Sixty years ago August A. Busch took to the stage to dedicate his company’s new $20-million Tampa brewery and animal attraction. “Anheuser Busch wanted to do more than just build a factory,” he said to the crowd, which included then Tampa mayor Nick Nuccio. “It is our company’s belief that a modern industrial plant should also add to the area in design and landscape. It should contribute to its attractiveness and add to the beauty of the community.”
With these words, a modern Florida institution was dedicated. One that married the industrial production of beer with a tourist attraction. But would it be a success?
The answer was a resounding yes! In just five short years, 2 million visitors came to the free attraction to see bird shows, sip free beer samples, and ride Stairway to the Stars, then the world’s longest escalator. Their patronage made Busch Gardens Florida’s most popular tourist attraction in the 1960s.
Spurred on by the park’s popularity, Anheuser Busch officials decided to expand Busch Gardens. By 1970 the park adopted an African theme, added new animals, and grew to over 260 acres. With these additions, the park became home to elephants, zebras, antelopes, ostriches, and a four-car monorail that took riders on a 13½ minute trip through Tampa’s version of Africa’s Serengeti. Although the facility still offered beer tastings and brewery tours, Busch Gardens began charging $1.25 for admission in 1970. With more and more tourists coming to the park each year, the attraction became an important aspect of Anheuser Busch’s business.
Although visitors flocked to Busch Gardens, they wanted more. To find out what that more was, Anheuser Busch commissioned a study in the early 1970s to find out what guests would like to see at the park. The study concluded that patrons thought that though there was plenty to see at Busch Gardens the park needed more things to do. It needed rides and shops, they argued, to complement the animal sights, sounds, and smells.
Company officials took patrons’ comments to heart, and engineers developed new rides while architects designed new structures to enhance the park’s allure and entertainment value. By the late 1970s, visitors could ride an elephant, a water flume ride with a 40-foot drop, and Python, a $7.6 million corkscrew steel roller coaster that ran at a blistering 50 mph and spun those, daring enough to ride it, upside-down twice. Construction crews also built a Moroccan village and the Stanleyville area of the park, wherein visitors could shop and play carnival games.
Anheuser Busch also added more animals for guests to behold. In 1980, 3,000 creatures roamed, flew, swam, or slithered around the park, complementing the new goose-bump inducing rides. Busch Gardens also developed an animal-breeding program and educational mission. The park grew exponentially, even though a sprawling mouse house was erected a mere seventy miles down the road.
Walt Disney World dethroned Busch Gardens as Florida’s most visited tourist attraction when it opened in 1971. Yet Busch Gardens continued to draw huge crowds. In fact, there were days in 1976 and 1978 that the park had to turn away patrons because it had reached capacity.
The throngs of tourists said it all. Even after Disney World became a global phenomenon and attraction, Busch Gardens’ formula worked. “We are not trying to be Disney. We are intent on being ourselves,” said Busch Gardens’ VP Dennis P. Long in 1976. One thing was clear. What they were trying to do worked.
Times have changed, but to this day Busch Gardens has continued to be itself. Anheuser Busch sold the park in 2009, but the park’s new owner, Blackstone, has continued to erect new rides and attractions. Most recently, the park debuted Tigris, a steel coaster with 1,800 feet of track, an inverted heart-line roll, and heart-racing thrills. Plans are currently in the works to build two new coasters. These will be the latest additions to the ever-evolving park.
From free bird shows, beer samples, and a long escalator ride, to break-neck coasters and an African safari, Busch Gardens has come a long way. It continues to be one of Florida’s defining attractions, and, in eyes of some, a Tampa institution that adds to the beauty of the community.
Brad Massey, Ph.D., is the Saunders Foundation Curator of Public History at the Tampa Bay History Center. He can be reached via email at this address. Images with this story are provided by the Tampa Bay History Center. Support for publication of this column comes from the Tampa Bay History Center.
The Center's "History by the Pint" exhibit has been extended to Sept. 29.