Busch Gardens kicked off its 60th birthday party on Friday with fireworks, the Florida Orchestra, a spread of food and news that the theme park with the most roller coasters in Florida is about to get two more.
We already knew that Tigris, which will be Florida's tallest launch coaster, is poised to pounce soon for its spring opening. Then Busch Gardens dropped the news that its old wooden roller coaster Gwazi, which closed in 2015, is about to get reincarnated.
Construction has already begun on what will be a wood and steel hybrid coaster, featuring a maximum height of more than 200 feet tall. The ride, manufactured by Rocky Mountain Construction, will feature restored elements of Gwazi, the park announced. When it opens in 2020, it will be North America's tallest hybrid, and also the fastest and steepest hybrid coaster in the world.
Before the Florida Orchestra took the stage in Gwazi Field to salute women in rock on Friday, the park revealed more details on the launch coaster Tigris, set to open this spring. The coaster's car was on display, and a Busch Gardens spokeswoman said the coaster's track is complete and testing for the new attraction will begin soon.
It's been a wild ride for this Tampa theme park over the past six decades.
When Busch Gardens opened on June 1, 1959, it was just a garden, though a really nice one, with free admission. It was a big hit because it offered free tours of the Anheuser-Busch brewery, free samples of beer and bird shows on the lush grounds.
By 1965, Busch Gardens created a new concept for a zoo when it opened the 29-acre Serengeti Plains, which allowed the African wildlife to roam freely. The park began charging admission as the entertainment became more complex, with extra fees for the thrill rides. The new zoo concept was a hit and Busch Gardens became one of Florida's top tourist attractions by 1968, attracting 3 million visitors a year.
The opening of Walt Disney World in 1971, however, changed the theme park game. Busch Gardens added performers and craftmen in 1975 in the new Moroccan Village and in 1976 added its first roller coaster, the Python, one that would seem like a tame kiddie coaster by today's standard.
The company grew and expanded, adding SeaWorld to its portfolio. Without the movies that Disney and now Universal Studios use to draw fans to their theme parks, Busch Gardens kept adding to its thrill ride collection. It has become a favorite of coaster enthusiasts who like the rush of Montu, SheiKra, Kumba and Cheetah Hunt.
Anheuser-Busch sold the company to the Blackstone Group in 2009, which later took it public as SeaWorld Entertainment, a multinational corporation that owns seven theme parks and five water parks. The Chinese firm Zhonghong Group in 2017 bought a controlling interest in SeaWorld Entertainment from Blackstone.
On Friday, Busch Gardens showed off some samples from the menu for its 2019 Food & Wine Festival, which runs weekends starting March 16. The park also launched a new pin-trading program. Similar to the popular program at Disney, the park has created 150 pins representing animals, attractions and events that guests can trade with employees as they explore the park.
With the impending opening of its ninth roller coaster, and a 10th coaster already under way for next year, Stewart Clark, president of Busch Gardens Tampa Bay and Adventure Island, said the park expansion was unequaled.
"This cadence of back-to-back new attractions is unprecedented for our park, and continues our legacy as Florida's thrill ride leader," Clark said.