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.
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 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.
By 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.