Cheetah Hunt is a worthy addition to the admirable roller-coaster lineup at Busch Gardens. The steel coaster opens to the public at the Tampa theme park Friday in time for Memorial Day weekend.
Its gimmick, if you will, is a series of magnetically controlled surges that fling passengers up and under and through several of the theme park's environments. One of these pushes takes riders on a long straightaway, aimed directly at a steep upward hill at 60 mph. The vehicle goes up that incline and goes into a figure-eight motion at the top, where there's a great view of Busch Gardens, notably the Gwazi wooden coaster.
At this point, we're atop Windcatcher's Tower, the top-heavy Tinkertoy-ish icon, about 100 feet high, near the front of the park. Movement through the eight is relatively slow, and that allows riders to take in the scenery.
Other highlights are a loop over and around the Skyride wire and gondolas -- an unusual, exciting and disorienting maneuver -- circling near a water hazard and finally a low-riding series of curves that had a ski slalom feel to it.
Despite that rugged patch, Cheetah Hunt runs smoothly, without jarring your innards too much, unlike its sister coasters Montu, Kumba and Gwazi. This is welcome news to my middle-age bones. There's only one inversion, which helps the weak-stomached.
Also a comfort is the over-the-head harness, which wasn't overly padded near the head, giving it an open-air feeling that dovetails with the gliding motion.
It's also quiet, partially in deference to the accompanying attraction, Cheetah Run, an animal observation area. The big cats -- Busch Gardens has about a dozen of them now in residence -- are sheltered from the noise or sudden movements of the ride. They can see some higher segments. "I think they want to chase it," says Mark Rose, Busch Gardens' vice president of design and engineering.
Animal trainers will put the cheetahs through their paces periodically throughout the day, and those may include their trademark sprints. But we won't be seeing cheetah versus Cheetah Hunt in a foot race.
In the end, Cheetah Hunt isn't an extreme coaster, but definitely a fun one.
"We didn't want to be the tallest coaster in the world or the fastest coaster in the world, but there's a sweet spot there, and we couldn't be happier," says Jim Dean, park president.