Busch Gardens (1971-1973)

[Original photo on file.]

[Original photo on file.]

[Original photo on file.]

Houston’s Busch Gardens was around only briefly – the park opened in May 1971 and was closed within two years. It was located adjacent to the Anheuser-Busch brewery (775 Gellhorn Dr.), which opened in 1966.

The Galveston Daily News reported on May 23, 1971:

A $12 million amusements park patterned after Florida’s biggest tourist attraction opens next Saturday in northeast Houston. The 40-acre Busch Gardens primarily has an Asian theme except for an ice cave with a temperature controlled environment for several varieties of penguins, polar bears and sea lions. Otherwise there are islands with monkeys, an elephant compound, deer parks, a Bengal tiger temple, a rhinoceros compound, a bear and cat cub arena, and an area where youngsters can pet lambs, goats and llamas. Other animals include . . . antelope, yaks, Bactrian camels, and lesser pandas. A large freeflight cage with walkways houses over 100 species of foreign birds, hidden wire mesh perches are wired to heat the feet of the birds electrically. Benches used by the monkeys also have electrical heating systems. The park is adjacent to the Houston plant of Anheuser-Busch Inc., which also operates the Tampa Gardens . . . . Transportation in the Houston Gardens include a boat route that covers two-thirds of the grounds, including passages through the ice cave and freeflight bird cage. There also is a train modeled alter the early English steam locomotives widely used in Asia during the I9th century. A 950-seat ampitheater features the trademark of all the Busch Gardens, a bird show with trained macaws and cockatoos. There is an admission charge of $2.25 for adults and $1.25 for children from 3 to 12 but there is free beer for adults. The Gardens started out with no charge but the high cost of animals, birds and labor forced a policy change. The Houston Gardens already have had a $30,000 casualty. One of the two early arriving rhinos became ill and died of what was determined to be acute indigestion. Tampa’s Gardens attract some [2.5] million people a year. Houston expects 700,000 to 800,000 [t]he first year with the annual average leveling out to about one million after three years. With a permanent staff of from 75 to 80, the gardens will have some 300 employes in summer months. The gardens are to open with operating hours of 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., but Busch spokesmen acknowledge late summer heat may force some adjustments for the protection of the animals. Saturday’s opening will follow a Friday dedication luncheon to be given by August A. Busch Jr. for several hundred guests.

A Corpus Christi Caller-Times article that also appeared on May 23, 1971, varied slightly:

The state’s newest tourist attraction, Busch Gardens, Houston, will open at 10 a.m. Saturday, May 29. The 11-million dollar garden and zoo is located adjacent to Anheuser-Busch Brewery. This garden, although similar to the giant complexes operated by Anheuser-Busch in Tampa, Los Angeles, and St Louis, will create a new environment featuring Asian animals, architecture and landscaping. It will actually be two gardens. The large garden and zoo area will cover about 40 acres. Admission fees of $2.25 for adults and $1.25 for children will be charged for this area. A smaller ‘mini-garden’ with various animal and other displays, will be located alongside the larger area. There will be no charge for admission to the mini-garden. One of the principal features of the park will be a canal, in which a series of water-propelled boats provide visitor transportation. Quiet, completely safe and comfortable, the boat ride will take a passenger past about three-fourths of the gardens. Midway in the boat ride guests may disembark to enjoy the animal contact area. For those who want to walk part or all of the way through the entire area, enticing paths allow them to proceed at their own pace. During the summer Houston Busch Gardens will be open seven days a week, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. After Sept 7, the Gardens will operate Saturday and Sunday only. Winter hours will be 9 a.m -5 p.m.

A later Caller-Times piece also mentioned a Sherpa Slide and ferris wheel for children. A Brownsville Herald article referred to the boat-ride canal as the “Ceylon Channel”, stated that the park had “some 30 species of mammals,” and noted that 12 acres of the 40-acre property were devoted to parking.

The park appeared to have been going strong at its one-year anniversary. The Deer Park Progress wrote on June 15, 1972:

Busch Gardens is now open for its second season with new attractions, rides, live talent and extended hours according to general manager Dick O’Connor. The Gardens will be open Saturdays, Sundays and holidays from 10 a,m. to 8 p.m. and Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. One of the new attractions planned this year is an elephant ride for the children. And there will be a live talent show, with various Houston area groups and other talented performers. A special sound stage has been built in the middle of The Gardens. The always popular Bird Show given three times a day in the amphitheater will be repeated this year. Some of the other popular attractions at The Gardens include the Ceylon Channel Boat Ride, the walk through a Free Flight Bird Cage and viewing the antics of Arctic animals in the dome-shaped Ice Cave. The tiger display will again intrigue visitors of all ages. This Asian-themed family entertainment and educational facility, situated next to the Houston plant for Anheuser-Busch off Interstate 10 in east Houston, will be even more colorful and lush this year because of the growth of the landscaping, most of which was planted just a year ago. New additions to the over 30 species of mammals and more than 100 species of birds and water fowl will be seen by visitors.

Sadly, though, as the Victoria Advocate reported on December 23, 1972, “attendance the first year fell far short of the expected 800,000.” Busch Gardens “will shut down most of its wild animal displays next year because of low attendance and high costs,” the article stated. On January 4, 1973, as reported in the Deer Park Progress, August A. Busch, Jr. announced that Houston’s Busch Gardens had been “unprofitable,” that “[a]ll efforts to improve the situation have been unsuccessful,” and that the park would be converted into “a sales promotion facility for the company’s beer sales division.” The Baytown Sun, in a June 3, 1973 article, called the park a “disaster” – noting that “[t]he brewery people lost $4 million on the project in a recent fiscal quarter.”


40 responses to “Busch Gardens (1971-1973)

  1. I remember this place. I went there several times as a child (about 9-10 years old). The picture at the top is especially familiar. I remember the Pagoda and the area around it. Also seeing birds, and tours of the brewery. There always seemed to be the smell of “burnt spaghetti” around the place.

  2. This was one of a handful of open-air entertainment venues of my youth, that no longer exists. Others include SeaArama Marineworld (Galveston), Westbury Square (SW Houston, near Chimney Rock and Bellfort), and of course Astroworld.

    It’s too bad that Busch Gardens wasn’t more successful. At least back in those “good-old days” people valued the importance of open-air, family-quality entertainment. In this modern age, kids are left to fend for themselves indoors, spending hours on the X-Box or on the Internet.

    Thanks for posting this Busch Gardens article!

    • Jim, I appreciated all that you said. I remember when my parents came down to Texas to visit us we went to Busch Gardens and really enjoyed the beautiful flora and fauna, the exotic birds and just being in the outdoors together. There were lots of parrot and other bird sounds. Thanks for bringing to my memory. Yes, those were “good ole days”!

  3. When I tell people there was a Busch Gardens here they rarely believe me. I remember going several times. Thanks for confirming my recollections!

  4. This can’t be correct. My husband and I had our first date at Busch Gardens in June of 1976. (I didn’t even know him in 1972.) I remember the bird shows and then the tour of the brewery. At the end while munching a warm pretzel and having a bit of beer, I realized this was the “one.” We married a couple months later and are still together.

    • that is correct…I remember my dad taking us there around 76 or possibly 77…there were parrot shows and other activities…I even have a couple of pictures….also remember the eagle on the spinning signs….my little sister would call it the eagle that flies but really don fly…

  5. Houstorian Tracey

    Daisymac – First, congratulations on 30+ years of marriage! The information regarding the closing date I’ve got was what I found in the newspaper articles cited. One article mentioned that the park would continue to be used as a sales promotion facility, which suggests to me that it could have continued to operate until 1976 in much the same form, though only used for special events. Perhaps you attended one of those?

  6. Houstorian Tracey – Thanks for the congrats. I am sure this wasn’t a special event, because it was too spur of the moment. I have looked all over the internet and I can’t find anything else to back this up, but it was Busch Gardens, and it was 1976. A mystery, huh?

  7. I went there as a kid, and it definitely wasn’t 1972-3, as I was too young at the time. I think 1975-6 would have been about right, so maybe it operated in a lesser capacity (sans rhino’s, etc.). I do remember all of the birds.

  8. Wow! I live in Williamsburg and have visited both the local and the Tamp parks regularly. MI had never heard of the prior existence of a Houston Busch Gardens before. My daughter even works for AB and she never heard anything either. I even lived in Houston for several years and never heard of it being mentioned in any capacity. Maybe it was too much of an embarassment for the company to include it in their history?

  9. We lived in Baytown so it was a short drive to take my two kids to Busch Gardens from 1971 to about 1976. After they cut it to just the bird show and the gardens we went 4-5 times a year. It was a nice free show and kept the kids happy for an afternoon, and i loved it too.

  10. I actually have video of Busch Gardens but unsure of the year. I am 44 years old so I’m not sure when the video was taken. My parents had a Super 8 camera and we have film of Busch Gardens bird show and some show with a monkey sliding out of a planet? Ok, i swear I’m not making this up! Anyway, I do remember the “strange smell” that emanated throughout the park. All in all, good memories!

  11. Does anyone remember a theme restaurant near Busch Gardens in the 70s called “Great American Adventure” or “Great Escape?” The waiters dressed up like historical characters – in togas, etc. My grandma took me there as a child after a visit to Busch Gardens.

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  13. I STRONGLY believe they should add an Asia themed park into their amusement park collection, I mean…Asian culture is very interesting and there’s so many directions they could go with it, especially now with anime / manga and japan becoming quite popular with teens here in the US If they built one in TX or Cali i’m positive they would get a lot of people going considering their parks are on the east coast at the moment :] I know there would be many issues with this idea, but I really think they should however this is just a fantasy and probably won’t become a reality anytime in the near future.

  14. Where is Playland Park?

  15. From what I remember of Busch Gardens, it had two distinct operating phases. In the early years, probably 71-73, the park was open as a mostly themed amusement park including rides. It had a roller coaster and a few additional rides. It mostly had bird attractions including a parrot show. This is where my memory gets a bit fuzzy, but from what I remember, the park closed for at least 1 full year (probably 1974). I attended the park once during the early years, but did not ride the roller coaster and only barely remember the park. When it closed, there was some question as to whether the park would re-open. I do not recall the exact reasons for closing, but it was likely due to lack of attendance coupled with operating costs for the rides.

    In Busch Garden’s second phase from what I recall, the park reopened a year later (1975 or so), but had been drastically scaled back to basically just the Aviary and gardens. The entry fee was reduced. Gone were all of the rides, although the roller coaster skeleton remained unused and overgrown with weeds. What was left were the birds, the gift shops and a few other attractions. I recall that the penguin and cold bird exhibit had been removed. The walking paths were reduced so that you couldn’t walk to where the closed rides and attractions formerly were. The brewery tours also continued. I wouldn’t classify the second phase of Busch Gardens Houston as a theme park as this phase wasn’t themed and had no rides.

    I don’t know exactly when this second phase of Busch Gardens ended, but it was likely towards the late 70s. Reviewing Houston Chronicle newspapers from the 70s (probably requires microfiche) would reveal the exact details of the closure and reopening of this park as well as exact dates.

    • One last thing, I do recall that when Busch Gardens Houston closed permanently, the birds in the aviary were apparently relocated to a park in Florida. It may have even been one of the Busch Gardens in Florida, but I can’t recall which park specifically.

  16. Anyone recall exactly WHERE the park grounds were, relative to the brewery? West side? South? As I recall, 610 wasn’t built yet southward of I-10, so I suppose the gardens could even have been to the east of the brewery.

    Just trying to locate the park land on the google satellite maps and see what has become of it. I went there shortly after it opened and really liked it. I guess I was 10 or 11 at the time, and I didn’t quite know what to make of it. It wasn’t the zoo, and it wasn’t Astroworld. I wasn’t SeaArama. It was different than the others but it was tropical, peaceful and entertaining. One sort of “absorbed” the ambiance and became part of it.

    Never could get my parents to take me a second time, and by the time I got my own drivers license the park had closed. I think I’d just like to view the sky images and try to imagine where it was and how we got there (getting around Houston’s channel area in those days could be a VERY long drive if you took the wrong turn).

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  18. I recall going to this place in 1976 or 1977 and at the time it was called Busch Bird Park. There were no rides. I do remember being impressed by all the different birds and the lush tropical plants. There were also birds at the Houston SZoo but they were all in cages or behind glass. I’m pretty sure the admission charge was free or very cheap. My older brother bought a Budweiser magnet — he was probably 10 or 11.
    Not long after that we went to Florida and visited the Busch Gardens in Tampa. I still have a plastic mug I bought at the gift shop. It has the words “The Dark Continent” superimposed over the shape of Africa. I bet they don’t use that theme for Busch Gardens anymore!

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  20. Seems I remember the second phase of it’s existence, we call it Busch Bird Gardens and it had large nets over most the area and birds just fly around. When the net would get rips, we would have exotic birds loose in our neighbor.

  21. Have they built over the park?

  22. So very interesting to read all these great comments. Reminds me of the time when Riverview Park in Chicago was closed down.Obviously am not from Texas but live here now and found a beautiful blue and white souvenir plate that reads “Busch Bird Park” Houston, Texas with a largeParrot on a tree limb in the center of the plate and then all around the plate there are different scenes that read..Entrance, Beautiful Landscaped Gardens, Tales of Baghdad and Meet Macaws Close Up.
    Was wondering when the Park was open and thanks to all of you I know have a great history on it! Thank you all very much!!!

  23. Yes, Sandra, in it’s second incarnation it was called “Busch Bird Park” and I believe that admission was free.

    On another note, the pagoda was build out of wood, and several weeks after opening the fire marshal closed it, meaning you couldn’t go up inside it anymore. (This is from memory, so…)

  24. I remember going to Busch Gardens in the mid to late 70s and what was so weird was this em creditably high escalator outside this building and there was no railing, it was terrifying and took you at least 100 feet up to the entrance. We had small children with us and held them on the inside as they drop off was life threatening. I was talking to my sister who was with me and the kids at the time, and we still can’t believe that no one was killed on that thing. Does anyone remember that?

  25. I, too, remember being taken to a bird show as a child somewhere near the beer place. Since I was born in 1969, I am either having an incredible baby memory, or there was indeed a bird show later in the 70s. This is the first time I have read anything about this existing. I always wondered about my memories.

    • Allen,
      Busch Gardens (the full amusement park) closed for about one year (73-74?) and reopened renamed to what I remember was Busch Bird Park. As the name states, what remained was a bird show, a large aviary and some food and souvenir places. Much of the park’s areas had been closed and the park ended up much smaller. The roller coaster (and other ride areas) there ended up being overgrown by weeds and brush. I recall the bird park remained open until the 78-79 time frame at which time the birds were transferred to another Busch park and this park was closed. I always wanted to wander the full park’s full paths, but there were security guards stationed at the path ends to prevent this… even though the park’s full paths remained intact.

      • I helped to open Busch Gardens Houston in 1971. I was part of the bird show staff. After we closed the Busch Gardens in 1973, we opened what was left as Busch Bird Park for a few years. I became the director of Busch Bird Park and closed it down for good in 1977. We packed
        up all the animals left and shipped them to Busch Gardens Tampa, closed everything, locked the doors and left. I continued to work at Busch Gardens Tamps for a couple more years.

      • Thanks for your note!

  26. I was the train mechanic the first year (1972), Actually I was a part timer. I had been an engineer on the train at Astroworld its first year of operation. I was a brash young U T college student and stepped on a lot of bosses toes so was not invited back the next year and wound up driving a moving van for Bekins the next 2 summers then started driving full time after graduation with a business degree. When I heard about Busch Gardens I applied for the train mechanics job but was old they had already hired one of the former Astroworld assistant mechanics. Two weeks after the park opened I was called and asked to come in for another interview. The mechanic they hired would come in in the morning, fire up the steam locomotive (takes over an hour) and when the train crew took over he would adjourn to the hospitality room and by 3PM he was too drunk to find the train. When they told me I would be working 40 hrs. a week till Sept. then 2 days a week till Nov. when I would be laid off, I said I couldn’t quit my Bekins job with plenty of overtime but would work there Sundays training and supervising the crews and rotating with them operating the engine. If something broke down, they would call my mother or father and they would phone the Bekins chief dispatcher and ask him to tell me to bring home a gallon of milk. When I got off work I would drive to Busch Gardens and find out what was wrong and fix it as fast as possible. This worked quite well and I made some upgrades to the track that improved safety and operations.
    In the amusement park business at that time the same people built all the parks, after the first summer operation, the experienced managers moved on the build the next park. At the end of B G 1971 season most of the managers moved on to build Opryland at Nashville, Tn. and the rides manager took my resume with him. I went up in February1972 for a short visit and 1 week later was hired as their train mechanic.
    The story around Busch Gardens was that they did an economic study of the viabilaity of a Busch Gardens in Houston and were told it would not be successful but built it anyway to find out the study was right

    • Hi Wayne,

      I worked at Astroworld from 1980-1988 (skipping one year in 1984)… so I worked there a total of 7 years. I worked there after Six Flags owned it. After Six Flags, there was no concept of being ‘invited’ back. If you wanted to come back as a seasonal worker, you re-applied like everyone else at the beginning of the season. If you had worked there before, you were more or less a shoe-in. Though, you may not get the same job you previously held as that _was_ kind of a privilege and depended entirely upon your supervisors. But, of course, you could work anywhere in the park.

      I’m sure a mechanic position was one of those positions of privilege that you had to know someone and be good at it to come back year after year. Though, I’m not certain how you could have stepped on toes in that position (other than doing things the correct way). Having worked in rides, there were a lot of questionable corners cut to ‘get things done faster’, but I was personally never willing to do this when it involved rider safety. Of course, that didn’t always make me the most popular foreman with supervisors. Note that having worked in ride operations (I had worked most rides in the park), I had also worked on the train as a spieling conductor, but never as a train engineer.

      As for the opening of Busch Gardens in Houston at that point then…. Today, no one would think of financing a park if it had no hope of success. I guess in the early 70s, that kind of investment sensibility was different even when studies said it wouldn’t succeed. I only visited Busch Gardens once when the rides were in full operation (probably ’71-’72) and barely remember that visit other than the penguin and polar bear exhibit. I was too small to ride most of the rides, but we may have ridden the train, unless it was out of service that day (I don’t remember riding it).

      All of my remembered visits to this park were after it had converted to Busch Bird Park when all of the foot paths had drastically shrunk, all of the rides were no longer operating and the wooden coaster had become overgrown with weeds. I’m sure the train had been pulled out and moved to another park by then. The primary attractions left operating after conversion were the aviary and a bird show in a small arena. The only reason I remember the bird show at all is because they played the much overused Sabre Dance by Aram Khachaturian to underscore each of the parrot’s antics. Of course, there were a few merchandise and food shops also left open.

      After it had converted to Busch Bird Park, at least from a kid’s then perspective, it was about as much fun to visit as a museum exhibit. I would have said it was as much fun as visiting the Houston zoo, but the zoo at least had more animal attractions than a solitary aviary (that invariably got you pooped on) and that trite bird show with parrots balancing on their backs and riding little birdie scooters to that lame music.

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