Sunday, June 24, 2018
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Falcon's Fury up and running at Busch Gardens; here's what it's like to ride

TAMPA — As your toes dangle 335 feet high atop your perch on the Falcon's Fury drop ride at Busch Gardens, you can see Tropicana Field nearly 25 miles away in St. Petersburg. It's a moment of pure awe. Just before the panic.

That's when your seat smoothly but firmly tilts forward 90 degrees. It's the ride's signature move, the first drop tower in the world to put riders face-down as they hurtle toward the concrete.

And chances are good that you can get on the much-delayed ride, too, just like two Tampa Bay Times reporters and other visitors did Tuesday. The Tampa theme park is expected to announce its official opening any day now, but in the meantime its "technical rehearsals" have been running most of the day. It originally was set to open in early May, but construction delays pushed it back, missing the busy summer season.

"We can't guarantee when we will be open or if we will have to stop it for inspection," said park spokesman Travis Claytor, "but we will be running it as often as possible."

The attraction's infamous drop, a freefall designed to mimic a falcon's dive, lasts just 6 windswept seconds with a smooth brake and transition back to a sitting position. But oh the buildup.

Riders start in a U-shaped padded seat with an over-the-shoulder restraint that locks into the lap belt. Then the ride slowly ascends, lifting a circle of 32 people with the use of high-powered magnets and a 68-ton counterweight inside the tower. The riders are lifted as the counterweight sinks, not unlike elevator technology.

As you rise, you start to sail over the park's buildings. Keep an eye out for the Easter egg, the Falcon's Fury logo painted on one of the rooftops, which you can see from only one direction of the ride.

Soon you are level with the top of the SheiKra roller coaster. That's 200 feet tall. Still 135 feet to go.

Then the Tampa skyline comes into view and you start to see the white caps in the bay. Soon the dome of Tropicana Field is easily seen on a clear day from the southwest side of the gondola. On the northeast side you can see Plant City, the University of South Florida campus and MOSI's giant IMAX theater dome.

But you aren't here for the view.

"The worst part of the ride is on the way up," said Joseph Pringle, a tourist from the United Kingdom who was taking a moment to catch his breath before getting up the courage to ride again, while his 15-year-old ran back in line. "There's something wrong with you if you aren't scared."

You finally reach the top at 335 feet, which would put the Statue of Liberty in your shadow.

That's when you do the midair face-plant.

Now your whole body weight is pressing against those precious shoulder restraints. And there you wait. How long? No telling. A computer randomizes the time before the drop.

The release brings the concrete into focus with frightening speed, up to 60 mph before magnets and the counterweight glide the seat into a brake and your feet shoot back out in front of you. It's kind of like the way a parachute will pull a skydiver into quick slowdown, said Jeff Hornick, Busch Gardens' director of design and engineering, who helped see the ride to fruition with Intamin, the Switzerland-based thrill ride designer.

Don't even think of taking a selfie. For safety reasons, Busch Gardens strictly prohibits carrying any objects like cell phones. Riders are required to show their hands before the ascent.

Busch Gardens is estimated to have spent $5 million to $6 million on Falcon's Fury, and it is a smart investment, said Dennis Spiegel, president of the trade group International Theme Park Services.

"It is a marketable attraction that has great presentation to the public," Spiegel said. "This is going to pop attendance this year, once it gets open."

Times staff writer Anne Glover contributed to this report.

     
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