I grew up in the theme park Busch Gardens and its water park sister Adventure Island. They were my babysitters. They were Grandma’s house. They were home. They were where I went when school was out for the summer, where I went when I was too sick for school or where I went when the parents didn't want me around for the day. They were where my sister and I did our homework and worked on after school projects. We weren’t latch key kids. We were turn style key kids. “Pick you up at the gate at 5” was as synonymous as “Don’t give your grandma a hard time.” Growing up, my parents both worked in management there. He was the VP of Marketing. She did the same but for the Special Events department. Both titles had there own distinctive perks for two spoiled theme park kids. Marketing, through the eyes of a child, was more about trade than advertising. We had plenty of coupons and free food cards to eat wherever the current ad campaign was partnered. One month it may be a stack of free Taco Bell tacos for dinner. The next we’d have our fill of subway six inch meatball subs.
Special events was hosting parties after the park closed. Often we’d pack up our homework and have to go to the park at sunset. After dining on whatever the banquet was serving for their guests we’d ride the rides until forced to do homework. The lure to finish was the promise of Churro’s and Strawberry Mirage’s for dessert from the stand outside the dolphin show. You might think the lure would be the actual dolphin show. When you’ve seen it as many times as we had it becomes no lure at all. Yet the dolphins get excited and jump through the same hoop for the same raw fish as last night?
During these events, the party would be held in one of the many themed sections of the park. The company would rent a section and have all the rides and shops open for them during their event. This would mean we’d have all the rides and shops open for us. Being that there were often more rides than people… there would be no lines. We’d have our run of the park. Ride all the rides we wanted or hit the water slides until our bathing suits wore thin. Often we’d not even get off the ride... they would just run it until we told them to stop or it looked as if we were too sick to continue.
Busch Gardens is an African based them park. Even though I’ve never been to Africa, I feel that I am somewhat of an expert. I grew up in the suburbs of Tampa but African craftsman, belly dancers and snake charmers were my neighbors. As a child, I could probably bang out a brass pot or weave a leather sandal given the right tools. My treasure map was the printed park map or Busch Gardens. My friends would play hide and seek in Timbuktu or in the Congo or take a nap along the train ride through the African plains. I would wait for my father along the eastern edge of Lake Victoria or outside Stanley Falls. I'd use my Busch Bucks to buy a pith helmet from the gift shop to go along with the rest of my theme park wardrobe at home. The place that kept me most entertained was the Sultans Arcade. If the parents were looking for me… they knew to look in the arcade. I grew up thinking how great it would be to work in a game room. (I was given that chance in high school and it wasn’t that great.) I was there for the release of all the great games of the late 70’s and 80’s. This was my babysitter and home away from home. Being that I was there every day the clerk would give me a key to open the game and manually trigger the switch to simulate feeding it a quarter. I was there the day Paperboy came out. I was there the day Dig-dug was delivered. I remember watching them take the plastic off Hard-Drivin. But I was also there when they wheeled some of the greats out to sell them off to bars or laundry mats. My games were shipped out to undeserving drunks who would actually pay money to play them.
Walking around the parks now as an adult I have the nostalgic feeling of going home for a visit. Like seeing your babysitters house from an adult eye... things look a lot smaller. I am reminded of so many pivotal moments from my childhood. Where I fought with my best friend or where I was shutdown after revealing a crush on a schoolgirl. I can pick out the spots where I was scolded for arguing with my sister and where we’d both have to sit and do our homework until we got along.
Maybe one day I'll make it the actual Stanley Falls. I hope they sell Churro's.