TAMPA — Gwazi, the popular wooden roller coaster at Busch Gardens, made its final ascent Sunday, as its passengers clapped and chanted: “Gwa-zee! Gwa-zee! Gwa-zee!”
The clackety-clack of cars was complimented by a soft breeze and a bird’s eye view of sparse traffic on Busch Boulevard.
One rider, who had never previously ridden the rickety roller coaster, got nervous and wondered aloud how fast Gwazi would go.
“Fifty-five miles an hour,” came a voice from the last car.
The voice belonged to Mark Rose, Busch Gardens’ vice president for park services. Rose is also the engineer who designed Gwazi, which opened in 1999.
Since then, an estimated 1 million people per year have ridden Gwazi, which was built with 1 million feet of lumber.
Throughout the day, Busch Gardens’ patrons celebrated the famed coaster’s final day, many waiting in line to subject themselves one last time to 2 minutes and 20 seconds of hair-raising dips, sudden climbs and sharp curves.
Some wore T-shirts saying “Save Gwazi.” Others, including members of the Florida Coaster Club, wore T-shirts with Gwazi’s picture on the front and the club’s motto, “We Ride All Year,” on the back.
Florida Coaster Club member Mark Meagher came all the way from Miami for Gwazi’s last hurrah.
“We do something every month” with the club, Meagher said. “Super Bowl Sunday is our annual trek to Busch Gardens. In fact, we came to Busch Gardens for the first time as Gwazi was being built. That was right when the club formed.”
Before Meagher got on the roller coaster for the last time, he spied Rose. The scene that unfolded was somewhat like a youngster meeting a sports hero.
Meagher eagerly shook Rose’s hand, and Rose posed with him for a photo.
It’s not yet clear what will happen with Gwazi now that it has stopped running, said Stephanie Fred, associate marketing and media relations manager at Busch Gardens.
“It’s very nostalgic for our park; it’s rickety and wooden,” Fred said.
Despite the enthusiasm many people have for the Gwazi, Fred said it scored low on guests’ satisfaction scores. The ride is about as bumpy as it is fast.
“The park is evolving, so we’ll evaluate what we want to do with the space,” she said, adding that there is no deadline for a decision.
For Rose, who was inspired to design roller coasters for a living after a visit to Disneyland at age 9, Sunday was bittersweet.
“Kumba was the first steel coaster” at the park, Rose said. “That was in 1993. We had the Scorpion and the Python, but Kumba was a serious coaster with seven inversions. Then, Montu came in 1996. With those two, we were known as the place to go to if you wanted to ride a roller coaster.”
With the Gwazi’s opening in 1999, Rose had completed what he called Busch Gardens’ “trifecta.”
“Most roller coasters have 24 seats, but we put in two tracks, so that’s 48” on Gwazi, Rose said. “We made them intertwine.”
He likened the engineering work behind Gwazi to “a complex geometry problem.”
Before it opened to the public, Rose was the first person ride Gwazi. Fittingly, he was the last person off the ride Sunday.
“I’m a little sad,” he said. “I spent three years of my life working on this.”