Summer could be one long scream

Busch Gardens plans to take the floor off SheiKra to heighten the free-fall sensation.

Published January 31, 2007

TAMPA — The bottom is falling out of Busch Gardens’ SheiKra dive coaster as the two-year-old thrill ride goes floor-less this summer.

“It adds a new adrenaline rush,’’ said Dan Brown, executive vice president and general manager of the Tampa theme park.

Gone will be almost all the obstructions shielding riders’ eyes from the ground below —even the steel safety bar across the front row. So riders’ feet will dangle through the entire ride, those who use their legs to brace themselves will be out of luck, and many feet will fly within 30 inches of the water on the ride’s homestretch run over a pond.

“SheiKra comes to a complete stop before the initial plunge straight down,’’ said Brown. “This will make those four seconds seem like an eternity.’’

Busch also gets a new marketing hook for a comparative bargain to promote a new twist on a thrill ride that got much of the credit for the park’s increased attendance in 2006. The park will make it the centerpiece of an “in your face’’ statewide summer ad campaign, said Joe Couceiro, vice president of marketing for the theme park unit of Anheuser-Busch Cos.

Who knows? Perhaps even more riders with high blood pressure and other medical conditions will find the added thrills a reason to observe warnings posted at thrill ride entrances.

While Busch officials had previously confirmed SheiKra plans to the St. Petersburg Times, they filled in the details on Wednesday.

Busch will close SheiKra after the Memorial Day holiday for two weeks to modify the unusual eight-seat-wide, three-row-deep coaster trains. The ride will re-open June 16.

Busch Entertainment Corp. decided to make its two dive coasters floorless when it ordered SheiKra’s sibling, Griffon, which opens this spring at Busch Gardens Europe in Williamsburg, Va. Both were engineered and built by Bolliger & Mabillard, a Swiss firm that invented dive coasters and created dozens of other highly-rated steel coasters around the world.

The firm’s Florida coasters include The Hulk and Fire and Ice at Universal Orlando; Kumba and Montu at Busch Gardens, and Kraken, a floorless coaster at Orlando’s Sea World Adventure Parks.

Riders’ feet dangle from Montu, too. But it’s an inverted coaster because the trains hang from a track suspended overhead. Half of SheiKra’s seats run over the track, half are suspended in midair.

The first dive coaster in North America, SheiKra was also the first anywhere to feature a full loop and a second drop, mimic an Immelman stunt flying maneuver and throw up a rooster tail of water by dragging its rear end through a pond.

With no floor, SheiKra’s riders may well feel more like they are flying on the wing of a stunt plane, said Mark Rose, Busch’s top design and planning engineer.

In the event of an emergency, however, floorless coasters stuck in mid-ride take much longer to evacuate than their conventional cousins.

In the event safety systems brake the train to a halt anywhere outside the loading station, Busch crews have to elevate and manually push into place a temporary floor so riders can get out of their seats.

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