I was overjoyed when I first heard SeaWorld San Diego was going to build an Aquatica water park.
The original Aquatica at SeaWorld Orlando in Florida was an instant success, setting a new standard for excellence and excess in the water park industry when it opened in 2008. Today, Aquatica Orlando's combination of one-of-a-kind water slides and up-close animal interactions attracts 1.5 million visitors per year, making it one of the Top 10 water parks in the world.
After a preview visit on Thursday, it pains me to say all Aquaticas are not created equal. The "new" San Diego water park pales in comparison to its Orlando namesake.
Rather than build a new state-of-the-art water park from the ground up as it did in Orlando, SeaWorld decided to buy Knott's Soak City in Chula Vista, located more than 20 miles southeast of the San Diego marine park.
After a speedy four-month facelift, Aquatica San Diego looks pretty much like any water park you've ever visited -- with a completely ordinary mix of body slides, tube slides, wave pool and lazy river. There's certainly plenty of wet and wild fun, but nothing on the grand scale of Orlando's Aquatica.
In fact, nothing about Aqautica San Diego makes any sense. The typical strategy in the theme park industry is to build a hotel and then a "second gate" next door to increase visitor stays and thus drive up spending. But that wasn't a possibility at SeaWorld San Diego, where there's no room to expand at the marine park or in the adjacent parking lot.
Also missing from the remade San Diego water park is a signature attraction with a marine animal interaction, a trademark of Aqautica parks in Orlando and San Antonio.
In Florida, visitors spy dolphins as they pass through a clear underwater tube slide. In Texas, a raft slide takes riders through an underground grotto with stingrays and tropical fish. In California, pink flamingos greet visitors at the front gate far from any slides. SeaWorld officials say it's unlikely the Chula Vista water park will ever get one of the marquee animal interaction water slides.
Aquatica Orlando was deemed a fool's folly when construction began in 2007. Industry insiders declared the $50-million water park with what looked like a showroom full of the latest and greatest water slides on a ridiculously large 60-acre parcel would never draw enough visitors to make money. Today, Aquatica Orlando sits behind only Disney World's Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach in the United States in terms of attendance.
In 2012, SeaWorld San Antonio converted the existing Lost Lagoon water park located next door to the marine park into a $24 million Aquatica with 18 water slides on 20 acres. The renovation added two new first-of-a-kind water slides, including the animal interaction Stingray Falls family raft ride.
By comparison, the Chula Vista water park neither added nor removed any slides during construction. Aside from some new paint, a nursery full of tropical trees and truckloads of sand for a beach near the wave pool, the layout of the water park remains essentially unchanged. Visually speaking, Aquatica San Diego looks brand new with the South Seas theme, peaked roof architectural motif and playful animal mascots found in Orlando and San Antonio. And while the 17-acre Chula Vista water park is surrounded by 50 acres of open space and parking, officials say there are no plans to build a rival to Aquatica Orlando.
I had fun during my visit to Aquatica San Diego, just as I do at every water park. But Aquatica Orlando and Aquatica San Diego are about as similar as Paris, France, and Paris, Texas. They share the same name, but offer completely different experiences.
I suspect most people who visit Aquatica San Diego will never know or care what could have been. But I will.
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