For the last few months Busch Gardens has been advertising in all possible media for their latest addition, a B&M dive machine coaster by the name of Sheikra. The only catch? It was due to open on May 21st, about two weeks after our visit to the park. Though the coaster itself was finished two months ago and had been tested extensively, work on the theming was still in progress and the ride was not open yet. It did, however, look fantastic, and qualifies as an excellent excuse to come back in the future.
The Anheuser-Busch group is staunchly and proudly patriotic. Rather than run the risk of offending any Americans reading this, I'll simply say that seeing "support our troops" and "we welcome our military heroes" all over the place makes me feel more than a little nauseous. Lest anyone misinterpret the above, I've no objection to anyone supporting the military of their country; I just feel that an obvious tourist attraction is not the place to ram American military prowess (or otherwise) down the throats of guests who may have a different view. More to the point, the Iraq's Most Wanted playing cards on sale were in particularly poor taste and unbecoming of a major amusement park.
Our first ride of the day was on Gwazi (#425), a dual tracked racing coaster built six years ago by Great Coasters International. Only the Lion track was operational, but there was no wait to speak of and we were soon on board. Though not a bad ride, it would have been so much more entertaining with both tracks operational, as the course is designed with six near misses that are not the same with only one train. We noticed later in the day that a section of the Tiger track running rail had actually been removed, presumably for maintenance work.
Martin had told us in advance that we would probably want to spend a lot of the day on Montu (#426), which until the construction of Sheikra had been the tallest ride in the park. With this in mind, we went to the back row, only to be somewhat underwhelmed by the whole thing. The culprit was a trim brake part way through the course which wiped maybe ten percent from the speed of the train. This resulted in the latter half of the course being, in a word, dull. Nevertheless, at George's suggestion, I sent a text message to Martin asking him what he considered to be the best seat on Montu, and we joined the line again. Moments later, he replied with a short and to the point message; "I reckon front left". We tossed a coin to determine which of us would get the outside seat, with George being the winner.
In due course we were on our way around the course, the other two front seats being occupied by a pair of American teenagers. I was already anticipating the trim brake as we passed through it, but much to my surprise it did not operate. By the time my brain had put two and two together we had already slammed into the mid course block brake and stopped dead. A cursory glance in the direction of the lift hill showed that the chain lift was not moving. This confirmed what I had already worked out; the ride had shut down.
I have wanted for several years now to be evacuated from a coaster at some point on the circuit. This might strike the average reader as an odd wish, and it certainly was, but I figured it would have novelty value. As such, I was absolutely delighted when, some fifteen minutes after the ride first stopped, a team of park employees started making their way over to the ride to let us out. In due course a staff member arrived and explained that a power surge had temporarily knocked out the ride and that everyone would have to disembark here. The safety system had operated exactly as designed; when the power was cut off, the brakes, normally held apart by electromagnets, sprung shut stopping the train completely. Only a restoration of power and a manual reset of the ride computer would move the train now, and for safety reasons this would not take place until all passengers were away from the ride.
As this was happening I suddenly remembered a conversation we had had earlier in the day. Montu was in fact George's 300th coaster. This was not his first evacuation from a ride, but the previous one had not been quite so exciting.
For reasons best known to themselves, the staff were evacuating two rows at a time and escorting the guests not just down the stairs but all the way out of the ride area. This was about a three minute walk, and the six minute round trip slowed the procedure significantly. They started with the back rows first, meaning that by the time the staff reached us we had been sitting there for nearly 40 minutes, with the sunburn to prove it. When we were finally released I figured we had earned a minute or two of special treatment.
I asked for permission to take some photographs from that location, and they allowed us to do so for a minute or so. The location was perfect for good shots of the lower half of the ride, and while there was obviously no train on course we were both nevertheless quite happy with how they turned out. Walking out through the ride area provided some more interesting angles that would never normally be available, including a partially disassembled train. The final bonus was a complimentary exit pass from the supervisor as we left. Being evacuated from rides is well worth while!
Busch is home to what might well be the longest Sky Ride in a theme park. We took it over to the far side of the park, which also provided some good photography angles.
Unfortunately for me, the Scorpion coaster was closed. George did not need the credit, having ridden it on a previous visit more than a decade ago. The reason for the closure appeared to be a performance stage which has been constructed in front of the entrance; older Schwarzkopf coasters can be quite noisy and would certainly drown out aspiring artists. In some parks this might not be a bad thing, though to give credit where it is due the Busch parks have a substantially higher standard of performer than that seen elsewhere.
The Python (#427) is an ageing Arrow-built Corkscrew coaster and unremarkable. These models track more smoothly than their Vekoma cousins, but such a comparison is like comparing a Ford Fiesta to a Lada. Neither is very comfortable.
The only other credit in the park for me today was Kumba (#428), which turned out to be only my second "ordinary" B&M coaster. It seems incredible to me that only four of the sixty or so coasters built by the Monthey firm are traditional sit-down models, but at the end of the day the manufacturers only build what the parks are prepared to pay for. Though I had totally forgotten about it, Martin reminded me that I had ridden one of the other three two years before.
After a lunch break, we spent quite some time taking photographs of the Tidal Wave ride. Neither of us wanted to actually try it, as riders end up absolutely drenched, but we were having a lot of fun taking close up snaps of riders' expressions just as they hit the splashdown. While most were what you expect, there were some that didn't fit the usual pattern, including a teenager making an extremely impolite gesture at the water, and a young couple using the moment for a kiss. Maybe I'm from the wrong generation, but I cannot see the romance in having a few hundred thousand litres of water unceremoniously dumped on top of you.
After a second ride on Kumba we decided that the time had come to get out of the humid Florida heat, at least for a while. The park is home to a 4D theatre showing the Haunted Lighthouse movie, and while I had seen it before in another park, George had not. The story is in the mould of the Goosebumps series by R. L. Stine. All the special effects were working, though the water spray in front of us seemed to trigger at random unexpected intervals in addition to when it was supposed to.
My favourite attraction in the park was not in fact one of the coasters. Instead, it was Rhino Rally, a trip through the local equivalent of the Serengeti in Land Rovers. These are the real deal, with the English registration plates and a right hand drive dashboard. The course goes completely into water at one point, with the vehicle apparently floating down a river. Rather than spoil the special effects for the reader, it seems only right to suggest two things; one, that you go left when given a choice, and two, that if possible you sit in the right hand seat of the back row.