The Muppets are preparing to move in at Busch Gardens. The Tampa theme park plans to open its Sesame Street Safari of Fun area with a small roller coaster, water elements, playground and photo ops in March.
A tour of the construction zone last week revealed workers pounding away at several aspects of the area. Most apparent on the landscape is Air Grover, a family coaster featuring the friendly blue character sporting a World War I pilot outfit and giving a thumbs up. (The rear is brought up by a camel character.)
It's geared to children, of course, but it's not devoid of thrill elements. It maxes out at 23 mph and a hill that should look pretty dang high — 23 feet — to little guests. A snarkier person might call Air Grover a gateway-drug coaster because it temptingly stands in the shadows of the more adult, more intense SheiKra and Gwazi.
"Busch Gardens for a long time has had a wonderful inventory of roller coasters, arguably the strongest in the Southeast. But we didn't have your child's first coaster ride," says Donnie Mills, Busch Gardens' executive vice president and general manager. "With Air Grover, we do."
The height requirement for Air Grover will be 38 inches if accompanied by an adult, 41 inches for solo riders.
"It will be perfect for children and parents to ride together," says Mark Rose, vice president for design and engineering.
Air Grover photos available for purchase will read "my first coaster ride."
Another major attraction will be the water-play area named Bert & Ernie's Watering Hole with water jets, dumping buckets and geysers. Splash zones are big hits in many attractions, from Gatorland to Epcot.
"We think it's going to be incredibly popular," Mills says.
Interaction with Sesame Street characters will be common in the new area, Busch officials say. Adjacent to the Bert & Ernie water attraction will be a pavilion to host character breakfasts and lunches.
"Ten of the Sesame characters will be here all the time," Mills says. The walk-around versions of Muppets — including Cookie Monster, Elmo and the Count — will promenade through the Safari of Fun five times a day, ending with a stage show.
A meet-and-greet building called 1-2-3 Smile With Me includes a very tall doorway through which very tall Big Bird will enter for photo ops.
"Characters are an integral part of the experience," Mills says. "We can't do it without them"
The new area, wedged between the park's Bird Gardens and Stanleyville, will replace its Land of the Dragons kiddie area.
"This is really a nice progression and nice fit through the play elements and activities — quite honestly an area we needed to do a little better in was young children," Mills says.
Other things to expect from Safari of Fun:
•Muppet merchandise will carry Busch Gardens branding. "It will be different than what you can buy at other retailers," Rose says.
•A mural of animal silhouettes will incorporate Big Bird at its center. "That shows he's truly come to Busch Gardens," Rose says.
•Land of Dragons rides are being retooled into a Sesame Street motif and renamed. Look forward to Elmo's Safari Go-Round, Snuffy's Elephant Romp, the Count's Zambezi Rally and Zoe-Patra & the Hippos of the Nile. Some previous ride characters will be given googly "Sesame eyes" to complete the redecoration.
•A new swing ride will be called Rosita's Djembe Fly-Away.
•The pastel look will be repainted with "Sesame colors." Think primary.
•The Muppet influence will go beyond the gate of Safari of Fun. A "4-D" movie called Sesame Street Presents Lights, Camera, Imagination will be presented in a theater in the Timbuktu area of Busch Gardens.
This column was brought to you by the letter B and the number 7.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun