The Storied Afterlife of the Zambezi Zinger

One night out at the casinos, a withered old fellow named “Hombre” told my friend and I a story about how the decomissioned Worlds of Fun rollercoaster, the Zambezi Zinger, was partially buried in a nearby bend in the Missouri river.

Drunk on inexpensive cocktails and flush with our earnings from blackjack, we set out to the spot the man described and spent several hours digging through the muck of the Missouri in hopes of excavating one of the original green rollercoaster cars. I didn’t know what we planned to do with it, besides maybe spiff the thing up and convert it into some kind of all-terrain go-cart, but we were determined to find something.

In the end, we found no rollercoaster cars, no curvy tracks, no towering green support beams. We did, however, succeed in unearthing a host of memories about one of the most legendary rollercoasters of all time.

If you grew up in the Kansas City area anytime between 1973 and 1997, you’re almost certainly familiar with the Zambezi Zinger. The Zambezi was located in the Africa section of Worlds of Fun, and to get to the line you had to pass through an adobe hut with a painted sign out front that read, “No pygmies shorter than 4 skulls can ride without adult.” The ride itself began with a slow, suspense-building spiral ascent, finally giving way to a 40mph free-fall that clicked and curved wickedly left into tunnels and tree cover.

The photos I found here do a pretty good job of illustrating the basic structure of the rollercoaster. I found them through a Web site designed by a couple who had met while working at the ride one summer and eventually got married. When I told this to my brother David, he said, “When you ride the Zambezi Zinger with someone, you might as well be married.”

It’s true. If you ask anyone who rode the Zambezi Zinger what it was like, the all-too-comfortable coziness of the seating arrangements is one of the first things they’re likely to mention. While a favorite among couples, going pot-luck on such a ride — especially as a kid barely 4 skulls tall — was usually more awkward than thrilling. In fact, I’m half-convinced one of the reasons the Zambezi was banished from Worlds of Fun was due to the uncomfortable intimacy it bred between otherwise perfect strangers.

Whatever the reasons for its deactivation, the Zambezi was removed from Worlds of Fun in 1997 after nearly a quarter-century of magic. The more expansive “Mamba” and “Patriot” coasters took its place, but were hardly a replacement. In a moment of melancholy over the Zambezi’s disappearance from the North Kansas City horizon, I coined a phrase that equated riding the Zambezi Zinger to journeying into the afterlife. In other words, saying “she’s riding the Zambezi Zinger now” would be another way to say “she’s no longer with us.” It hasn’t really caught on yet, but I find it rather poignant.

The only thing is, it’s not really accurate. After doing a bit of research, I discovered that the Zambizi Zinger IS STILL IN OPERATION, except that now it thrills riders at the Parque National de Cafe theme park in Bogota Quindío, Colombia. (Unlike the first two paragraphs of this column — which I’ll concede might not have ever happened — this is a documented fact.) The only difference is that it’s now called the Montana Rusa, and the color scheme has been changed from all green to blue and red with yellow cars.

So if you hear someone say, “She’s riding the Zambezi Zinger now,” it does not mean that that person is dead — it means they are at a theme park in South America. And even though the name, color and location have changed, I personally take great satisfaction in knowing little Colombian kids are experiencing the same thrills my friends and I enjoyed as teens and tweens in Kansas City.

Viva le Zambezi!


Post-script: For a nice look at the Zambezi’s history, stats and a bunch of enthusiastic ratings of the Zinger, check out its page on ThemeParksOnline.org (cached). Also, this entry is dedicated to Chiefs Founder Lamar Hunt, who also founded Worlds and Oceans of Fun. Mr. Hunt passed away this week at age 74.

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