That's not even factoring in Interstate 4 traffic and/or construction along the 90-mile trek from downtown Orlando to Tampa. So, because a train doesn't appear in our foreseeable future, Busch Gardens must use something shiny to get my attention.
The longtime entertainer (and "Love Boat" guest star) appeared last week as part of the park's Real Music concert series. She sang, danced, played the guitar and good-naturedly kidded about her Spanish accent. But because it can't be cuchi-cuchi all the time in Tampa, what else can lure folks from Orlando?
Busch Gardens combines a lot of theme-park goodness into one spot, from wild animals to shows to a great collection of roller coasters to areas that appeal to young and old. But here are five things at the Tampa park that you just can't get at our Universal, SeaWorld or Disney World.
Yes, we've been able to spot the Sesame Street set on a seasonal basis at SeaWorld Orlando, sister park to Busch Gardens. But the Sesame Street Safari of Fun resides permanently at Busch Gardens, with the Air Grover roller coaster, a slew of mild rides, water splash zones, photo ops and a stage show called "A Is for Africa," which features dancing (and bigger-than-life) characters.
Don't laugh: Hyenas
A look at the park map illustrates how much territory is dedicated to wildlife. The Serengeti Plain and Edge of Africa areas dominate the east side, and there are some animals not seen in Orlando. One we enjoyed watching was a hyena, which didn't seem nearly as amused as its animatronic counterpart in "it's a small world" at Magic Kingdom.
On the other side of the park is Walkabout Way, which features a kangaroo-feeding area. They weren't feeling so bouncy when I visited, choosing to relax among the wallabies. (Bonus points to Busch for mapping out how to see all the animals in a self-guided tour.)
Wood — you dare?
A gaping hole in the Orlando roller coaster lineup is our lack of a traditional wooden coaster. We could almost count Cypress Gardens' Starliner, but it didn't make the cut in Legoland Florida's plans.
Busch Gardens sports a two-sided wooden monster called Gwazi, with two distinct but interwoven courses. The ride, built in 1999, has the clack-clack-clack sound effect associated with wooden coaster and a rough-and-tumble approach. We were tossed silly, and I was glad my lap bar was just a tad too snug.
Gwazi upgraded to new ride vehicles last year, said to make for a smoother ride, but fear not. It's still a jarring experience.
The track is in place for Busch Gardens' newest coaster, Cheetah Hunt. Front and center at the park is the tallest point of the attraction, which currently has a precarious top-heavy look to it. On the tram in from the parking lot, a man behind me said, "It doesn't even look like a ride." It's a talker, and right now in Orlando, there's no visible construction of thrill rides.
The coaster will shoot through the back of the park and be powered by magnetic propulsion — no giant lift hill.
Cheetah Run, an exhibit featuring real cheetahs, will accompany the ride, set to open in late May.
Reach for the sky
The construction of Cheetah Run put one Busch Gardens attraction on hold. The Skyride is a gondola-style ride that toted guests from the Stanleyville section of the park to a station near Crown Colony restaurant with a side trip that skirts animal exhibits. We haven't had a sky lift in Orlando since Magic Kingdom closed its version in 1999.
When the Tampa ride comes back — and Busch Gardens officials assure me that it will — it will thread one of the Cheetah Hunt loops. Right now, it looks like a close encounter. I'll be back when they're all up and running, with or without the cuchi-cuchi.