Live Active Cultures 

Months of rumor-mongering. Weeks of watching and waiting. Eons of anxious anticipation. And it all adds up to this: the aphrodisiac every adrenaline addict aches for; the instant before that euphoric first hit of energy. I'm flat on my back, staring into a stormy sky, and my ass is sliding steadily backward out of my seat. I crest the summit of the crimson tower, stare at my impending doom 167 feet below and then plummet earthward with ZZ Top mumbling mightily in my ears. 

Ever since installation was announced last year, Universal Studios Florida's Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit roller coaster has been raising eyebrows among industry observers. First there was the choice of German coaster constructors Maurer-Sohne — well-known in Europe for compact layouts and innovative "X-Car" trains, but relatively unknown in America. Second, when it was revealed that the track would be shoehorned alongside pre-existing soundstages, fans feared the ride would ruin the park's theming, much as the Hollywood Dream coaster disrupted Universal Studios Japan's visual coherence. (To which others quizzically rejoined, "There was theming there?") 

As the original "early spring/late summer" opening came and went, the attraction attracted unwanted attention. In the absence of information, speculation started spewing; incorrectly installed supports, defective anti-rollback devices and contractor incompetence were all called out as culpable for the delay. When SeaWorld's Manta coaster opened ahead of schedule, some in the press drew unfavorable comparisons, ignoring the fact that Manta is a re-themed clone of an existing design (Six Flags' Superman: Ultimate Flight), whereas Rockit incorporates many first-of-a-kind elements.

The final head-spinner sprang out Aug. 19, when billboards about town switched from "Coming Soon" to "Now Open" with none of the usual hoopla. After a few weeks of late-night testing (with water-filled dummies and willing employees as guinea pigs), Rockit raced through the usual "soft-opening" rehearsals in barely a weekend, and was suddenly declared "officially open."

Since spring, I'd been hounding Universal's publicity department, so when I finally got the invite to ride, I assumed they were trying to kill me. But then I was introduced to my seatmate, Louis Alfieri, Universal's creative director. Riding a coaster with its designer is like seeing a play with the star's mom next to you, but it was impossible not to be infected with Alfieri's enthusiasm as he described how the "treble clef" (one of the ride's signature twists) started life as a doodle on his napkin. In a brief post-ride interview, he gave some sound bites on the coaster's groundbreaking technology. But he cheerfully refused to confirm or deny rumors that his latest project, a Spiderman-like Transformers ride for Universal's Hollywood and Singapore parks, might be coming to Orlando (said speculation surged with Disney's recent purchase of comic colossus Marvel).

Now that Rockit is rolling, should you rush out to ride it? Unless you are a thrill-ride diehard with plenty of patience, I'd sadly say not yet. There's lots to love; with the tallest lift in town and tons of delicious out-of-your-seat airtime (but no inversions turning you upside-down), the coaster occupies an intensely sweet spot between the über-powerful Hulk and the anemic Expedition Everest. It should appeal to anyone within the height requirement range (5 feet, 3 inches, to 6 feet, 7 inches). And the in-seat sound system works well, allowing riders to choose from 30 soundtracks (from Black Eyed Peas to Allman Brothers, with the possibility of future song list upgrades). There's even a hidden menu with dozens of bonus songs: Hold down the Rockit logo on the seat-mounted touchscreen for 10 seconds, then punch in "902" to scream along with Kermit the Frog. 

But by bypassing an opening celebration, Universal didn't just deprive itself of free publicity; they denied the ride a much-needed shakeout period. With up to seven 12-passenger trains and a "magic carpet" moving-sidewalk loading system, Alfieri says Rockit should have the same hourly carrying capacity as the efficient Hulk. But at press time only a few vehicles are in operation, leading to two-hour waits while the Simpsons and Mummy rides are walk-ons. The hyped in-car cameras, which allow riders to take home a video of their trip ($29.99 and up), are working only intermittently. Nighttime riding, which Alfieri recommends for the LED lighting effects, is unavailable as the park now closes before sunset. And while it's not a rough ride, there is serious lateral shaking in the rear rows that needs ironing out. By Halloween the bugs should be squashed, and you'll be in for one hell of a ride.


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