Python (often listed as The Python on signage and park advertising materials) was Busch Gardens’ first roller coaster, built in the Stanleyville section (later part of Congo and present-day Jungala) in 1976. It operated for 30 years until it was closed and demolished to make way for Jungala in 2006.
Official Open Date: July 1, 1976
Close Date: October 31, 2006
Python was manufactured by Arrow Development and was one of the first steel coasters to take riders upside-down along its course. The corkscrew coaster was designed by Ron Toomer, who would also go on to design three of the roller coasters at Busch Gardens Tampa’s sister park in Williamsburg, Virginia (Loch Ness Monster, Big Bag Wolf, and Drachen Fire). Toomer would later become president of Arrow Dynamics, a successor company to Arrow Development.
The maximum speed of Python was between 40 and 50 miles per hour according to different sources. Compared to more modern roller coasters, Python’s approximately 70-second ride time was relatively short. Its highest point was between 70 and 75 feet according to different sources. The ride length also varies by source – either 1,200 or 1,250 feet.
Upon its opening, the roller coaster was advertised with the tagline “I challenged the Python and lived.” Television commercials showed the new ride in action with screaming riders rolling through the corkscrews, with a voiceover saying “They challenged the Python… and lived!”
That advertising campaign came into question following the death of 39-year-old Robert Shoemaker after riding Python on July 10, 1976. He was visiting the park with his family as part of a press outing to show off the new coaster. According to his obituary, Shoemaker was a former semi-professional football player turned newspaper reporter. He stood at 6-foot-6 and weighed over 300 pounds. Some reports stated he was under the care of a doctor for cardiovascular issues.
Upon exiting Python, Shoemaker sat down on a bench and asked his wife to get him a cold drink. He then slumped over and died about an hour later at a Tampa hospital. Reports noted that signs at Python warned guests with heart conditions not to ride.
Several days later, the St. Petersburg Independent reported several area residents who continued to see the television spots felt it was in “bad taste” to keep airing given Shoemaker’s death. Busch Gardens Marketing Director Rod Claborn said his office had not received any complaints, and the current ad was set to run through July 26 on local stations before being replaced with a new commercial with a different theme.
In August 1976, Python was closed for five days. Two larger versions of the corkscrew coaster design were found to have cracked axles, and as a result, eight rides were temporarily closed across the country. No issues were found with Python after a detailed inspection.
From October 19 through 28, 1978, Python was closed for routine maintenance in advance of the busy holiday season.
In 2003, Python was repainted, and the trains also received an updated logo, replacing the original design.
It was reported in mid-September 2006 that a demolition permit had been applied for by the park, but at the time the park would not confirm if Python was on the chopping block. By that point though, the park had confirmed there were plans to update the Congo area with new animal habitats, including for the tigers and likely for an orangutan displaced when SheiKra was built.
Several days before the closure, the park finally confirmed what had been rumored for a while – that much of the Congo area would be put behind construction walls, and Python would close for good. Park spokesperson Gerard Hoeppner said of the closing of Python, “It will be replaced by an experience you won’t find anywhere else, but it’s going to be 2008 before the construction fences come down.”
Additional details and images on Python will be added in the future.
RCDB | Python – accessed 8/11/2016
Park Brochures – 1976 (Author’s Collection)
Saw Pan | Busch Gardens – accessed 1/20/2018
St. Petersburg Times | Sep 19 2006 – accessed 1/20/2018
St. Petersburg Times | Oct 28 2006 – accessed 1/20/2018
RCDB | Ron Toomer – accessed 1/20/2018
Wikipedia | Ron Toomer – accessed 1/20/2018
Ultimate Rollercoaster | Python – accessed 1/20/2018
Orlando Sentinel | Jul 11 1976 – accessed 7/7/2023
St. Petersburg Times | Jul 12 1976 – accessed 7/7/2023
St. Petersburg Independent | Jul 15 1976 – accessed 7/7/2023
St. Petersburg Times | Oct 10 1978 – accessed 7/7/2023
Last update: July 7, 2023