Gwazi, Busch Gardens’ teeth-rattling wooden roller coaster and one of only three wooden coasters operating in Florida, will close for good after its last ride on Sunday, victim of its declining popularity.
Park officials don’t know yet what, if anything, will go into that space. “Our engineering team is exploring all possibilities, from retrofitting it with steel parts and adding different elements, to tearing it down,” said Travis Claytor, park spokesman.
The coaster, which opened in 1999 as Florida’s first dueling wooden coaster, just isn’t popular enough with visitors to the Tampa attraction anymore, Claytor said. “When you look at what it’s costing us versus what it’s bringing us, we just couldn’t justify keeping it open.”
The end actually began about two years ago, when one of the two dueling coasters was shut down. “We didn’t need both sides to accommodate the number of people who were riding it,” Claytor said. “It’s been a lower-rated coaster than the other rides in the park.” Most of those who did ride it weren’t enthused by it, he said, and its numbers continued to fall after one side closed.
Gwazi is 95 feet high, 3,508 feet long and has a top speed of 50 mph.
Florida’s tallest wooden coaster, the Dania Beach Hurricane, which is 100 feet tall and hit 60 miles an hour, closed in April 2011. It’s slated to be torn down and sold for scrap. A shopping and entertainment center is planned for the property.
A search of two roller coaster databases found only two other wooden coasters still running in Florida.
One is Coastersaurus at Legoland, formerly the Triple Hurricane, which was rebraked to slow it down for kids when Legoland took the park over from Cypress Gardens. It stands 40 feet high, has 1,365 feet of track and a top speed of 32 miles an hour.
The other is one of Florida’s newest coasters, White Lightning, which opened in 2013 at Fun Spot America in Orlando. Actually a hybrid of steel and wood, it’s 75 feet high, 2,000 feet long and has a top speed of 48 mph. Coincidentally, it was built by Great Coasters International, the same company that built Gwazi.
Of the 3,555 roller coasters operating in the world, only 176 — 5 percent — are wooden coasters, according to the Roller Coaster DataBase (www.rcdb.com). Steel is stronger and lighter. It can support higher structures, faster speeds, smoother rides and can more easily be shaped into sharp turns and inversions — the twist that turns coaster cars upside down.
Wooden coasters tend to be noisier with a rougher ride, and there’s more sway in the wooden structure, all of which create a sense of danger — one reason for their appeal. They also are beloved by people who are nostalgic about old-style coasters.
Although the popularity of wooden coasters was dwindling at the turn of the century, they’ve had something of a comeback since 2000, with a number of big ones opening — particularly in Asia, but also in the U.S., said Jeff Putz of CoasterBuzz.com.
“Wood coasters are not declining in popularity at all,” Putz said. “They offer more of a ‘wild’ feeling ride. ... Check out White Lightning, which opened at Fun Spot Orlando about two years ago. It’s a really fantastic ride, and it’s running extremely well.”
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Busch Gardens says that Rhino Rally has made its last safari.
The ride, which opened in 2001, put guests in trucks for a road rally, but they were then diverted on a search for a lost driver. The route took them through the park’s Nairobi section, where they saw elephants and other animals.
Recently, the park had opened the ride only in peak season. When it was closed for the season last year, park officials decided not to reopen it, based on ongoing evaluations of the ride experience, said Travis Claytor, park spokesman.
No decision has been made on what attraction, if any, will replace it.