Written by Joe Lane
Published: May 31, 2004 at 11:26 PM
When it comes to being a theme park fan, I'm very fortunate to be a native Floridian. Forget the punch card problems, governor issues, and countless elderly people on the roads. This state is home to some of the greatest theme parks ever imagined. When it comes to state-of-the-art entertainment and thrills, I've got a pretty good buffet to choose from--especially when it comes to roller coasters.
Course, that doesn't mean the Orlando/Tampa area is the best place to go for a die-hard roller coaster enthusiast. You'll definitely find more coaster thrills at Cedar Point in Ohio, Knott's Berry Farm in California or one of the many Six Flags parks around the country. If there's one thing Floridians have missed out on, it's the classic woodies of the early 1900s, built during the era of Coney Island, and the coaster boom of the sixties. That's not to say there weren't opportunities for folks to ride--a few wooden coasters were in operation throughout Florida during those early years, but the vast majority have since gone the way of the dodo.
In 1978, at the now defunct Boardwalk and Baseball park, you could ride the Roaring Tiger (later renamed Florida Hurricane until its closure in 1990). It was one of the first, and last, wooden coasters in Florida, but it lives on, relocated to the Magic Springs and Crystal Falls in Arkansas, now called the Arkansas Twister.
Florida-based folks were pretty much spoiled with the introduction of Python in 1977 at Busch Gardens Tampa and the Scorpion in 1981. Both coasters were of a steel design and featured some of the most remarkable roller coaster elements of their time: Python was simply a double corkscrew and Scorpion a single loop. Nearly three decades later, both attractions are still open and operating at the Tampa theme park, though I daresay their popularity isn't what it once was. Back in '75, before the BGT coasters premiered, Florida's first true steel coaster could be found at the Magic Kingdom, in the form of Space Mountain.
I thought it might be a good idea to try and rank the coasters here in the central Florida area, a daunting task, to say the least. I'll be evaluating the coasters on different aspects, including speed, design, thrills and theme. Also, there are a small handful of attractions that, while they have coaster aspects or are roller coasters in nature, I don't think they qualify for this study. The following rides are including: Python, Scorpion, Cheetah Chase, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Goofy's Barnstormer, Primeval Whirl, Journey To Atlantis, The Flying Unicorn, Woody Woodpecker's Nuthouse Coaster and Revenge of the Mummy.
Python and Scorpion are simply too short to compete, and Cheetah Chase, Barnstormer, Primeval Whirl, Flying Unicorn and Nuthouse Coaster are too small in size and thrill. The SWO Atlantis coaster portion is more a ride element than a true roller coaster. Folks could pose a suitable argument that BTMRR and The Mummy should be included for their roller coaster elements, however, I feel BTMRR is far too tame to compare to the speed and ferocity of these more modern coasters, and while the coaster portion of The Mummy is quite intense, I find it to be more a part of a whole new ride genre and difficult to rate on its own.
Gwazi was a mythical African creature with the head of a tiger and the body of a lion, said to be in constant struggle with its duel nature. The BGT coaster is one of the only wooden coasters currently in operation in Florida. Here, you have a choice between the yellow lion side or the blue tiger side--and both trains take different routes, zooming past each other six different times. In recent years, the coasters have done little dueling at all, as the ride numbers have since dwindled in favor for the modern Kumba and Montu.
Gwazi's dueling Lion and Tiger coasters both tie for the final slot on my list in a decision that will undoubtedly leave many coaster enthusiasts balking. Why rate these two coasters last in the lineup of roller coasters simply because they're wooden in design? Discrimination towards woodies? Perhaps, but keep in mind that my opinion is rather skewed due to the fact that growing up, there was very little opportunity to acquire that appeal that comes with wooden coasters--the rickety sound, the trundle of the car on the tracks, the feeling that any moment, the entire structure could collapse, the art and design of the wooden structure. It's all a fine, acquired taste that one is either born with or grows up loving. The ride is simply too rough, and the seats are uncomfortable compared to the latest in ergonomic design available through steel coaster design. Gwazi does offer good hang time opportunities and nice speed on both sides. The rough ride and seats don't make Gwazi a bad ride, merely an acquired taste, one I don't particularly care for and that's why both the Lion and Tiger find themselves at the end of MY list.
8th: Space Mountain
Design: Enclosed Twin Steel
Speed: 27 mph
While Disneyland in California may have been built first, Walt Disney World in Orlando was the first to get a Space Mountain. The queue takes guests under the railroad tracks and into the mountain itself. The interior is dazzling, with hundreds of stars and space anomalies. Guests board their rocket shuttles, travel through an acceleration tunnel, then up the lift past an ornate rocket scene. The ride twists, turns and dips in the darkness of the mountain before decelerating in an explosion tunnel and docking at the exit.
The thrills of this ride come mostly from the tight turns the shuttle rockets make in the darkness. This ride is psychologically fast (similar to another popular attraction recently opened at USF). The dark atmosphere, the fast moving star lights and tight twists makes it appear that your vehicle is moving a lot faster than it actually is. Unlike its cousins, WDW's Mountain has no soundtrack, and it features two twin tracks dubbed Alpha and Omega. There are no inversions, no real high speeds or super special effects, but the ride is still enjoyable even now, nearly thirty years later. It has a certain charm to it that makes it endearing for coaster fans.
7th: Rock 'n' Roller Coaster
Design: Enclosed Launch Steel
Speed: 57 mph
G-Force: 5 g
A huge, forty-foot Stratocaster guitar stands in front G-Force Records off the end of Sunset Boulevard, adjacent to the ominous Tower of Terror at the Disney-MGM Studios. Inside you'll see the popular rock group Aerosmith in the recording studio, putting the finishing touches on another track before taking a stretch limo for their big concert, but before they go, they call up a fleet of limos to bring the studio guests along for the ride. Your ride peels out and into the night, all while Aerosmith tunes blast from the speakers by your head.
This monster attraction is a departure from the Disney norm in some standards, but the attention to detail is overwhelming in terms of theming. The interior design of the record studio is high-quality at best, but the real detail comes in the back-alley loading area where your "super stretch" limo pulls up. Very little compares to the thrill of the countdown before the inevitable coaster launch. It's a feat equally impressive for those watching, as the sound of squealing tires overcomes the sound of screaming riders and the limo/coaster disappears into the dark tunnel. In terms of inversions, there aren't but a few, but it's enough to frighten even the tamest riders. The black light cutouts appear rather cheesy, but they've become very characteristic of the ride. After all, the black light is a classic rock 'n' roll staple decoration.
After the initial launch and the few inversions, there's little more to do for the rest of the ride but enjoy whatever airtime you may get and listen to the music. If there's something really negative to be said for Rock 'n' Roller Coaster, it's that it's short. One to two minutes shorter than the rest of the competition. That limited length and lackluster second half is what puts this ride further down the list, although the mere anticipation of the launch just about makes up for it.
6th: Dueling Dragons - Fire
Design: Dueling Inverted Steel
Speed: 60 mph
G-Force: 5 g
5th: Dueling Dragons - Ice
Design: Dueling Inverted Steel
Speed: 55 mph
In The Lost Continent at Universal's Islands of Adventure, you'll find a desolate castle sitting in the distance. After a rather arduous trek to its front gate, you'll see first hand the damage done by a pair of rampaging dragons. And you're only halfway there; into the remains of the castle you'll go, descending deep into the dungeons full of ghosts and skeletons before reaching the dragon chambers. You'll soon find yourself in the midst of the never-ending battle between fire and ice.
Dueling Dragons is the first of its kind to feature dueling inverted coasters. The unique design allows for three near misses, including a head-on rush, all outside the decrepit medieval castle. Both tracks are completely unique, giving each ride a distinct experience. In my opinion, Ice beats out Fire just barely, but people often ride roller coasters for different reasons, so you might think otherwise. Here's what each side has to offer: Fire has the distinct honor of being just slightly faster than Ice--and the initial drop is nearly twenty feet greater than its companion. Fire also pulls greater g's and reportedly has one turn that produces a 5 g pull. It is for this reason that a back row ride for Fire will give some of the greatest pulls and thrills a coaster can offer. Ice, however, has a slight advantage, despite its shorter initial drop and slightly slower speed. The first near miss occurs with Fire cresting over Ice, but it is at this point that Ice enters into a Zero-G Roll, so that the riders' feet pass a scant few inches past each other. The second highlight comes immediately afterwards as Ice barrels towards the castle wall and pulls up and away at the last second. It's an element that Fire doesn't offer. it is for this reason that Ice is decidedly a better ride in front, and also to some extent better than Fire.
The theme is wonderfully done. The battle damage left by the dragon, the myriad skeletons hidden in the dungeons, the frozen knights and armor burned into the walls. There's a video that plays at the castle entrance. Three magical stained-glass windows tell the story of how the dragons terrorized the countryside, and how Merlin fought to stop their battle. If there's any real downside to this fantastic attraction, it's that the queue, for all its detail and extravagance, is just SO. INCREDIBLY. LONG! To Universal's credit, they have a reentry near the exit that takes you back into the dungeon so you can avoid the long trek back around. Unfortunately, there are usually only one, maybe two dragons running at any given time--and for some reason it takes unusually long for even two dragons to keep the guest capacity at a high level--and later on in the afternoon, the wait starts to get uncomfortably lengthy, even with a Universal Express Pass. Just a few small things that can be improved to make the Dragons a wait that's worthwhile.
Speed: 60 mph
G-Force: 3.8 g
There's a fierce beast that stalks the African Congo and the natives call it Kumba. This monster was one of BGT's first true roller coasters, after Python and Scorpion, of course, and offers some of the most intense thrills even today. Growing up, rumors circulated around school about the new BGT roller coaster that scared people to death and made even the toughest bully cry. Even today, Kumba still brings the pain.
There's nothing extremely special about the ride. This is a pure steel roller coaster, pure and simple, with enough twists, turns and loops to get your adrenaline pumping--not to mention a whopping seven inversions. The train practically roars around the back section of the park, zooming over and under bridges. It is, for lack of any better term, downright fun. What keeps it from being in the top three, aside from its simplistic design is the nearly complete lack of theming. There's no real story, nothing really in the way of African theme short of the surprisingly short loading station queue. Despite that, in terms of speed and G-Force, the ride could easily top any of its competitors, but I seem to find something special in the next three coasters.
Design: Floorless Steel
Speed: 65 mph
Many centuries ago, sailors told stories of many incredible creatures like mermaids and giant sea serpents. One of these mythical beasts was known as the Kraken--a giant, multi-tentacled sea creature that would erupt from the depths and swallow ships whole. Guests at Sea World are given the opportunity to face the giant creature itself on Florida's ONLY floorless roller coaster.
The queue takes guests through a slightly Mediterranean structure, where quotes and images depict different versions of the sea creature and accounts of its attacks on unsuspecting victims. Once you climb aboard the coaster at the loading area, the floor separates, and retracts, leaving your feet dangling over the track. It sounds complicated, I know, but it's easier to see it for yourself than attempt to describe it. The drop on this behemoth is staggering, nearly from top to the ground, 144 feet--a five foot difference from the height. But it's the second half of this thrill ride where things get better when the coaster loops twice underground and flies around the small lagoon and into the Kraken's Lair. There's no Kraken beast inside to see--he's perpetually frozen outside for Guests to take photos of, but the cave sure does make you want to keep all hands, arms and legs inside the coaster (although it's tough to say there's an 'inside' to this monster). Things are even more intense for folks up front, who constantly find themselves sticking their legs straight out for fear of getting them caught between the train and the track. Such a thing is impossible, but it's hard to convince your mind otherwise!
The theming is quaint and muted--more could've been done, but watching in terror as your coaster flies down past and below the lagoon and into the dark cavern is pretty exhilarating nonetheless.
Design: Inverted Steel
Speed: 60 mph
G-Force: 3.8 g
In the Egyptian religion, Montu was originally a god of the sun. With the body of a man and the head of a falcon, this Egyptian deity later became a god of war. In many ways, the BGT coaster of the same name depicts both descriptions very nicely. Walking through the fine theming of the park's Egypt area, guests are ushered onto the inverted coaster. There's an ominous distant-sounding roar as the floor drops away and the coaster pulls out of the station, then slowly clinks its way to the apex, and with a final "clack-clack", the coaster swings out, twists around and starts to careen into the excavation site below, looping once before disappearing underground again and flying towards an archway and into the sun.
It's smooth, it's fast, it pulls G's in all the right places, and the sensation from the inverted design is indescribable. Montu is more than just an Egyptian god; it is a god of roller coasters. While folks may prefer the extra force of the Dueling Dragons or the ferocity of Kumba, Montu manages to find a suitable balance between it all. Pureblood coaster enthusiasts may find the ride to be too gentle, and again, this is a reasonable judgment.
1st: The Incredible Hulk Coaster
Speed: 67 mph
G-Force: 4 g
Universal Orlando guests can see this monster before they even enter the park. The roaring sound of the coaster can be heard from a great distance. It's the Big Green Machine unleashed--tearing out of the Gamma Testing Facility and out over the Great Inland Sea. Quite simply, the Hulk smashes the competition.
Really, folks, come now. TPI Regulars should've expected this, as much as I rant and rave about this attraction. Shoot, this coaster rates fifth out of all the attractions on Theme Park Insider. What does it? Aside from the G-Forces, the inversions, and the lightly-themed laboratory, there is one thing and one thing alone that stands out above all else: the launch.
The theming of the queue is far from the magic of Rock 'n' Roller Coaster, but one can tell they're in a high-tech scientific research center--as if the giant Gamma Radiation Tube outside wasn't a tip off. A clever, animated video plays, accompanied by a catchy techno beat, where we learn all about Dr. Bruce Banner and his unfortunate experiment that turned him into the Hulk, and his subsequent failures to repeat the experiment and reverse the effects. Ignoring Banner's pleas to leave the lab, we strap ourselves into the Gamma sled and start up the tube; it begins like any other roller coaster. As lights flash within the tunnel, Banner talks to us over the speakers: "I think... I think this time it's... going to work!" But it NEVER works. The computer interrupts: "Warning: Coolant Leak" and as Banner starts to cry out in frustration, the 220 motors on the track below the coaster kick in. The power used to launch the coaster is so great, Universal had to build a dedicated power station to store electricity so as not to cause the lights to dim all across Orlando. The coaster is launched from the tube with the force of an F-16 fighter jet (that's 0-40 in two seconds) and right into a Zero-G Roll before careening towards the water below.
It's not the tallest, not the longest and just barely the fastest. And still Hulk wins hands down as my number one roller coaster in the Central Florida area. There are some way in which the coaster could be considered poor--the ride may be too smooth for enthusiasts--or may be rickety in some places due to old age. But the thrills and fun are there, and they can't be denied.
So what do you think, folks? I'm sure there are folks out there apt to agree, but I know beyond a shadow of a doubt there are folks who have different feelings--and we wanna hear about that! Speak your mind! Tell us what you think. And don't hesitate to drop a line if you have any questions. Until next time, keep on ridin'!
Walt Disney World
Tokyo Disney Resort
Theme Park Insider Books