So, when did Busch Gardens first start gaining fame for its thrill rides?
While Busch Gardens’ earliest ride was a monorail which, opening in 1966, provided park guests a giraffe-eye-level tour of the Veldt (an 80-acre animal attraction with free-roaming African big game), the park’s first ride meant to provide thrills came in the early 1970s.
The First Thrill Rides
The African Queen Boat Ride was Busch Gardens’ first truly themed ride experience, opening in 1972. The African Queen Boat Ride operated in Busch Gardens’ Stanleyville area and took guests along a winding watery route that toured an African village. Though the ride did not have any drops or splashes, the African Queen Boat Ride was the park’s first major step toward providing a themed ride experience not based solely around its brewery or animal collection.
The African Queen Boat Ride was significantly revamped in 1989, when it was converted to a splash ride called the Tanganyika Tidal Wave; the Tanganyika Tidal Wave utilizes much of the African Queen Boat Ride’s old water trough and village theme, though now does boast a 55-foot drop.
In 1973, the Stanley Falls Log Flume opened right next to the African Queen Boat Ride, in the Stanleyville area. The Stanley Falls Log Flume easily could qualify as the park’s first major “thrill ride” thanks to its two drops – one measuring at 30 feet in height and the second (and final) drop coming in at a stomach-wrenching 43 feet.
While the Stanley Falls Log Flume is and always has been billed as a family ride, with guests as young as two years old allowed to accompany a riding adult, the flume ride is clearly the parks’ first ride involving height, speed, and distinct regions of steep ascent and descent.
Busch Gardens’ First Roller Coaster
In 1976, Busch Gardens took a major leap forward in providing thrills for its guests with an entire new themed area (Congo) built largely around the park’s first roller coaster: The Python. The Python, built by Arrow Dynamics, was a 1,200-foot-long steel roller coaster with two corkscrews (taking riders upside down twice).
The Python was among the earliest steel roller coasters to include inversions (periods where riders are upside down). Opening adjacent to the Python was the Monstrous Mamba, a “flat” monster ride with several operating arms, each holding four two-person cars able to spin on gravity’s whim.
In 1977, the Swinging Vines swing ride allowed guests allowed guests to soar through the air in bamboo-themed baskets. The Swinging Vines closed in the early 1990s, and the Monstrous Mamba thrilled its last riders in 1995. The Python was demolished in 2006 to clear the way for Busch Gardens’ new jungle village named Jungala.
The Scorpion Roller Coaster, and Timbuktu
Busch Gardens was on the verge of a major expansion – the largest in its history at the time – during 1979 and 1980. This major construction project included the building of a whole new themed section called Timbuktu.
The construction of Timbuktu included the inclusion of several new rides, such as the Sandstorm (a Chance Orbiter flat ride that spins riders in the air) and the Crazy Camel (a Chance Trabant that provides an undulating, nauseating experience for its riders). But the crowning jewel among the rides in Timbuktu was — and is — the Scorpion roller coaster.
The Scorpion roller coaster, which opened in 1980, is a 1,800-foot roller coaster featuring a single vertical loop and a dizzying series of helixes. The late Anton Schwarzkopf, who made a name for himself designing compact roller coasters jammed with twists and turns, was the mind behind the Scorpion. The Scorpion is presently the oldest roller coaster at Busch Gardens and remains highly popular with veteran roller coaster enthusiasts and young thrill seekers alike.
The 1980s and Beyond
While the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s would see the construction of several headlining rides (like the massive, record-breaking Kumba, Montu, and Shei’Kra roller coasters) which propelled Busch Gardens into international thrill-ride acclaim, it was Busch Gardens’ first thrill rides in the 1970s which helped put Busch Gardens in the national spotlight and solidified Busch Gardens’ place as an iconic Tampa landmark and a true Florida destination.