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Where cheetahs will prosper

Walking through the crumbling archway into Busch Gardens’ new cheetah zone, visitors will be under the watchful gaze of hundreds of cheetah eyes painted on the architecture.

The eyes are just one of the small finishing touches Jeff Hornick, a USF alumnus and the park’s director of design and engineering, will oversee before the area opens May 27.

“It’s all a celebration of the cheetah … a celebration of cultures,” Hornick said. “So we’re going to have lots of banners, lots of vibrant colors, lots of activity going on so all the people coming here are really celebrating cheetahs.”

The theme will be hard to miss.

After passing through the arch, the new open-air cheetah habitat Cheetah Run is to the right and is designed to offer a long stretch of vantage points on the same level as the cheetahs living there. A 25-foot moat separates viewers from the main level of the habitat – maintaining safety for the visitors and cats.

Windows inside what Hornick calls the “Treasure Room” allow for up-close views of the cats. Shade and air will be used to encourage cheetahs to rest in front of the windows and touch screens made to look like books will let visitors learn more about the animals.

Hornick said the environment will be decorated to imitate their natural habitat and be able to house six or seven cheetahs at a time.

Cheetah Run also features a 250-foot straightaway that will be used for cheetah runs – enough space to allow the cats to reach nearly 60 mph as they run from one small door to another.

But the main attraction runs parallel to the habitat, where riders on the new Cheetah Hunt launch coaster will be reaching the same speeds.

“Busch Gardens is really known for trying to blend up-close animal interactives and thrill rides,” Hornick said. “So the whole concept behind cheetahs … Cheetah Hunt and Cheetah Run, is kind of what Busch Gardens does.”

With a 4,429-foot track, the coaster is the longest in the park and one of the longest in Florida. Instead of the usual overlapping tracks, Cheetah Hunt weaves through much of the park, twisting over train tracks and through water trenches in the Rhino Rally ride.

The 80-second ride – from the first launch to the final brake – is full of twists and animal sightings, all meant to simulate riding on the back of a real cheetah on the hunt. A Busch Gardens team of cheetah experts was able to provide consultation for the design.

“Overall, the intent was that we want it to feel like a cheetah,” Hornick said. “Cheetahs are really good about making quick movements. They actually use their tail as a rudder, so when they have to make quick movements back and forth really fast and they’re chasing their prey, we want to try and mimic that.”

The real thrill of the design comes from its ability to surprise riders, thanks to the three launches.

“Soon as you launch out, it’s going to take your breath away,” Hornick said. “You’re not going to be able to catch your breath until you get back to the end.”

The first launch propels the train out of the gate at 30 mph and around a bank into a trench where a 60 mph launch sends riders into a 102-foot tower – the only real peak in the coaster. The final launch is 40 mph.

The ride fits 16 passengers per train with five total trains, each designed to look like a cheetah.

Much of the construction involved recycling old buildings. The 14 cheetahs the park has acquired – excluding baby Jango, who stays outside of the area – will sleep in the old Clydesdale stables. The gift shop – where visitors can buy a photo and video from the coaster ride – is an old Edge of Africa shop and the entrance to the ride is in the old monorail entrance.

Crown Colony Restaurant was also modified to include an outdoor seating deck where visitors can watch the coaster.

Hornick and a team of engineers worked with Intamin, a European coaster company with experience in launch coasters. Parts were shipped from overseas and assembled on site, where Hornick said it’s as much an architectural statement as a thrill ride.

“There’s nothing else in the world that looks like it,” he said. “Most towers, they’re kind of heavy at the base and they kind of get smaller at the top. Ours is almost inverted so it looks like a tree.”

The 26-year-old Hornick has been working at Busch Gardens since he started at USF. While getting his bachelor’s in mechanical engineering and his master’s in business administration, he worked his way up from operating coasters to the director position.

Though he’s been working on Cheetah Hunt for a couple years, Hornick said he also worked on the Sesame Street Safari of Fun – one of his first projects – and a kangaroo habitat.

“The great thing about working here, in our department, is that we always work on something new every day,” he said.

“So, one day I’ll be working on a roller coaster, the next day I’ll be working on a hippo habitat … Not too many people get to have that experience.”

Hornick said he’s been lucky and that the background he got at USF helped him get his position, which he doesn’t plan on giving up any time soon.

“I would say this is probably my dream job,” he said. “I’ve always loved theme parks … growing up in Florida, growing up with Disney, growing up actually at Busch Gardens – I used to come here as a child – so it’s worked out really well.”