The smooth, quick and quiet Manta family coaster that debuted over Memorial Day weekend at SeaWorld San Diego is just the type of thrilling ride the marine park sorely needs.
The knock on the sea life show-heavy park has always been that it doesn't have enough rides. Over the past few years, SeaWorld has added a number of kiddie rides, but this summer the park finally got around to satisfying the tween set.
For a 30-foot-tall family coaster with a top speed of 43 mph, the $35-million Manta manages to pack a lot of surprises into its modest proportions while even delivering a pair of firsts for a U.S. coaster.
After passing through a subterranean aquarium filled with 65 rays and boarding the train, the ride starts inside a first-in-the-U.S. launch tunnel featuring 270-degree projections on the curved walls surrounding the coaster train. As high-definition animated manta rays dart to and fro all around the riders, the coaster train rocks back and forth on the track as if caught in the motion of the ocean current. After about 20 seconds, a door opens, the video blurs and the coaster rockets out of the tunnel propelled by an electromagnetic launch.
While the front seat offers spectacular views of the signature water wing dip, rock-work outcroppings and the unfolding serpentine track, I recommend sitting in Manta's last row where you can see the entire tunnel show and experience big air time.
The first-in-the-U.S. launch coaster by German-based Mack Rides, based on the prototype Blue Fire that could only be found until now at the company-owned Europa-Park, was enough to draw the American Coaster Enthusiasts group out to the San Diego park last week for a preview test drive — with some members riding as many as 15 times.
Manta represents the future of roller coasters in a post-coaster arms race world in which all the records for fastest, tallest and wildest rides have been pushed to the limits of human capacity. The new challenge for ride makers and amusement parks is to build a highly themed family coaster that offers a back story mixed with adrenaline.
Manta's ingenuity was born out of limitations that required SeaWorld to keep construction along the coastline to around 30 feet in height. The dual-launch ride allows Manta to eschew a massive lift hill and instead focus on ground-hugging hairpin turns and low-lying camelback hills where the thrills are amplified by the closeness of the terrain. The result is a lightning-quick, whisper-quiet ride that feels faster than it really is and runs silent except for the screams.