- Photo by Seth Kubersky
This past summer, Disney and Universal have marketed their new mine train attractions (themed around dwarves and goblins, respectively) as “thrill rides.” With all due respect to those attractions, that’s a bunch of BS. While both are first-class examples of scenic storytelling, as far as roller coasters go neither is much more physically frightening than a Wacky Worm kiddie coaster. Orlando adrenaline junkies in search of this year’s biggest new thrill should instead set their sights to the southwest, where the beacon of Busch Gardens Tampa’s Falcon’s Fury beckons.
At 335 feet tall, it seems like you can see the cerulean spire from half a state away; the new drop tower completely dominates the park’s skyline. I’ve experienced extreme amusements from one end of this country to the other, but few things have made my stomach tighten like standing at Falcon’s Fury’s base, gazing upward at the ginormous pole’s peak as a carload of shrieking guests plunged face-first toward me. If ever an attraction could make you ill before you even get on, this is it.
Bile-flavored butterflies be damned: After driving an hour and a half I was intent on soaring like a falcon – or at least learning what its prey feels like. But before I strapped in, I needed some expert assurance from Mark Rose, Busch Gardens’ VP of design and engineering and the first human being to ride Falcon’s Fury. He seemed to have survived intact, but I couldn’t help remembering the attraction’s well-publicized delay from its originally announced May opening date, not to mention some scary-looking YouTube videos of test runs depicting metal rams connected to the carriage decoupling during the drop (apparently manufacturer Intamin’s intentional fail-safe related to the rotating seats). Rose reassured me that the delays were related to reliability and operational efficiency, not to any safety deficit. Fears assuaged, I decided to take Rose at his word and risk the ride.
Now that I’ve experienced Falcon’s Fury not just once, but three times, I can safely say the scariest part is the way up. When I passed the top of SheiKra, the tallest roller coaster in Florida, and watched it fall another hundred-plus feet beneath my feet, I knew it was going to take every effort to avoid swearing like a sailor on camera. When I reached the top and my seat swiveled up, pointing my face directly at the cement a football field’s length below me, coherent speech became nearly impossible (as you can hear in the video we posted at blogs.orlandoweekly.com).
But after an agonizing infinity (actually a random number of brief seconds) of suspension, the much-anticipated downward acceleration elicited a scream more of elation than terror. For five fleeting seconds or so, you experience true freefall; unlike the faster-than-gravity elevator pulleys used in Disney’s Tower of Terror, there’s nothing at work on the way down here but pure physics. You feel a few blissful moments of weightlessness, but thanks to the prone position your stomach contents aren’t yanked upward into your mouth, and the deceleration at the end is unexpectedly smooth.
My first fall on Falcon’s Fury plastered a huge grin on my face, and by my last I was even able to relax enough to appreciate the awesome view from the top. It certainly isn’t for the faint of heart, but once you get over the initial intimidation factor it isn’t nearly as frightening as it looks. With a throughput capacity of only about 600 riders per hour, Falcon’s Fury is sure to see longer lines during peak season than the 60-second trip is probably worth, but I was happy to wait in the 15-minute queue it’s attracting during this slow season for my repeat rides.
Busch has delivered yet another breakthrough thrill, but to be in the same league as Disney and Universal they should step up their theming efforts. Falcon’s Fury could use an indoor queue and on-ride audio, and though the new Pantopia area surrounding it sports clever scenic touches, its garish color scheme is an eyesore. The land’s signature bacon-filled pretzels were too salty for me to finish, and the new “Opening Night Critters” show’s animal trainers are forced to act and sing, with admirable effort but awkward results. If only the Tampa park would take a lesson from their sister property in Williamsburg, which hosts several family-friendly immersive attractions alongside similarly superior coasters, it could become a true rival to Orlando’s best.