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Busch Gardens Tampa Bay is part thrill ride, part animal park and all fun, even for families with kids on the autism spectrum. Find out everything you need to know about visiting the theme park with kids, including which park ticket to buy, whether the All-Day Dining Plan is a good deal and how the park does (and sometimes does not) accommodate families with kids who have sensory sensitivities.
The writer was hosted.
As a traveling family with thrill-seeking kiddos, we love to experience different theme parks. While planning our trip to Tampa, FL, we kept hearing about Busch Gardens. I will be honest, I was a bit nervous. Between having a kiddo on the autism spectrum and a smaller kiddo, I was concerned that we would not be able to find something for everyone.
But, boy, was I wrong! Exploring different animal habitats, trekking through the Sesame Street Safari of Fun and getting their thrill ride fix, was an absolute blast for my kiddos! Busch Gardens is definitely one of the best things to do in Florida with kids.
In addition to the Tampa Bay Busch Gardens that we cover here, there’s also a Busch Gardens theme park in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Pro Tip: To ensure Florida travel is accessible to people of all abilities, VISIT FLORIDA has recently debuted three new videos in its “Limitless Florida” series highlighting how people of different abilities can – and do – enjoy Florida’s experiences fully. For example, Kennedy Space Center offers a guide for families with autism to prepare for a visit. St. Augustine has a Braille Trail that lets visually-impaired visitors explore tactile art while listening to free audio descriptions via an app. New Smyrna Beach and Daytona Beach offer free non-motorized beach wheelchair rentals. Get all of the state’s accessibility resources at the VISIT FLORIDA Accessible Travel Hub.
What to Do Before Your Busch Gardens Tampa Bay Visit
First things first, let’s talk about theme park prep. Throughout my travels, I have learned that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” and Busch Gardens is no exception, especially if you are visiting with kids and a kiddo with autism.
Buy Your Busch Gardens Tickets Online, in Advance.
Busch Gardens has different ticket options, and you can save yourself a ton of time by purchasing online. If you are looking to have an ultimate family adventure, you can also purchase a 2-, 3- or even 4-park ticket. These options get you admission into any combination of these four theme parks:
- Busch Gardens
- SeaWorld Orlando
- Aquatica Orland
- Adventure Island
With the “Four Park: Unlimited Visits and Free Parking” ticket you have 14 days to visit those 4 parks as many times as you’d like with free parking!
The Fun Card Option will get you unlimited visits to Busch Gardens and Adventure Island Water Park through December 31, 2022. At little more than the cost of a single-day ticket, it’s a great option if you’ll be in the area for a few days.
If you’re just looking for a single-day ticket, your best bet (and cheapest option) is to purchase a dated ticket online. Prices start at $89.99 for dated tickets while undated tickets are $124.99.
Pro Tip: Busch Gardens proudly supports military families so watch for special offers throughout the year, including a free ticket promotion for up to 4 family members.
Ticket Add-Ons and Extras for Busch Gardens Tampa Bay
When exploring online ticket options, you’ll be presented with a lot of extras.
Here are the ones we tried and when they’ll come in handy:
Quick Queue at Busch Gardens
Be sure to check out the options for Quick Queue. Now you may be wondering, is there truly a benefit to purchasing a “skip the line” pass? If you are traveling with kids, especially kids who aren’t so good at waiting in lines, this is a resounding YES! If you are visiting on the weekend, Quick Queue lets you fit more fun into your day.
Another major factor is that Busch Gardens does not offer a child swap for their rides. This can quickly become a time warp for your day if you are traveling with kiddos under the height requirements or those not into thrill rides.
The most efficient way to use the Quick Queue is to check the wait times for the most popular attractions and then make a plan. We opted for the Quick Queue Unlimited, which is a great value. The newest roller coaster, Iron Gwazi, has a one-time use stipulation, but all other rides are fair game for repeated rides throughout the day!
Busch Gardens Tampa has two different parking options: regular and preferred parking. If you purchase preferred parking ahead of time, you save a bit of money and save your legs by being able to walk right into the park.
This was a lifesaver for us because we travel with a stroller, and sometimes taking everything out to fold it up for the tram can be a pain.
Pro Tip: If you are an early riser traveling with younger kiddos, you can request stroller parking. However, be warned that these spots get snapped up quickly if you are visiting on the weekend.
Busch Gardens Tampa All-Day Dining
Busch Gardens offers an All-Day Dining plan that allows you to get an entrée, a side dish or dessert, and a drink every 90 minutes. We spent a full day at Busch Gardens, and after two meals, the All-Day Dining plan had more than paid for itself.
My kiddo on the autism spectrum is a picky eater. Having multiple restaurant options throughout the day was great. The All-Day Dining plan can be used at:
- Zambia Smokehouse
- Dragon Fire Grill
- Oasis Pizza at Serengeti Overlook
- Zagora Café
It is important to note that you aren’t required to get a full meal every 90 minutes; you can get just a drink. This option truly came in handy on a hot day.
All-Day Dining Plan Tip: If you are unsure about what options count, ASK. There is not a lot of clear signage explaining which items are included in the All-Day Dining plan, which can be a bit frustrating when you get to the register. We learned this the hard way when visiting the new Chick-fil-A location in Jungala when we ordered our “usual,” which always includes a sweet tea and lemonade. As we were checking out, we were informed that those items are considered “Chick-fil-A specialty items” and not included in the All-Day Dining Plan. We made an $8+ mistake, so you don’t have to!
Read More: Best Resorts on the West Coast of Florida
Pack a Theme Park Day Bag Like a Pro
One of the freedoms of having the All-Day Dining plan was that I did not have to pack snacks to hold us over throughout the day; however, I still needed to pack a bag with some essentials:
- Be sure to wear comfy shoes as the day will require a ton of walking; this is not the time for breaking in brand new shoes.
- The Florida sun can be brutal, so it is important to pack sunscreen with a good SPF. In addition, Florida is known for sporadic sun showers, so be sure to pack a poncho to stay dry.
- If you are in the park on a hot day, be sure to pack a change of clothing in the event of an accident or if the kiddos want to play at the splash pads.
- Consider bringing a stroller or renting one. The park is HUGE, and it can be challenging for little legs to keep up.
Busch Gardens Tampa Bay Rides and Attractions
Let’s get to the good stuff… the RIDES! My kiddos are 5 and 9, so we made a ride plan according to their likes and heights; this is a critical step of theme park prep. There is nothing worse than walking up to the queue for a ride your kiddo is excited to ride only to find out that they are not tall enough. A quick measure at home can give you a clear idea of the height range you have to operate in.
One of our favorite ways to park plan as a family is to look up rides and attractions and then watch POV YouTube videos of the ride. This is essential for my kiddo on the autism spectrum because waiting queues can have very elaborate theming, which may deter an apprehensive kiddo from even trying the ride. In addition, watching the video before can often give us an idea of what the waiting queue looks like and the ride’s intensity.
Our favorite Busch Gardens Tampa Bay Kid Rides & Attractions:
- Sesame Street Safari of Fun
- Elmo’s Treehouse Trek
- Cookie Monster Cloud Bounce
- Air Grover Roller Coaster
- Let’s Play Together Show (Character Meet-n-Greet after the show)
- Bert & Ernie’s Watering Hole
See the Animals at Busch Gardens
- Serengeti Express Train
- Animal Ambassador Insider Tour (reservations encouraged)
- Serengeti Safari Tour. This tour comes at an additional cost but you’ll spend 30 minutes on an off-road tour across Busch Gardens’ 65-acre Serengeti Plain.
Also, make time to check out the Animal Care Center. You might recognize it from the TV series, The Wildlife Docs. You can observe animals being cared for here and get a glimpse of some of the 200 species being cared for.
Parents’ Favorite Busch Gardens Tampa Rides:
- Cheetah Hunt. Triple launch roller coaster that is the park’s longest coaster. 48” to ride
- Cobra’s Curse. This spin coaster is designed for families. Height requirement is 48” to ride alone or 42” when accompanied by someone 14 and above.
- Montu. With seven inversions and an Immelmann loop, this coaster brings the thrills. Must be 54″ to ride.
- SheiKra. With a 200 foot drop and a splashdown finale, this coaster will have you shrieking. Must be 54″ to ride.
Is Busch Gardens Autism Friendly?
Busch Gardens is definitely disability-friendly. The park offers clear guidance on how it supports guests with disabilities. With that being said, there are some great options in place for kids on the autism spectrum and some things that could be improved.
The Special Access Pass is a must for kiddos on the autism spectrum; even if the park doesn’t seem crowded, it is better to have it than to arrive at a desired ride and have to go all the way to the entrance to register.
A few key items present at our favorite autism-friendly theme parks, such as SeaWorld Parks (Busch Gardens’ parent company), are the sensory guides and, most notably, the designated quiet areas/rooms. It was apparent that these supports were missing, especially when entering loud shows and live entertainment.
However, we were pleased to discover that the garden area of Busch Gardens doubles as the perfect sensory break area.
Tips for Enjoying Busch Gardens with Autism
Get a Ride Accessibility Program (RAP) or Special Access Pass
The Special Access Pass is a virtual queue that allows kiddos on the spectrum to get a return time for attractions without standing in the queue line (similar to the DAS pass at Disney).
It is important to note that this is not a “skip the line” pass. Your kiddo will still have to wait, but the difference is that they do not have to stand in line. For many kiddos on the Autism Spectrum, waiting can lead to meltdowns, so this return option allows you to get food, ride attractions with shorter lines or take a break while you wait.
The Special Access Pass covers the guest who has a disability and up to 5 additional guests for the rides and attractions listed on the yellow pass.
To enroll in the Special Access Pass for kiddos with disabilities, visit Guest Relations. Guest Relations is immediately to the left after you enter the park turnstiles.
Pro Tip: Be sure to cover this process when preparing your child for your Busch Gardens visit. It can be potentially upsetting if your child assumes they can walk right onto a ride. You should also download the Busch Gardens app to do some quick math about return times before heading to a ride.
When Should I arrive at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay?
Plan your day to arrive later in the morning or early afternoon, especially if visiting on the weekend. The crowds at opening can be incredibly overwhelming for kiddos with sensory sensitivities.
Family-Friendly/Companion Restroom Locations
- Sesame Street Safari of Fun (behind Snack-n-geti)
- Pantopia (First Aid Center)
- Congo (next to Bumper Cars)
- Egypt (next to Montu roller coaster)
Plan for Quiet Time
It can be hard to stop having fun spontaneously, so we try to schedule a break time into our day. These can be natural breaks like having meals, but they can also be medication times or designated sensory breaks.
Have a “Call It” Plan
For every trip, we have a “call it” plan. The basics of the “call it” plan are that we go with the pace of my kiddo on the autism spectrum. This means that we may ride the same ride repeatedly, or we may breeze past other parts of the park.
But regardless, when she calls it or when we notice that sensory breaks are no longer working, we wrap up the day and head home.
It is better to hold the sweet memories you have than to force additional time.
Resources for Your Busch Gardens Tampa Bay Visit
We know that planning a trip can be a lot of work, especially if your family has unique needs. Ensuring you have access to available information ahead of time can be crucial. Here are some of the resources that helped us so that you don’t need to dig for them.
- Busch Gardens Park Map (you can also download and print this!)
- Accessibility Guide for Busch Gardens Tampa Bay (There is a downloadable guide here as well as accommodations, resources, and recommendations that they can provide).
- Event Calendar for Busch Gardens – Some events like the Wine Festival, Howl-O-Scream, and Busch Gardens Christmas Town can attract larger crowds to the park so it’s always good to see if your visit will coincide with a special event.
Marquita Smith-Straus is a Georgia-based IBCCES Certified Autism Travel Professional and travel writer. She is the voice behind Tribe on a Quest and MomAndMommy. Her areas of expertise include homeschooling, queer parenting and traveling with family, including autism spectrum considerations.
M Shore says
Busch gardens tampa most definitely has child swap