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Monday, June 25, 2018

SeaWorld goes all in with new high-tech raft ride but will it ever open?

Posted By on Mon, Jun 25, 2018 at 10:32 AM

click to enlarge PHOTO VIA SEAWORLD
  • Photo via SeaWorld
SeaWorld Orlando is putting the finishing touches on their latest big-ticket attraction, Infinity Falls, and the new family raft ride will be one of the most themed rides the company has built in years.

Replacing the Sea Gardens area in front of the former Hospitality House, the new ride shows how far the simple raft ride system has evolved over the years.

Busch Gardens Tampa is home to one of the first rides of this kind in the world. That attraction opened in 1982, just three years after Intamin first developed the ride system. Now Intamin has been retained by SeaWorld once again to develop a river rapids ride.

click to enlarge PHOTO VIA SEAWORLD
  • Photo via SeaWorld
One of the most notable changes in rapids rides over the years is the size of the individual rafts. Older designs call for larger capacity on the rafts; Congo River Rapids rafts each hold 12 riders. But smaller rafts enable a more thrilling ride, so Infinity Falls rafts will each hold only eight passengers. To help make the rafts even smaller, they will have only two entrance/exit areas; older models included entrance/exit areas every couple of seats. A system just before the unload platform spins the rafts, ensuring the entrance/exit steps on each raft are perfectly aligned with the platform.

Don’t be fooled by the smaller rafts, though. This ride has an impressive hourly capacity of over 1,000 people, higher than even some Disney rides. One way this high throughput is achieved is via a continuous load/unload station that features moving sidewalks, similar to Universal’s Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey or Disney’s Haunted Mansion.

The station also has a secondary load/unload area where rafts can be pulled off the continuous load area, allowing for disabled guests to easily load/unload in a less rushed manner. A similar disabled load platform was included on the Cobra’s Curse spinning coaster at Busch Gardens Tampa and has proven to be successful.

The roughly five-minute-long raft ride begins with a peaceful drift past a flamingo habitat, the only live animals to be featured in the entire land. Then the thrills begin with a water curtain that shuts off just in time as the raft passes underneath. A quick turn and a long straightaway of rapids follow as the ride runs along the side of the pre-existing guest pathway before rushing under a guest bridge that’s used to access the new land. Large rock sculptures flank the bridge and look like ancient ruins of a giant crocodile, with the raft quickly passing just by the "teeth."

Riders then encounter the first of two lift hills on the ride. The slow lift means there’s plenty of time for the numerous water effects to soak riders. This lift hill, with its multiple water effects, seems similar to the one found on the Popeye raft ride at Islands of Adventure. At the top of the lift hill riders encounter the most intense rapids of the ride as they twist around the lushly landscaped area.

A unique elevator-style lift, the first of its kind in the United States, then takes riders three stories into the air in just five seconds before they slide down a 40-foot drop – the tallest ever built for a ride of this type. The same system used to spin rafts into the correct position as they enter the unload platform will also be used at the base of the elevator lift to ensure proper weight distribution and maximum thrills on the signature drop.

Riders then cross back under the guest bridge before heading onto a second lift hill that takes them into the load/unload station.

Unlike Congo River Rapids at Busch Gardens with its concrete-lined troughs, Infinity Falls has extensive rockwork that lines the majority of the flume, helping make it look much more natural. More than 700 trees have also been brought in to create a jungle feel for the land.

The queue for the ride, located on an island in the middle of the ride pathway, winds through the jungle giving small glimpses of the ride. Large, brightly colored shade cloths have been hung along the queue to help guests stay cool.

Like other recent new attractions at SeaWorld Orlando, the ride is surrounded by its own highly themed mini-land, which is designed to look like a thick South American rainforest.

Waterfalls along the ride path help add a sense of beauty to the area while helping reinforce the "water is home" message the entire land is focused on.

Along the pre-existing guest pathway, a new open-air gift shop recently opened. This will be the only retail outlet in the new land. Beside the gift shop and just across the pathway from it are two stations with interactive exhibits, similar to ones found in Epcot’s former Universe of Energy pavilion. At Infinity Falls, guests can use "bicycle power" to learn about how freshwater habitats are essential and the role that these habitats play in the greater ecological story of the planet.

Four totems, two on each side, are placed by the bridge connecting the new land to the pre-existing walkway. SeaWorld animal caretakers and animal ambassadors (wild animals trained to deal with crowds of people) will frequent this area, allowing guests a more personal, one-on-one interaction with the animals. The totems, which represent animals that will often be seen in this area, include a snake, parrots, tree frogs and a sloth. This animal interaction is similar to what took place in the former Sea Gardens, which Infinity Falls is replacing. The backstage habitats for these animals, in the old Clydesdales stables, is nearby and hasn’t been affected by the reimagining of the area.

In early concept art, sloths and macaws were shown around the land. This caused many to speculate that the area may include a sloth exhibit but this doesn’t seem to be in the plans – the only sloths in the land are those that may visit the interactive area by the entrance totems.

On the bridge linking the new area to the pathway will be water cannons guests can use, for a nominal fee, to splash riders.

The former Hospitality House building, more recently known as the Terrace Restaurant, received only minimal updates, most notably a new bright green and blue color scheme. Banners hang from the tall ceilings, each focusing on a different animal that calls the Everglades home. Five percent of all sales at the restaurant inside the reimagined Hospitality House will go to the Everglades Foundation. The message of "water is home" seems all the more powerful here with the banners showing off wild animals, such as Florida panthers and alligators, that nearly all locals visiting will be familiar with.

A craft beer bar with a dozen rotating taps now welcomes guests as they enter the building. In recent years, SeaWorld has become one of the best theme parks for craft beer enthusiasts. The Flamecraft Bar, with 16 taps and an impressive mixed-drink menu, opened last year and has become a favorite spot for many guests. Then earlier this year the park announced it was reinstating its iconic free beer promotion. Working with local breweries, SeaWorld also has their own custom beer, Mako Red Ale, that debuted with the Mako roller coaster in 2016. The new craft beer bar in the Infinity Falls area has numerous Florida beers on selection, including some not found anywhere else within the park.

When the Terrace Restaurant closed in preparation for Infinity Falls, the passholder lounge inside it also closed. A new passholder lounge will return when the building reopens with many of the same benefits, such as free soda, that the old lounge featured.

Waterway Grill, a new quick-service restaurant concept, will include dishes tested during SeaWorld’s recent Seven Seas Food and Wine Festivals. Dishes include Central and South American-inspired flavors while remaining surprisingly healthy, at least for a theme park. SeaWorld will also be testing out a new ordering system with Waterway Grill. Guests will order via touchscreen kiosks, similar to ones found at Wawa or McDonalds. Guests then take their ticket and pick up their meal nearby.

Throughout the entire land are nods to the S.E.A. Collective, as in Scientists, Explorers, Adventurers. This fictional organization, similar to Disney’s Society of Explorers and Adventurers, is the group that ties the research into the theme, in a similar way as Cobra’s Curse has Viper International Survey and Excavation (VISE). Neither VISE nor S.E.A. Collective has a strong presence outside of their immediate attraction areas, though that may change in the future as SeaWorld has hinted about using the S.E.A. Collective for future exhibits and attractions.

While the highly themed land with a custom designed, cutting-edge ride points to a positive future for SeaWorld one big question still remains; when will it open?

With work still well underway, it’s clear the new ride won’t be open in time for the 4th of July crowds. Now it looks like SeaWorld Orlando might not get their summer blockbuster attraction open until August, or even later, missing nearly all of the summer rush, but at least there’s free beer to help ease the disappointment.

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