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Photo by: Busch Gardens
These digital cameras attached to SheiKra's seats promise video thrills for television news journalists and their viewers.

Getting The Scoop On SheiKra

Published: May 19, 2005


TAMPA - As far as roller coasters go, Busch Gardens' new ride - slated to open to the public Saturday - is big. The 200-foot coaster has a nail-biting 90-degree vertical drop, the first of its kind in the United States. The question now is: Will it be big news.

To ensure that it is, Busch Gardens officials are pulling out all the stops. They have invited newspaper and television reporters and photographers from across the United States, Latin America and Europe today to get a close-up view and hair-raising ride on the coaster, named SheiKra.

The goal: get headlines and news footage to run during the next few days in cities such as Chicago, Miami and San Juan, Puerto Rico, in hopes the coverage draws crowds from near and far this summer.

``We believe this is very newsworthy; it's the first dive coaster in North America,'' said Gerard Hoeppner, Busch's Garden's director of communications. ``We're trying to get the word out to key markets.''

Months of planning by Busch Gardens have gone into ensuring there is a big media crowd on hand today, including hiring two former astronauts to talk up the ride's G forces. Busch officials declined to say specifically how many journalists plan to attend, but said they expect dozens.

Busch Gardens has mounted miniature video cameras on the coaster and says several TV stations plan to transmit live feeds of the ride experience to their audiences.

It's exposure that's essential, theme park consultants say.

``It's not just to attract tourists,'' said Steve Baker, an Orlando-based theme park consultant. ``They need to keep up their local market share.``

Busch Gardens relies more heavily on Tampa Bay area residents for business than Orlando parks such as Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando.

Busch has seen attendance dip four successive years from a high of 5 million visitors in 2000 to 4.1 million this past year. The new ride, and the media exposure around it, could boost the park's attendance this year, experts say.

There are only two other dive coasters in operation globally, one in England, the other in Taiwan. Neither is as high or offers as long a ride as SheiKra. The Busch ride takes about three minutes to complete, has a rolling loop, an underground tunnel and a splash ending: all elements Busch Gardens officials plan to emphasize during today's media tour in hope they are highlighted in news accounts.

Dennis Spiegel, a Cincinnati theme park consultant, said SheiKra's novelty is almost made for television.

`` You can't beat television news coverage,'' he said.

To further leverage the chance for TV exposure, Busch Gardens has hired two former space shuttle astronauts - Richard Searfoss and Story Musgrave - to be at the today's media event at the park. The astronauts will be available for live satellite interviews with news anchors at television stations.

Several dozen journalists are expected to cover today's event, including newspaper reporters from as far away as England and Germany.

Busch officials focused their media pitch to journalists in markets that are strong for Tampa tourism.

As part of its public relations blitz, Busch Gardens will allow broadcasters to begin live coverage at 5:30 a.m., in time for morning news programs.

Busch plans to use small video cameras to capture images as SheiKra speeds around the track. TV reporters attending today's event should be able to do live reports from the moving coaster.

Giving viewers a vicarious coaster ride should help Busch Gardens attract television coverage outside the Tampa Bay area, said Al Tompkins, a faculty member at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg and a former television news director.

Tompkins said he feared some stations would use the video feeds not because it has news value for their viewers, but because footage of the coaster ride simply may have attract viewers.

Hoeppner, the Busch spokesman, said, however, the new ride is big news.

``A ride in the coaster is like flying. There's nothing like this in the world,'' he said.

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