Teenagers are charging through the park, rushing from one high-speed thrill ride to the next. Suddenly one girl stops in her tracks. Several Asian elephants are grazing in front of her.
"Those are real?" she asks.
"It's fake," says her date.
One of the elephants picks up a stone with its trunk and drums it against a manmade rock in its large enclosure. Occasionally, the elephant drops the stone into a water trough, then fishes it out, as if she is bored and playing with the stone just to pass the time.
"Hey, is that a real elephant?" asks another boy hurrying by.
Depending on your priorities, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay is a zoo with rides or a theme park with live animals.
The animals are what make this place more special than just another theme park. Rather than being in a separate admission area, they are in naturalistic habitats intermingled among the rides and other attractions.
There are few other parks where, while going from ride to ride, you suddenly find yourself admiring orangutans, alligators, white tigers and, yes, even elephants.
Zebras, ostriches, giraffes, gazelles and other African animals roam a large area called Serengeti Plain. Visitors stand on the edge of the plain or pass through it aboard the Serengeti Express train.
The 335-acre park, the original Busch Gardens, is the top tourist attraction on Florida's west coast. This combination zoo/theme park promotes itself as one of the country's premier zoos, with nearly 3,000 animals. It is beautifully landscaped and adorned with life-sized sculptures of many of its animals.
The park's theme is Africa, but its animals are from all over the world. They include Asian elephants, tigers from India, Australian kangaroos, Komodo dragons from Indonesia and American crocodiles.
In some ways, Busch Gardens is similar to Animal Kingdom, the newest theme park at Disney World. Both have safari rides and their primate habitats are nearly identical.
Animal Kingdom is larger, but Busch Gardens has nearly twice as many animals and far more rides.
Except for its 2-year-old Rhino Rally safari ride, Busch Gardens lacks the kind of innovative and custom-made rides that make the Disney World and Universal theme parks so unique and appealing. Come May, though, Busch Gardens will add some high-tech adventure of its own. R.L. Stine's Haunted Lighthouse, named for the author of the series of scary children's books, includes a 30-minute 4-D movie adventure loaded with special effects.
Take away the exotic names and themes, and most rides in Busch Gardens are like those in many parks -- sky rides, log flumes and four-loop roller-coasters.
In the Congo section, for example, there are bumper cars (Ubanga Banga) and a white-water raft ride (Congo River Rapids). In Timbuktu, one spinning carnival-type ride is named Sandstorm, another Crazy Camel.
Perhaps the park's strangest example of theming is a large Moroccan-style building that has an American flag flying over its blue dome and is named Fest- haus. German and Italian food are served inside.
What would evolve into a major theme park began in 1959, when visitors to the Anheuser-Busch Tampa brewery could visit an admission-free hospitality center that featured 400 exotic birds in a garden. The 65-acre Serengeti Plain opened in 1965. The first thrill rides were added in the 1970s, followed by more animals, rides and attractions.
Now Anheuser-Busch has nine parks, including SeaWorld in Orlando, Busch Gardens Williamsburg,Va., and Sesame Place in lower Bucks County, Pa.
Randy Kraft is a writer for The Morning Call in Allentown, Pa., a Tribune Publishing newspaper.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times