Busch Gardens for grownups

By Sue McGarvie and Blaik Spratt, Relationship Therapists and Travel Writers.

As relationship therapists we regularly see couples that are struggling to re-kindle their romance. They are trying to come up with ways to enhance their relationship among busy work schedules, kids, in-laws and the sameness of day-to-day life. The statistics are pretty clear. With a 47.2% divorce rate, (source) couples who are trying to stay married decades after the spark has diminished are aware of the importance of both date nights, and the need for regular “romance adventure” get-aways. Rutgers University in New Jersey did a study that suggested that adrenaline-inducing adventure seeking is among the key characteristics of couples that continue to feel supported, loved and protected by their partners.

So when looking for affordable adventures for ordinary couples, we’ve come up with a series of ideas or what we call love excursions.

This month’s idea is prompted by cold, bleak December weather, and amazing rates for weekend flights to central Florida. Jet Blue, and American Eagle out of northern New York can get you to Tampa for as little as $220 each return including tax. The cheapest seat we found on Westjet with flights from Montreal and Ottawa was for $518 return all in.

We love the Tampa area for an affordable extra-long weekend holiday when you’re looking to re-connect. The weather is great, and with lots of large hotels, small inns and luxurious resorts in the area there is something for any price range.

This time we visited Busch Gardens. This was not the Busch Gardens we remembered visiting as a kid. They’ve got wild roller coasters, animated shows and up-close animal experiences. Nothing like screaming your head off and grabbing your partner as you shoot straight down the 200 foot, 90-degree drop of SheiKra to kick-start your adrenaline. Your body has a hard time differentiating general excitement from excitement about being with your partner, and roller coasters are a great way to ride out of your comfort zone.

However theme parks are not all created equal. Busch Gardens started as a bird garden to showcase the brewery that shares its name. But over 50 years, it has became a top-tier theme park, complete with a zoo, rides and shows. For people in the know, you can have any number of “up-close” animal experiences. This is where we met Dixie. She’s a hundred and twenty pounds, and stronger than she looks. She’ll blow you kisses and look at you longingly with expressive brown eyes. She held her hand out in a royal wave. She’s an artist, and painted a fridge-worthy picture in primary colours. Although we should note that she ate some of the harmless children’s paint before using it. Dixie is an orangutan.

Part of the Tiger and Orangutan Keeper Experience at Busch Gardens is completely interactive. At Busch Gardens you can play with orangutans. Well, through a protective barrier, but you can share hand signals in order for them to do handstands (which they are very excited to demonstrate), ask them to paint you a picture or mimic your facial expressions. The mammals love the interaction and respond readily. They are not coerced into performing and are absolutely loved by their handlers. The fact that they are so excited to interact with visitors suggests their daily human interaction is a very positive experience.

Busch Gardens also has Serengeti-like grasslands with a full compliment of African animals and an opportunity to play zookeeper with your partner. Seriously, you can muck out an elephant stall if that appeals to you as part of the Elephant Keeper Experience. If that doesn’t sound exciting you can watch a roaring tiger eat a thawed chicken carcass on a Serengeti Night Safari. With a little planning you can talk to the great apes, hug a three-toed sloth, and lay out enrichment items on the elephant habitat.

We were able to go on a Serengeti Night Safari with night-vision monoculars and watch a hippo chomp a pumpkin in half. We had the opportunity to pet a pen-full of kangaroos and wallabies as well as watch a hyena crunch leg bones as easily as we eat a sandwich. During the Night Safari we hand-fed a giraffe from our open-air truck while enjoying a beer in hand.

The night safari was elegant, upscale and fun. Hosted by two sassy employees from the education centre, the night safari included campfire stories, laughs and three stops for refreshments.

Busch Gardens’ Keeper Experiences are booked in small intimate groups of up to six. The animal handlers love showing off their animals and talking passionately about the work they do. The animals know that strangers in the back rooms mean extra treats. And couples get an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to safely interact with real animals. Few people know you can book this private, intimate time with the animals. For creating that adrenaline surge there is nothing more primal that being three feet away from a roaring, lunging tiger.

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