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A sky-high nose dive

Busch Gardens looks to cement its coaster king reputation with SheiKra, a ride with a face-first, 200-foot plunge.

By MARK ALBRIGHT
Published October 28, 2004

[Busch Entertainment Corp.]
SheiKra, shown here in a rendering, will be the first diving roller coaster in the United States. To go to Busch Gardens’ animated rendering of the ride, click here.

TAMPA - Busch Gardens is building a new test of how well thrill-seekers can hold down their lunch.

Can they stomach a menacing-looking roller coaster that boasts a pair of perpendicular-to-the-ground drops, a twisting trip through a vertical loop and a big splashy finish?

While nothing gives theme park attendance a jolt like a new thrill ride, the headliner that debuts in May was designed for a far bigger job. Busch executives are counting on what will be the first diving coaster in North America to bolster the park's claim as the roller coaster capital of the Southeast. Because coasters have become standard fare in Central Florida parks, Busch decided to raise the bar against the white-knuckle ride competition mounted by Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure and soon the remodeled Cypress Gardens.

Counting the dueling wooden Gwazi as two coasters, Busch will have eight.

"We needed more than just another coaster," said Joe Couciera, Busch's vice president of marketing for Busch Gardens and Sea World."We were careful to select something unique for this part of the world that can be an icon to help drive our marketing."

Called SheiKra, Busch's next coaster has been on the drawing boards for eight years, but Busch is springing it now to cap a four-year capital program that has been the most extensive overhaul of the 200-acre park since its opening in 1959. In addition to annual new attractions, the park has redone the Serengeti Plain, opened the Katonga stage show and within months will unveil a new front entrance and road links to the parking lot.

News that Busch was building a diving coaster was confirmed by the St. Petersburg Times and some online coaster fan sites when construction began in May. But Busch didn't unveil the details of the radical new ride until Wednesday. Word spread like wildfire among coaster fanatics who have been talking up the ride for months. One Web site, www.thrillnetwork.com even rated the ride five stars.

Indeed, SheiKra will be dramatically different from its traditional coaster cousins.

Riders are seated eight across in cars three times as wide as the track. The three rows of seats are tiered so everyone has an unobstructed view down the business end of the 200-foot plunge. To enhance the pondering, the train stops for four seconds at the top. Then it barrels straight down at 70 mph, powers into a twisting loop, then heads straight down for 138 feet more while disappearing into what appears to be a old stone well. The ride ends when the train emerges from the tunnel in the ground to skim through the waters of a small lake.

"It's the closest thing to sky diving you'll get," said Mark Rose, Busch Gardens engineering and planning chief.

The sensation of barreling straight down a hill perpendicular to the ground is a free fall.

"It looks really intense, but it's really more fun," said Dan Brown, Busch Gardens general manager.

SheiKra's predecessor diving coasters in England and Taiwan have been unleashing screams among legions of fans for six years. But enthusiasts have complained the rides are short, one-trick ponies. They last about 30 seconds and feature a single drop. So Busch ordered a dive machine that's been put on steroids.

SheiKra will be about 50 percent larger than the coasters in England or Taiwan, has two drops, a vertical loop and will last more than three minutes. Negative G-forces hit a face-pulling 4 in the power curve through the bottom of the first hill. That's a bit stronger than the 3.8 G-force on Busch Gardens' other headline steel coasters, Kumba and Montu.

Busch officials would not say what SheiKra will cost to build, but roller coasters typically cost about $10-million.

The British and Asian diving coaster's inventors are Bolliger & Mabillard, the same Swiss engineering team that created Kumba and Montu for Busch. They also built Fire and Ice and the Incredible Hulk Coaster at Islands of Adventure. The Hulk coaster is frequently rated the world's best steel coaster by fan and industry professional groups while the other three are often rated in the top 20.

"The Hulk is really just Kumba with a launcher at the start," said Rose. "We wanted something unique."

Busch signed a multiyear exclusive deal for the North American rights to B&M's coasters.

In the global roller coaster arms race, theme parks have been building huge free-fall devices such as the Tower of Terror at Disney World and so-called hyper coasters that use far taller lift hills and even linear induction motors to propel riders up to 100 mph. Busch instead chose a more conventional combination of the free-fall and taller hills on trains powered by gravity.

The design was shaped to some degree by available land and a concern that many of today's taller high-speed coasters make passengers endure a rough and jarring ride.

Part of the SheiKra project includes a new 500-seat indoor/outdoor replacement for the park's outdoor Smokehouse restaurant. The park's circular railroad train ride will reopen after SheiKra is complete. Two of the railroad stations had to be closed and the route shortened to stay out of the coaster construction zone.

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

[Last modified October 28, 2004, 07:38:47]

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