Built to thrill

Roller coaster enthusiasts won't be disappointed when they step off Busch Gardens' new coaster.

Published May 21, 2005

TAMPA - Maybe it's the odd sight of a capital letter mid word. Or the brazen disregard for the "I before E" rule.

Whatever the reason, the name of Busch Gardens' new roller coaster - SheiKra - does not exactly roll off the tongue. It's not "Shakira," like the Colombian pop singer, nor is it "Shriek-a," which wouldn't be a bad name for a roller coaster, kind of like the Screamer or the Howler.

No, it's SHEEK-ra and it opens to the public today.

This new coaster towers above its five Busch Gardens counterparts - Python, Scorpion, Kumba, Montu and Gwazi - giving riders a commanding view, two grin-clenching drops and a smooth, soaring ride that feels more like hang gliding or skydiving than riding a rail.

SheiKra stakes its claim as Florida's tallest roller coaster, North America's first vertical dive coaster, and the world's tallest dive coaster, among many other superlatives.

So breathless have park officials been in hyping SheiKra that they brought astronauts Rick Searfoss and Story Musgrave to sing its praises during a preview Thursday. Searfoss said SheiKra's 90-degree dropoff was similar to the moment of passing into weightlessness.

Florida Coaster Club president Marc Meagher likens SheiKra's drop to that of the longer, faster Millennium Force at Ohio's Cedar Point. "But it's only 82 degrees. It's not vertical," said Meagher, who after only three rides rated SheiKra among the top 10 of the 185 coasters he has ridden.

SheiKra's three-row, 24-seat train exits its shed to the east, dipping into a right turn to initiate the ride's steep, 200-foot incline. As with Gwazi, Busch Gardens' last new roller coaster, it's only after you're on your way up that you can fully grasp SheiKra's massive size. Gwazi, a gigantic fortress of wooden planks, appears startlingly tiny and fragile from SheiKra's pinnacle.

The view from the top is almost worth a second cycle through the line just to search for landmarks on the horizon: gypsum stacks in Gibsonton, Raymond James Stadium, the skylines of Tampa and St. Petersburg. Some swear you can see the Sunshine Skyway on a clear day.

The train then pulls a U-turn and heads toward the 90-degree drop, where it teeters on the precipice for four seconds - which feel like four minutes - giving you a nearly unobstructed view of the entire park. Of course, if you're in the first or second row, you're probably staring straight down the track.

Then everything comes down. Straight down. Two hundred feet of record-breaking, 70-mph, free-falling down-ness. The drop, SheiKra's most celebrated selling point, is scarily steep; thankfully, the laws of gravity demand it end in two blinks of an eye.

The ensuing 165-foot Immelmann loop - named for ace World War I pilot Max Immelmann - takes advantage of the natural high one gets after surviving such a steep drop, flinging you into an exhilarating loop, then barrel-rolling back into a wide, sweeping curve. (For comparison, Montu also has an Immelmann loop, but it's only about 90 feet tall.)

The ride slows briefly atop another plateau, then everything drops again, 138 feet straight down through a tunnel running beneath a crystal-blue pond. When the train emerges, it spins up into a spectacular spiral, then back down into the pond.

Well, sort of. The trains are outfitted with scoops that dip into the water, spraying giant roostertails from the back of the train and onto the walkway beneath the tracks. Riders in the back will get a little misty, and those in the front and middle may catch a few drops once the coaster passes back underneath the wet tracks on its way to the station.

The entire ride lasts three minutes.

Drawbacks? There's the wait. As with any new coaster, park officials expect this to be a busy summer for SheiKra, with longer-than-normal waits. Early in the afternoon, the super-steep incline leaves you staring into the hot summer sun, unable to take full advantage of the magnificent vista.

And while no one is complaining that SheiKra boasts two 90-degree drops instead of one, there's no denying that the first far outshines the second.

Despite its sheer size and dominance of the Busch Gardens landscape, despite its majestic swoops and record-setting drops, the coaster likely will still inspire debate among park visitors.

Some are sure to still prefer Montu's dizzying inversions, Kumba's rib-rattling rumble or Gwazi's grab-your-hairpiece, grit-your-dentures abandon. But SheiKra was designed to complement Busch Gardens' five other major coasters, not to render them obsolete.

Jay Cridlin can be reached at 727 893-8336 or cridlin@sptimes.com