Because I regularly get accused (probably rightfully so) by non-enthusiast family and friends of spending too much of my vacation time at theme parks and missing out on what the rest of the country has to offer, I decided to appease said family and friends by including a non-theme park destination in my August 2012 Florida trip. From WDW, I headed south to Everglades National Park. As it turns out, I'm actually a huge national park aficionado, and have visited a great number over the years. However, I'd never been to the Everglades before (I'd never been to southern Florida at all, excluding maybe an airport layover in Miami), so this seemed like a perfect opportunity to do so. I therefore hope you'll indulge a trip report that lacks even a single theme park or roller coaster.
Having only one day to spend at the Everglades, I couldn't get to it all. I opted for the southern portion of the park, as it appeared to have the most tourist stops and a representative sampling of the Everglades' overall diversity. I ended up driving the main park road, stopping to walk each of the trails along the route. I finished by taking a guided boat tour through the park's Wilderness Waterway. Finally, already being this far south in the U.S., I allocated some time to make it as far south as possible -- yes, a quick visit to Key West was also included in this trip's itinerary. I'll go ahead and post my Key West photos along with my Everglades photos in this report.
First stop along the main Everglades route is Anhinga Trail, probably the most photographed and familiar location in the entire national park.
The reason this spot is so famous is because it typifies what the Everglades is all about -- low-growing vegetation inundated by water.
It's really quite fascinating to see entire plants completely submerged underwater (look carefully, there IS a layer of water here).
There's also plenty of plant life floating on the surface. I imagine some people might not consider this the most attractive national park in the country, though it actually is very serene, peaceful, and aesthetically pleasing.
The Everglades' well-known boardwalks enable visitors to navigate the marsh.
Being at the Everglades in August was definitely a memorable experience; as you can imagine, the weather was exceedingly hot and humid. However, summer is therefore the park's wettest season, and this made the timing worth it. I think I would have been disappointed to have visited in the cooler winter months but then not seen the wetlands that you so expect to find at Everglades National Park. On the other hand, summer is apparently the month with the least animal activity. That doesn't mean the animals were absent altogether, and the Anhinga Trail provides the best opportunity to observe the park's most famous animal residents -- alligators. I'll come back to them a bit later.
Following Anhinga Trail is the Gumbo Limbo Trail, a jungle-like hammock (the term hammock comes up a lot in the Everglades, so here's its definition -- stands of trees that form an "island" within a different ecosystem type). The almost tropical rainforest feel of this trail, with its dense canopy and dark understory, starkly contrasts with the low-growing, open habitat of the previous stop.
Some light does enter where an especially large tree emerges above the others. I should note that I practically got eaten alive by mosquitoes along the Gumbo Limbo Trail. I was so engrossed in the habitat that I foolishly wasn't paying much attention to the mosquitoes; I certainly wasn't fighting them off. I definitely regretted that afterwards!
Up next is the Pinelands Trail.
Many visitors probably don't expect to find pines at the Everglades, and this is the only main spot where they are encountered (most of the previous and upcoming trees have been and will be "hardwoods," as opposed to pines, which are "softwoods"). Even so, this is an expansive area of land (it's not a hammock), and it's reportedly the most diverse of all the Everglades' various habitats.
Another interesting point is that there is virtually no topography here at all. National parks are so associated with massive mountains and deep valleys, but the majority of the Everglades ranges from zero to a whopping eight feet above sea level!
Very pleasant, relaxing, and enjoyable.
Another boardwalk serves as the next path, this one called the Pa-hay-okee Overlook. It's a short trail, only 1/4-mile long (the others are 1/2-mile long), but looking out from this stretch of the boardwalk affords a very classic Everglades view...
...the River of Grass.
River of Grass is certainly an appropriate name.
There's more than just grass, though; like pines, these cypresses are softwoods. All in all, an excellent vantage point of the Everglades is provided by the Pa-hay-okee Overlook.
Moving on, we arrive at Mahogany Hammock. As you can see, it's an "island" of hardwood trees surrounded by water and grasses.
A look at the trees from the outside, plus the last full sunlight you'll get for half a mile. Once inside, much of it is blocked from above.
The boardwalk meanders through the darkened hammock interior...
...and the trees surround and cover the entire trail.
Plant life growing on plant life growing on more plant life.
Nearing the end.
Emerging back into the sunlight.
One of the coolest (not in terms of temperature, but rather the neatest) trails along the main Everglades route is West Lake Trail. West Lake contains brackish water (a mix of freshwater and saltwater), as it ultimately connects to Florida Bay. Growing along the banks of the lake is this extremely dense patch of mangrove trees.
When I say extremely dense, I mean it! It's basically a tangled mass of mangroves.
Yet somehow the boardwalk still manages to wind its way through.
What's going on here? Murder in the Everglades?!?
No, it's actually the tannins produced by the salt-tolerant, prop-rooted, brackish-water mangroves. Like I said, pretty cool.
The final stop (the seventh, if you've been counting) is Eco Pond. This one isn't much of a trail; instead, it's a short path along one edge of the pond. Very scenic.
We've now made it across the entire southern portion of the Everglades, from the eastern border to the (almost) western border. At this point, you can take a guided boat tour up the park's Wilderness Waterway.
Wilderness Waterway is a 99-mile route that spans the entire western edge of the national park, from its northernmost point to Florida Bay in the south. It's reported to take six hours for a one-way trip in a motorized boat, and seven days by canoe! This particular boat tour lasted about an hour, only going up and back a relatively short distance.
Because it's brackish water again, mangrove trees can be found lining the waterway.
Lots of mangrove trees!
There are other plants to be found as well. This one is called manchineel, and it's one of the most poisonous plants in the world. It will apparently burn your skin off if you touch it and melt your esophagus if you eat it.
As ferocious as manchineel may be, it's the mangroves that really dominate. This is about the maximum width of the Wilderness Waterway for the majority of the tour's duration...
...until Whitewater Bay is reached! I need to add here that it was quite obvious the guide was bitter and fed up with his job, having to repeat the same spiel over and over to tourists who were paying very little attention anyway. There was also an extremely ugly incident involving the tour being overbooked, which the guide could not have handled less professionally, but I won't get in to all that. Also, because the boat is operated by an independent company (not the national park itself), the trip costs a decent amount extra to do. Therefore, although it was pretty good, I'm not entirely sure I'd recommend it.
Okay, I promised there'd be animals. This gull dutifully greeted us at the beginning and welcomed us back at the end of the Wilderness Waterway cruise.
A lizard trying to get some sun along the West Lake Trail.
Another (very vibrant) lizard (an anole, I believe). This one was hanging out on the screen door of the restrooms outside the visitor center at the park entrance. I guess it had to go.
A neat-looking snail in the Mahogany Hammock.
How nice -- one grasshopper is giving the other a piggyback ride. This photo was taken along the Anhinga Trail, which is also home to other well-known Everglades inhabitants...
...alligators! No trip would be complete without seeing at least a few.
This little one was trying to remain inconspicuous in the Wilderness Waterway, but it couldn't hide from my camera's eagle eyes. Now that we've seen plenty of Everglades plants and animals, let's turn our attention instead to everyone's favorite organisms...
...fungi! There were tons to be found decomposing the remains of trees in the Mahogany Hammock.
Time to say goodbye to the Everglades and head south for the Florida Keys, with Key West the final destination. To get there you must of course travel the famous Seven Mile Bridge.
I paid a visit to the Key West Aquarium, which has a decent-sized outdoor shark exhibit that connects to the ocean. Feeding demonstrations are a highlight.
Inside, there are two central pools containing rays and sea turtles, surrounded by a bunch of typical aquarium tanks.
An entire room (and a pretty large one at that) is devoted to the mangrove forest, which is by far the most impressive exhibit at the facility. Be sure to take part in one of the aquarium's feeding tours; they're free with admission and reasonably lengthy. You'll be guided through the entire aquarium, stopping to feed the sharks, rays, turtles, and all of the mangrove forest denizens. It's impressive how much free food guests are given to feed the fish here; at SeaWorld or most other places you'd pay a small fortune for a fraction of the amount. I'm sometimes leery of smaller-scale aquariums such as this, but the Key West Aquarium totally won me over -- I left feeling entirely confident that the knowledgeable and dedicated staff are more than capable of caring for these animals.
I finished with a stop at the concrete buoy marking the southernmost point of the continental United States -- just 90 miles to Cuba!
Following the Everglades and Key West in southern Florida, it was back up to central Florida to complete my August 2012 vacation. However, I did not return to Walt Disney World or Orlando. I wanted to include a non-Disney park in this trip, but I opted against Universal (due to the Harry Potter construction) and SeaWorld (due to the Antarctica construction). I therefore headed to Busch Gardens in Tampa.
This was my second visit to BGT, having previously visited during my winter 2002/2003 Florida trip. There was quite a bit new for me this time -- two major coasters (Cheetah Hunt and Sheikra) and two minor coasters (Sand Serpent and Air Grover), a new ice skating show (Iceploration), and several animal exhibits (Cheetah Run, Jungala, Walkabout Way, the Animal Care Center, and possibly others). Of course, one coaster (Python) had also been removed since the last time I was here, but that's definitely not a huge loss. While there is therefore arguably more to do at Busch Gardens Tampa than at Busch Gardens Williamsburg (probably a few more thrill rides, especially once Falcon's Fury opens, and definitely more animal attractions), I still think I prefer BGW by a small margin. There's just something about the European setting and ambience of BGW that the BGT African theming slightly lacks. Having said that, Busch Gardens Tampa is still excellent, I enjoyed it very much, and I highly look forward to returning.
Here we are at Busch Gardens Tampa. What shall we do first?
The park's newest coaster, Cheetah Hunt, seems like a good place to start. An Intamin triple-launching coaster, this is a pretty unique ride. The first launch out of the station isn't super fast, and it propels the train through this turnaround at a relatively slow speed.
However, the train then dives into a trench (which parallels the Cheetah Run exhibit, by the way, so the cheetahs and coaster could potentially "race"), where a second launch blasts the train up the ride's signature tower.
There's actually a nice pop of airtime coming off of the hill entering the top of the tower...
...and then more great airtime diving down the drop that exits the tower.
The cheetah leaps over the skyride next.
That's followed by the coaster's solo inversion, which is so smooth and comfortable you can hardly tell it is an inversion! A thread started recently questioning which coaster would be best for someone's first inversion, and I honestly think Cheetah Hunt is the answer. The heartline roll flows so fluidly and naturally with the rest of the course that it I can't imagine it could be at all jarring to anyone.
Following the midcourse brakes, the coaster zigzags low to the ground through the remnants of Rhino Rally's former water portion.
The final launch carries the train over this awesome airtime hill and ultimately back to the station. All in all, I rank Cheetah Hunt as pretty darn excellent. It's certainly thrilling for coaster enthusiasts, but also perfectly appropriate for everyone else (meeting the 48" height requirement of course). If you were to cross Maverick at Cedar Point with Manta at SeaWorld San Diego, you'd probably end up with a coaster very similar to Cheetah Hunt. And that's quite a pedigree!
Adjacent to the Cheetah Hunt coaster is the Cheetah Run exhibit.
At Cheetah Run you can watch cheetahs run -- how appropriately named (more so than the coaster, but I won't reopen that can of worms).
It's definitely impressive.
The cheetah run demonstrations occur at scheduled times throughout the day. At other times, the cheetahs are still on display in the habitat, and there are opportunities to get up close and personal with them. The entire exhibit is well designed and presented, and a nice complement to the coaster.
The next new coaster at BGT for me was Sheikra.
Though this was the first of the U.S.'s two B&M dive coasters, I'd ridden the second one (Griffon at BGW) several times before finally getting to this one. Being therefore very familiar with Griffon, I was eager to try Sheikra to compare.
While there are differences in their layouts, the differences are minor, and the two coasters are very similar. Because Griffon is located at one of my favorite parks and I've been on it more frequently so I know it better, while I was only able to do one ride on Sheikra, I'd probably still end up giving the edge to Griffon. That's splitting hairs, though, since they're both excellent.
The massive trains, the wide swooping turns, the splashdown, and of course the vertical drops are what these dive coasters are all about, and both Sheikra and Griffon deliver. Who knows -- with a few more rides on this one the pendulum could swing in its favor.
Up next is Montu.
Another B&M coaster, this one inverted.
I'm so torn between Montu and Alpengeist -- which is better? While I once again have to give the theming and locale points to Alpengeist, I think I may like the layout and ride itself of Montu slightly more. But I'm not entirely sure. Who really cares though? They both rock. (I will say that I have decided I do prefer both Montu and Alpengeist to Afterburn at Carowinds, though that's still a close call. I'm very happy to have ridden three highly regarded B&M inverts during this August 2012 trip!)
There's yet another B&M coaster at BGT -- Kumba.
Signature Kumba shot.
This is a standard sit-down looping coaster, which is curiously one of B&M's least common designs. It is, however, reminiscent of the company's floorless and stand-up coasters, especially this zero-g roll (my personal favorite element). With Kumba, Montu, and Sheikra, Busch Gardens Tampa definitely has an outstanding trio of B&M coasters.
There's also an awesome classic compact looping Schwarzkopf coaster at the park (could I have squeezed any more adjectives into that description?).
While possibly perceived as an older, minor coaster at Busch Gardens, don't judge a book by its cover. The curving first drop into the perfect vertical loop, followed by the tight turns and spirals, all without the need for OTSRs, exemplify what a classic Schwarzkopf is all about. I'm also impressed the 42" height requirement has never been unnecessarily raised over the years.
Scorpion is, as far as I'm concerned, an integral part of BGT's coaster collection. I hope it continues to be so for many years to come.
Nearby to Scorpion in the Timbuktu area of the park (the future Pantopia area of the park) is Sand Serpent.
Although this was my first ride on Sand Serpent at BGT, I had been on the coaster previously when it existed at BGW as Wild Maus. If I'm remembering correctly (and I think I am), Wild Maus was actually my very first wild mouse coaster ever!
Hmmm, then we get to Gwazi.
You know, I don't remember the coaster delivering a bad ride during this visit. The weird thing is, I honestly don't remember much about the experience at all. Maybe it's because only one side was running, so I didn't get the dueling effect. Maybe it's because I only rode once and the ride was a walk-on, so the entire time I spent with Gwazi was less than ten minutes. Maybe it's because this was one of the last of many coasters I rode throughout my August trip, so it sort of got lost in the shuffle. Whatever the reason, I just don't remember what I thought of Gwazi. (I actually don't even remember which side I rode -- this picture suggests Tiger, though I know that side has been closed since the end of summer 2012. Being August 2012, I suppose I was able to sneak in a final ride on Tiger.)
To finish up the coasters there's Air Grover. I felt a little silly riding without a child, but hey, I'd already ridden its counterpart at Busch Gardens Williamsburg (Grover's Alpine Express), so I went ahead. That gave me all eight Busch Gardens Tampa coaster credits (as long as Gwazi is only counted as a single credit!).
The park has three water rides. Stanley Falls is another one that I'm not remembering all that well, so it must have been a pretty standard log flume. However, even though the final drop isn't spectacularly huge, the surrounding vegetation sure makes it look nice.
Congo River Rapids is a decent whitewater raft ride.
It seems that some riders get soaked while others remain more or less dry, so your experience on Congo River will depend mostly on luck. (I suppose that's true for almost all rapids rides.)
If you want to guarantee a drenching, you can always ride up front on Tanganyika Tidal Wave. Riding in the front, I got absolutely flooded at the bottom of the drop. This is kind of an interesting boat flume. Rather than going up, around, and down, the ride has a lengthy (but unfortunately kind of boring) segment before the boat even goes up. Correct me if I'm mistaken, but I think I've heard that this beginning portion is a leftover from BGT's former African Queen ride. If that's the case, the historical significance makes it more worthwhile.
Okay, up next is Rhino Rally. I remember when this first opened it was supposed to be Busch Garden's answer to Kilimanjaro Safaris at Animal Kingdom. While it never met those expectations even back then, in its current incarnation it most definitely doesn't.
First of all, while I never thought the water portion of Rhino Rally lived up to its potential, it at least added something unique to the ride. Without it, the Rhino Rally experience is a very short one. Compounding this problem is the fact that, unlike Kilimanjaro Safaris, which occupies an entire outer section of Animal Kingdom, this one is confined to the middle of the park. It therefore doesn't have the time or space to really go anywhere, and passengers certainly don't feel like they've been on an off-the-beaten-path expedition.
In addition, the drivers spend most of the time trying to be comedians, cracking corny jokes rather than giving actual information about the animals you're seeing. Also, the racing / rally theme really just doesn't work.
To save Rhino Rally somewhat, at least a decent number of animals are represented, and many of them are not separated from the vehicles by any sort of barrier, so they can therefore get right up next to you.
Though Rhino Rally isn't it, BGT does have a large expanse of land for animals to roam -- the Serengeti Plain. Unfortunately, much of it remains inaccessible to park guests. You do skirt one edge while on the skyride.
The Serengeti Express Train encircles the entire Serengeti Plain, so it offers a better view of the area.
Lots of animals to see.
Even so, it still seems a lot of Serengeti Plain's interior remains "untapped" -- I wish there was a way for park guests to get a better look. I know the upcharge safari is an option, but why not expand Rhino Rally to be a free attraction that covers more of the territory? I also believe the old monorail provided better views than any current transportation ride, so it's too bad that was removed before I ever visited the park.
A final way to get a look at the Serengeti Plain is along the Edge of Africa walking trails. While this is again limited to one edge of the habitat (hence Edge of Africa), being a self-guided exhibit rather than a transportation ride makes it feel like a much larger experience. In fact, I'd rank Edge of Africa as the park's best animal attraction.
Feeding time for the giraffes.
Scale down from the giraffes to find the meerkats.
Edge of Africa has a large freshwater habitat featuring an abundance of native fish species.
Look past the fish decoys, however, and you'll find the exhibit's principal inhabitant.
Flee the exhibit if those ears start wiggling!
And here's the star of Edge of Africa. In addition to lions, hippos, meerkats, and giraffes, you'll also encounter hyenas, flamingoes, vultures, and more. The entire attraction is elaborate, well presented, and very enjoyable.
Another elaborate animal exhibit is Myombe Reserve, home to BGT's gorillas (and chimpanzees).
Outside of Myombe Reserve is the alligator habitat, always quite popular due to its location near the park entrance.
The elephant exhibit is next to Rhino Rally, and you can see the elephants both on and off the ride.
In addition, there are a bunch of other animal encounters in this section of the park (Nairobi).
Curiosity Caverns is the park's nocturnal house, featuring a collection of creepy-crawlies (snakes and spiders), plus bats.
There's also this cute little critter, the cotton-top tamarin.
Many of Busch Garden's animal ambassadors (the animals occasionally trotted throughout the park for impromptu meet-and-greets with guests) can be found at Jambo Junction when they're not out and about.
It's mostly birds at Jambo Junction, but a few other animals are represented as well.
A new addition to Busch Garden's lineup (in 2012 anyway) was the Animal Care Center, a state-of-the-art veterinary hospital. Guests can watch procedures ranging from standard check-ups to rare and complex surgeries. Most of the treatments take place early in the day, so if you go later on (as I did), there may not be much happening. However, it's still definitely worth a look.
I've studied, researched, and taught biology my entire adult life, but I've never had any interest in pursuing any type of medical career. However, after spending some time in the Animal Care Center, I almost felt like applying to veterinary school! The clinical lab and diagnostic activities that go along with it are especially fascinating.
In addition to all of the African-themed areas in the park, Busch Gardens Tampa represents a couple of other continents as well. Jungala is themed to an Asian jungle and temple, with tigers as the headliners.
There are a couple unique ways to view the tiger habitat. This photo was taken from one of those little enclosed "bubbles" that pops up right into the middle of it.
Orangutans are also prominently featured in Jungala.
From Asia, let's head down to Australia.
Walkabout Way is home to quite a large number of kangaroos and wallabies. Not only do you get to look at them...
...you also get to feed them. Lots of fun for the kids (including us big kids; it was admittedly fun for me too!).
Walkabout Way houses some other residents as well, including this crazy three-legged, two-headed emu mutant.
On the subject of birds, Lory Landing is located nearby to Walkabout Way.
Lory Landing is of course one of those aviaries where you can feed nectar to lorikeets, but there are plenty of other birds to see in addition to lorikeets.
I don't need no stinkin' nectar.
You can find this anteater just outside Lory Landing.
Okay, we've now taken care of all of the rides and animal attractions at Busch Gardens. To complete the visit, I attended a showing of the relatively new Iceploration ice skating show in the Moroccan Palace Theater. Definitely the park's largest and most ambitious show, it is quite impressive. (It sort of reminded me of Animal Kingdom's Finding Nemo, only on ice.) I liked the variety of locales where the show is set -- Amazon rainforest, African savanna, Arctic ice, and Great Barrier Reef.
And to finish up, a shot of the very picturesque scenery that can be found throughout the park. With its rides, animal exhibits, and shows, Busch Gardens Tampa offers plenty to please everyone. With the upcoming addition of Falcon's Fury, it will become even better still.
That concludes the second half of my August 2012 trip, so the 2012 trip reports are now (finally!) complete. As it's already early 2014, I've taken another vacation since this 2012 one wrapped up. My August 2013 trip reports therefore begin next...
Like August 2012, I had essentially all of August 2013 free, so I decided to take advantage of that and do another non-So Cal theme park trip. Also like August 2012, this August 2013 trip was divided into two parts. The first part actually didn't take me out of California, but it did take me out of Southern California. That's right, Northern California was the destination for the first half of my 2013 vacation. This half was a relatively quick trip (about five days), but I still hit all of the Northern California parks you'd expect, beginning with Gilroy Gardens.
I'd been to Gilroy Gardens once previously (during the summer of 2006, its final year as Bonfante Gardens), and the park has remained very much the same since then. This is certainly a unique place; while there are lots of parks in the world themed to animals, this is one of the very few parks I can think of that's themed to plants. It's also quite atypical in being an extremely relaxed and slow-paced park, geared more towards families with small children (as well as towards the older, retired demographic). Only a few attractions (the two boat rides, the car ride, and the ferris wheel) seem to get crowded or form significant lines. For the coasters, flat rides, monorail, and train, you may have to wait one ride cycle, but that's about it. That makes a visit to Gilroy Gardens pretty enjoyable, and while I wouldn't find it necessary to make the trip every year, a visit once every several years (when in the area) could certainly be justified.
Time to begin August 2013!
Gilroy Gardens is famous for its many circus trees, which have been shaped by grafting multiple trees together and bending their trunks and branches as they grow. The Arch tree is not at the park entrance, but near it, and certainly makes for an appropriate welcome.
The park has two coasters, Quicksilver Express being the "big" one.
A mine train coaster manufactured by Morgan, Quicksilver Express is obviously not an extreme coaster by enthusiast standards, but for a family-oriented theme park like Gilroy Gardens it does provide quite the thrill.
The ride has a nice variety of elements, a great setting, and some pretty decent theming. A perfect fit for the park.
The second roller coaster is Timber Twister, a medium-sized Zierer family coaster. It looks and feels a lot like a smaller, more compact version of Jaguar at Knott's.
POV of Timber Twister snaking through the woods.
The Sideway Rope Rectangle tree.
The flat rides have some fun theming, such as the Banana Split swinging ship.
The perfectly themed Mushroom Swing.
Instead of teacups, Gilroy Gardens has Garlic Twirl. (Gilroy is the garlic capital of the world after all.)
Balloon Flight is curiously not themed to anything botanical. Just balloons.
The Illions Supreme Carousel, a prized attraction at the park.
Panoramic Wheel is one of Gilroy Garden's slow loaders, but it's worth a bit of a wait as it does live up to its name...
...by providing a great panoramic view of the park and surrounding area -- you'll really gain an appreciation for just how vegetated Gilroy Gardens actually is. Notice the Mushroom Swing in the center. (I'm not certain what the clearing is at the top right, but I'm pretty sure it's beyond park property. There's therefore no need to get excited over the possibility of a megalite or aquatrax!)
South County Backroads is a track-guided car ride where you can choose between driving a 1950's auto...
...or one from the 1920's.
Either way, it's a lengthy and enjoyable ride with plenty of trees and other plant life to look at.
Next up are the Rainbow Garden Boats.
This is a pretty unique attraction for the U.S.; it seems much more reminiscent of something you'd find at a European park. Floating gently through the gardens, the ride is peaceful, relaxing, and scenic, so it's no surprise it's one of the park's most popular.
Rainbow Garden Boat Ride POV!
The final stretch of the ride, heading back to the station through this slightly swampier area, has tons of live frogs to see and hear (at least it did in the summer).
The Paddle Boats let you choose between a swan, a duck, or a rubber ducky(!).
On this one you can get up close to some of the park's extremely photogenic waterfalls.
This ride is also one of the park's most popular, but don't expect it to be relaxing like the other boat ride or the car ride. You get a bit of a workout with all the pedaling, but that's what makes it fun. The lake is quite large and they let you stay out on it for a decent amount of time.
The Four-Legged Giant.
The Sky Trail Monorail passes right next to the Four-Legged Giant.
The Sky Trail Monorail is exactly what it sounds like -- an elevated monorail ride that winds its way through one corner of the park.
The Coyote & Redwood Railroad, alternatively, travels around the entire park perimeter.
On the railroad you'll once again gain an appreciation for just how wooded the park and surrounding area are. A definite must for every Gilroy Gardens visit.
Monarch Garden is enclosed in a greenhouse, making it the home to much more tropical plant species than you'll find elsewhere in the park.
I think a lot of guests come in here expecting a free-flight butterfly exhibit, which this is not. There is a small section in the back that, depending on the time of year and therefore the life cycle stage, has live caterpillars, pupae, or adults on display, but the plants are definitely the stars of this attraction. Also, did you notice what travels overhead?
Yep, the Sky Trail Monorail passes right through Monarch Garden.
Great canopy-level views of the garden from the monorail.
And in case the footpaths and monorail aren't enough to get your fill, there's yet a third way to view the exhibit...
That's right, the Coyote & Redwood Railroad passes through as well. One way or another, Monarch Garden is pretty hard to miss during a trip to Gilroy Gardens!
Oil Well tree.
Up next is the park's walkthrough maze, called Pinnacles Rock Maze.
A look from above (in case you want to cheat and map it out beforehand).
Really, though, Pinnacles Rock Maze isn't incredibly large or challenging. You'll likely get through in less than five minutes. And that's at a casual stroll. If you want to make it a race against someone else, you'll probably be out in one minute. Still, it's a fun and appropriate attraction for Gilroy Gardens.
Nearby is Bonfante Falls, one of the most photographed locations in the park. The path behind the waterfall is very popular (be prepared to get sprayed).
The path that takes you behind the main falls emerges in front of a couple additional waterfalls.
The Emblem tree.
In addition to Monarch Garden and the gardens viewed from the car and boat rides, there are several outdoor gardens to simply walk through. It's all very peaceful and relaxing. Again, this isn't your typical "rush from one attraction to the next" type of park. It's much more a "stop and smell the roses" kind of place.
Stop and smell. (I know they're not roses.)
Another scenic spot.
Finally, the park has several of these learning sheds sprinkled throughout. You may not think amusement park guests would be interested in learning, but that's the type of park this is. Education is a major objective, and these learning sheds actually have some pretty interesting stuff (that's of course coming from a biologist's perspective). One pertains to water, one to honeybees, one to dendrochronology (the study of tree ring growth), etc.
To wrap up, here's one more circus tree, probably the most famous of them all and the centerpiece of the park -- the Basket tree. There are plenty of others that I haven't included, such as the Revolving Door tree and the Spiral Staircase tree. All very unique and impressive. That description sums up Gilroy Gardens pretty well. It may not seem all that impressive as a roller coaster theme park, but it's impressive to me because it's not, as that's what makes it unique. A worthwhile change of pace.
Gilroy Gardens is such a great place. I had no idea that it would become one of my favorite parks in California when I went there last summer.
1: Lightning Run, 2: El Toro, 3: Maverick, 4: Xcelerator, 5: Voyage, 6: TTD, 7: Gold Striker, 8: El Loco (Vegas), 9: Millennium Force, 10: Kingda Ka Coaster Credits: 110 (89 steel, 21 wood); Last Coaster Credit: Raptor (CP) [8/22/14]; Last Park Credit: Waldameer [8/21/14] What a season pass??
The next stop in Northern California was California's Great America. This is another park that I'd been to once before, in 2006 (during its final year as Paramount's Great America, though if I'm remembering correctly it had already been purchased by Cedar Fair at that point). The major change between that visit and this 2013 visit was of course the addition of Gold Striker, which opened earlier in the summer of 2013 and was a major reason for the Northern California trip in the first place. The park also lost a coaster between visits, Invertigo, but losing a Vekoma boomerang while gaining a GCI woodie is a trade-off I can certainly accept.
This park doesn't seem to have the greatest reputation, but I actually enjoy it quite a bit. It's large with plenty to do and appears to be clean and well maintained (in other words, a typical Cedar Fair park). The two standout coasters are Gold Striker and Flight Deck, and while the rest of the coaster lineup isn't particularly stellar, it's not bad. Where the park really excels is in the flat ride department -- with about a dozen non-coaster thrill rides (a few of which are somewhat unique), it really is an excellent collection. To round things out, Great America has three water rides. To me, that adds up to a fun time at an enjoyable park.
The classic view that greets visitors upon entering the park. What should be our first ride of the day?
The Star Tower, of course! Actually, maybe we'll start with Gold Striker...
It kind of goes without saying that Gold Striker easily blows every other coaster in the park out of the water. I'm so happy for park regulars that Great America finally got their long-awaited new coaster, and that it's of such high caliber.
In typical GCI fashion, Gold Striker is all about relentless speed and crazy turns. While there are plenty of hills and dips throughout the ride, providing ample amounts of negative and positive g's, it's the lateral g's that really dominate this coaster. And what's really impressive is that, even with everything that goes on during the ride, there's not a single rough spot anywhere. Perfectly smooth.
Here's another view that I'm sure will become very famous at the park. While the Star Tower serves as a great vantage point for observing all of Great America and the surrounding area, Gold Striker's placement wrapped around it makes both rides all the better.
For twenty years prior to the addition of Gold Striker, the park's top coaster was Flight Deck, an early B&M invert.
Flight Deck has a pretty quick duration and only three inversions, but don't be fooled by the stats. It still packs a punch, easily holding its own against all of the newer and bigger B&M inverts.
The final corkscrew and spiral over the swamp are great. Gold Striker may be the new king of Great America coasters, but I don't think that diminishes Flight Deck's awesomeness one bit.
As for Vortex, the park's other B&M coaster -- well, its awesomeness has somewhat diminished.
Being another early B&M creation, this one a stand-up model, Vortex has certainly not aged anywhere near as well as Flight Deck has. It also hasn't aged as well as its Vortex counterpart at Carowinds. How so, you ask? This Vortex has become an EXTREME headbanger.
It's still kind of cool and fun and all, but while I could ride Gold Striker and Flight Deck over and over, Vortex is a one-ride-per-visit-only type of coaster.
Speaking of headbangers, up next is Demon.
You know, back during my first Great America visit, this was the surprise hit of the day. There are still several things to love here -- the steep lift hill; the weird straightaway following the two vertical loops that's somehow disorienting, probably because a straightaway isn't what's expected at that point; and of course the dive through the deceptively tiny rock cave monster mouth leading into the corkscrews. I just wish it all wasn't such torture on your head.
The Barney Oldfield Speedway travels by Demon's corkscrews and most of Grizzly. It's a relaxing ride to let your head recuperate, and while it doesn't have tons of theming or a very far-removed feel from the rest of the park, it does provide nice views of the two coasters.
Since we're near Grizzly, let's give it a ride.
I know I'm in the minority here, but I just don't understand where all the hatred towards this coaster comes from. It seems to have a reputation for being both boring and rough. I wouldn't use the word boring; tame seems to be a more appropriate description. And rough? Tame and rough don't really go together, and I could name at least a dozen (probably a lot more) wooden coasters that I've ridden that are rougher than Grizzly. Go ahead and say what you want, but I think I'd end up ranking Grizzly as the #3 coaster at Great America.
The park's final adult coaster is Psycho Mouse.
Being so familiar with Mack wild mouse coasters, it was fun riding an Arrow model. (I'd previously been on the Arrow mouse at the Myrtle Beach Pavilion.)
A view of Psycho Mouse from Eagle's Flight (or Delta Flyer, I suppose, depending on which direction I was traveling!).
Woodstock Express is located in Planet Snoopy, one of CGA's two children's areas. The ride is kind of a unique old-school Intamin kiddie coaster, and while I would definitely classify it a notch above kiddie coaster status (more of a junior or family coaster), the trains were definitely NOT very accommodating to adults. I therefore felt pretty silly squeezing into the seat, but the coaster whore / nerd in me just couldn't pass this one by.
I don't think Woodstock Express is on many guests' radars, as it's quite hidden away in a back corner of the park (I almost forgot about it myself). The fact that you should therefore be able to hop right on and off is a definite plus.
The eighth and final coaster is Taxi Jam, located in the KidZville area. Being an honest-to-goodness kiddie coaster, I didn't ride this one. However, I was impressed by the amount of rides the park has for kids, spread out between the two areas. Also, even though I didn't ride Taxi Jam, I still got Great America's seven other coaster credits, so it was a productive visit.
Time to check out all the non-coaster rides the park has to offer. Drop Tower is pretty tall, but I've found with these Intamin towers that the height of the ride almost doesn't matter. The drop is so forceful and keeps you out of your seat the entire way down, so they're great fun regardless of size. Extremely re-rideable.
Firefall is another one that I enjoy riding over and over; lots of good upside down looping and hanging, plus I seem to remember this one having a fast right-side-up fling over the top that was kind of different and lots of fun.
Plus hooray for fire and water!
Delirium is a very good example of a pendulum flat ride.
Tiki Twirl is the park's Disk'O, made unique by its extended track with a hump in the middle.
Yep, spinning and facing every possible direction while traversing that hump (as well as the two end spikes) really make this ride pure joy and entertainment. Lots of park guests must agree with me, as Tiki Twirl consistently had the longest line of any ride all day.
Time for the there-used-to-be-one-of-these-at-Six-Flags-Magic-Mountain-back-in-the-day portion of the trip report. HMB Endeavor is a type of ride that I think I'm getting too old for. I used to love them and I still want to, but they put so much pressure on my head that I'm almost a little afraid to keep riding them (that doesn't mean I won't keep riding them...).
Thumbs up for Orbit. These are awesome.
And the final this-used-to-be-at-Magic-Mountain ride -- Berserker. It's very rare to find a bayern kurve anymore, so it's so nice still having one at Great America.
As for Centrifuge, I'm not even sure what the name for this type of flat ride is. This may be the only one I've ever seen.
Celebration Swings is a nice chairswing ride, located right on the main midway.
Before the addition of Dragon Flyers at Castle Park and Surfside Gliders at Knott's, Flying Eagles were the only flyers in California. They're still the only ones in Northern California.
Some decent snapping and swinging action can be had on Flying Eagles.
The park's Action Theater had recently replaced Spongebob Squarepants with Happy Feet. While I was glad to try something new... Well, um, if you don't have anything nice to say... Best to move on.
As for Great America's water rides, Whitewater Falls is a standard boat flume. Up, around, and down, but at least it's clean and refreshing and does its job well.
Loggers Run is quite good, weaving in and around the Boomerang Bay waterpark, both above it and at ground level. The final drop is really fun. While I normally think I prefer a single, long, uninterrupted drop, the double dip on this one actually provides a nice lifting-out-of-your-seat sensation, making it very enjoyable.
I regrettably missed the third water ride, Rip Roaring Rapids. Oh well, something to look forward to for next time. In its place, here's a parting shot of the red, white, and blue skyride at California's Great America, a park that's definitely worth a visit (or two (or more)).
Following CGA, it was on to SFDK. Six Flags Discovery Kingdom is a park that I've been to once before, in the summer of 2005. Technically, though, I've been to the park twice before -- way back in the summer of 1993 I visited during its Marine World Africa USA days. There have obviously been major changes since then, but the most significant change since my more recent 2005 visit has been the addition of Superman Ultimate Flight. There have even been changes since this 2013 visit, with the park adding Tsunami Soaker in 2014.
Discovery Kingdom is a pretty atypical Six Flags park. Yes, the expected Six Flags collection of roller coasters, flat rides, water rides, etc. is featured in the Sky area. However, the Land area (a zoo) and the Sea area (a marine life park) are more unique and unexpected. Designating certain areas of the park as Sky, Land, and Sea is actually a bit misleading, as each section is not isolated from the others; instead, all three are somewhat spread out throughout the park. This integration is what makes Six Flags Discovery Kingdom so enjoyable -- I think being an animal park in addition to a roller coaster park gives both the employees and the guests a different mindset, and the combination and variety of so much to do definitely make the park worth one's while.
Welcome to Discovery Kingdom! One of the park's newest rides, Sky Screamer, greets guests at the entrance.
I've been on very few of these star flyer swing rides, so at 150 feet this was an unintimidating introduction to the genre. Fun and enjoyable, but not at all scary. (I imagine the monster 400-foot tall versions are another story altogether...)
The park's major new ride, though, is of course Superman Ultimate Flight.
This is one crazy-looking, unique-looking coaster.
As for the ride experience itself, the launches are fun, the spiraling vertical first hill is pretty intense, the "slow motion" inversion at the top is probably the best part, the twisting dive down into the non-inverting loop is awesome, and all of the backwards stuff is fun too. All in all, it's a very good coaster, and definitely a great coaster for the park. I will say, however, that I do prefer Premier ride's So Cal coaster, Full Throttle, over this one.
I actually think I also slightly prefer V2: Vertical Velocity to Superman. Of the Intamin impulse coasters, I've been on V2, Possessed (then Voodoo) at Dorney Park, and Wicked Twister at Cedar Point. This is my favorite of the three for two main reasons.
First, the inclined 45-degree front tower produces a nice inversion effect, which I really like.
Second, I much prefer the straight back tower (rather than the twisting back tower of Wicked Twister). My one concern about these Intamin impulse coasters -- the screechingly loud scraping and grinding that occur during the launches and braking make me hope the rides aren't tearing themselves apart. They seem to break down, stall, or launch at incorrectly slow speeds on a very regular basis (I witnessed this quite frequently both here and at Dorney Park).
Surprisingly to me, my favorite coaster at Discovery Kingdom ended up being Medusa.
While B&M floorless coasters have always been fun (and very highly praised back when they were a brand new coaster design), they seem to have become "a dime a dozen" these days, plus some (i.e. my local floorless coaster, Scream at SFMM) haven't aged well, so I guess I approached Medusa with a slightly jaded attitude.
Fortunately I was very pleasantly surprised -- this ran great! While Medusa consists mostly of the typical floorless coaster elements, it's fast and intense while still being incredibly smooth. Very re-rideable, which is a lot more than I can say for Scream. Why has this one aged so much better? Whatever the reason, I'm glad -- awesome ride!
Speaking of smooth, re-rideable, and aging well, Roar is none of those things.
I still like Roar (I don't mind a little brutality from a wooden coaster), but it is pretty much an only-once-per-visit ride. It is interesting to compare an older GCI coaster (i.e. Roar) to a newer one (i.e. nearby Gold Striker).
Up next is Kong, another ride with a less-than-stellar reputation (which I suppose can be said for almost all of Vekoma's suspended looping coasters).
I know I'm in the minority here, but I've never actually minded these. I love the way they look, plus, while I certainly wouldn't call them at all smooth, I've never experienced the excessive roughness that everyone else must. Kong in particular seemed even more "well behaved" than some of the other SLCs, so call me crazy, but I kind of liked it! It consistently had the shortest wait of any coaster at the park, so I rode several times throughout the day.
Then there's Boomerang, the other done-to-death Vekoma standard. While I can speak more or less positively about the suspended looping coasters, boomerangs...not so much.
I'll of course still ride them, since that's what we coaster folks do, but give me an SLC over a boomerang any day. (Actually, combine the boomerang and SLC, make it 100 times more awesome, and give me a Vekoma giant inverted boomerang instead!)
That's it for the park's adult coasters, but there are two junior coasters still to go. Cobra is more of a family coaster, appropriate for adults as well as kids. It's one of those Zierer rides with trains that go on forever. For what it is, it's pretty good.
Last on the coaster roster is Roadrunner Express, a Zamperla kiddie coaster. I didn't ride this one, but I did ride all of the others, thereby scoring seven of Discovery Kingdom's eight coaster credits!
Alright, let's move on to the flat rides -- Hammerhead Shark is up first. This is a type of looping ride that I don't come across too often, so it's nice having one here. Love the hammerhead theming.
Voodoo is the park's other looping ride, a type of flat ride that's a favorite of mine.
Getting ready to be flung forward...
Getting flung forward!
Tazmanian Devil is a first-generation frisbee-style pendulum ride.
Not as extreme as some of the newer frisbee rides, but admittedly still pretty fun.
Thrilla Gorilla is a simple spinning ride made unique by its interesting theme. Discovery Kingdom has several other flat rides as well, including a scrambler, a swinging ship, a teacup-type ride, chairswings, and bumper cars.
As for water rides, the park has two -- Monsoon Falls is the boat flume. I've been on so many of these and it's been over a year since I did this one that I'm honestly only vaguely recalling it. If I remember correctly, it was refreshingly pleasant without being overly soaking. Don't hold me to that though, as I could be mixing it up with a different boat flume.
It certainly looks kind of soaking here!
There's also the river raft ride White Water Safari.
This is another one that probably won't soak you -- unless you happen to be in the seat that gets dunked by this waterfall! I managed to avoid it, but those who didn't got blatantly drenched!
That concludes the ride portion of the park. All in all, a nice selection of coasters, flats, and water rides. We're definitely not done with Discovery Kingdom yet though. Time to move on to...
...the marine life section of the park. Let's begin with the dolphin show.
Called Drench!, this is probably exactly what you'd expect from a dolphin show, but that's not a bad thing. There are plenty of impressive dolphin behaviors on display, plus lots of interaction between the dolphins and their trainers.
Performed in the large Toyota Stadium, my understanding is that this used to be Shouka Stadium back when the park had its killer whale. The previous dolphin stadium, Dolphin Harbor, is now being used for the new Cirque Dreams Splashtastic show. I unfortunately missed that one during this visit, but I imagine it's somewhat along the lines of SeaWorld's Blue Horizons.
For even more dolphins, there's Dolphin Encounter, an open pool for dolphins to swim and play and (if you're lucky) interact with guests.
Sea Lion Stadium is home to the Pinnipeds of the Caribbean show.
Sea lion acrobatics.
Corny but entertaining -- I wonder what unwritten rule requires that all sea lion shows be themed to pirates.
Sea lions can also be found (and fed) at Seal Cove.
Basking in the sun, soliciting for some fish, or posing for a photo? You decide.
Logically, there are seals at Seal Cove in addition to sea lions. And they sure are cute.
One more group of pinnipeds to go at Jocko's Walrus Experience. (I'm not exactly sure which one is Jocko, but I'm guessing it's this one.)
A very informal show, this is more of a presentation during the walruses' training session.
Some great views to be had during the presentation -- I highly recommend checking out the Walrus Experience exhibit while the training session is going on.
Penguin Passage is home to African penguins, which are well adapted to warmer climates and are therefore featured in an open, outdoor habitat.
At Stingray Bay you can pet the rays as they swim by.
And when the rays stop swimming for a moment, there are some good photo ops too.
The Shark Experience aquarium includes an underwater walk-through tunnel followed by a viewing gallery with floor-to-ceiling windows. Pretty typical for a shark exhibit, though this was apparently one of the original aquariums to introduce these popular features.
The sharks bring the Sea portion of the park to a close. Switching gears, we move next to...
...the Land portion of the park.
Elephant Encounter is home to the elephant demonstration show, which certainly does demonstrate some impressive elephant behaviors. Would you like a few examples?
Example 4. It should be noted that these behaviors are not simply "tricks" for the audience's entertainment value. All involve physical or mental exercises for the elephants, plus many teach them how to behave during medical check-ups.
Following the demonstration, park guests can interact with the elephants a bit.
In addition to Elephant Encounter, there's also Giraffe Encounter.
This one involves guest interaction too, as giraffe feedings take place at selected times throughout the day. It costs a few bucks extra, but it's kind of hard to pass up the opportunity. (It's also kind of hard to feed a giraffe with one hand and take a picture with the other!)
Odin's Temple of the Tiger is the park's tiger demonstration show.
Odin must be part tiger and part overgrown kitty cat.
You can view even more tigers immediately outside of the show stadium.
The park has not only tigers but lions too, within Lion's Lair.
And if you're looking for even more felines, there's Cougar Rocks.
Birds of the World is the show presented at Bird Theater, which features an owl...
...and of course a bald eagle.
This is no longer the bird show, but the Wildlife Experience show at the Wildlife Theater. It features birds and mammals, plus a few other types of animals. (I should add that this lady really made her way around the park. I saw her hosting the wildlife show, the bird show, the tiger show, the sea lion show, and the dolphin show!)
You've probably never seen bats do much more than hang there like this, but this critter actually demonstrated a unique behavior -- it crawled along the underside of the rope that's spanning the picture.
A serval. Very quick and agile.
In addition to all of the shows and demonstrations, it's not uncommon to have animals wandering the park with their keepers. Here's your chance to pet a porcupine...
...and a snake. There are lots of reptiles throughout Discovery Kingdom.
And another. Alligator Isle is a decent sized habitat that seems to be quite popular with park guests.
It's like being back in the Everglades.
The gators were relatively active (as far as gator activity goes) while I was there, which allowed for a couple nice pictures. Is this one smiling for the camera?
One last animal exhibit -- Butterfly Habitat.
There are lots of butterflies to be seen here, many fluttering through the air and many sipping nectar while perched atop a flower. I always enjoy walking through butterfly greenhouses, and this is a great example.
A final parting shot of the park. While Discovery Kingdom may not have the *most* spectacular collection of Six Flags coasters, 1) you might not know it by this impressive skyline, and 2) with everything else it does have it's still a pretty darn good Six Flags park.
After Discovery Kingdom, I made a non-theme park stop, spending a couple hours at the Golden Gate Bridge.
I didn't just drive across, but walked across too. The bridge spans 4200 feet, so round trip it offers a nice mile-and-a-half walk.
The view from the opposite side. The highest point at the center of the bridge is approximately 220 feet above the water below.
That concludes the first half of my August 2013 trip. I did pay a quick visit to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, but this was the summer that Undertow's opening was delayed, so I didn't spend much time there. I'll return to the Boardwalk at some point in the future for a complete visit (with pictures) now that Undertow has opened.
In the meantime, the second half (the longer half) of my August 2013 trip is coming up next...
WFChris wrote:Question: On the log flume at CGA, did they use both drops? I have yet to see a flume with the dual drops actually utilize both sides.
I want to say no, and I'm pretty sure that's correct, but I will defer to a park regular in case I'm misremembering. As for other flumes with dual drops that do run both sides, Dudley Do-Right at IOA comes to mind.
WFChris wrote:You have a wonderful P:TR going here. Thanks for the excellent read!
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