TAMPA — There’s Falcon’s Fury and other newer death-defying rides at Busch Gardens, but since 1999, the park has also offered its visitors a classic treat – Gwazi, a sprawling wooden roller coaster.
After 15 years, Busch Gardens’ retro wooden roller coaster is bracing for its final ride. Gwazi, which opened in 1999 and was revamped in 2011, will be closing early next year, park spokesman Travis Claytor said. He said that visitor surveys and a lower percentage of park visitors riding Gwazi prompted the decision.
Claytor said the closure of the ride is not related to the cost cuts and layoffs across SeaWorld and Busch Gardens that occurred earlier this month when the company CEO resigned. He said he did not have numbers on how many were laid off at Busch Gardens at that time.
“Wooden, all parks used to have them, but steel roller coasters passed wooden back in the 1960s and now there are five times as many steel as there are wooden,” said Paul Ruben, North American editor for Park World, an online and print publication that focuses on theme parks. “Wooden coasters still have a great appeal, but they also take up a lot of room and I suspect Busch Gardens has plans for the area.”
“I don’t have a ton of back story on Gwazi, but I can tell you what we always try and do with any of the rides is we fill a need,” Claytor said. “We opened Falcon’s Fury this year to fill the need of the next level of thrill rides. We always make sure we have something to compliment the rest of the rides we have.
“When we talk about rides and ride popularity, we look at the percentage of people in the park who ride specific rides,” Claytor said. “The ride penetration for Gwazi was lower than for the other rides we have. When we made the decision to close it, we looked at that and guest feedback and surveys and operational costs.”
The news is sad for those who love wooden coasters and Busch Gardens will become one of the few theme parks in the country that won’t have a wooden coaster, Ruben said. There are currently about 300 theme parks in the United States, he said.
“They are classic roller coasters. Everyone or almost everyone enjoys riding a wooden coaster,” Ruben said. “What makes them so much fun is the fact that, unlike steel roller coasters, you are often surrounded by the wooden structure, which enhances the sense of speed, the picket fence effect. You can be riding 500 miles per hour in an airplane passing nothing but the occasional cloud and you hardly feel you are moving. You can go 40 miles per hour on a wooden coaster and the sense of eminent decapitation is always in the back of your mind,” he said with a chuckle. “It adds to the sense of apprehension and the sense of excitement.”
Ruben, who grew up riding wooden roller coasters and has been on nearly every one in North America, South America and Europe, said the newest trend is to build wooden coasters on steel tracks, giving them the ability to do things like go upside down and loop. They’re called hybrids.
The first roller coaster came about nearly 400 years ago in Russia, Ruben said. “A St. Petersburg showman discovered that people actually would pay money to be terrified. He built a wooden slide and charged people to go down it on a sled. Catherine the Great so enjoyed it she had them add tiny wheels so it could be operated in the summertime. The French then adopted it in the early 1800s and began operating them in and around Paris.”
The first roller coaster came to North America in 1873 at Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania. “It was a lift powered by a steam-driven cable that would pull a single 70-passenger rail car to the top of Mount Pisgah and release it to roll down hill to the base of Mount Jefferson, seven miles away. Then it would go to the top of Mount Jefferson and roll back to the starting point. It went nearly 60 miles per hour and there were no lap bars or seat belts, but no one ever got injured.” That ride operated from 1873 to 1937.
Because of its popularity, a number of imitations appeared, built around the inside walls of various buildings, Ruben said. The name roller coaster came from the use of the wheels.
“The first modern roller coaster appeared in 1884 at what has come to be ground zero for the theme park industry, Coney Island, New York,” he explained. LaMarcus Thompson, who became known as the father of roller coasters, built two towers and people would board a single 10-passenger vehicle and ride down to the base of the second tower, switch to a second track and roll back to the starting point. That wooden coaster was called The Gravity Pleasure Switchback Railway.
“Wood coasters continued to proliferate throughout the country with more than 2,000 in the late 1920s,” Ruben said. “The Great Depression, fire, floods, World War II all contributed to their decline. By 1973 there were only 67 remaining. Steel coasters started to appear in 1955 when Disneyland opened and introduced the Matterhorn.”
Wooden roller coasters made a resurgence in the 1980s. “It was a roller coaster renaissance,” Ruben said. “Now, there are well over 100 wooden coasters. But still, there are five times as many steel as wood.
“I will be interested to see what Busch Gardens decides to put in that space,” Ruben said.
Claytor said there is no specific closing date yet for Gwazi, but the park will announce one so riders can have their last chance to experience the coaster before it shuts down.
The ride, billed as the state’s first “dueling” wooden coaster, was built using 1.25 million feet of lumber at a cost of $10 million. It features two side-by-side coasters that cross paths seven times at speeds of about 50 mph.