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Is Busch Gardens Tampa Florida’s coaster capital?

Two new rides will give Busch Gardens Tampa more coasters than any other theme park in Florida.

With two roller coasters in the works over the next two years, Busch Gardens Tampa hopes to cement its position as Florida’s coaster capital – at least for a summer.

brady mcdonaldBy Brady MacDonald

Busch Gardens plans to open the Tigris launched steel coaster this spring and replace the shuttered Gwazi wooden coaster with a new thrill ride in 2020.

Recent news: SeaWorld and Busch Gardens unveil new coasters for 2020 /  Busch Gardens Tampa’s Iron Gwazi the top extreme coaster for 2020

That would give Busch Gardens Tampa more coasters than any other theme park resort property in Florida. More than the Disney parks, Universal parks, SeaWorld Orlando or Legoland Florida. Until 2021. But more on that in a bit.

Tigris launched coaster

I recently took a behind-the-scenes construction tour of Busch Gardens’ new triple-launch coaster with Tigris project manager Andrew Schaffer.

“We like to be known as the thrill capital of Florida,” said Schaffer, who wore an orange Tigris hard hat with black tiger stripes during our tour. “Having another attraction like this is paramount to us.”

tigris busch gardens tampa construction

Built by Maryland-based Premier Rides, the new Tigris coaster jams a lot of excitement into a relatively short ride that lasts less than a minute over approximately 800 feet of track.

The new Tigris coaster takes its inspiration from the world’s largest and most powerful cat – the tiger. The name pays tribute to the world’s largest cat species, Panthera Tigris.

“The Tigris aspect of the ride plays well into our Jungala area of the park which is right next door,” Schaffer said. “One of the biggest animals we’ve got in Jungala is the tiger.”

tiger busch gardens tampa panthera tigris

Tigris is currently under construction in the Stanleyville section of the park next to the Jungala exhibit housing the park’s endangered Bengal tigers.

The coaster queue outlines the plight of the tigers in the wild and Busch Gardens’ conservation efforts to save them. The new ride stands on the former location of the Tanganyika Tidal Wave shoot-the-chute water ride.

Tigris under Construction

Construction crews have already completed Tigris’ ride structure and track assembly. During my visit, heavy-duty forklifts moved equipment across the dirt lot. Up in the air, workers in a high-reach cherry picker checked the bolts on the steel support structure.

“Right now they’re doing all the torquing on all the bolts,” Schaffer said. “They’re going to go through and inspect every bolt and torque every bolt throughout the entire ride.”

The next big step: Installing the coaster trains.

“Once that’s done, we can move on to starting some of our testing and commissioning,” Schaffer said.

construction busch gardens tampa tigris floridas roller coaster capital

Magnetic propulsion

During the tour, we walked up to the orange coaster track where the high-speed triple launch will take place. White magnetic propulsion fins ran down the center of the track like the spiked spine of a prehistoric stegosaurus. Sensors next to the fins will gauge the timing of the coaster train throughout the ride. The sensors will tell the control system how to adjust the speed of the launch.

andrew schaffer busch gardens tampa tigris“They can dial up the power to allow it to launch faster,” Schaffer said.

Air blowers beneath the track will cool the magnetic propulsion fins after the launch.

“These fins heat up quite a bit with the electricity that goes through them and the magnetic system passing through there,” Schaffer said.

Compact ride

Construction of Tigris will only use a portion of the former Tidal Wave water ride location. The ride’s compact footprint allowed construction crews to preserve much of the existing landscaping. The lush surroundings make the new ride seem like it’s always been in the park.

“The compact size of the ride, just in its nature, lended itself to this site,” Schaffer said. “It worked out well for us as well as leaving us some additional open land if we ever want to use it for anything else. It just fit nice and tight into this site.”

Tigris is the third Premier Sky Rocket II coaster opened by SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, Busch Gardens’ parent company. Tempesto debuted in 2015 at Busch Gardens Williamsburg and Electric Eel opened in 2018 at SeaWorld San Diego.

theming tigris busch gardens tampa

Inside the station

Crews used dirt excavated during construction of Cobra’s Curse and Falcon’s Fury to fill in the old water ride flume beneath the base of the coaster. The ride design team incorporated remaining elements of the old water ride into the new coaster queue.

“The entrance goes down through the old trough of the water ride and then it comes back up into the station,” Schaffer said. “It will be nostalgic for some of the people that have ridden the old ride.”

Most of the ride takes place above the queue area. Steel columns jut through the roof of the station.

“You’ll definitely hear it as it’s coming down and over the building,” Schaffer said. “The people waiting in the extended queue can see the ride coming over the building and how close it comes.”

Waiting in line should get rider’s adrenaline pumping with all the high-speed launches racing through the station.

“It’s a pretty exciting experience inside the station actually with all the launches through there,” Schaffer said. “It launches at 25 mph, then 50 and then over 60 to get up through the rest of the structure.”

The Tigris ride experience

The coaster’s triple-launch experience is a big part of the show. This is the case for both riders and those waiting in the station to board. Propelled by electromagnetic linear synchronous motors, Tigris starts out with a forward-backward-forward launch before ascending to a signature upside down twist 15 stories in the sky.

Departing from the station, Tigris will propel riders forward into a vertical twist, then careen backward through the station into another twist before racing through the station once again, this time accelerating to more than 60 mph.

Tigris busch gardens tampa coaster-track-Cars

Climbing to the top of the first loop, the train will the navigate a slow barrel roll at 150 feet in the air. Known as an heartline roll, the sky-high element leaves riders feeling like they’re going to fall out of their seats.

Magnetic brakes slow the train just before a near-vertical twisting descent. This leads into a non-inverting loop that keeps riders upright throughout the loop.

The diving train again passes through the station, ascends the vertical twist one last time and descends backward to a halt. With the forward and backward launches, riders will travel a distance of more than 1,800 feet.

Tigris-Reverse-POV-busch gardens tampa floridas coaster capitalSchaffer fell in love with the ride when he rode Tempesto at Busch Gardens Williamsburg.

“I really loved the dramatic heartline roll,” Schaffer said. “The backward launch was pretty awesome. It’s a fantastic ride.”

Coaster mix

With the recent addition of the Cobra’s Curse family coaster, Tigris adds a new high-thrill coaster to Busch Gardens ride lineup, Schaffer said.

“It fit into our mix pretty well,” Schaffer said. “The thrill aspect with the compact footprint was really what we were going for.”

The addition of Tigris will bring Busch Gardens Tampa’s coaster count to 9. This is more than all of Disney’s Florida theme parks combined.

“We’re definitely happy about the collection that we’ve got,” Schaffer said. “We’ve also got a mix that’s good for everyone. We’ve got the family rides. The thrill seekers. We’ve really got something for everyone.”

Vertical coasters

Premier Rides has installed the Sky Rocket II vertical coaster at parks in Germany, Mexico, China, Connecticut and Northern California.

Tigris busch-gardens-roller-coasters

The Sky Rocket II is part of a new class of extremely compact and vertically-oriented roller coasters. These rides pack lots of thrills into a tight space.

The vertical rides do away with the traditional lift hill and stack the track perpendicularly. They do this rather than letting the course meander horizontally as roller coasters have done for more than a century.

tigris at busch gardens tampa logoThe compact footprints allow amusement parks to squeeze a thrilling coaster into a space usually occupied by a smaller ride like a sedate carousel or leisurely Ferris Wheel.

The new breed of rides also share one common drawback: low capacity. As is the case with most vertically-oriented coasters, Tigris will likely suffer from capacity issues. These could lead to lengthy wait times. With a single 18-seat train and tight seating rows that add to load times, Tigris can theoretically handle only a few hundred passengers per hour.

Gwazi replacement

In addition to Tigris, Busch Gardens Tampa has already begun teasing a new thrill ride. This will arrive in the Gwazi area of the park in 2020. The Gwazi dual wooden coaster has been standing-but-not-operating since 2015, according to Roller Coaster Database.

jeff hornick sr director theme park develpment busch gardens
Jeff Hornick

Jeff Hornick is corporate senior director for theme park development at SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment. He says the 2020 project coming to Busch Gardens Tampa is one of the “worst kept secrets” in the amusement industry.

“That one’s going to be a pretty great ride,” Hornick said during an interview at SeaWorld Orlando.

Permits filed with the city of Tampa indicate Rocky Mountain Construction will be working on the Gwazi renovation, according to the Coaster Kings ride enthusiast website. The Utah-based ride maker has been responsible for a number of recent conversions of existing wooden coasters into wood-steel hybrid beasts that have thrilled ride enthusiasts.

“We’ve been purposely trying to play up that attraction because we are really excited about it,”  Hornick said. “Bloggers and everyone who knows the industry loves RMC coasters. They just deliver.”

Coaster enthusiast Cooper Scarborough can’t wait for the rebirth of Gwazi. The 13-year-old posts on-ride coaster videos to YouTube using a GoPro video camera strapped to his chest. During a recent visit to Busch Gardens Tampa, he wore a Rocky Mountain Construction baseball cap to express his unbridled enthusiasm for the as-yet-unconfirmed project.

“It’s going to be insane,” Scarborough said.

So is Busch Gadrens Tampa Florida’s coaster capital?

With two exciting coaster projects in the works, Busch Gardens Tampa hopes to cement its position as Florida’s roller coaster capital. The park is home to an impressive coaster collection that includes SheiKra, Kumba, Montu, Cheetah Hunt and Cobra’s Curse.

Busch Gardens Tampa can make the Florida coaster capital boast in part because the state lacks a Six Flags or Cedar Fair location. With a renewed Gwazi in 2020, Busch Gardens Tampa will have 10 coasters. That’s more than any theme park resort property in Florida. But only for a year. Disney’s Florida parks will boast 10 coasters in 2021 with the expected debuts of the Guardians of the Galaxy ride at Epcot and the Tron Lightcycle Power Run at the Magic Kingdom.

Disney could technically lay claim to the Florida coaster title in 2021. Roller Coaster Database classifies the twin-tracked Primeval Whirl at Disney’s Animal Kingdom as two separate coasters. That would therefore hand the title to Disney with 11 coasters and an asterix in the record books.

Images kind courtesy the author and Busch Gardens Tampa.

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brady mcdonald

Brady MacDonald

Brady MacDonald is a freelance writer based in California. He wrote the Funland theme park blog for the Los Angeles Times for a decade. His work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, New York Newsday, Philadelphia Inquirer, Seattle Times, Orlando Sentinel and Orange County Register.

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