s a place for travellers around the world to share stories of their travels, and make art about their travels and the planet. The colour palette here was inspired by spice markets, and the farmers markets I visited in Tampa and Orlando. There are jewels, keys and shiny things everywhere.”
Visitors entering through the gate nearest the Congo are greeted by prayer flags representing all the species in Busch Gardens, but the Key Gate near Nairobi is the main point of entry and the place where the story begins, says Brian. “The Key Gate houses keys to all the doors in the world; the Navigator’s Door, the Tea Master’s Door, the Key Master’s Door, and the Elephant Door.”
The first thing guests encounter is a tuk-tuk from Thailand. “Everyone comes to Pantopia in different ways. Between the Key Gate and Falcon’s Fury is an approach that has leftovers of transportation they used to get here.” A hot air balloon left by the land’s founder, the Key Master; a tuk-tuk and a rickshaw; even a plane from Antarctica.
Because the residents are keen on recycling, repurposing and reusing, items throughout the land have taken on new lives. The tuk-tuk is now a kiosk selling jewellery; carpets are woven from old wires; dressers, benches and bookcases have become display stands in the shops. The old ballast bag from the Key Master’s hot air balloon can be found in the mercantile, the image on the front depicting the four corners of Busch Gardens and the four corners of the earth, with Pantopia in the center.
Who are these residents? Brian told us their stories: “One resident is obsessed with elephants, and collects all things elephant, a reference to the nearby elephant exhibit in Nairobi. Another resident, Frosty Krystallos from Mykonos, Greece, is obsessed with snow and the Lynx cat, and he now sells snowcones and smoothies from Lynx Frozen Treats. The owner of the central mercantile is named Akbar, and he once ran a tour company in Egypt. You may remember it. His tours were a total failure, but the gift shop did well so he brought his goods to Pantopia by camel. He draped a cloth over the camel, and people viewing it from a distance thought the camel was painted. His mercantile is now the Painted Camel Bazaar. Akbar also had a primate friend who rode the camel, and stole people’s keys. Keys are a big theme in Pantopia.”
Brian handed us over to Mark Rose, Vice President of Design and Engineering, who greeted us, saying, “There are keys hanging from a chandelier inside the Key Gate. What do those keys open? We’re not sure. Let’s go in and find out.” We first encounter Lynx Frozen Treats, just to the left of the current Desert Grill. The Desert Grill will get a new name, which has not yet been chosen, and will add an outdoor counter service window serving kebabs, sausages and ribs. “It will be called the Dragon Fire Grill. Any time you have ‘dragon’ in a name, that’s good. If you can add ‘fire’, that’s even better,” Rose said. The name is a nod to myths about the Komodo dragon.
Sultan Arcade will become Twisted Tail Pretzels, selling soft pretzels and craft beers. The origin of the name? “When the baker found Pantopia, he saw two lemurs standing back-to-back with their tails entwined, and they looked like a pretzel.” Nearby Sahara Snacks will be replaced by an outdoor seating area informally called the Sitting Place, its animal-themed chairs and stools carved by an Italian resident; one of the games stalls will be repurposed as a grab-and-go selling sandwiches and kettle corn; and the Pantopia Theater (formerly the Timbuktu Theater, and currently gutted right down to its sandy foundation) will debut a new animal show.
Rose told us, “The area was originally a dolphin show, repurposed in 2003 with a theatre. We’re now bringing the seats up 8 feet to improve the sight line for the new show, Opening Night Critters, and adding a back-of-house holding area and air-conditioned housing for the show’s cats and dogs so that we can take first-class care of them. The show centres on two new trainers who can’t get the animals to do tricks. They’re worried about losing their jobs and, in the end, the animals take pity on them. They keep their jobs, but only because the animals agree to cooperate.” Some of the animals from Critter Castaways (which will close) will star in the new show, while others will retire to a life of luxury. The show will debut at some stage after the grand opening of Pantopia.
But the biggest thing coming to this lush oasis is the 335 foot tall tower rising up in the centre of the land. Falcon’s Fury celebrates the grandeur of the falcon’s 90-degree dive, plummeting earthward toward their prey. From a distance it looks manageable; up close it’s a beast.
Jeff Hornick, Director of Design and Engineering, brought us right up to the base surrounding the freestanding drop tower. “This is the closest experience to skydiving you can get without getting on a plane,” he said. “It takes one minute to get to the top. Then, your seat tilts so you’re facing the ground, but we don’t just drop you, we hold you there. Maybe 2 seconds, maybe 5, maybe 10. It’s random, so you never know how long you’ll hang there. Gravity takes over as you fall at 60 miles per hour, and just as you reach 3.5G’s, your seat tilts back to a seated position and the ride hits the breaks.” In all, that’s 5-6 seconds of freefall, with a total ride time of 2 minutes. “Try screaming for 5 or 6 seconds,” Jeff said. “It’s a long, long time.”
Groups of 32 guests will enter the boarding area from the right and left sides of the tower, and the hourly capacity totals 800. What does that mean in terms of wait times, we asked. Jeff feels waits will be manageable. “This ride is so intense, not everyone will ride. Grandma and Grandpa may want to watch.”
The question on everyone’s mind—along with “can I really do this?”—was, how far can you see when you’re at the top. “You can see all the way to Tampa, Clearwater, and Saint Petersburg. Probably Orlando. Maybe even Miami,” Hornick joked. This thing is so high it has a built-in sway of 3 feet in any direction when the wind gets up. Weather restrictions are the same as the park’s roller coasters, with closings for high winds, some rain conditions and lightning.
There is an undeniable sense of terrified excitement just looking at the tower, but there is tremendous spectator value for those who aren’t up to the challenge. Trying to decide if you can brave it? Bear this in mind: the ladder inside the tower used to access the top takes half an hour to climb and requires a few rest stops to catch your breath on the way up. Makes the outdoor experience seem like a doddle.
Pantopia opens in ‘late Spring 2014’ and it’s a journey we can’t wait to make.