TAMPA — Living on the edge of Busch Gardens for more than 40 years, Jim Froonjian has grown accustomed to the whooshing of the Montu roller coaster and kaboom of fireworks. He endures the occasional whiff of elephant poop.
But he has drawn the line on the park's latest attraction, Falcon's Fury, opening next spring about a third of a mile away from his house.
This summer, he lost sleep because of construction of the ride, a 335-foot-tall drop tower touted as the tallest of its kind in North America. Now, just thinking about the riders' screams makes him want to cover his ears and leave his once-peaceful neighborhood.
"If I had any idea of what it was going to be like, I don't think I would have moved here," he said with a sigh.
Froonjian has been butting heads with Tampa's top tourist attraction for about 20 years, ever since Busch Gardens grew from pastoral zoo to world-renowned theme park. Standing with him has been the Terrace Park Civic Association, but not many of the members have been around as long as Froonjian or are as persistent.
Recent work on Falcon's Fury got Froonjian fuming.
Every day for a month, crews pounded 105 steel pilings deep into the ground. It started at 9:45 p.m. — after the nightly fireworks — and lasted until about 6 a.m. "Ding! Ding! Ding!" all night long.
The first time he heard it, he and his wife, Joan, ran outside to see what the commotion was about. "She was so p - - - ed there was smoke coming out of her ears," he said.
Froonjian, 65, complained to Busch Gardens and said he was told the work had to be done at night when no visitors were around. Otherwise, the park would have to cordon off large sections, something paying guests wouldn't like.
Busch Gardens officials met with the civic association members to hear residents' concerns. Froonjian, who is the vice president, said the officials were apologetic but steadfast about completing the ride. Instead, they extolled its virtues as a game changer for the park, something that would set it apart.
Froonjian couldn't care less.
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The Froonjians moved to Tampa's Terrace Park neighborhood from New Jersey in 1972. He had finished a tour in Vietnam and they had just gotten married.
They bought a small house on 99th Avenue built in 1968. Back then, Busch Gardens, which opened in 1959, was an animal theme park with a monorail and hospitality house for Anheuser-Busch's brewery. Today's Adventure Island across the street was an RV park. Busch Gardens' first roller coaster, the Python, opened in 1976.
For years, Froonjian and Busch Gardens coexisted peacefully. A retired union electrician with no children, he worked stints at the park constructing Moroccan Village and relocating the entrance to 40th Street from Busch Boulevard. The only noise was the clock on the Swiss family chalet and an occasional lion's roar, which he thought was pretty cool.
"It was a badge of honor to tell people I lived by Busch Gardens," he said.
That changed, he said, in the late 1990s as the park expanded and added attractions. Montu opened in 1996, at the time the world's tallest, fastest upside-down roller coaster. Gwazi, a wooden roller coaster, followed in 1999. Residents regularly heard screams of Montu riders from blocks away.
Froonjian and the civic association complained about the noise but had little recourse. You can't tell people to stop screaming. Froonjian just closed his windows.
As attendance grew, the park converted safari land on the east boundary into a parking lot. Froonjian remembers it was Christmastime because the vibrations from the trucks toppled his tree ornaments.
Then the concrete wall went up, replacing a chain-link fence that separated the park from the neighborhood. Park officials said it was to help buffer the sound. Froonjian says phooey. It's ugly, blocks the breeze from the west and boxes in the neighborhood along Greenwood Avenue. And his poor dogs. They used to love rubbing noses with camels and llamas on the other side.
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Froonjian and his neighbors fought the park again in 2003, when Busch Gardens sought to close a section of Linebaugh Avenue to accommodate trams shuttling guests to parking lots. Residents called then-Mayor Pam Iorio to oppose closing off a key access point. Park officials withdrew the request. Finally, a point for Froonjian.
Busch Gardens said it is committed to being a good neighbor and is working with area civic groups to keep lines of communication open during the construction of Falcon's Fury and answer any questions. Some of the work has to be done at night to ensure the safety of employees and guests.
"We continue to review all options to minimize the impact on the nearby residents," said spokesman Travis Claytor. "Also, we will continue to operate within all required noise ordinances for the city of Tampa and Hillsborough County, including when Falcon's Fury opens."
Karl DeRoche, president of the Terrace Park Civic Association, said that while the park should have notified residents about the construction, he considers noise and traffic "part of living near a theme park." After more than 20 years in the neighborhood, he has gotten used to it. But he also doesn't live as close to the park as Froonjian.
Park officials say Falcon's Fury, once completed, won't create unusual noise because of its interior location and design. Riders will plummet facedown, screaming toward the ground, not the neighborhoods.
Froonjian isn't so sure. Won't sound travel from that high up?
The park invited him to take the first ride. He respectfully declined. That would be like fraternizing with the enemy, he said. After four decades, he's not going away quietly.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Susan Thurston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 225-3110. Follow @Susan_Thurston on Twitter.