LUTZ — Busch Gardens entered the big leagues as a theme park in the 1970s when it incorporated roller coasters and other rides. Charles Robertson, who ushered in the change, was a genial Georgia Tech graduate who found his 25 years as the park's chief engineer a perfect fit for his childlike creativity.
Before he found Busch Gardens, Mr. Robertson worked for sugar mills, where he invented an automation device for factories. At his Tampa home, he ran an electric train through several rooms.
"It ran from the kitchen to the dining room, to the living room and into bedrooms. Down the halls," said Esther Robertson, his wife.
Mr. Robertson especially enjoyed making the trains crash. He orchestrated elaborate collisions between a train and toy automobiles or with another train, often at the request of his children.
"He'd have places where a road would be coming in and a car would get hit," said Esther, 80.
Mr. Robertson, who helped design and implement the first rides at the park, including the Flume, the Python and the Scorpion, died Jan. 19, from a variety of ailments, including respiratory problems. He was 79.
"During Charlie's time, he saw the Magic Kingdom open up in Orlando, and he saw SeaWorld begin," said Mark Rose, an engineer at Busch Gardens whom Mr. Robertson hired 29 years ago. "He saw these other theme parks opening and competing against us."
As always, he adjusted.
He grew up an asthmatic child whose parents tried to keep him indoors. He motorized his bicycle and rode through Gulfport, Miss.
When his father's store went belly up, he put himself through college writing papers for other students, his wife said.
They married in 1953. After years working in sugar mills in New Orleans and Salinas, Calif., he moved his family to Tampa in 1960 for a food manufacturing job. He joined Busch Gardens in 1967, and led the engineering to unveil the Flume in 1972.
He followed that up with the Python roller coaster in 1976 and the Scorpion in 1979.
"Charlie was the head of engineering, which included all the things that were built and all of things that were maintained," said Rose, 60.
A chimpanzee named Judy sometimes visited him and played on his desk, his family said.
He retired in 1993, months after the park unveiled Kumba, its most thrilling roller coaster yet.
He learned that beautiful things sometimes break down. One daughter, Mary, died at 16, of an adverse drug reaction. Another daughter, Jo, died 10 years later of melanoma.
Mr. Robertson persevered, his wife said, because of his creed. "If you let yourself be conquered by the tragedy and just give up, that is an insult to the person that has died," she said.
Family members have been keeping themselves busy, using that same philosophy now.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or [email protected]