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Busch Gardens puts 50 years of memorabilia on display

TAMPA — A seat from the Python was retrieved from a coaster museum. The painted gremlins from the Gnome Village were scrounged from doorstop duty in corporate offices. The belly dancer costume came from a snake charmer now working as an accounting clerk.

Busch Gardens Africa put out a plea "for anybody with historic old memorabilia to bring it in, and people really responded," said Rose Figga, a design technician at the park.

That memorabilia and more dug out of prop warehouses, backstage file cabinets and company archives go on display to celebrate the park's 50th birthday on Tuesday. The exhibit, which is still seeking unusual contributions, runs at least through the end of the year as part of Busch Gardens' birthday celebration promotions.

One of thousands of locals who worked part time at Tampa's top tourist attraction as students, Mayor Pam Iorio kicks off festivities at a Monday media event. She's handing over photos of her toiling in the Zagora Cafe and handling the mike as announcer on the steam-engine train.

The 100-foot memory wall traces in photographs, postcards and souvenirs the evolution of what started in 1959 as a brewery, beer garden and bird show and blossomed into the world's 19th most popular theme park in 2008 with 2,000 animals, six coasters and 3,000 employees.

A closer look revives history that may have gone foggy at a park 12 years older than Walt Disney World.

Opening day aerial photos show the abandoned adjacent Army air base runways that still lurk in the underbrush near Adventure Island and stretch to the University of South Florida. Looking at the desolate scrub plain, it's obvious every tree and shrub in today's lush park was planted.

Drawings from staff brainstorming sessions reveal that Montu initially was conceived as a coaster built inside a massive Egyptian pyramid. Early concepts for Jungala included letting visitors wade in the same pool as the tigers. The Crown Colony Restaurant started out decked out as the Swiss House to make one of the Busch wives, who grew up in an Alpine setting, feel at home.

Many old Busch favorites appear: NBC Today show chimp J. Fred Muggs, the monorail, the pandas, the brewery that closed in 1998 as the company's smallest.

"That long elevator ride up to the brewery is still one of the sharpest memories of our family vacation when I was 12," said Bill Street, park education director, who headed the memorabilia roundup and research. By summer, videos will show storytelling from park veterans and past executives.

The exhibit takes over space that is part of the fast-vanishing imprint of the Busch family, which sold its interest and control over a century-old brewing empire in July to Belgian InBev. The space held the U.S. Horseshow Jumping Hall of Fame, a pet project of former chief executive August Busch III. The trophies and plaques were returned to the Busch family last month.

Along with a recent controversial decision ending the park's 50-year tradition of free beer samples, the change is seen by some fans as more evidence the new owners, who are still weighing selling all 10 Busch theme parks, are starting to disconnect the parks from the new Anheuser-Busch InBev brand.

It's a notion that gets a denial from park management.

"These are all ideas we came up with ourselves in the normal course of continuously reinventing the park," said Donnie Mills, executive vice president and general manager. "We are not stripping out our identity from Anheuser-Busch InBev."

In recent weeks a topiary of the familiar AB eagle logo was transformed into a floral butterfly. The Brewmasters Club, which offered beer tasting advice in an elegant club setting, closed. The Label Stable, a signature park store stocked with all manner of Anheuser-Busch logo collectibles, has a shrunken selection limited to Budweiser and Bud Light goods.

Meanwhile, the park beer taps flow with the dominant old Busch brands and little sign of InBev's goal of making global brands of Stella Artois, Brahma and Beck's from its stable of 200 beers.

Busch Gardens puts 50 years of memorabilia on display 03/26/09 [Last modified: Friday, March 27, 2009 12:57am]
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