Written by Joe Lane
Published: May 23, 2005 at 1:54 PM
How long would you wait to ride a brand new roller coaster? An hour? Two hours? What if the ride was short? Very short. Less-than-two-minutes short.
Admit it: how critical of Busch Gardens Tampa were you when they announced, back in October of 2004, that the park would be introducing a new coaster: a Bolliger & Mabillard Diving Machine?
Prior to the announcement, there were only two B&M Diving Machines in operation: Oblivion at Alton Towers in England (which opened March 1998) and the G5 in Taiwan (which opened March 2000). Both coasters featured drops that neared 90 degrees, at heights of about 180 feet and speeds of roughly 68 miles per hour.
Naturally, Busch Gardens wanted to top that. Sheikra would stand at a Florida record coaster height of 200 feet, reach speeds in excess of 70 miles per hour, and boast a maximum vertical angle of 90 degrees.
But BGT wanted to really one-up the competition. So they added a second drop, 138 feet tall at 81 degrees, plummeting underground before taking a banked turn into a splashdown area in a nod to the water theme of Stanleyville.
The advertising campaign says it all: 200 feet up. 90 degrees straight down.
Guests arriving at BGT on the morning of Saturday, May 21st received a yellow piece of paper along with their parking pass. The paper cautioned guests about unusually long wait times.
"Waiting times for Sheikra today may exceed what is customary for our park as many of our guests will wish to experience this new attraction. As with any new theme park attraction, Sheikra may experience temporary suspensions of operation for short periods of time."
By 10:00 in the morning, the lines for Sheikra tripled back on itself near the entrance and snaked along the construction walls, behind the newly opened Zambia Smokehouse and back up to Lory Landing, just before The Land of the Dragons. BGT officials announced projected wait times of up to four hours. Hardcore coaster fans would stand in line to find the wait to be no more than two hours.
Sheikra's coaster trains are a different design than your standard coaster. Each train has only three rows, but span eight seats across, carrying 24 passengers per train. There are five trains on the coaster and two can be loaded at once. This design increases guest capacity, reportedly accommodating approximately 1,500 guests an hour, barring technical difficulties.
The top of the lift hill grants guests a spectacular view of landmarks including downtown Tampa and the USF campus before rolling right over the edge and pausing. The train holds for a few nerve-testing seconds before being released down the vertical drop, zooming along the ground and back up into an Immelman inversion.
Coasting over the break hill, the train barely pauses for the second drop, which takes guests through part of the African jungle ruins, under the splashdown area and over the Zambia Smokehouse.
The underside of the last row of each coaster is outfitted with special pipes. These pipes launch the water in the splashdown up into the air and onto the heads of guests waiting near Sheikra and what may be the future area of the Stanleyville train station. Although guests on the ground may get drenched, riders will walk off nearly completely dry.
While Sheikra may be opened, there's still a lot to be done construction wise around the coaster. Temporary plywood walls have been nailed up. Two-by-fours serve as makeshift railings, in some cases. The paint jobs on some of the jungle ruins are not yet complete. Landscaping is far from finished, especially evident from the load/unload area. But these cosmetic shortcomings are forgiving, as Busch is taking great care to see the project through to the end. It's not often a sight you would see at Universal or Disney.
There's an on-ride photo op immediately after the first drop. The film systems were still being set up this past Saturday.
The ultimate question, however, is whether the ride is worth the wait. Reviews are mixed. Sheikra is a ride that demands more than one trip, but with wait times as long as they are now, it might not be worth your time. Thrill-seekers are sure to get their fix, however. Half of the excitement is riding the lift hill up to the top.
Maybe, in this instance, sometimes the wait makes it all worthwhile.