The newest roller coaster in Florida isn't a ferocious, man-eating tiger — but it's no pussycat either.
Busch Gardens Tampa Bay's Cheetah Hunt, which debuted last week, carries some of its namesake's qualities in the form of speedy bursts and smooth maneuvers.
Cheetah Hunt's distinctive feature, particularly among the Busch Gardens thrill rides, is the lack of a lift hill. The cars are propelled by bursts of magnetic motion — aka Linear Synchronous Motor technology. We've seen this in Orlando parks with the Incredible Hulk coaster at Islands of Adventure and Rock 'n' Roller Coaster at Disney's Hollywood Studios. But instead of being rapidly accelerated through a tunnel or into darkness, Cheetah Hunt's launches are sprinkled along the 4,400-foot track, the longest at Busch Gardens.
The most visually stimulating of the launches is near the beginning of the ride. The 16-passenger train accelerates through a straightaway, barreling toward a near-vertical segment that lifts to the top of the Windcatcher's Tower.
Up there, the track goes into a series of twists and turns in a surprisingly leisurely fashion.
"You don't race through that figure eight. It launches you to the top of the tower at 60 mph, then it slows and meanders around the top so you get the chance to chill for a second," says Jim Dean, Busch Gardens president. "You get a panoramic view of the park and the whole Tampa Bay area. Then it dives off the other side, almost vertical into the first of four trenches."
From here, it's an up, down and around experience, including a loop around the Skyride wire and gondolas and later skirting the former Rhino Rally lagoon.
Dean says they tried to satisfy different kinds of coaster fans.
"There's some hard-core roller-coaster enthusiasts that are going to want the speed. It has three launches, it's going to satisfy them, plus the drop off the tower," he says. "But it only has one inversion, so if you don't want to get scrambled, this is the perfect ride."
You can thank Facebook for the unusual (and fragile-looking) design of Windcatcher's Tower — wide at the top, very narrow at the base. Busch Gardens was going for eye-catching.
"Social media is such a big part of culture today, people will take pictures with their phones," says Mark Rose, vice president of design and engineering. "When they broadcast that on their Facebook and things, their friends will say, 'Where is that? It's unusual. I don't know where that is. I've never seen anything like that.' Then a dialogue will begin."
The ride's feline motif is apparent from the entrance, where tall carved-concrete cheetahs stand, to the catlike markings on the ride vehicles. More of a challenge was incorporating the ride's location, which touches three areas of the theme park.
"We had three architectural styles — Egypt, Morocco and Africa — that we blended together in this realm, that's been here for thousands of years, lots of indigenous people, always in celebration of the cheetah," Rose says. "We have these two sentinels at our beginning that kind of guard our entry, then we have our big cheetah rock that they've always celebrated and decorated. We tried to blend those together."
The big cats
Alongside the coaster is an animal habitat called Cheetah Run. Guest will be able to see the cats put through their paces several times a day.
"It may be a running demonstration or maybe some other form of demonstration," says Mike Boos, vice president of zoological operations. "The intent is not to show tricks or behaviors — it's really to get folks interested in the natural behavior of the animal. When they do that, they care about them a little bit more."
Cheetahs haven't been regular residents at Busch Gardens for years. The new cats arrived, in cooperation with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums' species survival plan, from South Africa and the White Oak Conservation Center near Jacksonville.
Showing off the cheetahs' speed will take some motivation. They typically sleep 20 hours a day, Boos says. In order to get the big cats going, trainers are using lures like you might use with Fluffy.
"But it's not your normal feather and string," Boos says. "This one goes about 80 mph."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun