WILLIAMSBURG — Time sure does seem to fly… except for one particular bird, that is.
It’s been over twenty-two years since the infamous incident when male supermodel, Fabio Lanzoni, was smacked in the face by a bird and he then declared a media war on fan-favorite Busch Gardens Williamsburg (BGW) roller coaster, Apollo’s Chariot.
Rewind to 1999
Let’s rewind to the kinder time of early 1999. The Barbie doll was feeling sporty at 40 years old, everyone was partying along to Prince’s hit song “1999,” plans were being made for millennium celebrations later that year, teenagers used pager code to communicate, and e-mail was still very much a novelty to many Americans.
The year before, BGW had quietly closed its gross misstep in the form of the Arrow Dynamics’ coaster, Drachen Fire, which opened in 1992.
RELATED STORY: Landmark Lost: Busch Gardens’ Drachen Fire
In “coaster speak,” a hypercoaster is defined as any complete circuit roller coaster that reaches a height of or has a drop of at least 200 feet. While Apollo’s Chariot didn’t meet muster in terms of actual height (with its apex at 170 feet), it definitely did in terms of its first drop into a depression, clocking in at a 210-foot drop.
The new ride was built in the Festa Italia hamlet of the park and themed for Apollo, the Greco-Roman god of sun and light. The pilings were painted a striking bright yellow and the 4,882 feet worth of track were painted vibrant purple. While there were no inversions, the ride promised a thrilling experience, moving at speeds of up to 73 mph and a G-force of 4.1.
BGW wanted to debut its new coaster with a bang so a media event was planned for March 30, 1999.
The Debut of Apollo’s Chariot
BGW could not have asked for better weather for the media day. Skies were clear, the sun was bright, and the temperatures were in the high 60s. Leading the cast of characters in attendance was famed male supermodel, Fabio.
The blond-haired, blue-eyed Italian with chiseled features was primarily known for gracing the covers of hundreds of romance novels and for his roles in television commercials, like for the brand, I Can’t Believe its Not Butter!. He seemed the natural choice to be a celebrity spokesman for the ride. This event was supposed to resemble a “living Adonis” going up against the powerful mythological figure.
Cameras were rolling when, sitting on a gilded thrown with a plush red cape over his Apollo’s Chariot-embroidered denim shirt, Fabio stood up and excitedly thanked everyone for coming that day to debut the new coaster.
Reporters followed along to the queue building where Fabio, along with a gaggle of young women dressed in stereotypical Ancient Grecian garb, boarded the sparkling red trains. With a slightly apprehensive look on his face, Fabio brushed his perfectly set golden locks from his face as the train climbed the first incline.
For two minutes and fifteen seconds, media and BGW team members waited patiently for the train’s return. What they saw was something that no one anticipated.
As the train started to turn the corner, it was obvious that something was wrong. The women that sat on either side of Fabio had bright red droplets on their dresses and the shocked model’s face and pristine honker were covered in something deep red. One of the women sitting next to him was smiling, assuring him that he was fine and that everything was okay. The one who sat on the other side looked as though she just wanted to fly away from the circumstance.
What had happened to cause such a grotesque display returning to the platform?
That’s right… a goose. Well, at least that is what was suspected. All that is known was that it was a bird of some sort.
In what seemed like an odd moment of happenstance, a low-flying bird managed to fly directly into the path of Fabio’s “perfect” nose. The supermodel remained stoic, adjusting his blond hair, and disappearing from the scene to receive three stitches in his famous sniffer at a nearby hospital.
Larry Giles, vice president of BGW’s design and engineering, replaced Fabio for live feeds and interviews as the model winged his way back to the west coast.
What was a train wreck (bird-wreck?) of a media day for BGW turned into a publicity firestorm for Fabio. His publicist released a statement saying, “This is a testament of the man’s strength. Only a strong man could have survived an onslaught like that.”
You would have thought that the goose had a methodical plan to purposely smack into Fabio’s face at 73 mph and explode all over the famous model and margarine spokesman.
Footage of the bird-ing went viral in a time before “going viral” was a thing. In a bizarre marriage between goose-slaughter and public relations, the entire catastrophe led to a strange public fascination with both Fabio and BGW.
Following the incident, Fabio made his way through the talk show circuit, expressing concern for the safety of the ride and its future passengers. Despite this, he became the butt of jokes from local newspapers to late night television.
In all fairness to Fabio, his heart was in the right place. Just not his nose.
Deborah DeMarco, the public relations manager for BGW at the time of the incident, said, “We’re very sorry that it happened. It was an act of nature.” …quite literally.
Impressively enough, this did not deter fans from riding the coaster… a ride that Fabio kept on insisting was dangerous.
The park’s confidence in the coaster never ceased as the next group of riders following the “bird-ing” was a group of fifth graders from James River Elementary. It is important to note that all of the children arrived safely back at the station, nary a bird in sight.
Despite Fabio’s bruised ego and his public outcry to remove this allegedly “dangerous” ride, the now twenty-two year old coaster continues to thrill guests who dare take a voyage to the sun on the wings of Apollo’s Chariot.
Want to virtually ride Apollo’s Chariot? Click below for the official BGW point of view video!
…just watch out for birds.