TAMPA — Busch Gardens Tampa Bay finally resolved the mystery behind its next thrill ride Wednesday by unveiling plans for its first launch coaster.
The ride, which opens next spring, will feature acceleration from zero to 60 mph in a few seconds in three separate bursts over a 4,429-foot track. It will also house a habitat with close-up viewing of the theme park's first collection of cheetahs and a run where the cats can sprint 200 yards chasing a lure pulled on a spool.
The park has made no secret that its next thrill ride, under construction since the spring, is a high-speed coaster. But it has been dribbling out details all summer in a teaser campaign aimed at park regulars, online thrill ride fan blogs and social media. Busch, which unveiled a ride video to its 60,799 friends on Facebook, also gave them a head fake by trademarking the made-up word "Cheetaka" last winter, then picking another name — Cheetah Hunt — for the attraction.
Busch passed over Cheetaka as too hard to say and not descriptive of the ride: a coaster mimicking the movement of a galloping cheetah chasing its prey.
Already, however, some fans are pressing Busch to switch to Cheetaka. One started a petition drive on Facebook for a reversal. They objected to the word "hunt," which could be misconstrued to mean the Cheetahs are the prey.
"We think the name is self-explanatory, so we're not changing it," said Jim Dean, park general manager.
Driven by linear synchronous motors (LSM) using a series of high-powered magnets, the ride will be the park's first coaster to run off anything other than gravity from a lift hill descent.
Launch coasters have been around since 1998. Some like Kingda Ka in New Jersey hit speeds of 128 mph from a dead stop with a boost coming down a 420-foot lift hill. Others like the Rock 'n' Roller Coaster at Walt Disney World or the Revenge of the Mummy at Universal Orlando are indoors. The thrills come from g-forces and sudden, unexpected acceleration, as well as a coaster's usual sense of temporary weightlessness that aficionados call "air time."
With a capacity of 1,375 passengers an hour, the Cheetah Hunt will be a 31/2-minute experience with a 48-inch height minimum.
After looping through a figure eight in a 100-foot-tall tower, the coaster makes a 130-foot descent into a ravine. The 16-seat trains will then simulate a bounding cheetah running close to ground level along overbanked curves across the park's Serengeti Plain. The track makes one inversion before a final run into what was built as the park's monorail station. The monorail is long gone, but the cable car Sky Ride housed in the same building will reopen next spring.
The cheetah habitat — called Cheetah Run — will offer nose-to-nose viewing of the spotted cats through heavy-duty plexiglass. Busch will train the animals to demonstrate their high-speed sprinting capabilities.
Busch is acquiring eight cheetahs from the collection of 250 in U.S. zoos and captive breeding programs. The first two arrived recently from the White Oak Conservation Preserve near Jacksonville. Cheetahs run out of gas after only a couple of 300-yard sprints. But Busch officials say coaxing them to run regularly is good exercise that nurtures their mental health.
"With eight cheetahs, we should be able to see six runs a day," said Mike Boos, vice president of zoological operations.
Rising between the demolished Rhino Rally waterfall and the former Clydesdale exhibit, the ride is being erected by Intamin AG, a Swiss ride designer that also created Busch Gardens' Scorpion. In 2007, Intamin launched Furius Baco, a similar high-speed-launch catapult coaster in Spain with a minimal lift hill that accelerates from zero to 84 mph in 3.5 seconds.
Mark Albright can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8252.