Last call! No more free beer at SeaWorld or Busch Gardens

It's the death knell for yet another lovely American tradition: Free beer for visitors to Anheuser-Busch's theme parks. SeaWorld's three locations and Busch Gardens' two locations are capping the keg on the generosity.

The free cup of beer was one of the coolest things about any theme park in America. Each park had its own "Hospitality House" where visitors of drinking age could claim one free cup of beer during a visit and, if they wanted, get a lesson about beer brewing. The parks have announced that those pavilions will be converted to something with "broader appeal" (translation: another restaurant or souvenir stand). You can still buy a beer, but it will cost you $5 a cup.

The parks used to have signs all over the place (even above the urinals) proudly proclaiming that they were American-owned. Those were quietly removed last year after Anheuser-Busch was purchased by Belgian beverage goliath InBev. It made promises not to change much, but those are proving to be hollow.

The World of Anheuser-Busch

    U.S. Navy sailors ride a roller coaster at Busch Gardens in Tampa, Fla. More than 3 million U.S. and coalition service members have entered Worlds of Discovery free under Budweiser's "Here's to the Heroes" military tribute program. Here's to the Heroes has been extended until December 31, 2009. (PRNewsFoto/Busch Entertainment Corporation)

    PR NEWSWIRE

    The world-famous Budweiser Clydesdales participated in the Tournament of Roses Parade on Jan. 1 with a special float commemorating their 75th anniversary as the symbol of Anheuser-Busch. Introduced in 1933 to celebrate the repeal of Prohibition for beer, the Clydesdales travel more than 100,000 miles to more than 500 appearances each year. (PRNewsFoto/Anheuser-Busch)

    PR NEWSWIRE

    ** FOR USE AS DESIRED WITH YEAR END--FILE ** In this Monday, July 14, 2008 file photo, cars drive past the Anheuser-Busch brewery in St. Louis. The $52 billion sale of iconic St. Louis brewer Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc. to InBev SA highlighted what was an overall difficult year for business in Missouri. InBev agreed to make St. Louis its North American headquarters, but the merger has already taken a toll u00F4 1,400 Anheuser-Busch workers, about 1,000 of them in St. Louis, saw their jobs eliminated 2 1/2 weeks before Christmas.(AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)

    AP

    ** FOR USE AS DESIRED WITH YEAR END--FILE ** In this Monday, July 14, 2008 file photo, the Anheuser-Busch brewery is seen in St. Louis. The $52 billion sale of iconic St. Louis brewer Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc. to InBev SA highlighted what was an overall difficult year for business in Missouri. InBev agreed to make St. Louis its North American headquarters, but the merger has already taken a toll u00F4 1,400 Anheuser-Busch workers, about 1,000 of them in St. Louis, saw their jobs eliminated 2 1/2 weeks before Christmas.(AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)

    AP

    ** FILE ** In this Monday, July 14, 2008 file photo, cars drive past the Anheuser-Busch brewery in St. Louis. The $52 billion sale of iconic St. Louis brewer Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc. to InBev SA highlighted what was an overall difficult year for business in Missouri. InBev agreed to make St. Louis its North American headquarters, but the merger has already taken a toll u00F4 1,400 Anheuser-Busch workers, about 1,000 of them in St. Louis, saw their jobs eliminated 2 1/2 weeks before Christmas.(AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)

    AP

    ** CORRECTS SOURCE OF PHOTO AND CUTLINE ** In this photo provided by Anheuser-Busch InBev, a newly designed Bud Light can is shown. The nation's best-selling light beer is giving a makeover to its cans and bottles next year, with a focus on the color blue and the brand's new emphasis on refreshment and on what the brewer calls "drinkability." (AP Photo/Anheuser-Busch Inc.) ** NO SALES **

    AP

    ** CORRECTS SOURCE OF PHOTO AND CUTLINE ** In this photo provided by Anheuser-Busch InBev, a newly designed Bud Light bottle is shown. The nation's best-selling light beer is giving a makeover to its cans and bottles next year, with a focus on the color blue and the brand's new emphasis on refreshment and on what the brewer calls "drinkability." (AP Photo/Anheuser-Busch Inc.) ** NO SALES **

    AP

    ** CORRECTS SOURCE OF PHOTO AND CUTLINE ** In this photo provided by Anheuser-Busch InBev, a newly designed Bud Light bottle is shown. The nation's best-selling light beer is giving a makeover to its cans and bottles next year, with a focus on the color blue and the brand's new emphasis on refreshment and on what the brewer calls "drinkability." (AP Photo/Anheuser-Busch Inc.) ** NO SALES **

    AP

    ** CORRECTS SOURCE OF PHOTO AND CUTLINE ** In this photo provided by Anheuser-Busch InBev, a newly designed Bud Light can is shown. The nation's best-selling light beer is giving a makeover to its cans and bottles next year, with a focus on the color blue and the brand's new emphasis on refreshment and on what the brewer calls "drinkability." (AP Photo/Anheuser-Busch Inc.) ** NO SALES **

    AP

    In this photo provided by Anheuser-Busch Inc., a newly designed Bud Light bottle is shown. The nation's best-selling light beer giving a makeover to its cans and bottles next year, with a focus on the color blue and the brand's new emphasis on refreshment and on the brewer calls "drinkability." (AP Photo/Anheuser-Busch Inc.) ** NO SALES **

    AP



Busch Gardens Africa in Tampa Bay has particularly close ties to the beer industry, and its origins explain how a beer company got into the thrill biz to begin with. The theme park began in 1959 as a public relations center attached to a Bud bottling plant and slowly expanded to become the thrill-and-giraffe wonderland it is today. The original brewery was torn down and a wooden coaster put up in its place in 1999, but its Hospitality House still has the same mod late-'50s design, free of the faux-exotic architecture that now pervades amusement parks. It was a holdout from a simpler time.

The freebie was one of the most gratifying pleasures of a visit to an Anheuser-Busch Adventure Park, which are set apart from the others by serving particularly good food options. Because I cover theme parks quite a lot, claiming my free brew became a regular habit whenever I visited. The practice surely couldn't have cost the parks much to do (just one little bar, usually staffed by only one or two people), and in my case, I am much less likely to drink a Budweiser product unless someone gives me one for free, so the giveaway was an easy way to get me to try the company's products.

But that's not the only gaffe the big parks made this week: SeaWorld Orlando hiked its one-day adult admission price from $70 to $75, and Busch Gardens Africa inflated them by $2. In a time when customers are more alert than ever to value, you have to wonder what they're thinking.

What's next? Sending the Clydesdales to the glue factory?

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