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Gwazi Roller Coaster at Busch Gardens About to Close | Fond Memories of a Classic Wooden Roller Coaster

The blue and yellow trains of the Gwazi roller coaster at Busch Gardens in Tampa, Florida, are about to roll out of the distinctive thatch-roofed loading station one last time.

The iconic theme park recently announced that Gwazi will be closing on February 1, 2015. Let me tell you, I’m going to miss this ride.

Gwazi Closing

When I asked Busch Gardens spokesman Travis Claytor why Gwazi is closing, he told me that the decision to close the roller coaster “was based on several factors, including guest feedback, ride penetration, and operational costs, among others.”


Gwazi Brewed Many Memories at Busch Gardens Tampa

Gwazi Closing

Gwazi opened on June 18, 1999 in an area of the park that was once known for producing beer rather than screams. It was in 1995 that the Anheuser-Busch brewery, which had operated at Busch Gardens since the park opened in 1959, closed. The demolition of the brewery was a long process that would last into 1996, and the land would lay barren for two years after that.

I remember in 1998, news began swirling about the arrival of a wooden roller coaster at Busch Gardens. As I understand, a wooden roller coaster had long been on the Busch family’s wish list, and Tampa had never seen such a ride before. It was on the former brewery grounds that the new wooden roller coaster would rise to life.

Gwazi ClosingBy the end of the 1990s, Busch Gardens had long been known as a roller coaster haven. The park’s first roller coaster came on the scene in 1976 with the opening of the double-corkscrew attraction called the Python. Four years later, the 360°-looping Scorpion debuted. The much larger Kumba and Montu roller coasters would roar into the Tampa park in 1993 and 1996, respectively. All four of those rides, as well as the roller coasters that so far have come after Gwazi at Busch Gardens, were made from steel.

As Gwazi’s wooden bents were topped with track and the ride came together one piece of lumber at a time, the promotional campaign started rolling out in earnest. A huge, pexiglass-covered architectural model of the coming wooden roller coaster was proudly displayed inside the nearby Zagora Café. A Gwazi ride car sat nearby for guests to admire. My sister and I were even tapped to ride with dozens of others in the filming of a Gwazi TV commercial.

My sister and I, who were only in our teenage years at the time, were very excited about the Gwazi — a $10 million ride that, upon its opening, featured two hair-raising tracks intertwined into one unique attraction. The opening night event for the employees at Busch Gardens included an appearance by the aptly named R&B group The Coasters, who sang several hits, including “Yakety-Yak” and “Love Potion #9.” My sister and I even won a toothpick roller coaster design contest. The top prize? A trip to Sandusky, Ohio’s Cedar Point amusement park, the widely proclaimed “Roller Coaster Capital of the World.”

Much to the surprise of many who ride Gwazi today, the wooden roller coaster was originally quite tame, in terms of how “roughly” the ride rode. In fact, the cars shuffled very little over their tracks, and only the fastest areas of the ride — namely the bottoms of the larger drops and the tighter carousel turns — rattled the bones. For the most part, Gwazi remained smooth for at least its first year of operation.

Each of the two tracks is 3,508 feet long, ascending to a height of 105 feet, and featuring 91-foot main drops. With a top speed of 51 miles per hour, the trains on Gwazi’s two distinct tracks would leave the station simultaneously and fly by each other six times at a combined speed of more than 100 miles per hour.

Lines were long during that busy first season of operation, often winding nearly all the way back to the queue’s entry area. And, back in those days, there were two distinctive queue lines — one for the “Tiger” side (which ran blue trains), and the other for the “Lion” track, which fielded yellow toboggans. As the story behind the ride goes by the way, the namesake Gwazi is a mythical beast that’s half lion, half tiger. This tormented soul was at war with itself, thus inspiring the wild nature of the wooden roller coaster.

In many ways, Gwazi also became a ride at war with itself, as years of Florida heat and humidity would cause natural changes to the track — so much so that new Millennium Flyer trains were installed in 2010 to create a smoother ride. These new trains replaced the original toboggan-style cars installed by Gwazi’s builder, Great Coasters International. The new trains did help in creating a smoother riding experience. A year later, my now fiancée and I had our first-ever photo together snapped on that ride.

Of course, all good things must come to an end. The Tiger side of Gwazi quietly closed  after the end of the 2012 season. And now, official news releases from Busch Gardens confirm that the end of Gwazi is near.

So, off I go for one last ride to say goodbye to yet another Busch Gardens roller coaster; the first being the Python in 2006 and now Gwazi nearly a decade later. It’s always sad to bid adieu to classic rides like Gwazi, but the memories shall roll on forever.

Visiting MOSI in Tampa, FL – A Guide to the Museum of Science and Industry

MOSI TampaOne of the foremost museum experiences in Tampa, Florida, area has long been the Museum of Science & Industry (MOSI). I’ve grown up visiting MOSI and continue to enjoy visiting this award-winning science center as an adult.

Offering dozens of hands-on opportunities to engage in the scientific wonders that make up the world around us, MOSI is the largest science museum in the Southeast United States. MOSI offers an IMAX dome movie theater, planetarium, nature trail, butterfly habitat, and hurricane wind simulator, among dozens of other highlights.

One of the most popular exhibits is Kids in Charge! — a wing of the museum dedicated to teaching children about the science principles of the world around us with fun, engaging props and games. Throughout the year, MOSI also hosts several events, including Einstein on Food and Wine, and the Festival of Chocolate.


The History of MOSI in Tampa

MOSI dates back to 1962, when Hillsborough County approved funds for a youth museum in Sulphur Springs on the banks of the Hillsborough River. The small museum was originally named the Museum of Science and Natural History, and in 1967 became the Hillsborough County Museum. By 1972, the museum had its first professional director.

In 1976, the museum acquired its current site and in the late 1970s hired core professional staff to guide the new museum. In 1980, the facility was completed in it was opened to the public in 1982. By the late 1980s, more land was acquired to accommodate a multi-phase growth plan that includes the iconic IMAX dome structure and the Kids in Charge! wing to the west of the main exhibit area.

MOSI is a fully established museum with many credentials, including accreditation from the American Association of Museums and the Association of Science-Technology Centers.


Spending a Day at MOSI in Tampa

A trip to MOSI means planning on at least a half day of non-stop seeing, doing, and exploring. If you go during a busy time of the year, such as the summer, I’d simply allocate an entire day at the museum. I suggest arriving early and check out what is showing at the IMAX theater, which usually plays documentaries geared toward science as well as some popular films.

Sometimes the event floor has a feature exhibit or expo. Right now, 3D Printing the Future is going on, and this free event takes visitors through the amazing world of printing three-dimensional objects ranging from fashion accessories to body parts. You can even play with 3D concepts in the workshop area.

It’s easy to spend an hour or two at the main exhibition hall, and if you’ve got children in tow you’ll probably spend the same amount of time — or more — at Kids in Charge! I personally enjoy presentations at the Saunders Planetarium and riding the high-wire bike that is carefully balanced with a counterweight. Oh — that bike takes you 30 feet over the main lobby floor, so don’t look down!

There’s also a zip line and ropes course, which I’ve not had the chance to partake in yet but have heard is something I must do when I get the opportunity. The multi-level ropes course takes brave souls almost four stories above the ground, and the zip line takes thrill seekers 65 feet up along a total of 700 feet of cable.

Be sure to stop by the BioWorks butterfly garden. You could make hundreds of fluttering friends! On the way out, you might want to take a little trek through the historic tree grove, which flourishes with more than a dozen trees grown from seedlings of trees associated with significant people or events. For example, there’s a sweet gum that’s the seedling of a tree that witnessed the flight of the first airplane. I’m not sure what is more relaxing — time in the BioWorks butterfly garden or a leisurely stroll through the tree grove.


Where is MOSI in Tampa?

MOSI is in North Tampa at 4801 E. Fowler, so it’s right across from the USF Sun Dome and about 1.5 northeast of Busch Gardens, about halfway between I-75 and I-275.

MOSI is open Monday through Friday, 10 AM to 5 PM and Saturday and Sunday 10 AM through 6 PM.

General admission for adults is $22.95 and for kids 6-12 tickets are $18.95. MOSI also participates in CityPASS, the unique combo ticket that gets you into MOSI and other attractions in the area (including Busch Gardens) for a discounted price. Parking is $5.

Alessi Bakery Cuban Sandwiches, Scachatta & Pastries Rule

Alessi Bakery ScachattaTampa has several excellent restaurants that are considered iconic to the city — Alessi Bakery is one of those select places that are among the greats. Alessi Bakery dates back to 1912 and has been an institution in the city ever since.

Alessi Bakery is well known for its great Cuban sandwiches, delicious deviled crabs, sumptuous pastries, and elaborate wedding cakes. And I can’t write this piece without a shout out to the Alessi scachatta.

What is scachatta, you ask?

Scachatta is a type of flat, square pizza. Alessi’s scachatta is a Sicilian recipe involving a soft, evenly textured bread, lightly scattered cheese, a sweet — but not sugary — tomato sauce, and seasoned ground beef.

You could go to Alessi’s just for the scachatta… and many people do. But I have never left with scachatta alone. In fact, a meal at Alessi Bakery for me is never complete without a Cuban sandwich and something from the pastry counter.

And, at the place “where quality rules,” you will never be disappointed when you sink your teeth into an eclair, brownie, or one of their countless specialty sugar cookies. They always have something colorful for the season or nearest holiday, cookies celebrating the local professional sports teams, and they even sell political cookies. They even let you “vote” for your favorite candidate based on which cookies you buy.

Back to those Alessi Cuban sandwiches for a moment. Now, if you’re privy to the Tampa Cuban sandwich wars, you know that everybody has their own idea as to what bakery has the “best” Cuban sandwich, most “authentic” Cuban sandwich, or what have you.

Alessi Cuban sandwiches come on crunchy Cuban bread and are filled with ham, salami, Spanish pork, Swiss cheese, pickles, mustard, and mayonnaise. As diehard Cuban sandwich aficionados know, a “real” Cuban sandwich doesn’t come with lettuce and tomato. If you want either of those on your Alessi Cuban sandwich, you better stop by the sandwich counter for a special order.

And while you’re at that special order counter, which is off to your left when you enter Alessi Bakery, be sure to buy a deviled crab or papa rellena (“stuffed potato”). If you’re like me, you’ll top them off with lots of Texas Pete hot sauce (packets are provided for free at Alessi Bakery) and have lots of napkins on hand (also complimentary!).

Last but not least, the service at Alessi Bakery is top notch. I’ve always been greeted with friendly smiles and helpful, courteous staff. The lines can get a little long during lunch, but isn’t that supposed to be a good thing? When it comes to the restaurant industry, I’ve always heard that long lines equal excellent food. Among the third generation of Alessi Bakery patrons in my family, I can see why this restaurant is as much a tradition in my household as it is in the Greater Tampa community.

If you want to stop on by and see for yourself how great Alessi Bakery is, they’re located at 2909 W. Cypress Street in West Tampa, about two miles west of downtown Tampa and around two miles southeast of Raymond James Stadium.

If the weather is nice, be sure you take some time to enjoy your meal on the covered deck attached to the west side of the bakery, or sit under the shade of the store’s covered front walkway — you will find plenty of tables and chairs in both locations. If you’re heading to the Florida State Fair in February, you can find Alessi Bakery selling their treats to fairgoers inside in the Expo Hall.

Sticks are Now Firing – That Tampa Guy is Here!

Hello, Tampans! I’m Josh McMorrow-Hernandez, A.K.A. “That Tampa   Guy,” and I’m here to share my perspective on the city I love, the “other” City by the Bay — Tampa, Florida. Oh, the title for this first blog post, “Sticks are Now Firing”? If you don’t catch the meaning, that’s OK. I’ll talk more about that historical Tampa pun in a minute. But first, let me tell you more about who I am and why I’m writing this blog.

I was born on May 2, 1981 at Women’s Humana Hospital on Buffalo Avenue, a street that was renamed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Blvd eight years later.  My dad has been an employee at Busch Gardens since 1979; my maternal grandfather was an audio engineer at WTVT-13 from 1955 through 1980, and he and my grandmother ran Colonial Beach on Egypt Lake during the 1950s; my paternal great grandparents were in the  Ybor City cigar industry. Suffice it to say, Tampa courses through my blood.

I grew up with a love for my city and a penchant for putting pen to paper. So it was a surprise to nobody who knew me well when I was growing up that I’d eventually write a book about Carrollwood, the popular Tampa suburb on the fringe of which I had grown up. Writing Images of America: Tampa’s Carrollwood for Arcadia Publishing afforded me the great honor to meet Lois Abbott Yost, a longtime historian and several members of the Bearss family, a name that is familiar to most Tampa-area residents.

I’m now writing my second book, which will be a pictorial journey through the Tampa Bay area’s tourism industry from the second half of the 20th century. Images of Modern America: Tampa Bay Landmarks and Destinations should be on bookshelves in spring 2015 and will hopefully allow many people to relive some great memories of the Tampa of yesteryear.

As much as I study and enjoy Tampa history, I also love the Tampa of today, and you’ll see a lot of both in my posts to come. New restaurant in town? You’ll probably read about here. Big news story going down in Tampa? I may be talking about it. Like “Then-and-Now” photos? I’m sure to post them. My stance on the persistent Cuban Sandwich wars? I’m not going to assume the role of Sweden in that battle. And speaking of Sweden, I may even talk about the Tampa IKEA, the best Tampa restaurants for Swedish meatballs, and ABBA’s Tampa concert — should a reunion tour ever materialize, that is. In other words, this blog will be a “smorgasbord” of Tampa topics, and I hope you’ll keep coming back for seconds, thirds, fourths, and thousandths (P.S. – prepare thyself – I love puns; I hope you do, too).

So before I wrap up this inaugural post, what’s up with the title of my first That Tampa Guy blog post? OK, students, open up your history books to Page 2 of Tampa History 101 (not yet an actual book, but it should be). “Tampa” is a Calusa word that is believed to mean “sticks of fire,” which was either a reference to a major native camp site or pine trees that were set ablaze by lightning.

Apparently, we’ve always been the lightning capital of North America.