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Dragon Challenge

Rating: * * * * +
Type: Twin roller coasters
Time: 1.5 minutes
Short Take: Close-call coaster nirvana

An easily overlooked stone archway marks the entrance to this immense inverted steel roller coaster, hidden behind the stone wall through which the Hogwarts Express appears to emerge. Actually, two separate roller coasters lurk back there, travelling along separate but closely intertwined tracks that diverge and then converge to terrifying effect.

Note: This ride requires that you stow all your belongings in electronic lockers located immediately outside the entrance, in a shelter disguised as a train station. They are free for a period of time that varies with the queue length, but charge a hefty fee if you overstay your welcome.

This coaster (formerly known as Dueling Dragons) is themed after the first of three tasks comprising the “Triwizard Tournament,” the wizarding competition seen in the fourth Potter tale, Goblet of Fire. Begin by walking the meandering path toward the small (compared to Hogwarts) castle ahead. Along the way, you’ll pass banners supporting Harry Potter and his competitors Fleur Delacort and Victor Krum (though Cedric Diggory goes unmentioned), and the Weasley’s flying Ford Anglia, which has crashed into a nearby tree. Pass into the stone structure and you enter the Champions’s Tent, where the Goblet of Fire stands spewing an otherworldly blue flame. Further ahead, you’ll find the Triwizard Cup itself on a pedestal, a trio of golden dragon eggs, and a chamber filled with flickering floating candles. Those who remember the wonderfully macabre theming of the Dueling Dragons queue will be disappointed by the labyrinth of featureless stone walls that follows, but eventually you will be asked to turn left toward the red “Chinese Fireball” or right to the blue “Hungarian Horntail.” While waiting for your coaster, look up at the shadowy dragons battling above the ruined ceiling.

This is an inverted coaster, which means that the cars, completely dressed to look like dragons, hang from a track over your head. Your feet dangle in the air below your seat. When the cars are fully loaded the passengers look as though they are hanging from the dragons’ claws. Then it’s off on a ninety-second ride over a lake that is actually shaped like a dragon, a fact that few people who ride this attraction are likely to notice.

The two coasters share the same lift to the top of the first drop, but then the Chinese Fireball peels off to the left as the Hungarian Horntail swoops to the right. After that, their separate trips are carefully synchronized so that, as they loop and swirl their way around, they meet in mid air at three crucial moments. A computer actually weighs each coaster and then makes the appropriate adjustments to get the timing just right. Perhaps the scariest close encounter comes when they come straight at one another on what is obviously a head-on collision course. At the last moment, they spin up and apart with the dangling feet of the riders coming within a foot or two of each other at nearly 60 miles per hour. At another point, both coasters enter a double helix, spinning dizzily around one another. All told there are three near misses in the 50 seconds or so it takes to travel from the first drop to the point where the coasters slow down to reenter the castle. If you’ve ever asked yourself what could be more terrifying than the current generation of high-speed steel roller coasters, ask no more.

Note: Shortly before press time, following a couple of unfortunate injuries involving flying debris during the near-misses, Universal suspended synchronized operations of the dueling tracks. Hopefully a solution will be found soon; after over a decade of safe operations, it would be a shame for future guests not to experience the dragons' most dramatic feature. In addition to tempering the thrills, staggered dispatches of alternating trains slows down the line, so ask an attendant how they are operating (or observe from just inside the entrance) before getting in line. Some people find this ride so extreme, the motion so violent, and the experience so short that they can't decide whether they liked it or not. Indeed, you'll notice many people exiting in stunned puzzlement..

Tip: If you’d like to get a preview of this ride, look for the exit. It’s to your left as you face the entrance. A short way up, you will find a viewing area behind a high metal fence; most likely a number of departing riders will have paused here for another look. This vantage point gives you a pretty good view of the twin coasters’ routes. For those who have no intention of ever strapping themselves into this coaster, it’s a pretty entertaining attraction in of itself.

It’s also possible to enter the queue line itself for a peek. Just a short way in is a spot where you can witness two of the ride’s close encounters up close. You’ll actually feel the wind rush through your hair as the coasters spiral past. If this dissuades you from venturing farther you can turn back.

The best seats in the house. The first row is the clear choice for the thrill seeker. Otherwise, the outside seats in each row give a better view (if you have your eyes open!) and are less likely to induce motion sickness. Seats farther back in the vehicle offer a different ride experience, partly because you can’t see what’s coming and partly because the back rows snap about with a bit more zip. Finally, the left hand track is more “aggressive” than the right one; that is, it has a few more spins to it and moves a bit faster at some points. Overall, our favorite seats are the first row inside on the Hungarian Horntail, and the last row outside on the Chinese Fireball.

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Universal Orlando 2011

 

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