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We rode monster coaster Iron Gwazi at Busch Gardens and lived to tell

The long-awaited attraction is high on the to-do list for adrenaline junkies. It officially opens next month, but passholder previews start this weekend.
Published Feb. 9|Updated Feb. 10

TAMPA — The big element of the roller coaster looks like the letter U placed upside down with a slight tilt to one side. The straight side of that U isn’t the climb. That’s the drop.

And that’s why the roller coaster Iron Gwazi at Busch Gardens, which officially opens next month, is the most anticipated coaster in the country among adrenaline junkies. It was called “America’s most terrifying new roller coaster” by the New York Post.

Passholder previews start this weekend for the fastest hybrid coaster in North America, which is the steepest of its kind in the world.

People ride Iron Gwazi on Wednesday at Busch Gardens in Tampa. The new coaster reaches 76 miles per hour and opens officially on March 11.
People ride Iron Gwazi on Wednesday at Busch Gardens in Tampa. The new coaster reaches 76 miles per hour and opens officially on March 11. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

We rode the coaster on a media preview Wednesday and are still a bit wobbly. The build-up to the beyond-vertical drop of 91 degrees is slow and terrifying from the top of the tallest coaster in Florida. The two-minute rush is glass-smooth as it careens around turns and shoots up and down hills. The tight-fitting lap restraint offers some comfort when you are briefly lifted out of your seat a dozen times.

Related: The most anticipated attractions coming to Tampa Bay in 2022

The crocodile-themed ride has a 48-inch requirement, which is the height of the average 8-year-old. But not every 8-year-old will be ready for this.

“There may be some. By having that really secure restraint it opened it up for the whole family to ride,” said Busch Gardens president Neal Thurman, who was showing off the attraction on national news feeds Wednesday morning. “We expect it will create some unforgettable family moments. This is a very big deal for us.”

Riders get 12 “airtime“ moments, when you flutter out of the seat. It starts by taking them to a 206-foot peak, then plunges riders into that 91-degree drop, reaching top speeds of 76 miles per hour with a number of rolls and maneuvers as it barrels down 4,000 feet of steel track.

Stilt walker performers at the entrance to Iron Gwazi at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay on Wednesday showed off the new costumes created just this attraction. The crocodile theme and colors of bright blue, green and purple are found throughout the attraction as well as their costumes.
Stilt walker performers at the entrance to Iron Gwazi at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay on Wednesday showed off the new costumes created just this attraction. The crocodile theme and colors of bright blue, green and purple are found throughout the attraction as well as their costumes. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Iron Gwazi was manufactured by Rocky Mountain Construction, which specializes in bringing new life to old wooden rides. The old teeth-rattling wooden coaster called Gwazi was closed in 2015, and theme park enthusiasts were happy to see Busch Gardens bring in RMC to repurpose the wooden coaster.

“RMC is considered special when it comes to coasters, because they are the savior of classic wooden coasters to prevent them from being completely dismantled,” said Chris Kraftchick of Orlando, who is the region director for the American Coaster Enthusiasts club. “My favorite thing is the speed. I like a coaster that hauls butt. I love the high-speed maneuvers on Iron Gwazi.”

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He compared the experience on a coaster to a movie, saying it has “pacing.” They can start off gently, then build the suspense. The pacing of it is important to keep you interested, Kraftchick said. Like plot points.

The 91-degree drop on Iron Gwazi makes it the steepest hybrid coaster in the world. It opens officially at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay on March 11.
The 91-degree drop on Iron Gwazi makes it the steepest hybrid coaster in the world. It opens officially at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay on March 11. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Even though Florida has plenty of coasters — especially Busch Gardens — this is the first RMC coaster in the Sunshine State. The company has drawn big fans for its hybrids, like Iron Rattler at Six Flags Fiesta Texas and Lightning Rod at Dollywood in Tennessee.

In addition to breaking world records, Iron Gwazi is the tallest coaster of any kind in the state.

“That 91-degree drop, from such a tall height is one of the biggest highlights,” said Andrew Schaffer, director of design and engineering at Busch Gardens Tampa. “But I also like that 540-degree barrel roll. That’s turning over one and a half times at a breakneck speed.”

This monster was supposed to open in time for spring break in 2020. Then all of Florida’s theme parks closed in March of that year because of the pandemic, and the Tampa theme park didn’t reopen until summer.

Michael Christopher, right, who is the state’s regional representative for the American Coaster Enthusiasts club, sits down to ride Iron Gwazi at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay on Wednesday. He prefers the back row because "you get more of a whip."
Michael Christopher, right, who is the state’s regional representative for the American Coaster Enthusiasts club, sits down to ride Iron Gwazi at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay on Wednesday. He prefers the back row because "you get more of a whip." [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

“I was excited for us to have the first RMC coaster in Florida,” said Michael Christopher, Florida’s regional rep for the ACE coaster club, whose day job is in information technology for the Hillsborough County government. He was strapped in for rides on the coaster Wednesday representing ACE. “I’m even more excited that it’s just down the road from me.”

Christopher had just finished his fourth ride by mid-morning and expected to go on it 20 times by the end of the day with 50 other ACE members.

”The ride is intense, but it’s super smooth so that makes it very re-rideable,” Christopher said.

This is Busch Gardens’ 10th thrill ride, the most of any Florida theme park.

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