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This Could be the Best Roller Coaster in Florida ⁠— And Beyond

Updated: Jan 3, 2020

first published by Arthur Levine Special to USA TODAY, Sept. 12, 2019

SeaWorld rides: Amusement parks get new attractions nearly every year

SeaWorld Entertainment is aiming to add at least one new attraction to all 12 of its parks nearly every year.

Florida's newest, most exciting roller coasters of 2020 are coming from an unlikely suspect, as theme parks go: SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment.

On Thursday, the parent company of the park once known for its trained dolphins announced two major new roller coasters for next year: Busch Gardens Tampa's 10th, Iron Gwazi; and SeaWorld Orlando's sixth, Ice Breaker.

Along with recent and upcoming additions at other parks in the chain, the new coasters would seem to indicate an evolution in the company’s strategy. It's moving away from live animal attractions toward thrilling rides.

“When we build roller coasters, we do them a little differently," says Jonathan Smith, director of rides and engineering for SeaWorld Parks. "We try to integrate them with the causes that we care about, such as animal care, conservation and education."

For instance, Ice Breaker will be near SeaWorld’s Wild Arctic exhibit and share a similar theme, promoting conservation issues related to the Arctic and the ocean. The more menacing Iron Gwazi at Busch Gardens will draw its inspiration from a creature endemic to Florida: the crocodile.

Iron Gwazi is "going to be the best roller coaster in Florida," Smith brags. "We’re building what could be one of the best coasters in the entire world.”

Whether the ride achieves those superlatives remains to be seen, but Iron Gwazi at Busch Gardens Tampa is assured of two others: At 206 feet and 76 mph, it will be the tallest and fastest coaster in the Sunshine State. Its height also moves it past Cedar Point's 205-foot Steel Vengeance to become the tallest hybrid wood-steel coaster in North America. (Technically, it will be a hyperhybrid, the term given to wood-steel coasters over 200 feet.)

Another reason to be hopeful: Iron Gwazi is being built – OK, technically converted from an old twin-track to a single-track design – by Rocky Mountain Construction. The Idaho company has earned a stellar reputation by taking rough wooden coasters well past their prime, rethinking their wooden-structure layouts and trading out old wooden tracks for steel. The end product? Wood-steel hybrid rides that are remarkably smooth and compelling.

Many of the company’s reimagined hybrids – including Steel Vengeance – have vaulted onto fan-favorite lists. So hopes are high that Iron Gwazi – set to become the tallest and fastest and deliver the steepest drop (206 feet at 91 degrees) in the hybrid category – will also be the best of its kind.

The mad scientist behind Iron Gwazi and all of RMC's hybrid coasters is structural engineer Alan Schilke, whom owner and CEO Fred Grubb lauds as "probably the best (roller coaster) designer in the world."

Together, Schilke and Grubb created RMC's all-steel "IBox" track-and-wheel system, which has answered the prayers of park operators tired of constantly having to replace tracks on their old wooden coasters. In addition to being easier on their maintenance budgets, IBox gives parks the option of utilizing existing wooden structures rather than tearing them down and starting from scratch. (Grubb estimates that RMC will retain about 40% of the original wooden structure from the original Gwazi, which opened in 1999 and closed in 2015.)

It also allows designers the freedom to implement thrills typically only seen on steel coasters. Iron Gwazi's 4,075-foot-long, 110-second course, will include overbanked twists and turns and 12 moments of airtime, the giddy sensation that momentarily lifts coaster passengers out of their seats. And did we mention the inversions? Among the three heels-over-head elements will be a zero-G roll and a 180-degree stall that will keep riders flopped upside down for a few harrowing seconds as they race forward.

Iron Gwazi will have one other advantage over Steel Vengeance: a significantly lower minimum ride height of 48 inches or 4 feet, meaning that it will be open to younger coaster fans. By comparison, you have to be 52 inches or 4-foot-3 to ride the Cedar Point Coaster.

The SeaWorld parks consider attractions with a 48-inch height requirement to be “family thrill” rides, meaning that they offer thrills, but most members of the family would be able to enjoy them.

Ice Breaker at SeaWorld Orlando will fall into the same 48-inch, family thrill category, albeit with dialed-down thrills.

Using linear synchronous motors, the unique coaster will feature a quadruple launch. After leaving the station, the trains will enter a track switch that will move them laterally into the launch section. They will first magnetically launch backward, then forward, then backward, and finally forward with enough momentum to hit the ride’s top speed of 52 mph and make it out of the launch area.

“What’s really cool about the launch experience is that there are camelbacks (airtime-generating hump-shaped hills) integrated into the track,” SeaWorld’s Smith says. “Passengers will experience airtime while they are launching. Airtime going backwards is very unique.”

Ice Breaker’s riders will navigate a 93-foot spike at 100 degrees, a full 10 degrees beyond vertical. They will also encounter an 80-foot top hat-shaped element that Smith says will be loaded with airtime. The coaster will be an “unusual, crazy, fun and thrilling experience,” he adds.

That's not all, folks

In addition to the two coasters, In addition to the two coasters, Solar Vortex will debut at Adventure Island in Tampa.

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