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Busch planning its 7th coaster

The Tampa theme park isn't talking, but work has begun for a diving coaster: Riders would free-fall straight down.

By MARK ALBRIGHT
Published May 5, 2004

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TAMPA - Without fanfare, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay has quietly begun clearing a site for its next thrill ride, a gut-wrenching diving coaster from the design team that created the park's Kumba and Montu steel coasters.

The new ride doesn't have a name yet, and Busch officials have zipped lips about details of the project.

But construction crews recently walled off about 2 acres of the Stanleyville corner of the park, drained the moat around the theater there and ripped up the railroad tracks that carried the park's steam engine train to a station that's now closed.

"We are currently enhancing the Stanleyville areas for future guest enjoyment," said Dan Brown, executive vice president and general manager of Busch Gardens Tampa Bay.

He wouldn't elaborate, saying an announcement would come later. But Busch recently took out building permits for a $1.1-million loading station and concrete foundation for what would be the park's seventh coaster.

And it has hired Swiss designers Walter Bolliger and Walter Mabillard, whose smooth-running Dueling Dragons and Hulk Coaster are major draws at the Islands of Adventure park at Universal Orlando, to engineer a coaster that would be opened by summer 2005, industry sources confirmed.

The team has been asked to come up with their version of the latest form of unconventional stomach-churners: the diving coaster.

The ride is being designed to hit speeds in excess of 70 miles an hour from a lift hill just shy of 200 feet tall. That's faster than Montu, which travels at a top speed of 65 mph from a lift hill 138 feet tall.

The Swiss team has built two diving coasters so far: Oblivion at Alton Towers in Staffordshire, England, and G5 at Janfuson Fancyworld in Taiwan. The one at Busch Gardens would be the team's first diving coaster in North America.

The rides use a single lift hill 190 to 200 feet tall but bear little other resemblance to a traditional steel coaster. The ride vehicle has two rows of seats; each is eight seats wide. But the cars travel on a standard-width roller coaster track, so the wider vehicle looks pretty unwieldy and precarious.

"Then basically you and the coaster go straight down. At Alton Towers you are aimed right straight at a hole in the ground that's a little wider than the vehicle," said Paul Ruben, North American editor of Park World, a British trade journal for amusement ride builders and theme park executives. "You're weightless the entire time because your body is falling at the exact same speed as the vehicle."

The two rows are tiered to give everyone an obstructed view of the rapidly approaching ground.

At the bottom, the banked track curves sharply, subjecting passengers to G-forces up to 3.5, or 31/2 times the acceleration of gravity, about the same as Montu and Kumba. The ride then returns uphill to the station.

"It's a one-trick-pony ride, but what a trick," said Ruben. "These guys at B&M build the Mercedes-Benz of coasters."

Diving coasters are part of the next generation of extreme scream machines that have been coming off ride designer tables since the late 1990s.

Most, like Superman the Escape at Six Flags Magic Mountain in California, use linear induction motors propelled by high-powered magnets to accelerate on a straightaway from zero to 100 mph in seconds, then use the momentum to ascend and descend a 400-foot tower that goes almost straight up. Some sky shot or catapult rides such as Walt Disney World's Twilight Zone Tower of Terror use similar motors to literally drive the cars up and down a tower faster than a free-fall.

B&M's diving coasters, in contrast, use a more traditional chain to pull the vehicle up the lift hill, then use gravity for propulsion. Passengers free-fall and just barely leave their seats, a phenomenon coaster aficionados call "air time."

Busch officials won't discuss the new thrill ride because touting a new attraction a year away might cause people to postpone a visit. Plus, the park recently opened a variety of other new draws designed to carry it through the summer. Busch recently opened a Broadway-style stage called Katonga, R. L. Stine's Haunted Lighthouse 4D and the final half of a three-year project to upgrade the Serengeti Plain. The 65-acre Serengeti is stocked with Busch's enlarged collection of African hoofed stock.

With construction on the new coaster and a new indoor restaurant behind the theater at Stanleyville, the steam engine train ride no longer makes a complete loop around the park. It continues, however, to make a narrated trip through the Serengeti Plain that has been enhanced so passengers get a closer view of the free-roaming animals than they once did.

The park also returns to its Summer Nights extended hours schedule June 21 through Aug. 1, which adds live entertainment including an Australian dance revue at the Stanleyville Theater. The Stanleyville railroad track and stations will reopen after the diving coaster is complete.

Busch, which once had the roller coaster crown to itself in Florida, still has more coasters than its rival parks in Orlando. But after all the Orlando parks went on a coaster-building spree in the 1990s, the heightened competition wiped out much of Busch Gardens' marketing advantage.

- Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or 727 893-8252.

[Last modified May 5, 2004, 01:00:41]

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