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Busch Gardens' Cheetah Hunt coaster in sprint to May 27 completion

TAMPA — With the green track of Cheetah Hunt finally emerging above the barricades, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay on Thursday announced plans to open its next big thrill ride/animal habitat on May 27.

After pouring more than $20 million into the park's first launch coaster, 90 percent of the track is up and 12 of the park's 14 new young cheetahs are being acclimated in a backstage area. Busch on Thursday gave the media its first tour behind the fence as 200 workers scrambled to transform a full-blown construction site into a theme park area called Crossroads.

Anchored by a habitat for Busch's first collection of rare cheetahs, the area is being outfitted with sculpted concrete to look like weathered ancient ruins at the confluence of the park's Egypt, Morocco and Edge of Africa sections. The habitat will have windows for closeup viewing and a 250-foot straightaway that the cheetahs will be trained to run on for exercise.

Stretching from the one-time Clydesdales barn around the Skyride station to the former flash flood river at Rhino Rally, the new coaster will be Busch's first powered by something other than a lift-hill chain and gravity.

It promises to be a much different ride experience from Busch's seven other coasters, three of which are a tad faster.

The 16-seat trains are shorter, so the twists and turns are tighter. Busch jazzed up the typical steel coaster look by making the huge yellow supports look like pickup sticks festooned with colorful banners. The different type power source will accelerate the trains three times in uphill surges.

Heavy-duty magnets will pull the trains up a pair of initial lift hills, the first from zero to 38 miles per hour in two seconds followed by a second burst that hits 60 miles per hour in two more seconds. The trains will go uphill as fast as they do down. The energy-gobbling technology has been used by other theme parks for years, but the only version similar to Cheetah Hunt is Maverick at Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio.

"I am not telling you what the electric bill will be," said Mark Rose, Busch Gardens' chief planning engineer. "But we've filled the entire length of the ride with surprises including an accelerating surge at the finish."

The 4,400-foot-long track is supposed to simulate a cheetah bounding along the Serengeti in hot pursuit of prey.

The coaster dives 120 feet into a 20-foot trench flanking the park's grazing animal herds, then barrels over a series of short hills through a river canyon spiced with steeped twists, weightless crests, an inversion and a 360-degree helix. The track is also interwoven over and under the park's steam train, Skyride and pedestrian pathways.

The cable car Skyride — closed months ago while its station is rebuilt to make room for Cheetah Hunt — will reopen when construction is complete.

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

Busch Gardens' Cheetah Hunt coaster in sprint to May 27 completion 02/17/11 [Last modified: Friday, February 18, 2011 10:09am]

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