TAMPA — Busch Gardens visitors are finally taking the big plunge, dropping 365 feet at 60 miles per hour, face down, on Falcon’s Fury.
Just days before public schools went back into session and more than three months after its expected opening date, the theme park opened the queue for its newest thrill ride, if only sporadically.
Since Saturday, thousands have gotten the chance to ride up, then quickly descend down North America’s tallest free-standing drop tower. There is still no official opening date for this newest attraction, said park spokesman Travis Claytor. But, soon.
For now, it’s just timing and luck.
Stephen Pagano had both good timing and good luck Tuesday when he headed to the park to use his annual pass.
Pagano and his cousin, Nick Buchholz, both of Valrico, were first in line for Falcon’s Fury at noon on Tuesday.
“Busch Gardens posted on their facebook that they were doing soft openings, so I was hoping we might get to ride,” Pagano said. “It opened for the public around 12 noon and then they had a technical glitch, but 10 minutes later, I was on.
“Once we started going up, my heart started racing,” said Pagano, who has ridden every rollercoaster at Busch Gardens and SeaWorld dozens of times. He rode Falcon’s Fury twice on Tuesday.
“It goes up slow. When you are all the way at the top you are looking at the ground. It turns you, so you are face first, down. My heart was racing as it was going down. I’d compare it to skydiving.
“It was a rush, that’s for sure,” Pagano said. “It’s just a completely different experience.”
The ride was initially scheduled to open May 1, but due to construction issues, it was delayed for the entire summer. The park last released a statement on Falcon’s Fury two months ago, saying it was waiting on parts to arrive.
Claytor said the parts arrived from Europe a couple of weeks ago and the manufacturer, Intamin, has completed testing, which included thousands of tower drops, most done after the park closed at night.
Before anyone from the public climbed on, water-filled test dummies took a turn on the terrifying tower. Then, members of the Busch Gardens team took a turn. The ride was tested not only for operations, but for “ride experience,” Claytor said.
“We wrapped that all up last weekend and so what we did over this past weekend, because things were going so well, is to do a ‘surprise-and-delight’ soft opening,” Claytor said. “It’s been an hour here and a couple of hours there, so people can test out Falcon’s Fury.”
It has been a few years since Busch Gardens opened its last major ride. The Cheetah Hunt triple coaster went online in 2011. “It is so smooth, it is actually designed to mimic the movements of a Cheetah on the hunt,” Claytor said. “It shoots up 100 feet, does a figure-eight and then drops down 110 feet into a cavern.”
Falcon’s Fury is located in the park’s “newest re-imagined land Pantopia,” which also offers other rides and food and beverage outlets, including one that serves craft beers.
Tower rides like Falcon’s Fury first came on the scene about two decades ago. This one is the first to put riders face down and drop them at 60 miles per hour in five seconds, then return the seats to an upright position before landing.