Book excerpt: Images of Modern America, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay by Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez

Editor’s note: This summer marks the 58th anniversary of the opening of Busch Gardens in Tampa. Earlier this year, Arcadia Publishing released "Images of Modern America: Busch Gardens Tampa Bay,'' a book profiling the rich history of Busch Gardens, one of the most iconic landmarks in the Tampa Bay Area. The book, written by Tampa Author and Historian Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez, profiles the history of Busch Gardens Tampa from its origins as an Anheuser-Busch brewery and visitor center in 1959 through its growth as an internationally known theme park and accredited zoological facility. Read an excerpt below: 

Busch Gardens Tampa Bay was officially dedicated on March 31, 1959, and opened to the public on June 1 of that year. The park was an immediate success, drawing more than 350,000 guests during its first year of operation. Adult visitors enjoyed the park’s free brewery tour and complimentary Anheuser-Busch products. Meanwhile, guests of all ages were captivated by the park’s popular bird show, acres of lush foliage, and a colorful menagerie of parrots, flamingos and other beautiful avian species. Busch Gardens Tampa Bay grew quickly. In the 1960s, the park constructed a wire-frame geodesic dome that served as a space-age aviary. The park also unveiled a Swiss-themed restaurant that served up some of the top cuisine in Tampa for nearly 20 years. The decade also saw the opening of the Serengeti Plain, a man-made veldt for free-roaming animals that became the world’s first zoological habitat of its type. Soon after, a state-of-the-art monorail ride opened, providing guests with stunning, up-close encounters with the large African animals of the Serengeti Plain.

As tourism in Florida ramped up during the 1970s, so too did construction activity at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay. In fact, it was during that decade that the park saw much of its growth. In the first half of the 1970s, Busch Gardens added its iconic Serengeti Express railroad, opened the Stanleyville Amphitheater, provided guests a new lay of the land with the Skyride, unveiled the Moroccan Village, and introduced the first major thrill ride at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, the Stanley Falls log flume. The year of 1976 was particularly significant for the park, which was temporarily rebranded as “The Dark Continent” -- a name that paid homage to the wonders and mystique of 19th-century Africa. It was also during 1976 that Python, the first roller coaster in the state of Florida to feature inversions (periods of being upside-down), opened in a section of Stanleyville that was soon renamed Congo. 

By the end of the 1970s, two other Busch Gardens parks in the United States closed to accommodate brewery expansions, including a location near the Anheuser-Busch facility in Van Nuys, California, that entertained guests from 1964 through 1979 and an attraction adjacent to the company’s Houston brewery that operated as a theme park from 1971 through 1973. Meanwhile, a European-themed Busch Gardens park in Williamsburg, Virginia, that opened in 1975 was attracting millions of guests on an annual basis by the end of the decade. Back at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, one of the park’s largest expansion projects was about to unfold.

In 1980, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay formally unveiled its Timbuktu section. The addition, since reimagined as Pantopia, provided several elements for guests, not to mention the completion of a walking loop around the entire park. Among the new attractions in Timbuktu were the Scorpion roller coaster and a German-themed restaurant that rolled out barrels full of “Oktoberfest” fun to guests on a daily basis. This was also the year that Busch Gardens opened its sister water park, Adventure Island. Located just one block east of Busch Gardens, Adventure Island became one of the first major water parks in Florida and boasts numerous waterslides, children’s play elements, and other summer-fun attractions.

As the decade of the 1980s progressed, several new rides were added to the park’s collection of attractions, including the Congo River Rapids and Phoenix. In 1986, Kaleidoscope became one of the nation’s first Broadway-style theme park shows when it debuted at the new Moroccan Palace Theater. Among the other additions during the decade were several innovative animal experiences, including a world-class elephant habitat and an expanded animal nursery. In 1987, Busch Gardens welcomed two special guests from China’s Beijing Zoo: adorable giant pandas named Ling Ling and Yong Yong. 

The Tanganyika Tidal Wave water ride made a splash during the park’s 30th anniversary year in 1989, which was also when several properties were added to the Busch Gardens family of adventure parks, including SeaWorld. The 1990s was a thrilling decade for Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, a period when the exciting Questor motion-simulator ride opened, the record-setting Kumba roller coaster roared to life, and inverted roller coaster Montu rose up above the southern stretches of the Serengeti Plain.

The Anheuser-Busch brewery at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay closed in 1995 to make way for new park attractions, including a dueling wooden roller coaster known as Gwazi and an outdoor special events venue called Gwazi Park. Meanwhile, Myombe Reserve: The Great Ape Domain and the Edge of Africa opened, continuing the park’s long legacy of providing innovative and immersive zoological experiences that enrich the lives of their animal residents and educate guests.

The first decades of the 21st century continue providing guests at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay with thrilling attractions, award-winning entertainment, unique up-close animal experiences, and diversified cuisine. These popular features include the addition of world-class thrill rides such as Cobra’s Curse, SheiKra, Cheetah Hunt, and Falcon’s Fury. Also built were one-of-a-kind animal education and interaction areas, including the state-of-the-art Animal Care Center, Cheetah Run, Jungala Tiger Trail, and marsupial-inhabited Walkabout Way. Meanwhile, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay added several popular annual events to its calendar, including Howl-O-Scream, Christmas Town, and the annual Food & Wine Festival. As the 21st century unfolds, Busch will continue offering new and exciting rides and entertainment for its guests while persevering in its mission to protect the world’s animals and conserve our natural resources.

Read more articles by Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez.

Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez is a freelance writer who was born and raised in Tampa. He earned his BA in English from the University of South Florida and spent more than three years as a full-time copywriter for a local internet marketing firm before striking out on his own to write for various blogs and periodicals, including TheFunTimesGuide, CoinValue and COINage magazine. He has also authored local history books, including Images of America: Tampa's Carrollwood and Images of Modern America: Tampa Bay Landmarks and Destinations, which are two titles produced by Arcadia Publishing.
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