ORLANDO — The hype surrounding the hypercoaster Mako opening Friday at SeaWorld has been breathless, just like the riders who got a sneak preview of the coaster Thursday.
"Hypercoaster" means there are no loop-de-loops, just high speed (73 mph) and that weightless feeling you get when G-forces send riders up out of their seats as Mako roars down the other side of the hill.
It is tall, it is fast, and it is a very smooth ride when you haven't been lifted out of your seat in nine designed moments of airtime.
It will likely to take two or three more trips on this coaster to appreciate all its tricks. Instead of a shoulder bar restraint, it has a simple lap bar with built-in handles for chickens like me who would never think of throwing their hands in the air. I tried briefly on the third hill, but who am I kidding?
It takes about 2 and a half minutes to complete, and a good portion of the ride is over a body of water in the back of the park near Kraken. Expect a lot of shoes and sunglasses to be fished out of that lake.
It starts off with an imposing 200-foot climb, then a startling first drop at more than 70 degrees. You get that pop of airtime at the top of the second hill, which at 165 feet is taller than Montu at Busch Gardens, which was the world's tallest (150 feet) and fastest inverted roller coaster when it opened in 1996.
The airtime keeps coming, like in the "Hammerhead turn," a tight U-turn to the right, each drop making your stomach flutter and giving you "upper body mobility," said Mike Denninger, vice president of theme park development for SeaWorld and a mechanical engineer by trade.
If you want an even bigger thrill, Denninger says to try the very back where the whip of the trains lift riders higher out of their seats, held in only by that puny lap harness.
"The back of the train is just going over that hill when the front of the train is already picking up speed," Denniger said, with a bit of an evil grin. "That first drop especially whips the riders in back."
Coaster enthusiasts were invited to the media preview Thursday. Jim Terry who started the blog WildGravityTravels.com has already ridden Mako 50 times, he said.
"Right now, I'd say this is the best coaster in Florida," Terry said. "It's tall and fast and for people who might get sick from a coaster with a lot of loops, they can ride this."
While this coaster puts SeaWorld at the top of the thrill-seeker food chain, the attention to detail and story-telling make the realm stand out in its strong call for conservation.
Aiming to silence Blackfish critics who believe the park is an exploiter of sea life, SeaWorld's shark realm has enlisted world-renowned marine artist and conservationist Guy Harvey to help shed light on issues such as ocean health and the plight of sharks in the wild.
The area around the new Shark Wreck Reef at SeaWorld is eye-catching. At night it's even prettier, with shimmering lights and strobes.
Harvey painted a 16 by 24-foot mural featuring a mako shark, and there's a live feed from Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation in the queue lines for the new coaster. You can see the real science of sharks in the wild with real-time shark tracking and videos from Guy Harvey's vast library of shark expeditions.
Special merch includes a Mako baseball cap with a bite taken out of it, but also artwork by Harvey that supports his foundation.
Harvey is at the park this week for the opening and Thursday he was unapologetic in partnering with corporate interests that support his research foundation.
"Overfishing of sharks is a real problem. It is imminent," Harvey said. "Many species are in dire straits."
There are real sharks to encounter in the realm. And the Sharks Underwater Grill with a view of a huge tank of sharks in the dining room is quick to note it uses everything from sustainable seafood to organic coffee to promote environmental responsibility.
Artist Angela Haseltine Pozzi and her organization, The Washed Ashore Project, were commissioned by SeaWorld to illustrate the impact of plastic pollution on the ocean.
The 6-foot piece, known as "Finn," is made entirely from hard, non-biodegradable plastics such as water bottles, combs, flip flops and plastic containers and sits on water made from some of the ocean's biggest pollution offenders: plastic water bottles, buoys and nets.
Despite his name used all over the area, Harvey has yet to ride the signature roller coaster.
"I like my terra firma," he said, "and the more the firmer the less the terror."
Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @SharonKWn.