SheiKra ups shriek factor

Axing the coaster's floor, Busch Gardens "made a great ride better."

Published June 16, 2007

TAMPA - With 10 rides under her belt, Brittany Asher assessed SheiKra, Busch Gardens Africa's 2-year-old dive coaster, now without a floor.

"This is a lot better," said the 20-year-old University of South Florida student from Tampa. "Front row is now the best. And it's really intense sitting out there on the wing. Nothing but you, the seat and the wind."

Before the ride officially opens to the public today, the Tampa theme park invited 100 self-confessed coaster geeks, reporters from 40 media outlets and 37 radio station remote broadcasters over to stir up the hoopla. They swapped notes on how the upgrade changed what was already ranked by most ratings as one of the Top 10 steel coasters in North America.

The consensus: by yanking out the floor, the unconventional Bolliger and Mabillard-designed dive coaster packs some more thrills.

"They made a great ride better," said Mark Cole, a 46-year-old Winter Haven middle school teacher and president of the American Coaster Enthusiasts, who built his SheiKra ride-count to 104.

No floor means feet dangle freely through a pair of straight-down drops and a loop at a top speed of 70 miles per hour. The wind is not obstructed. Unlike the park's similar Montu coaster ride, there is no bulky track overhead to blot out the sky. With the big safety bar across the front row gone, the front row view is unobstructed.

"There ain't nothing but the ground down there now," said Mark Rose, the park's vice president of planning and engineering.

Coaster aficionados who once said the best seats were in the back row, switched allegiance to the front. The far left seats there were declared tops, a sentiment Rose endorsed.

"Coming out of the loop you really feel like you're soaring there," said Laura Sumner, a 53-year-old title company clerk from Orlando.

"I like the middle of the front row because the view going down the track is better," said her grandson Justin Rickey, a 9 year old who measures all 50 coasters he has ridden against SheiKra.

When Busch unveiled the ride, it was the first dive coaster in North America and the first anywhere with two straight-down dives and a full Immelmann loop, an imitation of a stunt pilot maneuver. Last month Busch opened a slightly taller copy with no floor at Busch Gardens Europe in Williamsburg, Va. Because the Swiss ride-design team anticipated taking the thrills up a notch, the Tampa park could cheaply retrofit SheiKra by remounting the seats on a new coaster chassis.

Coming off two record years credited largely to SheiKra hype, Busch officials are counting on the comparatively inexpensive fix to lift attendance for two more years.

Meanwhile, behind barriers at Busch Gardens construction continues on the rebuilding of the former five-acre Congo area. The work includes new habitats for the park's displaced orangutans and white tigers that will open in 2008. Busch expects to announce by fall a new centerpiece family attraction there.

"The Congo project is the biggest investment we've ever made here," said Joe Couceiro, vice president of marketing for Busch Entertainment Corp.

Fast Facts:

New competition for SheiKra?
With gas prices and other costs of living rising, it remains to be seen if the tweak will be compelling enough to draw repeat visits to Busch against other new Florida attractions debuting this summer. The visitors complex at Kennedy Space Center completed a $160-million rebuilding. Universal Orlando in May opened a separate ticketed concert venue for Blue Man Group. Walt Disney World is heavily promoting its Year of Million Dreams celebration. Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven plans to open on June 30 the Starliner, a 44-year-old wooden coaster relocated from the defunct Miracle Strip Amusement Park in Panama City.

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