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Free beer is back this summer for Busch Gardens visitors

TAMPA — After almost a decade of drought, Busch Gardens will once again offer free beer samples to visitors, at least for the summer.

On Monday, the park announced that beginning Tuesday through Aug. 5, visitors can get two free 7-ounce beers from a rotating list of brews. Calling it a return to its roots, the park also unveiled a club for craft beer fans and a new Oktoberfest-themed festival.

For 50 years, free beer was a Busch Gardens signature. The Tampa park opened in 1959 as a marketing vehicle for former owner Anheuser-Busch, and the park's Hospitality House gave out samples of Anheuser-Busch products. Employees were allowed two cases of free Budweiser beer per month.

But after the Blackstone Group bought SeaWorld and Busch Gardens, the park announced in 2009 that the pavilion would be converted to a restaurant with no more freebies. There was a brief reprieve in 2013 when park passholders could get free beers.

RELATED: How we got more than two free beers back in the day

Now that the beer is back for the summer, could it be here to stay? Busch Gardens leaders were non-committal.

"We are going to run this all the way through Aug. 5 and then we're going to see where it goes from there," park president Stewart Clark said.

The announcement came in the park's new Brew Club set in the Serengeti Overlook Pub located next to the Cheetah Hunt roller coaster. Clark unveiled the club, decorated in warm woods with beer steins lining the walls in numbered lockers. It's $79 to join the Brew Club. Members get a reserved beer stein and $5 refills from more than 20 on-tap brews all year long. At the end of the year, club members get to keep the stein, with a new one issued every year.

Clark presented the club's first beer stein to Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who quipped, "An Irish guy with a glass of beer, imagine that."

As a young man, Buckhorn reminisced, swinging by the Hospitality House for free beer "made for a cheap date."

"This is exciting," he said. "To add this again back to the repertoire of the Busch Gardens experience really is something special for us."

Workers swirled through the press conference carrying trays of Yuengling, Bud Light and Corona, which are among the brands of free beer available at the former Hospitality House, now called the Garden Gate Cafe. The Brew Club will also serve those brews, along with dozens of beers, including offerings from Tampa Bay craft brewers Cigar City and Pair O' Dice Brewing.

This week, visitors at the Garden Gate Cafe can choose from two free cups of either Bud Light or Corona to kick off the promotion, "just in time to celebrate Cinco de Mayo," Clark said. The freebies will rotate from a list that also includes Founders All Day IPA, M.I.A 305, Miller Lite, Shock Top and Yuengling, the park announcement said.

The promotion precedes the start of the new Bier Fest running weekends Aug. 25 to Sept. 16. Ron DeBonis, the park's executive chef, compared the plan for the new festival to Busch Gardens' Food and Wine Festival, which just wrapped its fourth year offering gourmet food and drinks at kiosks throughout the park. Bier Fest will feature 100 brews from local and global breweries, traditional German cuisine and festive music, he said, included with regular theme park admission.

Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at Follow @SharonKWn.