SeaWorld doubles down on thrill rides, with third roller coaster in three years and its tallest yet
SeaWorld San Diego has announced plans to add its tallest roller coaster yet in 2020 as the once-beleaguered marine park continues to invest more heavily in attendance-building thrill rides.
The 153-foot-tall Mako dive coaster, as it’s being called, marks the third coaster in three years, beginning with Electric Eel in 2018 and Tidal Twister later this year.
The San Diego park describes Mako as the longest, tallest and fastest dive coaster in California. There appears to be only one other such coaster in California: the 150-foot-tall HangTime at Knott’s Berry Farm.
Dive coasters feature a brief stop at the top of the lift hill that leaves riders dangling over a 90-degree vertical drop for a few seconds before the brakes are released. The floorless feature of the coaster allows riders to dangle their feet with nothing between them and the ground.
Mako would top the new Electric Eel coaster by 3 feet in height and add to the twisting steel redefining the San Diego park’s skyline.
The announcement came as part of a town hall-style community forum and presentation over the weekend outlining SeaWorld’s plans and goals for the park. Park officials made an official announcement about the ride Monday morning.
The proposed coaster still needs to go before San Diego’s parks and recreation board, planning commission and City Council before being presented to the California Coastal Commission, according to details released during the community presentation.
Mako would be built on a parking lot near the Journey to Atlantis attraction in the southeast corner of the park. Although the planned coaster would far exceed the city’s 30-foot height limit in the coastal zone, the park’s approved master plan allows for an exception of up to 160 feet on four designated sites.
Electric Eel qualified as one of those four sites, as would Mako, according to SeaWorld. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Coastal Commission is required to approve the project, which could still be subject to special design conditions per the Coastal Act.
The floorless dive coaster built by Switzerland-based Bolliger & Mabillard will have a 143-foot-tall vertical first drop, a top speed of 60 mph and nearly 2,500 feet of track. The two-minute-long ride will feature a barrel roll and a sweeping Immelmann loop, named after a German pilot who used the distinctive flying maneuver in World War II. Each of the floorless ride cars will hold 18 riders in three, six-person rows.
Ohio-based theme park analyst Dennis Speigel described Bolliger & Mabillard as the “Rolls Royce” of coaster designers.
Plans for yet another coaster ride, says Speigel, “tells me SeaWorld is having success with the rides, it’s helping them offset the Shamu performance shows they stopped with the orcas.
“As long as I’ve been in the business, roller coasters have been the king of attractions. People love them and come out for them in droves.”
Speigel estimates that the Mako coaster could cost from $15 million to $20 million to build. SeaWorld officials declined to reveal the cost, nor would they say whether the attraction would be among the park’s priciest.
“This is a capital investment that demonstrates SeaWorld’s commitment to the continual development of new and exciting attractions for the park,” said SeaWorld San Diego spokesman Dave Koontz.
Last year marked the first time in years that parent company SeaWorld Entertainment showed signs of a turnaround after continued declines fueled by the anti-captivity documentary “Blackfish.” For three quarters in a row, the Orlando-based company posted significant gains in both revenue and attendance.
While attendance at individual parks is not broken down, lease payments made to the city of San Diego for use of city-owned park land have shown a steady uptick, based on increased visitation and spending at the park.
Interim CEO John Reilly, who took over last year after the sudden departure of Chief Executive Joel Manby, has mentioned a number of times the importance of adding fresh attractions across the company’s 12 parks.
The marine parks, though, are not abandoning their focus on animals. The new Mako coaster, for example, would be paired with a renovation of the existing Shark Encounter exhibit focused on shark research and conservation.
And SeaWorld this year is expanding its “Inside Look” programming where it takes visitors behind the scenes to observe marine animals’ behavior. On select weekends in January, June and September, various animal areas will be highlighted, from killer whales and dolphins to sea otters and penguins.
SeaWorld San Diego’s sister parks on the East Coast have built taller Bolliger & Mabillard dive machine rides. Busch Gardens Tampa in Florida opened the 200-foot-tall SheiKra dive coaster in 2005 followed by the 205-foot-tall Griffon at Busch Gardens Williamsburg in Virginia two years later.
SeaWorld Orlando has an identically named Mako coaster with a completely different layout that opened in 2016. The out-and-back B&M hyper coaster in Florida delivers its thrills through high speeds (73 mph) rather than dangling drops.
SeaWorld San Diego also announced plans for a 55th anniversary celebration focused on marine animal rescue efforts and a new entrance plaza with improved security checkpoints. Koontz said the new entry area will include the addition of more vibrant signage and decor.
MacDonald is a freelance writer based in Orange County. Weisberg writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.
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