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How the cold weather affects Orlando-area theme parks

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Published: January 5, 2010 at 11:28 AM

My mother has a theory that whenever it's a bit chilly in Southern California (and "a bit chilly" here means temps in the 50 or 60s), then it's hot and sunny in Orlando. And vice versa.

Well, I probably don't need to tell our Central Florida readers that it's a gorgeous 80 degrees here in the Los Angeles area this morning.

Orlando, along with much of the east coast is freezing its *ahem* off this week. When I worked at Walt Disney World during a cold snap in 1990, we lost an entire morning on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, as the ride's computer control system wouldn't let us start up the roller coaster. With temperature in the 30s, the coaster's track had become so cold that trains were slogging through their block zones, causing the control system to shut down the ride since it couldn't "see" the trains hitting their marks at the correct time. We had to wait until the sun emerged from the clouds around noon, warming the track to the point where we could get a test train all the way around.

I've been getting notes from readers this week, asking why rides such as SeaWorld's Manta have been down, as temperatures have been dipping into the 20s and 30s overnight and early mornings. With highs expected in the 40s throughout the week, I dropped an e-mail to Tim Carrier, SeaWorld Orlando's operations director, to ask about how the cold weather affects theme park attractions.

Typically, cold weather's not a big deal at theme parks, as parks outside of usually-warm Southern California and Central Florida operate on a seasonal basis, shutting in colder weather. (Or, if they open for Christmas, the operate only a limited slate of rides and shows.) But arctic air does blast into the Orlando area every few years.

Robert: How does the cold affect theme park rides, such as roller coasters?

Tim: There's nothing more important than the safety of our guests and employees, so everything we do is with that in mind, even on the rare cold morning in Orlando. Our safety and ride experts know that below certain temperatures, or even in strong winds, even the best coasters like Manta can't maintain what we've established as a minimum speed, so the ride teams will wait for the temperature to rise or the winds to calm before testing again. During testing, they're looking at many things, including the ride's speed and how long it takes each train to complete the ride and return to the station or what we call the "cycle time." Only when all requirements have been met will we open a ride. Interestingly, hot weather can make coasters faster, so during the hotter days, we may use different wheels on the trains to slow the cars down a bit.

Robert: How cold does the temperature have to be to shut down rides?

Tim: It's rare in Florida to close a ride during the day because the temperature has dropped. But if it should happen, around 40 degrees is when we'd look at closing the ride and running those tests.

Robert: What happens when the temperatures climb back above those levels? Do affected rides reopen immediately, or does it take some time to get them back up?

Tim: If the ride's been open previously that day, we have re-opening procedures to make sure everything meets our safety requirements, so it does take a little time. If the ride's not yet been open, we have a very extensive opening checklist. It's called "green tagging" a ride. But when our guests take that first drop on Manta, it's all been worth the wait.

Robert: How about animal attractions and shows? How are those affected by colder temperatures?

Tim: There are no bigger fans of cooler weather than our whales, dolphins and sea lions! At Shamu Stadium, for example, our whales and trainers are performing in 50-degree water, so cold weather isn't a concern. We might give our guests a few extra reminders about our splash sections, though.

Robert: What's your advice for visitors on cold mornings? Where should they visit first, both to get a full experience and to avoid crowds?

Tim: I do have a few insider tips. If it's nippy, know that you can always warm up at indoor rides and shows. At SeaWorld Orlando, you can do that at Wild Arctic or Pets Ahoy, for example. Grab a cup of hot chocolate and shake off the chill at an indoor restaurant, like our Sharks Underwater Grill. The best time to hit our rides is when a big show is on, like Believe, our killer whale show. And for all the shows, always arrive early, especially to check out the mime at our sea lion show -- not to be missed. Our parks take on a certain sense of adventure when it's cool and even chilly. Plus you're at SeaWorld Orlando and you're probably on vacation, so go for it!

Readers' Opinions

From TH Creative on January 5, 2010 at 11:44 AM
Poor weather has made this holiday season a terrible disappointment for the Orlando tourism industry. The rain during the bowl game, the cold weather shutting down Aquatica. It's been really disheartening. The one bright spot was New Year's Eve when temperatures jumped to 75+ degrees.
From Robert Niles on January 5, 2010 at 12:07 PM
Anyone who sits in the splash zone at a SeaWorld show when the temperature is under 50 degrees out to be immediately committed to permanent residence in the Wild Arctic exhibit, since they obviously are part-polar bear.
From Anthony Murphy on January 5, 2010 at 1:22 PM
EPCOT is the best Disney park, IMO to go when its cold outside !
From 24.90.249.214 on January 5, 2010 at 7:47 PM
How do you keep water rides from freezing like splash mountain because ice is bigger then water and could that casue the track to crack if water is frozen?
From M. Ryan Traylor on January 5, 2010 at 7:49 PM
Heat also causes problems in the parks too. And I'm not just talking about the dehydrate soda drinkers passing out and falling into the parade path. Volcano at Kings Dominion had operation problems due to heat. The track at the eruption point of the volcano would be in direct sunlight and expand enough to slow the train and prevent it from cresting the loop. The train would then drop back and get relaunched, probably with fingers crossed.
From Robert Niles on January 5, 2010 at 7:57 PM
Water rides aren't really an issue, unless the temperature were to fall below freezing for an extended period of time (i.e. several days). Then, I suspect you'd need to drain and cover all exterior flumes to prevent damage. But Orlando's not been *that* cold in its theme park era.

That said, water rides pose an issue for visitors. I wouldn't go on any ride (or to any show) that might get you wet with temperatures under 60s, unless you were planning to change into dry clothes soon after. And I wouldn't go on a wet ride with temps below the 50s under any circumstances. The time it'd take to get to a place to change would be too long to avoid potential drop in body temperature.

From Rob P on January 6, 2010 at 1:32 AM
That comment about extra warnings for splash-zoners at Seaworld reminded me of one December when I got soaked at Dolphin Cove.
We'd been careful to avoid the splash zones as it was getting pretty cool but petting and interacting with the dolphins seemed perfectly "safe". It was until the dolphin with the scar across his eye ( I kid you not ! ) decided to "ambush" unsuspecting visitors and soak them with ice cold water.
I was unlucky enough to take the full brunt of his actions and got soaked through. It was impossible to properly dry off and we made our way to the Busch hospitality pavilion for some free hot coffee and some humorous sympathy from the staff.
All good fun but something to avoid on future visits during cold spells.
From 24.144.112.172 on January 6, 2010 at 9:31 AM
I chanced BGTB in cold weather - I just rode the six coasters. I'll be likely going to DHS - lots of indoor attractions and MuppetVision 3D, which is appropriate for this year's campaign by WDW (Give A Day, Get A Disney Day, if you know what I mean). As long as I don't ride any wet rides (gentle ones like Living with the Land at Epcot and "it's a small world" at MK are exceptions), I sometimes go to the parks during cold weather.
From Ted Heumann on January 6, 2010 at 4:51 PM
That Global Warming thing is causing trouble ALL around the world. **sarcasm**
From 195.226.52.68 on January 8, 2010 at 8:53 AM
Well as a UK rider, let me tell you - the rapids ride at alton towers no matter what time of year is always cold! It always surprises me how many people seem to still ride it in winter - eek, it is ssooooooo cold!
From Charles Reichley on January 8, 2010 at 5:33 PM
At the BGW christmastown, they were operating the Griffon. It was closed the day we were there because the temperature was too low.

Last year we went to Dollywood before Christmas, and one day the high temperature was 25. On that day, there were very few rides running. They couldn't run the metal rides below 40.

From 67.78.252.254 on January 10, 2010 at 4:24 PM
I went to universal today. I was really disapointed because almost all of the coasters were closed. My favorite ride
RIP RIDE ROCKET was not running and they said they would open
it later for sure. They never did though. Hulk took awhile to
open but it did finally. Dueling dragons did not close at all.
I went on Rip Saw falls with my 10 year old brother. we froze
to death. My thighs were completely numb. I thought I was going to die from being to cold. My absolute favorite
ride Doctor doom Fearfall never opened. So mostly everything
i wanted to ride was closed. Hopefully those rides dont close next time.

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