TAMPA— With its 4,429 feet of gorgeous green track, Cheetah Hunt is the longest roller coaster at Busch Gardens. Ride time is 90 seconds, but wow, that sucker felt like Freebird by the end.
Plus with a twisty, turny route that zips past a habitat for its namesake feline, offers prolonged yowza views of the entire park and rocks through a roaring-waters canyon, the steel beauty is now BG's prettiest attraction, too. Meow, indeed.
But alas, before all you coaster nerds get too frothy: When it comes to fang-barin' fear factor, Cheetah Hunt, a state-of-the-art three-launch coaster that opens at 9 a.m. Friday, is a fuzzy wittle kitten compared to SheiKra, BG's vicious drop coaster, and Montu, the hang coaster that scrambles your organs.
Just when the ride is on the verge of sweet terror, it opts for friendly instead of ferocious. I only screamed like a ninny once on Cheetah Hunt, and I'm usually a hot mess on coasters.
That said, I really do like Busch Gardens' big-ticket item for the summer, which looks every bit of its $20 million-plus price tag. Although it's not scary, it is incredibly cool. It zips smoothly at 60 mph, which is only a bit slower than SheiKra. It never loops, but there is a high heartline roll (like a corkscrew) and a 130-foot drop that can catch your breath but good.
To simulate a cheetah pursuing its prey, the coaster features three separate "launch" sequences, akin to the peel-out start of Disney's Rock 'n' Roller Coaster. You slowly (read: safely, so as not to kill anyone) roll into your first rocket launch from the boarding station. There's a second launch that propels you straight up 102-foot Windcatcher Tower, the ride's eye-popping architectural flourish, which, to be blunt, is all killer build-up but no payoff once you're up high.
My favorite launch is the final one, which sends you over a seemingly small parabola, a stomach-flipping surprise ending. For that slick touch, kudos to the ride design team at Intamin, the Swiss company that also built the Top Thrill Dragster in Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio.
I rode Cheetah Hunt twice in a row, sitting in the left seat of the front row. The view is spectacular at all times; the sight lines on the ride — the four-car, 16-people train sits high on the track, an old-school setup — are clean and spacious, adding to the buzz.
Taking a cue from their competitors at the Mouse House, Busch Gardens has "themed" the heck out of this one, including cheetah "sentries" at the entrance and a hulking thing called Cheetah Rock to give you something to gawk at in the queue.
Busch Gardens is expecting long lines for its new coaster, but the loading zone can board two trains at once, which should help. Photos and videos can be purchased upon exit. And although all you coaster zombies might look bored in those snapshots, the rest of us will be grinning (and purring) just fine.
Sean Daly can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8467.