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SeaWorld plans a new roller coaster as it revamps live orca shows

SeaWorld plans a new roller coaster as it revamps live orca shows
An artist's rendering of the Electric Eel coaster that SeaWorld San Diego plans to open in 2018. (SeaWorld Parks)

Making good on SeaWorld's promise to add more thrill-oriented rides, the San Diego theme park is announcing plans Tuesday for what it is calling its tallest and fastest roller coaster.

Plans for the Electric Eel coaster — which would open in early summer 2018 — come on the heels of already announced attractions as the park and its parent company struggle to boost attendance and revenue. Business has slumped over the last two years amid harsh criticism of the marine parks' captive breeding and treatment of killer whales.

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Among the attractions planned to open this year are a new orca encounter that will replace the long-running theatrical Shamu show, which is being gradually phased out at all the marine parks.

The final One Ocean killer whale show will be this Sunday.

Also targeted for early summer is Electric Ocean, a new nighttime entertainment experience, and Ocean Explorer, which has as its centerpiece a three-minute-long submarine ride that gives riders the sense of being a deep-sea explorer.

SeaWorld boasts that taken together the four attractions represent the highest level of investment since the park's opening more than half a century ago.

SeaWorld Chief Executive Joel Manby and President Marilyn Hannes have hinted in recent months that the San Diego park could expect a thrill-focused ride in 2018.

"This is what Joel and Marilyn promised, which is investing in SeaWorld San Diego and changing this park," said Brian Morrow, vice president of theme park design for SeaWorld Entertainment. "This is the end of that process, which is the biggest capital investment over a two-year period at this park, and it's a big deal financially and time-wise."

Morrow and Hannes declined to divulge the expected cost of the roller coaster.

In a move to reboot the marine parks, Manby announced early last year that it would no longer breed its population of killer whales and that it would end the theatrical orca performances.

Since then, in a move to sharply cut costs, the company said it would be suspending dividends to stockholders. More recently, it eliminated 320 jobs, including about 60 in San Diego.

Electric Eel, with its high-intensity thrill component — it will feature loops, twists and a nearly 150-foot ascent followed by an inverted roll that will offer riders an upside-down view of Mission Bay — should help solidify the park's appeal among teens and young adults, Hannes said.

It is meant to be the second phase of the Ocean Explorer attraction, which has a strong educational component and is oriented more toward families. It will also feature an eel aquarium.

SeaWorld San Diego has two other coasters — Journey to Atlantis, which is partly a water ride, and Manta, which opened in 2012. Manta's fastest speed is 42 mph while Electric Eel will top out at 62 mph.

Both the design and feel of the new coaster are inspired by eels.

"As you're moving up the coaster, think of it as a spiral that puts you upside down, like eels that can twist their bodies as they're moving forward," Morrow explained.

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As the individual vehicles prepare to launch, riders will sense the generation of electricity via lighting and sound techniques, and people in the ride plaza will also experience that with the help of LED lights and strobes, Morrow said.

Although San Diego maintains a 30-foot height limit in the coastal zone, SeaWorld's approved master plan allows for an exception of up to 160 feet on four designated sites. The coaster location is one of those sites, SeaWorld San Diego spokesman David Koontz said. Approval by the California Coastal Commission will be needed before the project can move forward.

SeaWorld previously announced that it's preparing to spend $175 million on new attractions across all its parks, including Florida's first virtual reality coaster at its Orlando marine park.

If SeaWorld San Diego expects to thrive over the long term, it's going to have to stay true to its mission as an educational and animal rescue enterprise while plugging into cutting-edge theme park technology, amusement park consultant Dennis Speigel said.

"They have to get away from the performance aspect of their business and focus more on the educational, but blend it with the technology we're seeing develop in the industry," said Speigel, president of Ohio-based International Theme Park Services.

"Certainly, rides will be a part of their future, but SeaWorld is not perceived as a ride park but a sea life husbandry park."

SeaWorld San Diego will delve into the virtual reality realm this year when it introduces a "one-on-one" experience with the killer whales that relies on VR goggles and footage of the park's whales. There will be an extra fee for the experience.

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