TAMPA -- One could argue that falcons are the coolest birds in the sky. They can change direction on a dime, some can hover over the ground and others can fly at speeds up to 200 mph.
So it's no surprise that a theme park would name a first-of-its-kind thrill ride after this intrepid bird of prey. Better yet, when Falcon's Fury, the tallest freestanding drop tower in North America, opens this spring at Busch Gardens in Tampa, it will simulate what it's like to drop out of the sky just like the namesake bird.
But don't worry, if you are a chicken when it comes to heights, there are plenty of other entertainment options, including a restaurant, pretzel shop, roaming performers and stage acts. Altogether, it's known as Pantopia, a fictional land that tells the story of traveling artists from around the world.
At the center of the remodeled realm is the 335-foot drop tower, and USA TODAY was the first to go to the top to check out the ride's progress. Originally scheduled to open May 1, the grand opening of Falcon's Fury has been postponed due to construction delays.
Once it does open, however, here's what to expect: Riders are strapped into a row of open-air seats similar to those on a roller coaster. Falcon's Fury has eight sides, each sitting four riders. it will take about a minute for the ride vehicles to hike up to the top. Which means, riders will have plenty of time to ponder why they decided to hop aboard this white-knuckle ride in the first place and enough time to take in the sights: downtown Tampa, Tropicana Field and downtown St. Petersburg.
At the tower's peak, the seats rotate face-down in a falcon-like dive position. And, what comes next is likely the scariest part: Riders will be held at the top of the tower for a random amount of time, so there is no telling when they will actually drop.
"They will free fall for five to six seconds before the ride brakes engage," says Jeff Hornick, director of design and engineering. "The most exciting part is the near weightlessness that riders will feel when they begin their free fall. Think of this as the closest experience you can get to skydiving, without jumping out of a plane."
Falcon's Fury isn't the only over-the-top ride that has park fans atwitter. A slew of new attractions will open across the USA this summer that promise wild adventures fit for the fearless.
"Each new attraction seems to push the envelope," says Duncan Dickson, professor of theme park management at the University of Central Florida. "The amusement industry has tried from its inception to build faster, bigger, better, more thrilling rides for the guest. From the beginning gravity rides, to the chain-lift coasters, it has always been a quest to harness the new technology to create the greatest adrenaline rush possible."
Food galore and more
After being sufficiently freaked via the drop tower, guests can take a breather in a much tamer way. For example, shoppers will appreciate the Painted Camel Bazaar, which is already open to guests. Here, you'll find handmade products from around the world like plates made of old telephone wire (starting at $19.95) and giraffes (starting at $6.95) made of recycled yarn.
"We looked at things differently and re-imagined trash into treasures to provide the ambiance," says Brian Morrow, creative director of SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment.
More than 50 of the fixtures and props are recycled or repurposed items. Wire-cable spools now serve as display tables. Wood from an old beer bar is now a cash stand and old bicycle rims were converted into a clever chandelier.
Equally impressive are the food offerings. The bright blue building just steps away from Falcon's Fury houses Lynx Frozen Treats. Here, sun-drenched parkgoers can grab snow cones and smoothies. Next door, chefs at the Dragon Fire Grill, will prepare ribs, sausages and kabobs on the show grill. (Think: Japanese steakhouse cooking with a flair.)
Guests can opt to eat outdoors or head inside The Desert Grill (already open to guests) for a blast of air conditioning and other options like baby back ribs, chicken fettuccini Alfredo, specialty salads, hearty sandwiches, desserts and a full kid's menu. Meanwhile, Burn the Floor, a 13-member touring company of flamenco dancers, guitar player and tap dancers, performs onstage. (Note: Performances will be held through Aug. 16.)
Last but not least, Twisted Tails Pretzels offers 40 types of sweet or savory items made of pretzel dough, including sandwiches, pizzas and hot dog rolls. The standout, though, is the Bacon Pretzel Fury, two pieces of extra thick cherry wood smoked bacon braided with dough. And, as if that wasn't enough comfort food, a snack stand outside will also serve fresh kettle corn, turkey legs, potato twisters and chicken strips.
At the end of the day, guests can take in another show, Opening Night Critters, which will feature dogs, cats, birds and binturongs, bearcats that hails from Southeast Asia.
Add to that strolling characters like a mentalist who playfully predicts your future, an electric cellist and a chair-balancer and you've got Pantopia.
If you go
Ticket price: Adult admission is $92 plus tax. Children ages three to nine pay $87 plus tax. Children ages two and younger are admitted free.