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Are we still in Tampa?

The thrills and chills of Bush Garden's Rhino Rally can make you think you really are on an African safari.

By NICHOLAS LINGUANTI

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 10, 2001


The thrills and chills of Bush Garden's Rhino Rally can make you think you really are on an African safari.

TAMPA -- A race to the finish in a Land Rover, a ride over bumpy terrain, encounters with African elephants and a heard of wild rhinos. Suddenly you are hit with a flash flood, helpless when a pontoon bridge breaks away and your vehicle is swept into the swirling water. Could it get any worse?

Well, yes. Now you are heading straight for a huge waterfall! Will you finish the rally? Or will the rally finish you?

You can feel like Indiana Jones on Busch Gardens' newest attraction, Rhino Rally, which is back in operation after a monthlong shutdown this summer while the park modified the course. The renovations were made after two passengers went to the hospital when a Land Rover tipped over on a sharp curve shortly after the ride opened.

I took this rugged off-road adventure before the June accident and after the ride reopened, and even though there was a little glitch on my second visit, I loved the up-close animal encounter that ends up as a spectacular raging-river thrill ride. (During my second visit, just as the ride was about to reach the water, the driver explained there was a problem with the track and that we'd have to head back to the station. The problem was fixed and the ride was running again about 20 minutes later.)

The first time I tried Rhino Rally, I was skeptical. I thought the commercial I'd seen was just some made-up extravaganza for the television cameras. Boy, was I wrong! This ride blended components of a great thrill ride: not too adventurous or scary, but not too boring! Our driver was really funny, and you could tell he liked what he was doing.

My favorite part was when our travels unexpectedly changed from off-road safari to on-water adventure. As we went through an African jungle, we heard a storm approaching. Next, huge rain drops hit the windshield. Then, it was raining buckets! We slowly approached a pontoon bridge that would change my view of this ride. A peaceful waterfall quickly turned into a raging rush of water. We heard creaking and cracking. Splash! Our Land Rover floated free as the pontoon bridge broke apart.

As our driver tried to reassure us that everything would be okay, we spun under waterfalls and bumped into rocks, wild water churning around us all the while. With a slam into some wooden debris, our soggy vehicle finally returned to dry land.

I remembered I was in a theme park and not in the wild terrain of an African safari; I had forgotten for a minute where I really was! Now that's when you know you've had a great ride experience. Who wants to ride again?

- Nick Linguanti, 14, is in the ninth grade at the Largo High School 21st Century Learning Center and is a former member of the Times X-Team.

TIPS for a WILD RIDE

I wasn't prepared for the wait to get on the ride; it was more than an hour shortly after the attraction opened. As Busch Gardens works out the kinks, ride shutdowns should be less frequent and delays fewer. The recently introduced Quick Queue, which gives up to 160 people an hour a voucher for a ride at a specific time, pares down the wait for voucher holders to five minutes. Be sure to drink lots of water, especially if you don't have a voucher, because much of the line is out in the open.

Expect to get wet! In the first weeks of the ride's operation, Busch Gardens made adjustments so the waterfall would hit directly on the top of the Land Rover instead of drenching passengers, but you still can get splashed.

Animals you might see: white rhinos, elephants, Cape buffalo, Nile crocodiles, antelope, zebras, warthogs, gazelles, wildebeest and flamingos. (Only elephants and a few flamingos were visible on my trip.)

You board a 17-passenger, free-driving Land Rover.

The ride lasts 8 to 10 minutes.

Rhino Rally is included in the price of park admission.

Park admission: Adults, $47.95; children (3-9), $38.95

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