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Which is the best rollercoaster at Busch Gardens?

Riders on SheiKra come over the top of the 200-foot drop at Busch Gardens.

MELISSA LYTTLE | Times

Riders on SheiKra come over the top of the 200-foot drop at Busch Gardens.

Are you ready to take on the infamous rollercoasters of Busch Gardens? Over two days, tbt*'s Jay Cridlin rode them all -- Scorpion, Gwazi, Kumba, Montu and SheiKra -- four times apiece. Here's his scouting report.

SHEIKRA
Debut ride: 2005
Length of track: 3,188 feet
Length of ride: 3 minutes
Top speed: 70 mph

Seats: Eight per row, three rows per train, two trains per cycle. They're sleek and roomy, like captain's chairs, and your feet can dangle without touching the floor. And it's stadium seating, which means the second and third rows are elevated, giving those passengers a better view of the track, especially the free fall.

The wait: At the moment, SheiKra is queen of the coasters. Expect the worst. On the plus side, SheiKra may draw riders away from other coasters, freeing up space on the Montu or Kumba.

Wait/ride ratio: The wait will be long, but so is the ride. Probably a fair tradeoff.

The line: You board the train from one of six wooden bridges, which helps prepare you for the heights you're about to soar.

View from the top: Wow. Forget for the moment how dwarfed Gwazi seems on the way up, or the breathtaking view of the entire park from above. From SheiKra's 200-foot pinnacle, you can see the gypsum stacks in Gibsonton, Raymond James Stadium and Tropicana Field, the skylines of both Tampa and St. Petersburg -- even, it is rumored, the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Where else can you get a view like that?

Front or back? Gotta go with the front, if only for the head-on glimpse of the bottom when your train halts on the precipice. But don't discount the rear, which provides more of a G-force pull and a better view of the park from above. For the record, Dan Brown, Busch Gardens' executive vice president and general manager, is a back-row man. "But you have to ride the first row first to appreciate the back row," he says.

Omigod moment: As if you needed to ask. The first 90-degree drop, the 200-foot one, blasts your face with four Gs and 70-mph breezes. Heaven help us if this thing ever comes unhinged. The second, 138-foot drop, is only a touch less impressive.

What you'll get here that you won't get anywhere else: There are the drops, of course. But don't forget the 165-foot Immelmann loop, topped with a barrel roll. Montu has only a 90-foot Immelmann. Additionally, toward the end, the train drags two scoops through a pond, spewing water out behind the train and onto the walkway below. You'll get a little misty, but your friends who chickened out might get soaked.

Hurl factor: Minimal. Aside from the two drops, SheiKra is all about grand swooping gestures, not herky-jerky knots that convert your innards to marmalade.

Overall impression: Don't walk into SheiKra thinking it's the be-all, end-all greatest roller coaster in the galaxy. This thing won't help you find Jesus. But if you accept it for what it is -- a majestic, one-of-a-kind roller coaster experience to which there is no legitimate comparison anywhere in Busch Gardens or the state of Florida -- you'll leave the park exhilarated.

Signature souvenir: Skip the crates of caps and T-shirts commemorating this new ride. Splurge and buy another photo of your ride on what may be the world's finest dive coaster.

MONTU
Debut ride: 1996
Length of track: 3,983 feet
Length of ride: 3 minutes
Top speed: 65 mph

Seats:
Four per row, 32 per train, two trains per cycle. They're tight but padded, with drop-down chest restraints.

The wait: Five minutes. On average, the wait for the front cab is maybe three to five cycles longer than for cabs in the middle. But on this coaster, it's worth the wait.

Wait/ride ratio: Not bad until later in the day.

The line: Not much to see in the zigzag outside maze. Inside, there's some "Egyptian art," but little else.

View from the top: To the left, the USF SunDome and the occasional giraffe. To the right, at 4 o'clock, the Tampa skyline. But it's not the best view. This is the problem with "hanging" coasters. Much of your view is obscured by the carriages in front of you.

Omigod moments: Too many to name. But the corkscrews stand out. The first is the best, but the second and last aren't bad either.

What you'll get here that you won't get anywhere else: Since riders' legs dangle freely on this ride, many choose to remove their sandals. Do yourself a favor and join them. Nothing wakes you up on a hot summer morning like wind between your toes.

Front or back? Front, hands down. With no carriages blocking your view, the ride is incredible. You're not jostled around as much, but the wind hits you even harder.

Hurl factor: It's there, but this is really more of a soaring, sweeping ride than a true gut-scrambler.

Overall impression: Dizziness. Your legs feel a little woozy from being slung around like licorice whips. Hanging coasters give you the sensation of being sucked into oblivion, rather than pushed into or lifted from your seat. Aside from SheiKra, Montu is usually named as Busch Gardens' best ride.

Signature souvenir: Montu basketball jersey, $49.99

KUMBA
Debut ride: 1993
Length of track: 3,978 feet
Length of ride: 2:54
Top speed: 60-plus mph

Seats: Four per row, 32 per train, two trains per cycle. Drop-down chest restraints. The Montu has more leg room.

The wait: Five minutes, occasionally less.

Wait/ride ratio: Pretty good, especially in the morning, since this ride is located near the back of the park. Plus, you exit the ride near the entrance, making back-to-back rides a snap.

The line: More interesting than the Montu's. There's a good view of the track; at one point, you're less than 10 feet from a speeding train. Televisions at the front of the line play a silent loop of park highlights.

View from the top: The Congo River Rapids to your left, and the SunDome at 1 o'clock.

Omigod moment: The jolt of the brakes near the end, which press the life from your chest like an anaconda. Hold onto your weaves and tongue studs.

What you'll get here that you won't get anywhere else: The roar of the Kumba! That may sound like a marketing slogan, but it's true. This is a loud, loud coaster -- so much so that you actually notice the rumble of the tracks.

Front or back? On this rib-rattling coaster, go for the sadomasochistic rush of the final cab. Repeat: From pain comes pleasure. From pain comes pleasure.

Hurl factor: Very, very real. I defy you to ride the Kumba five times in succession -- especially after devouring a hot funnel cake -- without wishing you'd packed the Dramamine.

Overall impression: Like going 12 rounds with Winky Wright in the middle of an elephant stampede.

Signature souvenir: If you're intent on buying an official coaster photo, Kumba and Gwazi are your best options. I prefer Kumba's photos, which clearly show four riders in one row.

SCORPION
Debut ride: 1980
Length of track: 1,805 feet
Length of ride: 1:36
Top speed: 50 mph

Seats: Two per row, four per cab, 20 per train, one train per cycle. Leg room is absolutely nonexistent. On the plus side, the restraints rest over your lap, allowing you to raise your arms throughout the ride ... if you dare! I did it on my second try.

The wait: About 10 minutes. The Scorpion runs only one train at a time.

Wait/ride ratio: Not great.

The line: The view is a little static, but you can see the entire track. Plus, the train creeps past the line on its way into the shed, so you can hear what people in front of you thought.

View from the top: A nice view of Kumba straight ahead and the log flume to the left, but little else.

Omigod moments: The drop before the loop is like a punch to the gut. (In a good way.) But th e highlight is the dizzying, exhilarating coil at the end, which is so unexpectedly fast, you may see stars. And a word of warning: Beware the sudden, final brake inside the shed.

What you'll get here that you won't get anywhere else: A bilingual recording imploring riders to "sit back and enjoy the ride as you experience the sting! of the Scorpion! "

Front or back? Take a seat in the middle. You're not missing much on the ends. Besides, the line's layout precludes you from choosing your cab without asking an attendant and skipping a cycle.

Hurl factor: Would be much higher if this ride was a little longer. It's flat-out impossible to maintain your sense of direction in that final torrential spiral.

Overall impression: It'd be nice if the wait weren't quite as long, but this is an otherwise underrated coaster well worth the wait in line.

Signature souvenir: Does vertigo count?

GWAZI
Debut ride: 1999
Length of track: Two 3,400-foot tracks
Length of ride: 2:20
Top speed: 50 mph

Seats: Two seats per row, four per cab, 24 per train. Two trains per cycle on each track, though both tracks aren't always open. The seats are padded, and the seat belt provides a sense of safety left lacking by the lap restraint bar. But the cabs are not, shall we say, designed to fit today's husky gentleman. Again, Yao Ming might have to sit this one out.

The wait: Not bad a'tall. Less than five minutes for a seat in the middle. Wooden-coaster enthusiasts abound, but these days, all the kids care about are flashy inversions. Take advantage of their youthful ignorance. Hit the Gwazi early.

Wait/ride ratio: Excellent.

The line: Uphill and winding, but as long as the crowds are down, it's serviceable.

View from the top: Downtown Tampa is visible on the left and SheiKra is straight ahead, but the highlight is the full-on view of Gwazi's intricate wooden skeleton. That's when it hits you -- there's no escape, and only one way down.

Omigod moments: Inversions are nice and all, but what'll really knock your socks off is a good zero-G moment, when the coaster drops and you're briefly lifted from your seat. I counted 10 of 'em on Gwazi. And like fine wine with cheese, those moments stand out all the more when paired with Gwazi's many high-G-force curves. Ah, wooden coasters -- there's no school like the old school.

What you'll get here that you won't get anywhere else: The clickety-clack of (1) a wooden track and (2) your teeth.

Front or back? Go for the front cab. When you can actually see the wooden planks flashing below, you're all the more convinced the train is about to slip its tracks. As if this ride needed to be more terrifying.

Hurl factor: You may not lose your lunch, but you could easily lose something else. Gwazi is the roughest ride in the park, and the park posts sign after sign urging you to stow your carry-ons in a locker. If you lose a valuable -- like a wallet, or a lung -- the park will stop the ride and search for it. Otherwise, you'll have to fill out a form at the entrance so the park can search for the item and mail it back. Take my word for it. When Gwazi started, I was carrying a small disposable camera. When it ended, I wasn't.

Overall sensation: Gwazi is like a runaway train; all it needs is the whistle.

Signature souvenir: There's a henna tattoo booth right outside the gate. $2 and up.



















Which is the best rollercoaster at Busch Gardens? 12/14/08 [Last modified: Monday, May 23, 2011 2:17pm]
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