Sixty years ago this month, Busch Gardens opened as a lush, admission-free garden to promote the products of the Anheuser-Busch brewery. Born on June 1, 1959, Busch Gardens evolved over the years into a zoo-like setting, then a theme park full of rides and games.
Without the movies of Disney or Harry Potter to draw guests like its theme park competitors to the east, Busch Gardens turned to adrenaline as its signature.
The park opened Tigris, Florida’s tallest launch coaster, in April. And a hybrid wood and steel coaster is slated to open in 2020, expected to hold the record for the world’s steepest drop. Busch Gardens will then have 10 thrill rides and coasters, the most of any theme park in Florida.
Let’s look back on the heart-pounding rides that have become Busch Gardens’ staples. They have dizzied us, made our stomachs drop and put us face-first toward the concrete in a free-fall. The combination drew more than 4 million people to the Tampa theme park last year, according to recent estimates.
Buckle up as we tour the rides that made Busch Gardens what it is today and changed Tampa’s skyline:
Stairway to the Stars
Even at the start, Busch Gardens pushed the limits with a large, outdoor escalator that transported guests to the observation deck on the roof of the brewery over a reflecting pool below. It was billed as one of the largest outdoor escalators in the world, rising 86 feet up the brewery’s facade.
Stanley Falls Flume
Busch Gardens considers the classic log ride its first thrill ride. It opened in 1973. Riders climb into a log to meander along a jungle course with a few small dips before a 40-foot splashdown that’s quite welcome on a hot day. It is still operating in the Stanleyville section of the park.
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The park’s first roller coaster took riders up a 70-foot hill and gave them a brief sense of airtime on the drop before a double corkscrew twist. It lasted only 1 minute, but it reached speeds of 50 miles per hour.
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This scrambler-style ride looked like a giant black octopus and spun around. In 1988 it was briefly closed for inspection after a fatal accident on a similar spider ride in Broward County.
The park’s oldest still-operating coaster has a fairly simple pretzel layout with a single vertical loop. It packs a lot of action in a short 90 seconds, climbing 60 feet and reaching a maximum speed of 41 miles per hour.
Standing 143 feet tall, Kumba had the world’s tallest vertical loop when it opened in 1993. With a total of seven inversions across the three-minute ride, it remains a coaster fan favorite. In June 1994, 14 couples were married on Kumba. That day, 36 couples were married on roller coasters including Python (12 couples) and the Scorpion (10 couples). It was the fourth year that couples were married on the roller coasters at Busch Gardens.
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This coaster took away Kumba’s title of Florida’s tallest and longest roller coaster, standing 150 feet tall and reaching speeds of 60 miles per hour. For a year, it held the title of the world’s tallest and fastest inverted roller coaster before Alpengeist at sister park Busch Gardens Williamsburg beat it. By now, Busch Gardens had become a favorite of a club called American Coaster Enthusiasts, and member Alan Smith said he moved to Tampa just to ride Montu for the rest of his life. In 1997, he reached a milestone 1,000th ride on Montu. He later went on to set a similar record at Gwazi.
This teeth-rattling dual wooden coaster was the largest of its kind in the Southeast, offering a top speed of 50 miles per hour over 6,800 feet of track that had two sides named “Lion” and “Tiger.” In 2011, the park revamped Gwazi in an effort to smooth the kinks while maintaining the wooden coaster’s charm. But the chiropractor’s dream was closed in 2015, and a new hybrid and steel coaster will replace it in 2020.
Sand Serpent (formerly Cheetah Chase)
This coaster is scarier than it looks. It was renamed to avoid confusion when the Cheetah Hunt roller coaster that opened in 2011. It is a wild-mouse coaster with small cars that take tight, flat turns without banking at modest speeds, but producing high lateral G-forces. With turns that seem to pull you over the edge, this surprisingly strong serpent has bite.
With a 200-foot height and a dramatic splash down that gets nearby pedestrians soaked, SheiKra broke the records for the world’s longest, tallest and fastest dive coaster when it opened in 2005. It remains an unapologetic thrill ride with a shameless tease, hanging riders at the top for a few seconds before a drop straight down.
Inspired by the speedy cats that are on exhibit nearby, the coaster has short, punchy bursts of speed in its three launches with directional changes and an inversion thrown in for good measure. It won awards for best new ride when it opened and is unique for its multiple launches, elevation changes and scenery along the path of the ride.
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North America’s tallest free-standing drop tower carries riders 335 feet into the air, then tips them forward, face down before dropping into a freefall at 60 mph. The attraction’s infamous drop, designed to mimic a falcon’s dive, lasts just 6 windswept seconds with a smooth brake and transition back to a sitting position. But oh the buildup. As it slowly ascends, you can see the dome of Tropicana Field over in St. Petersburg on a clear day.
The steel spinning ride is called a “family coaster” because the brief thrills of lurching forward, backward and into a free spin add just enough spice. It is one of the few rides with an air-conditioned queue, one that includes live snakes behind glass. The ride is especially dramatic when it’s lit up at night and the cobra’s eyes sparkle.
Florida’s tallest launch coaster soars to 150 feet. It resembles a rectangle with rounded edges, but in that compact space the coaster will hurtle launches riders forward and backward and swirl in a corkscrew overhead in a slow “heartline roll” that puts riders fully upside down.
The park has not yet announced a name for the coaster that will occupy the space that used to house Gwazi. But the steel and wooden coaster will, at more than 200 feet tall, become North America’s tallest hybrid, and the fastest, steepest hybrid coaster in the world.