Thursday, December 02, 2004

Tampa, Florida—Orlando, Florida—Day 306

I woke up this morning and headed to Busch Gardens. I had been here during the spring of my senior year of college for a psychology conference and of course didn’t think I would ever come back. I didn’t even remember there being an animal section to the park. I drove in and found a parking spot, then headed into Busch Gardens after paying my ridiculous $58 admission fee. I took my map and quickly found where the hippos were—in the Edge of Africa portion of the park. After a bit of walking, I made it to the area and soon found the hippo’s enclosure with a nice big underwater viewing area.

Unfortunately, there were no hippos. Actually, this was good. This meant that the hippos hadn’t been let outside yet and I would be able to photograph them coming out instead of just them in the water through the glass. So I got myself ready. I picked what I thought would be the best place to stand and made sure no one got in my way. Since I was standing right up next to the glass, I didn’t think this would be a problem. But, as small children came and went, apparently I was standing in a prime spot to see the turtles in the water. So I moved a bit, letting people come and go, always keeping my eyes out for the hippos.

Did I mention that there were a TON of fish in the enclosure? I mean, TONS of fish. I have never seen so many in an enclosure and the water was sparkling blue so you could see every blue and yellow and green and silver fish that swam by with great clarity. It all seemed so fake, yet so stunning at the same time. I stood there for a good hour before anything exciting happened. That’s when a group of elderly people came over—probably five or so all together—and they stood there for a long time with me examining all the different types of fish. “That’s a catfish!” one would announce and the others would turn and try to see just where it was and if it truly was a catfish. I watched in amusement until I heard a big SLASH! “The hippos came out!” one shouted and indeed, they had.

Two hippos had somehow been let out and had seriously plunged into the water causing a great stir with the fish. And I missed it! That’s what I get for watching the funny old people. Dang. I tried to get into a good spot to see the hippos in the water but fortunately the pair decided to get out of the water just as quickly as they went in, but getting out on the opposite side to which they came in.

Ahh, I see. There was a huge pile of hay laid out on the other side and the hippos began munching on it eagerly. This would mean that I would have yet another wait—the time it takes two hippos to devour a pile of hay—and so I took my spot again by the window, this time not budging until those hippos went into the water.

My determinism finally paid off. After about a half an hour and many strange looks (“ What IS that girl looking at?”) the hippos finally finished their breakfast. You could tell that they were a mother and baby pair by their size. Mom finished her food first and nicely eased herself into the water. Click click click. Baby soon followed and I took pictures with my camera as she eased herself into the water with the same grace that Mom had, stopping every so often which was great for me. Click click.

“Oh Ray,” exclaimed one woman to her husband as I stepped down from my perch, “We missed the getting into the water! That would have been a great photograph!”


The hippos swam around a bit and I watched them and tried to take pictures when I can. Problem with hippo enclosures such as this are that they usually draw crowds once the hippos are in the water making it difficult to get a good picture with everyone vying to see the hippos all at once.

When the hippos finally settled down after a bit of swimming and when it seemed like they wouldn’t move again for a while I decided that enough was enough—I would wait until my tour to get any more photos. I left and after catching the end of a stage show (and being the only one in the audience under the age of 65) I got lunch and went to my meeting spot for the tour and waited for 1:15 to roll around.

When it finally did I checked in for my tour and waited for the tour guide to show up. HE finally did and it turned out that the other people on my tour were a family that stayed at my hotel last night (whom I recognized form breakfast). They were an overenthusiastic father with dyed blonde hair with some sort of business that allows him to work whenever he wants while “raking in the money,” the mother who didn’t really talk the entire time which made me wonder how on earth they were even married because he wouldn’t stop talking and their two slightly chubby children who seemed content to be dragged along on Dad’s “dream” to show his children the animals at the park. Both children seemed like they were having a good time (although the poor little boy was too scared to pet any of the animals).

Anyways, our tour guide was Fred—a mid-thirties guy who actually went to Carleton (a college near Macalester where I went in Minnesota) and his trusty assistant whom I can’t remember her exact name. I think it was Christina. Anyways, Fred and Christina took us first to the Clydesdale horses (the Budweiser trademark horse) and we got to pet several of them. I played along and pretended that I was interested in the other animals but of course we all know that I wasn’t! I tired to play it cool when they asked me why I was on this tour alone (as if being alone is some sort of disease) and I told them that my boss loves hippos and sent me to photograph these ones. Their eyes widened and I could tell they were excited. Really? He LOVES hippos? I smiled and played it off—I didn’t really want to go into the whole description of what I was doing. Plus I practically had two more hours to spend with these people and I really didn’t feel up to fending questions the whole time. So I left it at that—my boss loves hippos and I am here photographing them for him, which, I might add, is totally true.

Luckily it didn’t take us too long to get to the hippos. We watched the pair from the underwater viewing area and then headed behind the scenes through a gate around the other side. Alright, THIS is what I was talking about!

We headed in and there had to be six zookeepers standing with one of the hippos. It was like they were all there at once. Since I already had an idea of the hippo’s names (I had emailed Busch Gardens two days ago and got an emailed response with their names) I was able to ask who was who. Turned out that Moxie (the baby) and Cleopatra (the mother) were outside and there was Kiboko (Moxie’s father), Moyo and Eva inside. Apparently it was Moyo standing in front of me. Click click. They were doing a training session wit Moyo, something I had never seen before. They were training him to stand in certain places so that they could do medical checks on him (drawing blood, taking his weight, things like that). They had this huge pole with a white knob on the end which they would place on Moyo’s nose. He was doing a great job and would move back and forth according to their calls and demands. It was great! Luckily my tour group members humored me and we were able to stay for a long time watching them. They eventually brought Eva out too (the oldest of the hippos—and the biggest even though she was just put on a diet and lost 2,000 pounds!) and I was able to get pictures of the two of them.

We left the hippos and I was satisfied. I didn’t get pictures of Kiboko but that was ok, I had four out of the five which was great considering we didn’t even know about them before.

The rest of the tour was pretty cool—we went all around and visited all sorts of animals, listening to Fred and Christina’s extremely enthusiastic descriptions of them all. Feeding the black rhinoceros was the highlight for me since it is SO funny to watch them eat. They have his bizarre nose bit that is just truly weird to watch. We fed the giraffes and rode around on a safari truck, then went to the animal hospital where the babies are raised. The tour ended and I headed out of Busch Gardens back to the car, happy with the day.

I drove back to Orlando, found my hotel and checked in. I then went back to the airport and picked up Lyda, my twelve year old little sister from my dad’s second marriage. Since she was traveling as an unaccompanied minor, I was able to go into the terminal area with a special gate pass. It was odd walking through the airport with absolutely no one in it, and without carrying any luggage! I waited at the gate as she came out. We headed to the grandma mobile and loaded her stuff into the car, then drove back to the hotel. Lyda was unable to hold back her excitement as we planned the three days of Disney that were ahead. As we settled down into our beds, I couldn’t help but think, what had I gotten myself into? I mean, I could handle anything—time zones, language barriers, 5,000 pound animals—but I knew that I was definitely in for it now.