Live Active Cultures

Plenty of perfectly normal people enjoy riding roller coasters. But what kind of person wants to be among the first on a newly built steel behemoth, especially when it's named after a genus of animal best known for killing a beloved nature-show host? And what type of moron would be willing to be hurled face first and upside down at almost 60 mph, not once but multiple times, in the rain?

My type of moron. Step aside, Tower of Terror and Indiana Jones, Manta may be the new king.

Last week (May 21) SeaWorld Orlando held a Manta media day, in anticipation of the coaster's May 22 official debut. During the months of construction and weeks of "soft open" testing, all eyes in thrill-ride fandom have been on this "flying coaster," the area's first in which riders hang face first below the twisting track in a prone position. Swiss manufacturer Bolliger & Mabillard (the mad geniuses behind Kraken, Sheikra and Hulk) has deployed similar designs at several Six Flags under the Superman: Ultimate Flight moniker; with a lackluster layout and laughable theming, the "Great Adventure" version in New Jersey makes you look and feel like the Man of Steel with poo-poo cramps. Could B&M build a track that taps the unique trains' potential, and would Busch Entertainment Corp.'s creative team wrap it in a worthy package?

Oh, yes. Coaster junkies, rejoice — your newest fix has arrived.

SeaWorld's media machine was running on all cylinders when I arrived under sputtering skies. I was paired with "Jeff," a personal guide and one of many employees shipped in from Busch Gardens Tampa to help handle the day's journo onslaught. We began by exploring one of the most beautiful queue lines in theme-park history. (It's such an attraction on its own that they've integrated a "non-rider" viewing area.) Waiting guests wind through a 250,000-gallon, 2,800-square-foot saltwater aquarium, fully stocked with clown fish, sea horses, giant octopi and 300 rays. Ironically, while eight species of ray are on display — the massive and terrifying shark ray included — there are no namesake manta rays to be found.

The sea life can be viewed from a number of novel perspectives, thanks to an overhead aqua-bridge (made of 220 square feet of 6-inch-thick acrylic, a record for its manufacturer) and a pop-up bubble to crawl into (sized for kids or skinny adults with no shame). Add in the elaborate craftsmanship of the faux-stone floors and carved walls, and I was reminded strongly of the aquariums at the tony Atlantis Paradise Island in the Bahamas. At the end of the queue, guests climb a short staircase and emerge in the dispatch station, which features a double-sided track for more efficient loading. The theme breaks down here (it's hard to make the mechanisms look like anything other than a mass of steel) but is still evident in the faux folk-art signage and stirring soundtrack.

When the moment of truth arrives, guests board hanging chairs similar to those on B&M's Montu and Dueling Dragons. Once secured, the seats pivot backward on an overhead hinge, placing patrons in a belly-down prostrate position. A flexible breastplate and padded leg restraints make the pose feel far more secure than you'd think, at least for riders of moderate proportions. (If you're larger, try the demo chair out front before you line up.) Once the transformation is complete (accompanied by dramatic sound effects), it makes an eerily swift and quiet ascent up the 140-foot lift hills, passing over the heads of photo-snapping pedestrians.

Walt Disney famously desired to build attractions the entire family could enjoy; SeaWorld may be the first to achieve that in a world-class coaster, thanks to Manta's shockingly split personality. In the first few rows, the ride is gentle and scenic, with glass-smooth transitions and four expertly engineered inversions, gaining most of its thrills from the near-miss interactions with the saline scenery. In the back row, Manta is an entirely different monster: aggressively powerful and furiously fast, though thankfully never neck-wracking. The showstopper element is a diving loop that takes riders from facedown weightlessness to intense faceup G-forces in the blink of an eye — a feat unparalleled in any area attraction.

The new ride is good enough draw back patrons still bitter over the loss of free beer, but will it be the park's last? Rumors of a buyout have cooled with the credit market collapse; in the meantime, coaster fans are salivating over the delayed but rumored July debut of Universal's Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit.

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