Bob Sehlinger, coauthor of The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World and Beyond Disney: The Unofficial Guide to SeaWorld, Universal Orlando, & the Best of Central Florida, shares with us his top 16 Central Florida roller coasters.
1. MANTA, SEAWORLD There are coasters you barely survive and coasters you savor. Manta is clearly among the latter: a super smooth experience that leaves you grinning from ear to ear. An inverted flying steel coaster, Manta gently lowers you into a suspended Superman position and you, well, fly. Many coaster fans consider the most memorable moments a sweeping loop in the first half of the ride and near-misses of a pond or rock wall (depending where you’re sitting) in the second half. Technically, Manta has it all. After a first drop of 113 feet, it zooms through a pretzel loop, a 360-degree incline roll, and two corkscrews while reaching a height of 140 feet and speeds of 56 mph.
2. MAKO, SEAWORLD As the tallest, fastest, longest coaster in Florida, Mako makes a strong case for being number one. It all depends on what you like. Mako is a hypercoaster, meaning its sole purpose is to serve up air time—that weightless feeling on downhills that lifts you out of your seat. Mako has, count ’em, nine drops that induce this sensation of flying. At 4,760 feet long, Mako plunges from a soaring height of 200 feet and reaches a speed of 73 miles an hour. This combination of length, height, and speed translates into near continuous air time. There are no inversions, and the ride is downy-smooth—so smooth, in fact, that the only restraint is a lap bar. The mako shark is one of the fastest predators in the sea, and the coaster layout is designed to emulate the fast, sweeping motions of the shark on the hunt.
3. EXPEDITION EVEREST, DISNEY’S ANIMAL KINGDOM This coaster offers such a complete package, with something to dazzle each of the senses, that it overcomes its lack of loops and inversions. The segment where the train corkscrews downward in the dark may be the most unusual in roller-coaster annals. Though you begin the segment in reverse, you soon succumb to an almost disembodied and dreamlike state of drifting in a void, with an exhilarating sense of speed but with no certain sense of direction. When you can see, there’s plenty to look at: The mountain, with its caverns, cliffs, and crags, is a work of art; then there’s that pesky yeti who menaces you throughout the ride. And for those of you who hate rough coasters, Expedition Everest is oh-so-smooth.
4. DRAGON CHALLENGE: CHINESE FIREBALL, UNIVERSAL’S ISLANDS OF ADVENTURE Dragon Challenge has two trains, Chinese Fireball and Hungarian Horntail, which are launched in short succession, creating a sense of chase between the two. Though both trains have identical lift hills, their respective layouts are different, and Chinese Fireball offers the superior ride, with a 115-foot drop, five inversions, and speeds of 60 mph. Because this is an inverted coaster, your feet dangle throughout.
5. CHEETAH HUNT, BUSCH GARDENS With a 4,429-foot track, Cheetah Hunt is the longest coaster in Florida. A complete experience both tactilely and visually, Cheetah Hunt hurls you through the scenic, wildlife-rich Serengeti Plain section of the park. The ride emulates the hunting style of the cheetah with sudden bursts of speed, accomplished with linear-synchronous-motor launches similar to the accelerated launch systems of The Incredible Hulk Coaster at Universal and Rock ’n’ Roller Coaster at DHS. With Cheetah Hunt, however, you’re launched three times—once at the start of the ride and twice more during the circuit. The layout includes a 130-foot drop into a shallow canyon, over banked turns, parabolas, and a heartline-roll inversion. The linear out-and-back course allows more opportunity for viewing the animals than would the more common concentric, twisting layouts from which it’s almost impossible to take in your surroundings.
6. MONTU, BUSCH GARDENS Montu is a little longer than Chinese Fireball and features seven inversions—including loops of 104 and 60 feet and a zero-g roll—on a layout distinguished by very tight turns. With an initial drop of 128 feet, Montu posts top speeds of 60 mph and pulls 3.8 gs. Also inverted, Montu is intense and exhilarating but less visually interesting than (and not as smooth as) Chinese Fireball.
7. THE INCREDIBLE HULK COASTER, UNIVERSAL’S ISLANDS OF ADVENTURE There are no weak points here. A tire-propelled launch system takes you from 0 to 40 mph in 2 seconds up the first hill, hurling you into a twisting dive of 105 feet. From there it’s two loops, two flat-spin corkscrews, a cobra roll, and a plunge through a 150-foot-long tunnel to the end. You hit speeds of 67 mph and pull as many as 4 gs. Unequivocally, the Hulk has the best start of any roller coaster in Central Florida. In 2016, Hulk was fitted with a new track and ride vehicles, a new sound system, and an enhanced queuing area. The ride’s pretty much the same, but the storyline has been improved.
8. KUMBA, BUSCH GARDENS With a track of almost 4,000 feet, seven inversions, a 135-foot first drop, g-forces of 3.8, and a very tight layout, Kumba can hold its own with any coaster. Reaching speeds of 60 miles per hour, Kumba is certainly fast, but it also offers an incredibly smooth ride. This is good because the coaster’s intense corkscrews will churn your insides something fierce. Other thrilling elements include a diving loop, a camel-back with a 360-degree spiral, and a 108-foot vertical loop.
9. DRAGON CHALLENGE: HUNGARIAN HORNTAIL, UNIVERSAL’S ISLANDS OF ADVENTURE Hungarian Horntail is Chinese Fireball’s slightly less evil twin, with speeds of 55 mph and a first drop of 95 feet, compared with Chinese Fireball’s 60 mph and 115 feet. Hungarian Horntail’s design elements are different as well, though both coasters hit you with five inversions bundled in a mix of rolls, corkscrews, and a loop. Like Chinese Fireball, Hungarian Horntail is an inverted coaster.
10. KRAKEN, SEAWORLD The Kraken was a ferocious sea monster kept caged by Poseidon, Greek god of the sea. Much of this Kraken’s track is over water, and it takes a number of sweeping dives into subterranean caverns. A very fast coaster, Kraken hits speeds of 65 mph with one drop of 144 feet, and it boasts loops, rolls, and corkscrews for a total of seven inversions. Though not inverted, the cars are open-sided and floorless.
11. SHEIKRA, BUSCH GARDENS While the higher-rated coasters do a lot of things well, SheiKra is pretty much one-dimensional—it drops like a rock straight down (a sheikra is an African hawk known for diving vertically on its prey). After scaling the 200-foot lift hill, the coaster descends over the lip of the first drop and brakes to a stop. There you’re suspended, dangling for a few anxious moments until the train is released. On the way down, you hit speeds of 70 mph and enjoy the best airtime of any Florida coaster. Following a loop, the drill is repeated on a second, more modest drop. The cars on SheiKra are the widest we’ve seen, seating eight people across in each of three rows. Accordingly, the track is very wide. This width, among other things, makes for a plodding, uninspiring ride except during the two big drops.
12. HOLLYWOOD RIP RIDE ROCKIT, UNIVERSAL STUDIOS “The Triple R,” as some locals call it, opened in August 2009 as Universal’s second roller coaster. A steel sit-down coaster, RRR trades full inversions for steep dives and tight corkscrew turns. The ride is a lot more jarring than we expected, with a fair amount of lateral shaking. The gimmick here is that you can select your own music to accompany the ride. Views from the top of the 167-foot lift hill are killer. The Triple R reaches top speeds of 65 mph.
13. ROCK ’N’ ROLLER COASTER, DISNEY’S HOLLYWOOD STUDIOS Rock ’n’ Roller Coaster reaches a height of only 80 feet, lasts just 1 minute and 22 seconds, and incorporates just a couple of design elements, but that 0- to 57-mph launch in 2 seconds is totally sweet. Rock ’n’ Roller Coaster is a dark ride (that is, it’s indoors), and the story is that you’re on your way to an Aerosmith concert in Hollywood in a big stretch limousine. Speakers in each car blast a soundtrack of the group’s hits synchronized with the myriad visuals that erupt out of the gloom. The ride is smooth. Not the biggest or baddest coaster in the realm, but like Expedition Everest, it’ll put a big grin on your face every time.
14. GWAZI, BUSCH GARDENS As the only traditional wooden coaster of the 16 rides ranked, Gwazi at first looked like a snore: no inversions, corkscrews, loops, barrel rolls, or any of the other stuff that had been rearranging our innards. Wrong! This coaster serves up an unbelievably wild ride that seems literally out of control most of the time. Teeth-rattlingly rough, Gwazi reaches a top speed of 51 mph but feels twice that fast. In the best wooden-coaster tradition, riders attempt to hold their arms in the air, but on Gwazi it’s impossible. Gwazi is a racing coaster (a dual-track roller coaster whose trains leave the station at the same moment and race each other through the circuit) with two trains, Lion/Yellow and Tiger/ Blue. Of the two, Tiger/Blue gives you the biggest bang for your buck.
15. REVENGE OF THE MUMMY, UNIVERSAL STUDIOS If we were ranking attractions as opposed to coasters, this one would rank much higher. Revenge of the Mummy is a super-headliner hybrid, of which its coaster dimension is only one aspect. A complete description of the attraction can be found starting on page 687; for the moment, however, we can tell you that it’s a dark ride full of tricks and surprises, and in roller coaster mode only for about a third of the ride. The ride is wild, and the visuals and special effects are among the best you’ll find.
16. SPACE MOUNTAIN, THE MAGIC KINGDOM When you strip away the theme of this beloved Disney favorite, you’re left with a souped-up version of the Wild Mouse, a midway staple with sharp turns and small, steep drops that runs with two- or four-passenger cars instead of trains. But when you put a Wild Mouse in the dark—where you can’t anticipate the turns and drops—it’s like feeding the mouse steroid-laced cheese. With Space Mountain, Disney turned a dinky coaster with no inversions and a top speed of 27 mph into a fairly robust attraction that set the standard for Disney thrill rides until the debut of The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. Space Mountain may be close to the bottom of our ranking, but in the hearts of many theme park guests, it remains number one.
We would love to hear from you. What is your favorite roller coaster?