Python may slide into park history

Busch Gardens' plan to renovate its Congo area could mean its 30-year-old ride is nearing its last corkscrew turn.

Published September 20, 2006

TAMPA - Is the Python, once touted as a death-defying thrill ride, headed into its last loop?

Busch Gardens Africa officials are not confirming anything. But the Tampa theme park has taken out demolition permits as a prelude to overhauling the Congo, a corner of the 335-acre park that the big yellow and black coaster has anchored for 30 years.

Theme park and coaster fan Web sites brim with speculation quoting anonymous insiders that the curtain will fall on the Python right after the park's monthlong Howl-O-Scream celebration ends in October.

Screamscape.com even posted new park guest maps not yet distributed that show the entire Congo area walled off as a construction zone. BGTguide.com, which follows park ride developments with the zeal of Woodward and Bernstein, thinks a themed kids play area is part of the replacement plan.

Because of the park's funding cycle, it's doubtful another major thrill ride will open at Busch Gardens until 2008 or 2009, the park's 50th anniversary year.

The Python is one of the first of a once-daring breed of double corkscrew-style steel coasters that flipped riders upside down.

Busch first promoted the ride in 1976 with the tag line "I challenged the Python and lived."

Unfortunately, the ad campaign was pulled within weeks of the opening after one rider - a 6-foot-6, 340-pound, 39-year-old heart patient - challenged the Python and died.

Then, as now, health warnings were posted for people with heart and back troubles.

However, in today's world of stomach-churning, can-you-top-this coasters, the Python's two rotations are variously rated by coaster enthusiasts as tame to lame. So reactions posted on fan Web sites have been subdued. One poster even said a Starbucks would be an improvement.

The Python, however, does carry sentimental value.

""If the rumors are true, it would be sad to lose this classic that for many holds a special place in our hearts," said Chris Kraftchick, a regional officer with the American Coaster Enthusiasts. "It was my first looping coaster."

Subsequent generations of rival coasters run much faster than the Python's 50 mph. They last three to four times longer than the Python's 70 seconds, most of which are spent inching up the lift-hill. Sometimes goosed by linear accelerators, today's coasters subject riders to g-forces, 90-degree drops and flight patterns borrowed from barnstorming stunt pilots.

Busch officials have made no secret the Congo is next on their renovation list now that the Serengeti, Timbuktu, Stanleyville, Veldt, the front gate and the parking lots have been upgraded over the past decade. But they have been vague about what they plan to do there beyond freshen up the jungle theme and build new animal habitats for the park's white tigers and probably for an orangutan displaced from Stanleyville by the SheiKra dive coaster.

Busch promotes itself as a blend of rides, animals and live entertainment. But the park's marketing edge for young thrill seekers relies on having the largest collection of coasters in Florida, a tradition that started with the Python. Without it, Busch still would have seven coasters counting both of Gwazi's tracks.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or 727 893-8252.