Thrill ride raises the bar for Busch Gardens

TAMPA

When visitors to Busch Gardens wait in line to ride Falcon's Fury next spring, their focus will be on the scary, lose-your-lunch 335-foot drop. • They won't be thinking of all the work that went into building the tower attraction. • But maybe they should. • Falcon's Fury is an engineering marvel that involved years of planning and transatlantic coordination. Park officials wanted an attraction that had never been done before, that would attract thrill seekers from around the world.

"We wanted something that was going to raise the bar," said Jeff Hornick, the park's director of design and engineering. "We wanted something like SheiKra, where friends would come here and dare each other to go on it.' "

It started with a napkin drawing. To make the experience even more thrilling than other drop towers, designers decided Falcon's Fury would plunge riders face down through the air, as opposed to a traditional seated position. The idea was to simulate the experience of its namesake bird diving toward earth for its prey, much like a skydiver seconds before the chute releases. Park officials haven't released the cost.

Busch Gardens hired Intaride, a U.S. subsidiary of Swiss roller coaster maker Intamin, to construct Falcon's Fury. When finished, it will be the tallest freestanding drop tower attraction in North America. The company built Busch Gardens' last major ride, Cheetah Hunt, and is the brain behind many of the world's fastest, tallest coasters.

A good portion of the ride involves things you can't see from the surface. Because it's in Florida, the tower had to be able to withstand hurricane-force winds. The high water table was also a consideration. To keep water away from the site, crews had to install a round-the-clock pumping system.

Work on the ride started in June with the demolition of the Sandstorm ride in the park's Timbuktu section. Crews dug a 60- by 60-foot hole 28 feet deep and lined it with temporary metal sheet piles to hold back the dirt. Next, 105 beams were driven deep into the ground, tied together and fused with 45 truckloads of concrete.

In the coming days and weeks, crews will attach to the concrete cap an octagon-shaped cylinder with 4-foot-thick walls that will hold the tower in place. The tower will be inserted inside the 21-foot-tall cylinder and sealed with grout.

The actual tower consists of a 12-foot-diameter steel tube 31/2 inches thick. It came from a company in Tarragona, Spain, one of only a handful of steelmakers worldwide capable of bending and welding steel that thick. Other ride parts came from Germany, Slovakia and Switzerland.

The steel tube left Spain on Sept. 20 in nine pieces — plus a top motor piece — and arrived at the Port of Tampa about a month later. At more than 1 million pounds, it was one of the largest single shipments to ever come through the port.

The blue and yellow pieces were transported by trailers to an off-site parking area just north of Busch Gardens, where they will be prepped and taken to the park site for assembly. The ride is so tall, contractors will have to use a crane to build the crane that will erect the tower. That 385-foot-tall crane comes in 32 pieces and will take a week to assemble.

The tower segments will be stacked at night when no guests are in the park. The steel expands in sunlight, meaning that even when the tower is finished, it will bend slightly away from the sun.

In all, stacking the pieces will take about two weeks. Segments will be bolted together using steel plates with clasps and hundreds of bolts. After the eighth piece, crews will insert a 68-ton counterweight to balance out the ride mechanisms. An artist will spend another three weeks painting the tower to look like a sunset.

The ride vehicle will have 32 seats grouped in fours. A catch car located over riders' heads will pull the ride vehicle up the tower.

Riders will be secured with over-the-shoulder restraints, but their legs will dangle. The ride doesn't spin so you'll get a different view of the landscape depending on where you sit. On a clear day, you'll be able to see downtown Tampa and Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg.

The entire ride will last two minutes. Riders will sit upright as they ascend, but when they get to the top, the seats will tilt forward so riders are face down. Riders will hang in that position for a few seconds, before the ride releases, falling at forces reaching 3.5 times the force of gravity.

The free fall will last five to six seconds — long in roller coaster time. Halfway down the tower, the seats will tilt back to the upright position and a magnetic brake system will slow the descent for a soft landing.

Riders who had been holding their breath in fear will finally exhale.

Susan Thurston can be reached at sthurston@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3110. Follow @susan_thurston on Twitter.

Thrill ride raises the bar for Busch Gardens 11/01/13 [Last modified: Friday, November 1, 2013 5:12pm]

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