Busch Gardens' Gwazi roller coaster's final run Sunday (w/video)

Busch Gardens' historic coaster makes its final run on Sunday.
Published January 31 2015
Updated January 31 2015

TAMPA — Lynn Maureen Spies says she has ridden Gwazi, Busch Gardens' wooden roller coaster, more times than she can remember.

"The first time I saw it, my kids were really little," she says. "We never could decide which (side) was better, faster, or sleeker."

The chance for Spies and other roller coaster enthusiasts to ride the 16-year-old thrill ride comes to an end on Sunday. Busch Gardens will silence the familiar clatter of the roller coaster's wheels after a run that yielded a mix of excited screams and bone-jarring rattling.

Spies, a Safety Harbor resident and a devout Gwazi fan, concedes that the ride has "declined" over the years.

"I remember the sleekness when we first rode, to today, and it is not as pleasant of an experience," Spies said.

Busch Gardens spokesman Travis Claytor says Gwazi is closing for several reasons, not the least being the complaints of riders who grew weary of the rough ride. He also cited the number of guests who ride the coaster and operational costs as factors.

The park does not plan any special commemoration for the coaster's last day, but Claytor expects Gwazi fans to turn out in droves on Sunday.

"There will be some ACEers at the park," he said, referring to members of the American Coaster Enthusiasts, a nonprofit group of 5,000 thrill-seekers who travel the United States with the sole mission of riding roller coasters big and small.

"We are expecting a lot of people to come out and ride Gwazi one last time, so our team is preparing for a larger-than-normal crowd that day."

Gwazi roared to life on June 18, 1999 in an area once home to Anheuser-Busch's sprawling brewery, which helped spawn the theme park. Great Coasters International built the $10 million ride and Busch Gardens named it for a fabled beast with a tiger's head and a lion's body.

The thrill ride originally featured two individual, but intertwined, tracks — one named for the Lion, and the other the Tiger.

Riders tore through two distinct, 3,508-foot-long tracks at speeds of more than 50 miles per hour in trains that were once simultaneously released from their thatch-roofed loading station.

At six points along the ride, the two roller coaster trains would appear to be barreling right toward each other, creating the thrilling illusion for riders that the Lion and Tiger trains were speeding toward a head-on collision. Gwazi was the largest and fastest such "dueling" wooden roller coaster in the Southeast.

Over the years, Busch Gardens modified the behemoth. In 2011, the ride was retrofitted with new trains that were intended to smooth the riding experience, which became notoriously rough according to many guests. The following year, Busch Gardens retired the Tiger side and relocated one of its two blue-colored ride trains to the yellow-themed Lion track.

Ever since the Tiger track closed in late 2012, rumors had been circulating throughout the thrill ride community that Gwazi was heading toward the end of its run. Some guests think even the newer trains weren't enough to improve the riding experience.

Still, Gwazi maintained a cult following among many longtime guests.

Tampa's Matthew Cook, 16, loves Gwazi and enjoys its entire experience. Matthew, who estimates he has ridden the roller coaster around 15 times, says, "I love the feeling right before you got on, then finally getting on it and it being insanely rattly," Matthew said. "I'm going to miss Gwazi. It was one of, if not, my favorite rides."

Despite Gwazi's closing, Matthew remains hopeful about whatever attraction Busch Gardens may eventually build in its place.

Contact Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez at hillsnews@tampabay.com.