The Main Theme: Busch Gardens Turns 60

By McKenna Kelley

When Busch Gardens Tampa Bay opened as Florida’s first modern major theme park in 1959, there were few other reasons for tourists to come to Tampa.

The beaches of Pinellas County, sure, but not their neighbor across the bay. Even down I-4, the Florida Project was just a twinkle in Walt Disney’s eye.

Though Busch Gardens is no longer the only draw to Tampa, it’s still a pretty big one. It’s the No. 12 most-attended theme park in North America, bringing in almost 4 million guests a year. Not bad for an attraction that originally opened as an Anheuser-Busch brewery tour.

Busch Gardens hits a big milestone in 2019, celebrating its 60th anniversary all year with new experiences (pin trading) and throwbacks to the park’s roots (guests 21 and older can partake in two free beer samples per day). Stewart Clark — Busch Gardens Tampa Bay’s president and general manager — says that one clear constant throughout the park’s history has been its dedication to animal care. Animals were first introduced to Busch Gardens in 1960, and the park has since been recognized by international organizations like American Humane for its industry-leading conservation efforts.

“The park’s first major expansion was completed in 1965 when the Serengeti Plain opened to the public as a first-of-its-kind multi-species habitat,” Clark says. “Today, our Serengeti Plain has doubled in size, featuring 65 acres of grassland home to giraffes, zebras, rhinos, ostriches and more. In partnership with the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, we have contributed to the species survival plan for several endangered species, from lowland gorillas to white rhinos.”

The beginning of another legacy occurred in 1976 with the opening of Python, the park’s first roller coaster. Busch Gardens has made envelope-pushing coasters a key part of its strategy to attract new and repeat guests. “We have earned our title as Florida’s thrill ride leader,” Clark says, with attractions like Tigris — the park’s newest ride and the tallest launch coaster in Florida. Inspired by the lithe motions of a tiger, Tigris shoots riders up 150 feet in the air and along 1,800 feet of steel track at more than 60 miles per hour.

“As we add new attractions, we like to take an objective look at our current offerings to see where we can expand,” says Andrew Schaffer, Busch Gardens’ design and engineering project manager. “Before Tigris, our most recent addition was Cobra’s Curse, a family-style spin coaster with mid-level thrills, so we were looking to offer something new for thrill seekers.”

Schaffer and his team are now hard at work on what they’re calling the “2020 attraction.” Details are being kept tightly under wraps, but so far park officials have confirmed the project is a wood and steel hybrid coaster that will reach 200 feet tall and be North America’s tallest hybrid coaster upon completion.

With the debut of two record-breaking coasters back-to-back, is this Busch Gardens’ way of competing with blockbuster attractions at other parks, like the Star Wars-themed Galaxy’s Edge at Walt Disney World and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando?

Yes and no, says Clark. But it’s certainly getting them in the conversation.

“Within the attractions industry, we both compete and collaborate with other players,” he explains. “As Florida’s thrill ride leader, we look to differentiate our park experience from others but we all benefit from tourism coming to the state of Florida.”

Perhaps more so than the Orlando parks, Busch Gardens has a keen interest in being a “locals’ park” — one that counts on people who live close by making repeat visits and becoming annual passholders. To keep them coming back, the park has added festivals and events like the Food and Wine Festival, Bier Fest, Christmas Town and Howl-O-Scream (which turns 20 this year) to create varied experiences throughout the year.

“While guests return to our park to enjoy their favorite rides again and again, we’re finding that seasonal offerings and special events are also major drivers for our local audience,” Clark says.

More important to the overall economic picture of Tampa Bay, Busch Gardens makes a significant contribution to the $6 billion impact tourism has locally, employing between hundreds and thousands of locals depending on the season and drawing in guests from all over the world to the region. And because they all need a place to stay, county hotels raked in $673.5 million in 2018, breaking the record set in 2017. In March, former Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn recognized the park’s specific involvement and investment in the community by designating the month “Busch Gardens Tampa Bay Month” with an official city proclamation.

Clark credits the people who make the theme park magic happen every day with Busch Gardens’ success over the last 60 years. Of course, being first doesn’t hurt.

“The dedication and hard work of each of our ambassadors gives our park the strength it needs to grow,” Clark says. “As Florida’s first theme park, we are proud to contribute to our community as we have welcomed millions of visitors from around the world to the Tampa Bay area over the past six decades.”