WILLIAMSBURG, Va. — Are you brave enough to ride among the gods... or would you get down and wrestle with a reptilian beast?
These are the questions posed to visitors at Busch Gardens' two theme parks. Here in Hampton Roads, we know all about Busch Gardens Williamsburg's newest attraction, the epic Pantheon roller coaster!
But with summer gearing up, you might have your eyes set on a vacation to Florida, and with that, the possibility of visiting Busch Gardens Tampa, which is touting its own jaw-dropping coaster experience: Iron Gwazi.
The two coasters opened within weeks of each other this past March, both delayed by about two years as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. And the reviews from fans and visitors are nearly unanimous: They are worth the wait!
Busch Gardens Williamsburg and Busch Gardens Tampa can both be proud of their latest and greatest attractions, but some of you might be wondering... Does one coaster have an edge over the other?
Pantheon: Take flight with the gods
If you live in Hampton Roads, you probably know all about Pantheon by now.
Themed after the ancient Roman gods, Busch Gardens says Pantheon is the world's fastest multi-launch roller coaster, with a top speed of 73 mph and standing at 180 feet. It features a 95-degree drop, four launches, five air-time hills, and two inversions.
The steel coaster was manufactured by Intamin Worldwide and according to the park, it "incorporates Pluto, Mercury, Jupiter, Minerva, and Neptune, with an aspect of the track reflecting their respective powers."
When you first see Pantheon, two elements immediately stick out: a giant top hat that leads to a 90+ degree drop straight down at one end of the coaster, and a vertical spike rising over 170 feet into the air. Surrounding these two are numerous twists, turns, and inversions to further set your heart aflutter.
When the ride first begins, you're immediately met with one of these inversions. As you go upside down, you're met with a hangtime that feels much longer than the few seconds it takes to complete. You're upside down and feel like you're floating on a cloud.
As you approach the top hat, you're given a boost from a launch that takes you up about halfway, but it's not enough and you find yourself careening backward. You hit the launch again and continue gaining speed - still going backward - as it lifts you up into the towering spike.
What's surprising is as you go over the launches, you're jolted from your seat, which again gives you a sense of weightlessness. It's an interesting sensation that I've seen referred to as a "bunny hop". Indeed it does give you a brief moment where you feel like you're bouncing along before being rocketed forth for a final time which gives you the oomph to crest over the top hat.
Unlike a roller coaster such as Griffon, there's not really a time to relish the overlook before the drop. Once you go over the edge, you are dropped straight down and glide through more twists and inversions, giving a sense of smooth gliding perhaps best compared with nearby Apollo's Chariot.
Need a preview? Here's the official POV video, although you won't be feeling those zero g's like the real thing!
Iron Gwazi: In the Crocodile's grip
While Pantheon was a brand new roller coaster built from the ground up in the Italy section of Busch Gardens Williamsburg, Iron Gwazi was built on the bones of a previously existing ride in Tampa.
The original Gwazi was a wooden roller coaster built in the late 1990s. While initially a popular ride, it began showing its age in the hot Florida sun and by the early 2010s it became known as a rough, rickety ride. It closed for good in 2015 after 15 years of service (as an aside, some of its trains would be sent up to Williamsburg to be used for Invadr which opened in 2017).
It was eventually decided to refurbish part of the original Gwazi, and Rocky Mountain Construction was tasked with the job.
Built using some of the original supports of the original Gwazi coaster, the new ride is a hybrid metal track on a wooden frame. While the original Gwazi was themed after lions and tigers, Iron Gwazi is themed after the crocodile.
Like Pantheon, its original goal of opening in 2020 was pushed back two years due to the pandemic, but earlier this year Iron Gwazi opened to the public, billing itself as the world's fastest and steepest hybrid coaster. Iron Gwazi has a 206-foot peak into a 91-degree drop and a top speed of 76 mph. There are at least a dozen airtime moments on the 4,075-foot track.
While Pantheon has you gliding down its track right away, Iron Gwazi begins with a slow march uphill a 206-foot lift hill. This first element is Iron Gwazi's most visually prominent. That 200+ feet of track is an absolute tower that can be seen throughout most of the park.
While Pantheon's top hat features a fast, steep drop, that first plunge with Iron Gwazi is an entirely different experience. You fall fast at a very intense 76 miles per hour and things don't slow down after that. Numerous banks and turns lead into a zero-g roll meant to evoke a crocodile's "death roll" with its prey.
It's hard to describe what leads into where because the ride is non-stop. You'll feel like you left your stomach behind at the top of that lift hill by the end of its two-minute ride time (which honestly feels twice as long).
Before these rides opened I expected to have a somewhat similar experience between them. The two Busch Gardens parks have their share of "sister" roller coasters that offer similar rides, after all: Alpengeist and Montu, Tempesto and Tigris, Verbolten and Cheetah Hunt (OK, that last one is a bit of a stretch).
But Pantheon and Iron Gwazi couldn't be more different. Even their big 90+ degree high-speed drops are nothing alike.
The good news is no matter which park you visit, Pantheon and Iron Gwazi are must-rides for any coaster enthusiast and are top-tier attractions.
As for which is the better coaster, it probably all comes down to what it is you look forward to with a rollercoaster. If you want unrelenting speed where everything is a blur of steel and wood, Iron Gwazi is for you. If you're looking for a smoother experience with some literal back-and-forth buildup and payoff, then Pantheon is the winner.
For me, personally? I have to give the edge to Iron Gwazi just for how intense it hits from the moment of that first drop all the way to when you pull back into the station. Pantheon has a bit of comfort to it, where I feel like years of riding Tempesto and Apollo's Chariot had prepared me for the complete package that is Pantheon.
But you can't go wrong with either ride. If you can only ride them once, be sure to sit in or near the back for both of them; you'll get plenty of extra air time as you fly down the track!
These rides are both highlights of their respective parks. And credit to Busch Gardens, they don't seem to ever rest on their laurels. There are already signs at Busch Gardens Williamsburg that a new ride may be afoot in the Oktoberfest section of the park. But that's for another time, in the meantime enjoy all that Pantheon and Iron Gwazi have to offer!