Fans of Busch Gardens' newest rollercoaster, Cheetah Hunt, can thank "Star Wars" creator George Lucas.
Mark Rose, one of the key players in the coaster's design, drew inspiration from "Star Wars" when creating the 4,429-foot-long steel coaster, which opens today at 9 a.m. along with the Cheetah Run live animal exhibit.
"Six, seven years ago, I had the idea of what I called a close-to-the-ground coaster," said Rose, Busch Gardens' vice president of design and engineering. The idea took off when he watched "Stars Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi."
"They're on the planet where the Ewoks are – those little furry guys – and they steal those speeders, and they're racing each other through the forest, and they're going around things very close, and I wondered what it'd be like to build a coaster that could do that, that could mimic that," said Rose.
"That required technology to be able to launch as close to the ground and be able to go forward. Then we thought about what kind of animal display would we bring, and cheetahs was our first choice, so could we marry the two? And it's a perfect marriage."
To mimic the action of a hunting cheetah, the coaster has three magnetic-propulsion launches that thrust riders forward in 30, 60 and 45 mph spurts. Members of the media and American Coaster Enthusiasts (ACE) got to preview the experience Thursday.
"I love the launch," said six-year ACE member Alexander Blustein, 16, who enjoyed his 106th coaster by riding Cheetah Hunt at least 11 times. "The initial rush, the acceleration's great. One moment you're being launched up a tower, then you're shooting through a canyon and twisting and turning."
Another inspiration for Cheetah Hunt came from sister park Sea World's animal-habitat-and-thrill-ride hybrid, Manta, said Busch Gardens' park president Jim Dean.
"Manta combines a world-class coaster with an animal, an aquarium, experience," Dean said. "We modeled that same thing."
Cheetah Run's 250-foot-long stretch flanks the coaster, showcasing up to seven of its 13 total cheetahs frolicking in full view of people heading toward the ride's queue.
Park staff will race two-to-three cheetahs throughout the day by enticing them with a mechanized lure, according to vice president of zoological operations Mike Boos.
"If you imagine finicky cats, sometimes they could care less, sometimes they're really intrigued," Boos said of the. "We've had to find what each animal is intrigued by."
"What do you lure a house cat with? A feather on a string. The string itself goes at 80 miles an hour."
Cheetah Hunt, meanwhile, hits a top speed of 60 mph.