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It's closing time for another Tampa Bay tradition

No doubt, given our economy, we'll take hits more hurtful than this one. We'll weather blows more likely to shake our faith.

But … no more free beer at Busch Gardens? Death to a 50-year Tampa Bay tradition? Soon as much a memory as shopping at Webb's City, ordering burgers at Goody Goody or hitting sales at Maas Brothers?

You may remember when Belgian beer company InBev bought Anheuser-Busch. Me, I was in a convenience store when a clerk reading the headline looked up and said darkly, "End of America." I thought he was exaggerating.

For some of us who were students at the University of South Florida years back, Busch Gardens was as much a part of things as soap operas at the Empty Keg between classes or steaming plates of something called Johnny Marzetti in the cafeteria (noodles, alleged "meat" and mystery sauce, with no clue as to who Marzetti was or why he would want to do this to you).

When you could scrape up enough couch-cushion cash, you took a short drive in a packed car to Busch Gardens for roller coasters, Clydesdales and beer. Free beer. When you were a college student poor enough to actually appreciate Johnny Marzetti, free was good.

Hot and tired from rides, you stood in line in the blissfully air-conditioned Hospitality House, where Busch Gardens employees scrutinized your driver's license and face like they were prison guards and you were requesting a day pass to town. They ran a tight ship and kept you at the limit. By the time I got to USF, it was long after they had cut back on unlimited beer samples for folks who came to the bird garden and brewery of the early days. No one I knew walked away wasted on free beer.

(Not that there wasn't the occasional bad behavior. A group of us got free passes in exchange for being in a TV commercial, the deal being you rode a roller coaster multiple times and with enthusiasm behind actors in the front car. The dumbest among us imbibed in free beer beforehand, and let's just say by the fifth or sixth loop, it wasn't pretty.)

So free beer in hand, you walked out on the deck to join exhausted parents and wilted tourists also sipping their frosty second wind. You could hear parrots squawking and a steel band playing somewhere out in the park. The sun was hot, the beer was cold, and the world was fine.

I have also been informed by an unnamed source that an enterprising parent could put his child on the nearby log ride, make haste to the Hospitality House, quaff one (two if he was fast), and get back in time to retrieve said child just coasting in. I name no names, but reportedly this maneuver was well known among Busch Gardens enthusiasts with offspring.

So. Just after adult admission goes up to an eye-popping $69.95, we have the axing of half a century of beer-related tradition. You've got until Jan. 25 to gulp your last freebie. Gee, it's almost like they plan to sell off the place and therefore couldn't care less about the locals.

All that brew, all those years, gone with the wind.

Now, if you are Not From Here, probably this sounds a little silly. All this for free beer?

No, it wasn't the biggest perk on the planet. But it was pleasant and sure and cold on a hot day. Around here, it was part of how things used to be.

It's closing time for another Tampa Bay tradition 01/06/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 7, 2009 4:54pm]
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