I have gone on countless trips to Busch Gardens Africa in Tampa, Florida, since I was six months old and—as any longtime fan of the park can tell you—the park is well knwon for, among other things, its incredible thrill rides. However, Busch Gardens’ tradition of building record-breaking roller coasters is nothing new. In fact, it dates back to the 1970s, when Busch Gardens Africa first began building major thrill rides. Among those early thrill rides was the Python roller coaster. The Python was the first roller coaster I had ever ridden and now, many years later, my love of roller coasters and interest in the roller coaster industry has only continued to blossom.
The Python, which opened in July 1976, represented the start of an exciting era in roller coaster design. It was among the first steel roller coasters that included inversions (periods of being upside-down) and it was the first roller coaster in Florida to feature such an element. The Python was a 1200-foot-long roller coaster that featured a 70-foot tall climb, 55-foot drop, and a double-inverting corkscrew which, at one point, rendered one of Busch Gardens’ trademark images; the bold yellow corkscrew—with its black, arched supports—was emblazoned on everything from postcards to brochures, and it was often seen on television advertisements. Arrow Dynamics, at the time a leader in the roller coaster industry, was the company that designed the ride.
The Python was, for many years after its opening, one of Busch Gardens’ most popular rides and, for a few years, the park’s only roller coaster. The ride was efficient in handling large numbers of guests, thanks to its short ride duration and two trains. Each train had six cars that accommodated four guests; riders sat two abreast. The ride itself lasted about 1 minute and 10 seconds, roughly half that time spent either climbing up the hill or braking upon the station-house return.
As a person who took dozens of spins on the Python, I can say that the Python was always a thrill. Aside from the ride’s notorious persuasion to rattle its riders’ heads, the Python was a fun ride that was always good for a flip in the stomach. One of the most sensational thrills on the Python was the main drop. Angled at roughly 45 degrees, a ride in the back seat of the Python trains provided so-called “air-time” (a feeling of weightlessness) that I have felt on few other steel roller coasters.
As the years went on, Busch Gardens Africa added a number of other roller coasters, and the Python eventually lost its hold on the crowds. On October 31st, 2006, the Python went for its last ride (and I was among those who bid farewell that day), and the classic roller coaster was soon thereafter demolished to help make way for a major renovation in the Congo area that should be completed in 2008. The closing of the Python marked the end of an era for Busch Gardens.
The Python was a classic example of where the roller coaster industry was in the 1970s. The middle 1970s was the dawn of the period that spawned many of the elements that most roller coaster enthusiasts take for granted today. The loops and corkscrews of the disco era allowed roller coaster designers to push the envelope even further with the dive loops, bat wings, and helixes of every variety that proliferated throughout the heart of the 1980s and beyond. Today, steel roller coaster designers are pushing the limits in every respect, including in track height, length, and maximum speeds. However, as roller coaster designers and riders alike continue to look toward the future, a glimpse at our roller coaster past reminds us that, if not for rides like the Python to lead the way, the roller coaster industry would not look anything like it does today.