How the cold weather affects Orlando-area theme parks
Published: January 5, 2010 at 11:28 AM
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!