Up Close and Personal at Busch Gardens

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Up Close and Personal at Busch Gardens
By ATDs Florida Experts, Susan and Simon Veness
You’ve been there, you’ve done that. Now you’re ready to delve deeper, learn more, and explore beyond the park boundaries every visitor gets to see. You’re ready for a backstage experience with up-close views of the animals, and Busch Gardens has a tour for that!

Serengeti Safari: This is the grand-daddy of all Busch Gardens tours, and the one tour you MUST take if you can only take one tour. Although you can see parts of the Serengeti Plain from the Skyride and some of the pathways in the park, there is simply nothing like boarding the back of a flat-bed truck and heading out into the wild (at least, the 65 acres of ‘wild’ within the park) for a close encounter with giraffes, zebras, rhinos, ostrich, and other free-roaming animals. Best part? You get to hand-feed the giraffes, and they’re certainly not shy when it comes to wrapping their long tongues around a leaf of romaine lettuce!

Cameras are not only welcome, they’re encouraged, and some of the best pictures you’ll take all day in the park will come from this tour. What happens in the wilderness is unpredictable, in the best possible way!

We’ve done the tour several times and each experience is different, so don’t be put off if you’ve done it before. Actually, if you’ve done it before, we’re pretty sure you’re eager to do it again. Night-time tours are occasionally offered, so check if there is availability for your travel dates.

Animal Care Center, Behind the Scenes: If you’ve seen (or heard of) The Wildlife Docs television show while visiting the U.S., this is your chance to walk in the footsteps of these gifted vets and see the place where the parks’ animals—and wild animals in need of rescue—receive five-star care.

Having done all of the park’s backstage tours over the years, we were quick to jump on this newer 75-minute offering for a look behind the scenes at the real-life setting for The Wildlife Docs television show; the facility where the park’s real work takes place.

Standing on the ‘guest side’ of the big glass windows, Emily, our guide, set the tone right from the start, saying, “We want visitors to know they’re an important part of the work we do here. Notice how the carpet here on our side is the same colour as the floor in the treatment center. That lets you know you’re ‘in the story’; you’re part of what happens here. Because you come to this place, we have the funds to provide the care we give here.”

Our tour proceeded backstage, where we were shown some of the foreign objects that have been removed from wild animals brought to the park for care, including several fishing lures and large fishing hooks. Emily then asked if we knew what ‘target training’ meant (we did; it’s the touch-training method used in all the SeaWorld/Busch Gardens parks to teach animals specific behaviors). Turning to a child in our group, she said, “Are you target trained?” He confessed that he was not. “Are you sure?” He was sure. Emily put her hand up and said, “High-five me!” Our young man immediately performed the appropriate movement, then laughed and said, “Oh!” She smiled back and said, “That’s how our animals are trained to do the behaviors we need them to do during medical exams. But it has to be voluntary, and sometimes they say ‘No’. Sometimes we have to wait a while, or sweeten the deal for them, or do an exam on another day. If they can’t say ‘No’, it’s not truly voluntary.”

The interactive element of the tour didn’t end there, though. When we visited the X-Ray room, two volunteers from our group were allowed to “perform” an x-ray on a small stuffed elephant; lead gloves draped over our arms were used to mimic the weight of a 9 pound eagle, giving us a new respect for the animal handlers’ strength; and we were allowed to look through microscopes at blood and tissue samples in the Pathology Lab, and shake the jars containing bits and pieces that were being used as educational tools. Creepy and cool, all at the same time!

The tour provided a fantastic—and fascinating—look at the treatment center, cleaning rooms, X-ray room, receiving dock where animals arrive for their treatments, pathology lab, intensive care unit, and recovery rooms. Interspersed with the medical side of things were stories about the enrichment programmes care-takers come up with for the park’s animals, including a look at edible paper mache balls formed over large beach balls, that will find their way into the lion’s habitat for some hunting and pouncing fun. “Elephants like them too, but they just like to roll them around,” Emily told us. She held up a picture of an elaborately decorated cake shaped like a zebra, saying, “This was another enrichment tool. We brought in the cake decorators from SeaWorld’s catering department and they made this cake. But it’s not cake, it’s meat covered in mashed potatoes. The carnivores loved it!”

Have they ever had a failure when it came to enrichment? Emil held up another picture, this one showing a freakish, boxy animal with a long neck and unfeasible body. “Meet Lurky the Creepy Zebra,” she said. “We made this last year, and the lions didn’t want it, the tigers didn’t want it, the zebras didn’t even want it. None of our animals wanted this thing.”

Unlike poor Lurky, the tour was a big hit with all concerned. Possibly not ideal for very young children due to the greater educational focus, it’s the perfect way for ages 8 and up to see what Busch Gardens, SeaWorld, and Discovery Cove are really all about: caring for animals, both in the park and in the wild, and providing world-wide education to better understand their needs and how we can protect and serve them best in their natural habitats.

Busch Gardens offers two more animal-encounter tours, with limited dates and times. They aren’t always listed on the official website, so ask at the Tour Information center at the front of the park.

Heart of Africa Tour: Among the most popular animals at Busch Gardens are the cheetahs, and the Heart of Africa Tour offers an up-close view of these magnificent animals in the company of an animal keeper, who provides insights and happily answers questions. Along with the cheetahs, guests (ages 10 and up) meet hippos and lions during the 90 minute tour. There’s a lot of walking, so plan accordingly!

Jungala Insider: This is your chance to go behind the scenes and meet the orangutans and Bengal tigers who make Busch Gardens their home. One of the most fascinating parts of this tour is watching as keepers use ‘target training’ exercises to show how the animals participate in their own health care, and seeing how the enclosures are designed to keep the animals and their keepers safe and comfortable. This is a terrific choice for families with younger children, as the minimum age is 5 and the tour is just 45 minutes long. 

When you’ve been there, done that, adding a tour to your Busch Gardens day may just be the highlight you family remembers and talks about for years to come. To find out more about our Busch Gardens tickets, please click here

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