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Busch Gardens Tampa – Bird Gardens: Gwazi

Rating: * * * * 1/2
Dueling wooden coasters
Time: About two and a half minutes
Short Take: Up-to-date nostalgia

For those who remember the days when all roller coasters were made of wood, Gwazi will be like a stroll down memory lane — until the first drop reminds you that this isn’t your father’s coaster.

The “gimmick” here, of course, is that there are two separate coasters, each holding 24 passengers, one representing a tiger, the other a lion. As you snake your way to the departure platforms, you get to choose which one you’ll take on and each route has its own theming — the lion territory evokes an African desert environment, while the tiger territory is reminiscent of the jungles and streams of Asia. The dueling trains depart simultaneously and “race” to the finish with six “fly-bys” along the way. The close encounters may not be quite as scary as on some of the dueling steel coasters — the realities of wooden coasters mandate a decent amount of space between the rail and the edge of the superstructure — but they are pretty scary nonetheless. Likewise, the ride itself may seem tamer. After all, it’s hard to do an inversion on a wooden coaster. But the rumble and rattle of wood makes Gwazi seem faster than its 50 miles per hour and on some of the turns the cars seem to be at right angles to the ground. Wooden coasters also have a liveliness that steel coasters don’t. Coaster enthusiasts would say, “it’s alive!” which is another way of saying that the give in the wood makes each ride seem different from the last.

Tip: Any serious coaster buff will want to ride at least twice, once on each track. After many rides, coaster mavens seem to agree: the lion coaster has the steeper first drop, but the tiger coaster is, over all, the more intense experience.

There are some other good things to be said about Gwazi. It lasts longer than some of its zippier competitors and because the height restriction here is only 48 inches, more members of the family will get a chance to ride. Gwazi is also quite beautiful, in a way in which the more modern steel coasters aren’t. The wood is weathered rather than the more traditional white and blends in nicely with the African conical thatched roof motif of the entrance. And from the top you get a fascinating (but brief) glimpse of one of the park’s “backstage” areas, as well as the surrounding terrain.

Even if you don’t choose to ride, Gwazi is worth checking out if only to marvel at the way a million board feet of lumber have been put together to create this behemoth. It has a delightfully scary way of looking rather flimsy in spite of its massive size. One good vantage point is to be had just inside the exit, where riders can purchase pictures to commemorate the experience. Another place to get a fairly good look is further into Bird Gardens, near the eagle display and the Clydesdale statue.

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