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SOS Rhino : In the News : Archived News : May 2000 : Charging Ahead

Charging Ahead

St. Petersburg Times
May 11, 2000

TAMPA - Busch Gardens reveals an animal encounter-thrill ride attraction in its battle with bigger parks.

For months, the managers at Busch Gardens have been dropping hints that they were conjuring up a blockbuster attraction for the spring of 2001.

Would it be another action-adventure ride? Or some new way to bring visitors close to the wild animals inside the Tampa theme park's replica of the African Serengeti plains?

Turns out it's both, and that's a combination no other park has tried.

In its struggle to compete with the bigger and better-funded Orlando theme parks, Busch Gardens on Wednesday revealed plans for an unusual attraction called Rhino Rally that is partly an off-road African safari and partly a river ride.

The ride will start with visitors boarding a 16-passenger, open-air Land Rover for a tour over the rugged terrain, coming within 15 feet of elephants, white rhinos, antelope, alligators, cape buffalo and other species. After some misadventures, the Land Rover will drive onto a shaky pontoon bridge that is abruptly wiped out by a mock flash flood, carrying the vehicle, and the presumably thrilled passengers, spiraling down a river.

"This is an incredibly innovative concept . . . unlike anything any guest has ever seen anywhere in the world," said Robin Carson, Busch's general manager and executive vice president. "It is going to set us completely apart from everyone else."

Or so she hopes.

In the past decade, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay slipped from sixth to ninth in attendance among the nation's theme parks. As Orlando rivals Universal Studios Escape and Walt Disney World lavished more than $ 4-billion between them upgrading rides and opening two new parks, Busch Gardens attendance stayed flat for two years, then dropped 9 percent to 3.9-million in 1999.

Anheuser-Busch, the beer giant that owns Busch Gardens and other theme parks, spent $ 162-million last year on capital improvements spread over its collection of nine parks in six states. Busch won't say how much it is spending on Rhino Rally.

Tampa Mayor Dick Greco, whose enthusiasm for Busch Gardens includes frequent park visits, said he thinks Busch Gardens will spend whatever it takes to keep up with the Disneys. "I think there's more (investment) to come," Greco said, based on recent conversations he has had with August Busch III, head of Anheuser-Busch.

Greco was among 75 guests and media representatives on hand for Wednesday's event. The visitors climbed into the back of trucks and were shuttled to a tent inside the park.

Surrounding them were dozing rhinos on one side and charging bulldozers on the other, the heavy machines already carving out the 16-acre parcel on the western fringe of the 65-acre Serengeti plain that will be dedicated to Rhino Rally.

Inside the tent, Busch pulled out all the stops. A troupe of high-powered African dancers. A roving quartet, and performers decked out in African tribal gear and safari gear. Plus an appearance by celebrity animal handler and Busch consultant Jack Hanna, who effused that Rhino Rally promises to be the closest thing he's seen to a real African safari.

The Rhino Rally picks up on a persistent theme at Busch: blurring the lines between "animal space" and "people space."

About 1,600 guests per hour will be shuttled through the ride, structured as a "competition" for an off-road trophy.

Toward the end of the eight-minute ride, the Land Rover is "swept away" on a river, attached all the while to a track under the water. The vehicle navigates through a narrow canyon and is doused by a waterfall before making it to another bridge marking the end of the ride.

Next month, about 29 acres of the renovated Serengeti will open as home to more than 300 animals, the park's biggest new animal habitat in 30 years.

The Rhino Rally section, set to open in spring 2001, will involve about 130 animals, including antelope, zebra, buffalo and elephants already at Busch. Two white rhinos for the exhibit are coming from the San Diego Zoo.

Natural barriers such as rock spires and mud wallow will separate safari riders from potentially dangerous elephants and buffalo. But the rhinos will be able to come within 15 feet of the Land Rovers without any barrier.

Busch downplayed safety concerns, noting that the Land Rovers are constantly moving, stay in radio contact and have another vehicle 10 minutes behind them in case of mechanical failure.

And in a worst-case scenario? "If a rhino should charge, these vehicles are built to withstand it," Carson said. Land Rover is custom-making the vehicles for the park.

Carson would not discuss projected revenues from the ride, except to say the attraction is key to invigorating attendance. After a disappointing start in 2000, Busch attendance has rebounded due to a popular promotion.

In April, the park hit new attendance records as Florida residents snapped up passes that allow them unlimited entry into the park for the rest of the year after paying once.

Busch, trying to increase revenue wherever it can, plans to decorate the new ride's Land Rover with the logos of sponsors.

- Information from Times files was used in this report.




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