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Busch Gardens to end 50-year flow of free beer

Like a sobering slap to the face, the new Belgian owners of Anheuser-Busch Cos. announced Monday that Busch Gardens will end a 50-year tradition and stop handing out free beer samples.

Fred Jacobs, spokesman for Busch Entertainment Corp., said the idea is to enhance the park's appeal for patrons of all ages.

"Free beer sampling was very popular among our beer drinking patrons," he said. "But we did this to broaden our profitability and appeal to people who may not be (beer drinkers) as well as those not of legal age."

The taps will stop flowing Jan. 25. The company's nine other theme parks, including SeaWorld in Orlando, will also stop pouring in the coming weeks.

Customers will be able to buy beer when the hospitality centers at Busch Gardens reopen as restaurants. Busch officials said they have yet to decide if brands from new owner InBev — such as the Belgian Stella Artois, Brazilian Brahma or British Bass Ale — will augment the traditional lineup of Anheuser-Busch brews.

As patrons waited Monday for trams to shuttle them to Busch Gardens, reviews were mixed. Some bubbled with outrage.

"It's not right," said Ryan Cavalear, in town from Cocoa Beach. "We're out here paying gas money, paying the (amusement park) taxes, driving all the way over here. They need to give us an incentive to want to come here."

Others, like Melissa Miller, were more disgusted with the $11 parking fee than the plan to discontinue free brewski.

"I personally don't really want someone who's been drinking a lot on a roller coaster sitting by me," said Miller, who grew up in Bradenton but now calls Tallahassee home.

Online readers lashed out Monday when a news brief was posted on tampabay.com, the St. Petersburg Times' Web site. Several threatened to cancel passes, others feared more cost cutting was imminent and some objected to losing free suds the same day full admission jumped $2 for the second time in six months, this time to $69.95 plus tax.

The new owners have vowed to keep the company's trademark Clydesdales. But, after laying off 1,400 brewery employees right before Christmas, they renewed pledges to rein in what they consider corporate excesses. Anheuser-Busch has the nation's biggest brewery marketing budget and is also the buyer of pro sports marketing partnerships and sports TV advertising.

Ditched in the same fell swoop with free samples: a longtime monthly perk to full-time park employees of two free cases of Anheuser-Busch beers.

InBev is weighing selling all the parks to recoup some of the $52-billion it paid for America's largest beermaker.

The free beer samples date back to 1959 and Busch Gardens' origin as a bird garden that served as the waiting room for tours of the adjacent A-B Tampa brewery. At the time, Busch Gardens did not charge admission and placed no limit on the free samples, served in more of a beer garden setting outfitted with picnic tables. Many students at nearby University of South Florida considered the free samples an unpublicized benefit to on-campus living.

By the 1970s, the garden grew into a full-fledged theme park, the sample cups started shrinking and limits were imposed in the interest of responsible drinking. These days the samples are small and limited to two per visit to the hospitality house.

Which is fine by Cavalear, who wants InBev to reverse its decision and keep the alcohol flowing.

"I don't care about lions and tigers and bears," he said. "I want free beer — and a roller coaster."

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

Busch Gardens to end 50-year flow of free beer 01/05/09 [Last modified: Friday, January 23, 2009 7:25am]
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