Busch Gardens was riding high as it strapped in for 2020, and so was its president, Stewart Clark.
The park had just celebrated its 60th anniversary as a tourist destination, making it older than Walt Disney World. It had increased its attendance from the previous year to rank as the No. 11 most-attended theme park in North America, bringing in more than 4 million guests a year. And Adventure Island, its adjacent water park, saw a 6 percent attendance bump, making it the seventh most-attended water park in the country.
Busch Gardens is the king of coasters, with more thrill rides than any theme park in Florida. Its 10th coaster was set to open this spring — Iron Gwazi had thrill-seeking fans across the country booking their trips to ride the world’s fastest hybrid coaster.
Then the coronavirus pandemic happened, and it all came to a halt on March 16.
Like Florida’s other theme parks, Busch Gardens and Adventure Island, which had just showed off a brand-new water slide called Solar Vortex, closed its doors for almost three months because of the coronavirus pandemic. The company recently got favorable reviews for its cautious reopening plans submitted to local governments.
Clark noted that they have “the unique opportunity to manage capacity at our parking toll plazas as well as our front gates,” and they will do that by requiring guests to make reservations before visiting. Masks and temperature checks will also be required of guests, not just staff.
Some parts of the in-park experience will be eliminated, such as buffet-style restaurant service, single-rider lines and open play areas. Though guests won’t have to wear a mask on a water slide, physical distancing will be encouraged at Adventure Island by spacing out lounge chairs, limiting capacity in pools and rivers and not grouping unfamiliar guests on raft rides.
Clark, 55, took over as president of Busch Gardens in January 2017, leaving his role as vice president of Discovery Cove in Orlando. Since then, he’s overseen the opening of new rides, such as North America’s tallest launch coaster Tigris, and expanded the park’s special events such as its spring Food and Wine Festival and a new Bier Fest that started in the fall of 2018.
In an interview Monday from his office at the 335-acre, zoo-like theme park, Clark talked about the surreal feeling of walking across the wide sidewalks in recent weeks and not seeing a single person all day.
Parent company SeaWorld Entertainment furloughed 95 percent of its staff, but Busch Gardens kept close to 200 employees on site to maintain the grounds and take care of the animals, Clark said.
“The funny part is even with that many employees, I was driving through the park during the day and I would not see another person, which was fascinating. It was like being in some kind of sci-fi movie some days,” he said.
On its first day of taking reservations, the park’s system was slammed and sometimes crashed as fans tried to secure a spot. The apparent starvation for entertainment, he said, is what “we are seeing across the hospitality field.”
For Thursday’s reopening, he said the key thing is: “I want to make sure it’s something I feel comfortable with and is safe.”
That’s why he felt strongly about requiring masks and temperature checks. Despite reports of mask shortages, he promised his staff will have a choice of “very cool” branded face masks. Options will also be for sale for guests who show up without one. They have had push-back, he said, even from longtime passholders, about having to wear a mask in the Florida heat.
“We want to open the park the safest possible way and we feel the best way is to wear a mask,” Clark said. “Because they are really about the individuals. You are wearing a mask to protect other people.”
There will be resting places set up where guests can take off their masks and get a breather, he said, and they aren’t required for eating, drinking or on water slides.
A prominent feature that guests will see but won’t be able to ride is the Iron Gwazi, a coaster that was completed to the point of doing test runs just before the coronavirus closure. Using the bone structure of the old wooden Gwazi coaster, the new ride is taller and faster, with a 206-foot drop and a top speed of 76 miles per hour. Thrill junkies have been anticipating its three flip-flopping inversions and 12 airtime moments. But the park closed just before testing was complete.
Theme park expert Dennis Speigel, of the Ohio-based International Theme Park Services, said he is advising his clients with big new attractions to keep them under wraps and wait for the next normal vacation season to have a splashy debut.
Stewart wouldn’t say when Iron Gwazi will finally open. He said the coaster’s canceled premiere felt very much like his own son’s college graduation ceremony that was thwarted this year.
“It was so close to the finish line, but the right thing to do was to close our operations down and the various contractors needed to be sent home,” Stewart said. “We don’t have a distinct date yet but as soon as we can, we certainly feel it’s the top of our priorities to finish that ride.”
But should they wait for the normal vacation season or open as soon as it’s ready?
“I’ve been asked before, what is the best month to open a ride in Tampa, and I don’t think there is one,” Stewart said. “You always have guests in town who are just here for a reason and want to enjoy new attractions. When we know, we will announce it. We know it’s a highly anticipated date."
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