USF alumnus Jeff Hornick had just graduated from high school in 2003 when he started his job as part time ride operator for the Kumba ride at Busch Gardens.
He was about to enter his first year at USF and he thought operating rides was the “coolest job” to have.
Eleven years later, he is now helping design North America’s tallest freestanding drop tower as the Director of Design and Engineering at the same park that he once checked seat harnesses and pushed control buttons.
“I’ve got a really fun job,” Hornick said. “I’m in charge of anything to do with what we build at Busch Gardens. That’s everything from animal habitats, new shows, our animal care center, veterinarian facility, all the way to new rides and attractions.”
His latest endeavor and Busch Garden’s newest ride, Falcon’s Fury, was set to open May 1, but this proposed opening date was pushed back due to the wrong cables being sent from Switzerland.
“Before Falcon’s (Fury),
200 feet was about the maximum that people were developing rides, especially in Florida,” Hornick said. “We knew we wanted to make it tall because we wanted it to be the best ride experience we could offer. A 200-foot tall drop tower is fun, but a 335-foot drop tower is amazing.”
The ride will be the first drop tower that rotates seats
90 degrees downward during the five-second, 60 mph drop. This feature, Hornick says, will get riders’ “stomachs tied up in knots.”
But Hornick knew from a young age after experiencing theme parks with his family that becoming a theme park designer was in his future.
A self-proclaimed “theme park nerd,” he grew up going to central Florida theme parks, such as Busch Gardens where he regularly rode the Serengeti Express Railway attraction.
“My father actually went to the USF and he’s an engineer,” Hornick said. “I get the theme park background from coming out here with my family and then from the engineering side because of my father. It’s a perfect marriage of my two loves, engineering and theme parks.”
He also has memories at a ride still operating at the park today.
“(My wife and I) found a picture of me as a kid riding the Busch Flyers ride,” Hornick said. “As an engineer grown up, I’m working on redesigning that ride. It’s pretty cool to go from being a little kid all the way through today.”
Busch Flyers sits in an area of the park formerly known as Timbuktu, which is currently being renovated to become “Pantopia,” where the new Falcon’s Fury will stand.
Hornick worked his way up to being in charge of the newly redesigned area through an internship he accepted with the park after working as a ride operator. That internship helped him become a full time project manager shortly after graduating in 2007.
His first project was the Air Grover roller coaster in the Sesame Street: Safari of Fun area that features a 22-foot drop and maximum speed of 26 mph.
“It’s everyone’s first roller coaster, and it’s my first roller coaster,” Hornick said. “It played out really well.”
According to Hornick, he carries the experiences of every project into the next. His work on Air Grover was kept in mind for his next ride, which he helped design from napkin sketches that ended up becoming a 60 mph coaster with a drop 108 feet deeper than Air Grover — Cheetah Hunt
The napkin sketch ride became his favorite one at the park.
“I saw (Cheetah Hunt) from the very beginning to the very end, so it’s a very rewarding experience,” Hornick said. “Think about how long you go to college. You feel pretty excited after you graduate, right? That’s a pretty big accomplishment — same kind of timeline. You got to start from the beginning and work all the way to the very end. The graduation day for people in school is kind of like the opening day for one of these rides.”
Hornick remembered his college schedule of attending classes full-time during the week and working 20-30 hours on the weekends without taking any summer semesters off.
“It’s always important for me to make sure that when I’m hiring someone, I look to someone that’s got good grades and some type of a working background at the same time,” Hornick said. “Whether that’s an internship in the summer or working part time while they are going to school, I’d rather hire someone that has good grades and a working background than someone who has great grades and doesn’t have any type of a work experience.”12