by Suzanne Bair
It has been several years since I last visited an amusement park and a lot has changed when it comes to accessibility. Busch Gardens Tampa Bay offered a fantastic experience in all things inclusive.
Finding parking at Busch Gardens can be a little challenging as you navigate a twisting, turning, maze of roads going into the park. My friend Larra and I finally learned to follow the blue line to take us to the accessible parking area located close to the entrance gate to the park. Accessible Parking placards are required to park in the accessible lot. Out of state accessible parking placards are accepted so be sure to bring yours along on your trip. If you do not have an accessible parking placard a train shuttle service is available from the general parking lots to the entrance.
Entrance, Admission, and the Adventure Outpost
Accessible entrances are available at the right side of the gate and offer a smooth entrance into the park with minimal wait if you have pre-purchased your tickets online. Tickets are also available at the gate. After entering the park, follow the path straight ahead to the Guest Relations desk at The Adventure Outpost where they will answer all of your questions for accommodations throughout your stay at the park. Assistance includes, but is not limited to, specialty dining, the Ride Accessibility Program (RAP), and the Special Access Program. The Adventure Outpost can also help you book any of your add-on tours if you haven’t purchased them in advance.
Getting Around the Park
Manual wheelchairs, motorized wheelchairs (ECV), and strollers are available to rent at the park. These are available on a first come, first served basis and can be sold out quickly. Reservations can be made one to two weeks in advance online at the Busch Gardens Tampa Bay website or you can reserve these on the day of your visit at the Adventure Outpost. You can pick up your wheelchair or stroller at the gift shop located inside the park, not far from the Adventure Outpost. For visitors with limited ability you may want to request one of your companions pickup your device and bring it to the admissions gate for you. The distance to the gift shop pickup location may be difficult for some.
The Serengeti Express Train is included with your ticket and offers a hop on hop off opportunity to speed your way through part of the park. There are four stops along their route. It is also a great way to see some of the animals on the Serengeti Plain if you are not participating in an add-on tour. Each Train can easily accommodate up to six Large Electric Wheelchairs or Scooters along with ample room for companions.
Although the park is quite flat throughout there are some sections with small terrain differences which may be challenging. Caution is needed around some trees throughout the park as there are sudden walk way couture differences that create tripping hazards. There are no visual indicators such as contrast changes to indicate a potential barrier for visitors with low vision. The pathways are otherwise wide and easy to manage, even during crowded, peek times. Benches and group seating areas are spread throughout the park offering a variety of places to sit and rest.
There are several accessible restrooms spread out throughout Busch Gardens Tampa Bay. Companion restrooms are spacious and allow you to easily transfer from your wheeled device to the toilet with or without assistance. They do not however have assistive devices for transferring, seen in changing places restrooms. General restroom accessible stalls are extremely small. They can also sometimes be placed in awkward locations in the restroom and may be hard to get to when lines are long. Doorways into general restrooms are narrow and extremely congested at times making wheelchair use in these restrooms problematic.
Several rides are fully wheelchair accessible without requiring a transfer. However, many rides require transfer to the ride’s seat, and of course there are several that simply won’t be accessible. The park offers an extensive accessibility guide and visitors can check at the Adventure Outpost which rides will be accessible for your individual needs through the Ride Accessibility Program (RAP). As part of the RAP, visitor with specific access needs can also check out the Special Access Program which allows guests to be placed in a virtual que for rides without having to wait in line.
Tours and Other Attractions
Animal tours are a great way to get up close and personal with the animals at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay. Most of the tours are accessible for wheelchairs but they do not offer printed scripts or audio for live tours. Be mindful that while some of the tours are wheelchair accessible, several of the tours are not such as the Serengeti Safari. As mentioned, a great alternative to the Serengeti Safari tour is the Serengeti Express Train which takes you on a tour throughout the park, still getting up close to many animals seen on the Safari tour.
Printed scripts are available for all shows by requesting them at the Guest Relations desk at the Adventure Outpost. Assisted listening devices are available at individual theater locations. American Sign language interpreters are available but should be requested two weeks in advance. The park will try to assist guests with shorter notice, but interpreters cannot be guaranteed without longer notice.
Busch Gardens Tampa Bay is also the host for a variety of other events such as the Food and Wine Festival, music concerts, and other great shows. Some of these events are included with general admission while others must be added on. The concert venue is wonderfully wheelchair accessible! The concert area offers unobstructed views close to the stage. It also provides ample parking for wheelchairs or scooters with the ability to stay in your wheeled device or transfer to a bench seat. Additionally, there is also plenty of room to enjoy the concert or show with plenty of friends or family members.
Dining options are plentiful throughout the park. All day dining packages are available for cost saving options as well as character dining. Check in at the Adventure Outpost to discuss special dietary requirements for allergies, gluten free or other dietary needs as not all restaurants offer these menu items. Special events such as the Food and Wine Festival also offer gluten free options but be cautious of allergy information and cross contamination. I recommend calling ahead of time and planning out dining options (especially for special events) as often the general employees working special events may not be able to provide all of the information that you need.
Pro Tips: Planning Out Your Day
Before your visit I highly recommend getting in touch with Busch Gardens Tampa Bay’s Adventure Outpost to discuss all of your access needs. The Adventure Outpost is your go to resource for all things regarding access at the park. Most accommodations can and should be arranged well in advance of your trip, such as sign language interpreters and guides for those with visual impairments. These requests require two weeks advanced notification to insure accommodations can be made for guests. (There are a limited number of sign language interpreters in the Tampa region.) You can also save yourself a lot of time the day of your trip by prearranging your accommodations. RAP and Special Access passes, booking tours, and reservations for your mobility device can be done by calling the Adventure Outpost two weeks in advance or by booking some of them online.
The park is quite large. Distance between attractions, tours, specific dining locations, and accessible restrooms can be a long way away. Maps are available to download from the park website and you may want to plan out your visit in advance. If you are eligible for the Special Access pass it may help cut down extra time waiting for rides. Be sure to arrive 30mins before any of your scheduled tours. The Serengeti Express train runs on a limited schedule, but may be a great way to get across the park a little easier while also being a thoroughly enjoyable ride by itself.
For those of you who are interested in attending concerts or other events that are included with the price of admission, be sure to also ask about accessible seating at the Adventure Outpost. All general and accessible seating included with admission is on a first come, first served basis. However, on the day of the event you can pick up a special access bracelet by the concert seating area ahead of time to claim a spot in the accessible seating location. Again, there is limited seating (although surprisingly plentiful), and the accessible seating bracelets are on a first come, first serve basis. All guests who will be joining you in the accessible seating location must be present to receive their special access bracelet, limited to 5 guests. I recommend checking in at the Adventure Outpost immediately after entering the park, picking up your assistive device if you have reserved one and then going directly over to the concert area to pickup your accessible seating bracelet. After receiving your bracelet, you are free to enjoy the park. Guests can also come and go from the concert area. No need to stay and secure your seating.
Making the Most of Your Day
Busch Gardens Tampa Bay has a full day of adventure included in your general admission with rides, animals, and various shows or special events. There are also great add-on tours and events going on at the park which can add to the excitement of the day. During a recent visit my friend and I we were able to not only enjoy the rides and the animals but we also had the opportunity to enjoy the Food and Wine Festival, take a Serengeti Safari Tour to see some of the animals up close (including feeding giraffes!), and see a headlining music concert. Tours required me to keep to a particular schedule as well as parts of the all-day concert lineup for artist that I wanted to see. With so much to do and so little time it was important to plan out a good portion of our day while still allowing flexibility to relax or be a little spontaneous. Rest assured though even if you are a spontaneous adventurer with no preplanning, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay will offer a fun filled accessible day you won’t want to miss.
Suzanne Bair is a disabled multi-genre writer, photographer, and community advocate. She is the founder and lead writer of Accessible Family Travel. Her previous work can be seen in Tiny Tim Literary Review, Bellingham Alive!, North Sound Life, and North End Metro magazines encompassing a variety of literary, editorial, and photography content. Suzanne has also been a volunteer and community advocate working with local school districts, and national organizations such as Big Brothers Big Sisters, the YMCA, Head Start/Ecap, and the Center for Independence focusing on education and disability inclusion for over 20 years.