Carlton: Scared to death? That's life on thrill rides

Published September 3 2014
Updated September 4 2014

So I just rode Busch Gardens' newest stomach-in-your-throat thrill ride, Falcon's Fury.

I'm not sure what this particular falcon was so mad about, but apparently the revenge is a ride that takes you 335 feet above the world strapped into a harness seat that leaves your legs vulnerable and dangling. For perspective, that's taller than the Statue of Liberty and so high over north Tampa that you can see clear to Tropicana Field in St. Pete.

Then it flips you over into dive position — you know, so you can look facedown at certain death awhile. Then drops you at 60 miles per hour.

In summary, I really liked it.

The world seems divided into two kinds of people on this subject: ones who will try parachuting, parasailing, zip-lining and any roller coaster or fast fair ride they can, and others who prefer not to be willingly thrown, dropped, swung, shaken, hurtled or hung upside down.

In fact, some of my fellow Times columnists declined an invitation to ride. Wrote Ernest Hooper: I might be willing to watch the others put their lives in jeopardy, but I'm not doing it.

Don't get me wrong — for all my willingness to go on scary rides, I still get sweaty-palmed crossing our massive Sunshine Skyway bridge linking Pinellas and Manatee counties over all that water. I regularly get anxious wondering if I turned off the iron before I left home and at that very moment am burning down the house. Or if I forgot to lock the door and will surely return home to nothing but empty picture hooks on the walls.

When I went tandem parachuting, the jump and the fall were scary and wonderful. The instructor and I touched down perfectly — and then the wind caught our chute, dragging us across dirt and gravel. Things go more wrong when you're earthbound.

Busch Gardens spokesman Travis Claytor told us the company knew this ride would be "polarizing" — as in, for some and not for others. But as we stood waiting to get on and looking into the faces of the recently dropped — smiling, almost to a person — he said, "I saw two grandmas in wheelchairs ride it yesterday." We are all wired differently.

He tells us that the time you hang up there at the top — not upside down, exactly, but at a steep angle with a good view of the very hard ground you will soon be hurtling toward — is variable, so you never know when you're going to go.

"That's just mean," I say, bravado faltering a little. "Yes," he agrees. "It's a lot of fun."

Scared? Of course I was scared. Witless. What would be the point otherwise?

Times columnist John Romano said to the young woman in the Busch Gardens uniform strapping us in: "You've had years of training, right?"

"Sure," she said, smiling.

So it was terrifying and thrilling and I held on as hard as I could and yelled and closed my eyes and afterward stepped off rubber-kneed and exhilarated. Why for this but not a big bridge that actually gets you somewhere?

Maybe because for a minute there, you are not in control. You're free, in a way. You're going to fall and there's nothing you can do about it, and then being afraid of being afraid is something laughable.

So would I ride it again? Sure. I just need to be sure I turned off the iron first.