Home » The New Coaster Wars: How Busch Gardens’ PANTHEON and IRON GWAZI Signal The Start of Something New…

The New Coaster Wars: How Busch Gardens’ PANTHEON and IRON GWAZI Signal The Start of Something New…

A new era of the “Coaster Wars” is upon us… but it looks a whole lot different than the one you’re used to.

In the evolving industry of thrill rides, something has changed… With records broken and re-broken, ceilings shattered, and park lineups packed with giant coasters, the age of being the “biggest,” “fastest,” and “tallest” has turned out to be pretty unsustainable. Instead, a new model is emerging – one where parks compete not with each other, but with themselves, looking for custom, personality-packed rides that can be beautifully integrated into their parks existing collections, history, and legends…

Standing at the precipice of a new age of coaster construction – one where one-of-a-kind, personalized rides are the wave of the future – Busch Gardens has set a new standard with its 2022 additions – PANTHEON in Virginia, and IRON GWAZI in Florida. Today, we’ll take a whirlwind tour of Coaster Wars past, then see how these two rides prove that the era of off-the-shelf, cookie-cutter coasters is officially at an end…

The Coaster Wars

Brief review: It’s hard to find an amusement park in North America (or beyond) that wasn’t touched in some way by the “Coaster Wars.” You have to remember that steel roller coasters really only came into maturity in the 1970s, when Arrow Dynamics and its Corkscrews, Double Loops, and Mine Trains became mainstays of midways across the country.

The roller coasters designed by Arrow and its contemporaries look practically naive today. That’s largely thanks to the ascent of new manufacturers in the ’90s that we’ve seen again and again in our coaster-focused stories. By far the two most prominent – Intamin and B&M – spent much of the ’90s innovating with new ride technologies, new seating arrangements, and increasingly-bigger installations bought by competitive coaster parks at the height of their ambition.

It’s the “Coaster Wars” that packed Cedar Fair and Six Flags parks with ever-growing ride collections, super-charging regional players across the country with lineups exceeding 10, 12, 14, 16 roller coasters. Were it not for this era of (over)expansion, we may never have seen coasters shatter the 200, 300, even 400 foot height barrier. The race to become the “Roller Coaster Capital of the World” inspired an era of acquisitions and expansions the likes of which we may never see again. 

It was a golden era… if you were a coaster enthusiast, and one with a penchant for extremes at that. In retrospect, the “Coaster Wars” might’ve inspired parks to focus too much on bare steel thrills. Many major parks went for those decades without much investment in family attractions, entertainment, dark rides, or dining. (It’s why Cedar Point – ostensibly among the best parks on the planet – has literally not one dark ride or indoor coaster.) But that’s a curse that at least two parks managed to escape…

The Busch Gardens Difference

Against all odds, both Busch Gardens parks managed to escape the “Coaster Wars” in remarkable shape: without the era’s vast overreliance on “record-breaking” steel rides plopped down along midways, but with a totally-respectable coaster count hovering around 10 each. That’s why, on paper, they’d clearly read as thrill-focused parks equivalent to your regional Six Flags or Cedar Fair park… But in practice, Busch Gardens’ “quality over quantity” approach and slow evolution has built in each park some of the strongest mix of “thrills” and “theme” you’ll find.

In Williamsburg, Griffon (above) has long since ceased being the tallest or fastest dive coaster on Earth… but arguably, it’s still the best. Why? Well certainly for one, we know that “bigger isn’t always better.” But more to the point, Griffon doesn’t feel culled from a catalogue and plopped down on an expansion pad… it’s built into the park both physically and figuratively! Guests pass through a pastel French village of ice cream shops and wine tasting, crossing an iron bridge over its first drop. They queue and board in a open-air, wood-beam winery beneath flickering laterns, and then soar over a countryside vineyard before splashing down in a picturesque pond. (For all its gargantuan statistics, Cedar Point’s equivalent Valravn – with its metal station and grassy lot – feels so much less like a headliner, and more like an interchangable amusement park midway ride.)

And so it goes for Loch Ness Monster – a slithering, ’70s Arrow coaster through the Scottish highlands with interlocking loops; Verbolten – a mysterious, one-of-a-kind family coaster launching into the lore of Germany’s Black Forest; Invadr, a GCI wooden coaster that sees Vikings tear through the hillside of New France; Alpengeist, a B&M inverted coaster that sends your ski-lift hurtling through Swiss chalets and snowy chasms;  even Tempesto, stylizing an off-the-shelf Premier Sky Rocket II as an Italian daredevil sideshow. 

Likewise, at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay – themed to Africa – lands devoted to Egypt, Nairobi, the Congo, Morocco, and more present a vibrant, rich, romantic picture of African culture, with a focus on wildlife and wild rides. Among its iconic lineup of coasters (most paired with a Virginian equivalent) stands Kumba – a roaring B&M classic; Montu, an inverted coaster diving through Egyptian ruins and sand pits…

…Cobra’s Curse – a spinning family coaster in the shadow of a “recently-excavated” 80-foot tall stone serpant deity. SheiKra – a B&M dive coaster plunging into misty temples; and Cheetah Hunt – a multi-launch coaster racing through waterfall canyons and temple trenches alongside the park’s serengheti.

The point is: The “Coaster Wars” as we knew them have ended. Any park that wants a hypercoaster has one. And so it goes for inverted coasters, dive coasters, wing coasters, even – increasingly – gigacoasters! But Busch Gardens’ formula of custom, integrated, personality-packed rides gives us a blueprint of what a “thrill-theme” balance looks like… And more to the point, how the “quality over quantity” formula of customized rides beautifully integrated into the park doesn’t mean an end to intensity… After all, Busch Gardens’ 2022 rides not only represent two of the best coasters on Earth, but the perfect examples of what’s to come in the next era of the “Coaster Wars…”

Read on…


Manufacturer: Intamin

Long-favored by coaster enthusiasts for its innovative, boundary-pushing, and record-breaking rides, the Swiss ride manufacturer Intamin knows how to toe the line… trouble is, in the breakneck speed of the Coaster Wars in the ’90s and 2000s, they often crossed it, with their rides requiring significant delays, downtime, and even redesigning. We explored the rise and fall of Intamin in our recent feature on its most infamous ride – Top Thrill Dragster – but suffice it to say that by the mid-2010s, their longtime number one customer and “Coaster Wars” patron – Cedar Fair – seemingly decided to take a break from Intamin’s extremes. (They’ve instead focused on the notoriously crowd-pleasing, highly-reliable, tried-and-true installations of fellow Swiss coaster manufacturer, B&M – responsible for most of Busch Gardens’ coasters.)

Though Intamin still did great business in the intervening decade largely outside the U.S., the manufacturer has made a massive return to focus in the last few years thanks to several high profile installations. In 2016, Phantasialand in Germany opened Taron (above) – a bonkers, terrain-following, multi-launch coaster that’s got all the absurdity you’d expect of Intamin – plunging, twisting, accelerating, bucking, slaloming, and racing through a convoluted coaster of sensational and unpredictable manuevers.

From there, you can see how Taron’s precedent split in two. Its zippier features inspired Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure at Universal’s Islands of Adventure with its record-breaking seven launches, switch tracks, drop tracks, and more, all packed into a convoluted course of twists and turns. Taron’s more extreme half mutated into the breathtaking Jurassic World Velocicoaster (above), which likewise tears through a knotted layout of a velociraptor paddock before launching into an Intamin-iconic top hat and racing headlong through a soaring course over the park’s lagoon. Both are often regarded among the best roller coasters on Earth in their respective genres. 

Though launches, top hats, spikes, and buttery-smooth intensity have always been Intamin’s calling card, rarely have they been assembled in so poetic and powerful a form as Pantheon…

The Story

Once known to enthusiasts only as Project MMXX (that’s 2020 in Roman numerals), Pantheon was officially announced in July 2019. Fitting beautifully into the schema of the park’s existing coaster titles (Verbolten, Tempesto, Alpengeist, Invadr, etc.), the ride’s name refers to the central and most powerful gods of Roman mythology. Likewise, the ride’s layout was introduced with the notion of different manuevers influenced by the powers of each member of the Roman pantheon:

  • Minerva, goddess of war, embodied in the ride’s initial launch into a zero-G winder;
  • Mercury, messenger of the gods, with his winged shoes, powering the ride’s forward and backwards launch;
  • Neptune, god of the seas, represented by the ride’s vertical “trident” spike;

  • Jupiter, king of the gods, brought to life as vertical ascent to and peak of the coaster’s central top hat;
  • Pluto, god of the underworld, underwriting the ride’s 95-degree, 178-foot plunge to the Rhine River below and its finale inversion – a zero-G stall

Like pretty much all projects destined for a 2020 debut, Pantheon didn’t quite hit the mark. The ride was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with Busch Gardens offering a “2021” launch. That, too, ended up being missed… probably because it didn’t make sense to “waste” a new ride’s draw at a time when park capacity was limited and mostly full. After much delay, Pantheon officially opened on March 25, 2022. And boy was it worth it…

The Ride

Pantheon really does read as a “best-of” Intamin’s latest tricks. The ride begins with a rolling launch, accelerating the train into a zero-G winder. Then, it hops along two opposingly-banked bunny hills (a delightfully weird, Intamin-y manuever) before entering the ride’s iconic middle act, accelerating down a straightaway, boosting over a launched airtime hill, and rocking up toward the peak of its golden top hat. But without the power to crest the hill, it falls backwards (without a holding brake to allow for a track switch, mind you!), accelerating backwards up a vertical spike.

Only on the second pass does the train crest the ride’s peak, plummeting down the park’s iconic waterside terrain (a move mirrored by the nearby Verbolten), dipping alongside the Rhine River. It pulls out from the move, launching skyward and into an outward-banked airtime hill that leans riders over the river, slaloming into upside down drop. Still packed with full-throttle speed, it slaloms up the hillside, twists through one last banked hill, and returns to the station.

Even a lay person could read the familial DNA inherent in B&M’s inverted Alpengeist and B&M’s hypercoaster Apollo’s Chariot and B&M’s dive coaster Griffon, but this? This is weird. It’s punchy. Odd. Unexpected. It goes forward and backward, launches, dips, twists, and catches you by surprise in ways that a B&M creation wouldn’t. It’s got the fingerprints of Taron and VelociCoaster and Maverick and Top Thrill Dragster, all remixed with Busch Gardens’ quality-over-quantity formula.

Sure, Pantheon is so Intamin – which is to say, it’s not like anything else at the park. But more to the point, it’s not like anything else on Earth; a beautifully customized, terrain-following, joyful, inventive, and unique offering that makes excellent use of Intamin’s skills, and also feels made for the park. 

Take a look at the point-of-view video below to get a sense of the experience of PANTHEON…

If there’s one frustration to be had with Pantheon, it must be in its “decoration.” For one, the ride happens to have been placed in one of the few un-forested spots in Busch Gardens Williamsburg, and approximately zero effort was made to seed new plantings around the ride. Maybe it’s appropriate that it takes place on a grassy “acropolis” seen by all, reigning over San Marco and Festa Italia… but at least planting to ensure that the ride would be surrounded in greenery in a decade or two would’ve been nice.

Similarly, Pantheon also suffers from a distinct lack of theming that we’d like to chalk up to pandemic budget cuts (but, to be fair, may just be the new norm at SeaWorld Parks, whose financial struggles are well documented). Diverging greatly from Busch Gardens’ own precedent, the ride’s station isn’t temple ruins, but a stark metal shed. (Better than SeaWorld Parks’ other 2022 addition, Emperor at SeaWorld San Diego, which literally has no station cover at all.) Likewise, the ride’s course is weirdly missing any crumbled ruins, vine tunnels, near misses with toppled columns, or even “giant” statue remains a la Poseidon’s Fury, all of which seem shockingly obvious and almost expected given the park’s usual thematic flourish around its rides.

Oh well. There’s no denying that Pantheon is an Intamin at the height of its game; a sister to Taron and VelociCoaster, with a poetic and beautifully-paced layout, a handful of innovative tricks, and the deliciously “weird” trick tracks, outward banks, and unexpected manuevers that have become Intamin standard. It’s an absolutely breathtaking ride, a perfect diversification of the park’s lineup, and the kind of well-integrated, customized, and smartly-placed ride we love…

But it’s not even Busch Gardens’ biggest addition for the year… Read on…

While Pantheon channels Intamin’s insanity into an appropriately powerful, iconic, and personality-packed ride that makes use of Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s lore and terrain, it’s joined in the company’s collection by another new-for-’22 addition at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay…


The Manufacturer: RMC

By far the most groundbreaking coaster innovations this century has come via Rocky Mountain Construction (RMC), who burst onto the scene in 2011 with something unbelievable. That year, the coaster newcomers took over a beleaugered wooden Texas Giant at Six Flags Over Texas, transforming the shuddering, violent wood coaster into something entirely new. Pairing the 30 year old ride’s existing wooden supports with new “IBox” track, the New Texas Giant was reborn as a modern steel behemoth capable of RMC’s now-iconic, chaotic ride manuevers.

(Soon after, RMC launched an alternative to steel “IBox” track: “Topper Track,” which is generally classified as wooden but gives wooden coasters the sensation and capabilities of steel. We discussed the distinction in our look at the world’s first truly “hybrid” coaster – Dollywood’s Lightning Rod – which uses both. Both “IBox and Topper Track have been used to reconfigure existing wooden coasters, and as part of from-scratch builds.) 

Suddenly, parks’ ubiquitous, notorious, headache-inducing, oversized, jack-hammering wooden coasters went from seldom-ridden remnants of another time to prime real estate. RMC became hot gossip around amusement park discussion boards, weilding the unimaginable power to turn antique coasters into headlining thrills once more. To date, RMC has converted nearly a dozen old wooden coasters into modern masterpieces using IBox track – including several Six Flags installations (Iron Rattler at Fiesta Texas, Twisted Colossus at Magic Mountain, Wicked Cyclone at New England, and Medusa in Mexico) and Kings Dominion’s Twisted Timbers (a re-do of the park’s notorious Hurler). 

Still, the most iconic use of RMC’s IBox track was undoubtedly Cedar Point’s Steel Vengeance – a jaw-dropping 200-foot, mile-long, 4-inversion, ultra-intense masterpiece built on the bones of the park’s former Mean Streak. At least, that was the most iconic…

The Story

After all, no one had a woodie in need of a second life quite like Busch Gardens Tampa Bay. Opened in 1999 (ironically, the same year as another dueling coaster  – Dueling Dragons at Universal’s Islands of Adventure), Gwazi was named after a fictionalized, psuedo-African creature bearing the head of a tiger and the body of a lion. Fittingly, the ride’s two intertwined coaster tracks – Lion and Tiger – would shudder through twin, 3,500 foot layouts, visually “clashing” in a number of near-miss encounters along the rides’ courses.

At just 100 feet tall, Gwazi packed a punch… maybe to a fault. Notorious for its roughness, Gwazi’s life was relatively short in coaster terms… In 2011, the ride’s original trains were replaced with a new set meant to make the ride more bearable. Even still, the Tiger side was officially decommissioned in 2012, ending the ride’s “dueling” and halving its capacity. The Lion half limped along until 2015, when Gwazi was officially retired, reverting to the dreaded “Standing But Not Operating” (SBNO) status.

Especially at the height of RMC’s debut – as year after year, more colossal wooden coasters were introduced to IBox transformations – forums were filled with dreams of Gwazi getting the “RMC treatment.” But year after year, it didn’t. The interwoven wooden coasters were erased from the park map, but stood silently over its entrance. One of the weirdest coaster footnotes in any U.S. park. In 2018, the park announced that something would finally take Gwazi’s place in 2020… but when construction began in 2019, Gwazi wasn’t demolished. Instead, its track was removed as reprofiling began. Coaster enthusiast daydreams had come true.

The Ride

Busch Gardens Tampa Bay spent 2020 and 2021 building up to the opening of IRON GWAZI. Now ret-conning the “Gwazi” as a crocodilian creature of myth rather than a lion-tiger hybrid, the new ride makes use of (and heavily builds upon) the original Gwazi’s foundation to build a ride twice as tall as the Lion and Tiger ever were. At 206 feet, Iron Gwazi bests Steel Vengeance by one foot. Eschewing RMC’s standard, blazing red track, Iron Gwazi is a matte purple gleaming against the Florida-sun-bleached wooden structure beneath.

Like Steel Vengeance (and as with most RMC IBox reduxes), it’s spectacularly intense, incredibly fast, and unpredictably wild. Both offer “weird” sections of trick track that bank counterintuitively, or tilt riders left or right unexpectedly after an era of B&M precision. Both include barrel roll downdrops, zero-G stalls, banked airtime hills, and will-they-or-won’t-they flirtation with almost-inversions that are exited mid-twist.

But in terms of personality, it also differs beautifully from Cedar Point’s signature RMC. Whereas Steel Vengence is white knuckle in its relentless pace, Iron Gwazi feels “bigger” in the sense that it accelerates through massive turns, winding through its own structure so as to hide what’s to come. There’s less ejector air than on Steel Vengeance, instead focusing on beautiful pacing. It makes sense. Iron Gwazi relies less on Gwazi than Steel Vengeance did on Mean Streak, meaning designers were able to invent rather than augment. 

Take a look at the point-of-view video below to get a sense of the experience of Iron Gwazi:

Since its announcement – and through its delays from 2020 to 2021, then 2021 to 2022) fans have eagerly awaited the opening of Iron Gwazi. Now, it’s here, and proof that RMC’s still got it. Though some fans rightly mourn the loss of so many wooden classics and legendary behemoths to the steel rebuilds of RMC, one thing is certain: each resulting new ride has been a masterpiece in its own right, and Iron Gwazi is no exception.

The New Coaster Wars

It’s easy to see why. There’s nothing “cookie cutter” about Iron Gwazi or Pantheon. Each is vibrant and alive and distinctly unique. Neither is a clone. Neither could be ordered out of a catalogue. They’re not plopped down on parking lots. They do the unexpected. And in an industry that’s spent decades ruled by the graceful, widely-appealing, crowd-pleasing, widespread, and (don’t get us wrong –) graceful innovations of B&M, they feel particularly wild and ambitious and bold and captivating… and maybe even “too intense” for some! 

But that’s what makes both Pantheon and Iron Gwazi harbingers of the future. The “Coaster Wars” of the 1990s and 2000s have resoundingly come to an end. Every park that wants one already has its ubiquitous inverted coaster; dive coaster; wing coaster; hypercoaster; even 300-foot gigacoasters. We can’t build much taller or faster. Every self-respecting “coaster park” has a respectable coaster lineup. Period. The era of parks out-building each other is over.

Instead, we’ve entered a new chapter in the Coaster Wars – one where parks need only out-build themselves. Forget off-the-shelf, out-of-the-catalogue additions. The future looks a whole lot more like Pantheon, Iron Gwazi, Velocicoaster, Mystic Timbers, Steel Vengeance, Taron, Verbolten, Maverick, and more… Rides born of the park’s history and built on their existing DNA; rides drawn from the dreams of coaster enthusiasts. Custom! Complementary to the park’s lineup! Diversified! One-of-a-kind! Thoughtful! Packed with personality! 

So if there’s a lesson to be learned from Busch Gardens’ Golden Year and the two new classics it’s debuted, let it be that the future is bright for amusement parks, and innovation is still the name of the game. But rather than breaking records, let’s hope that that innovation is used to make rides that are better fits, more creative and clever, and more uniquely-tailored to their parks than ever before.