A Dark Ride Lost to the Sea

The continent of Atlantis isn't the only thing missing from SeaWorld San Diego's newest thrill ride.

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Published: June 6, 2004 at 4:31 PM

RIDE REVIEW: This summer, SeaWorld has followed Disney's lead and brought one of its popular Central Florida attractions to Southern California. Journey to Atlantis adds a third thrill ride to SeaWorld's San Diego park, this time a Mack water coaster, combining elements from a roller coaster and a flume ride.

I didn't get the chance to ride Journey to Atlantis until a couple years after it opened in Orlando. By the time I visited, the original queue video had been replaced with a mind-numbing loop featuring a mime getting drenched. (Gotta warn the clueless who haven't figured out that people get wet in a park called SeaWorld.) As a result, I never completely understood the ride's backstory, which I have heard was explained in the original queue video.

The attraction's arrival in Southern California raised my hope that SeaWorld would take this opportunity to clarify the ride's narrative elements, improve the audio in the dark ride portion give passengers a better sense of the story along the ride.

Well, SeaWorld's certainly addressed the Orlando version's narrative problems in San Diego. But not in the way I would have liked. SeaWorld's taken the cheap way out and chopped the dark ride portion from the attraction entirely.

Journey to Atlantis

Most of San Diego's Journey takes place outside, from the loading platform through almost all of the flume and roller coaster segments of the ride. Only one, very notable section of this ride occurs inside. Despite the loss of the dark ride, this Journey does contain two unique technical elements that make the ride worth a visit.

The first won't strike most riders as particularly remarkable. You might not notice it at all. But as a former ride operator, I found this feature brilliant. SeaWorld's installed a track switch at the loading platform that allows operators to take a boat off the main circuit so passengers with disabilities can board and debark taking as much time as they need. When I worked Thunder Mountain at Disney World, we had to hustle "wheelchair guests" on and off the ride in a hurry, for if we took more than 45 seconds, we couldn't get the train out of the station in rime for the next to arrive, causing the ride to shut down with trains backed up all around the track. With this track switch, delays are no longer a problem, as other boats can continue to circulate while a passenger with disabilities can take his or her time boarding. This feature needs to become standard on all theme park circuit rides.

Okay, enough with the ride op geekiness. Hop aboard and discover that Journey to Atlantis doesn't waste time getting to the action. A quick jaunt up a lift track and you're immediately dumped into the ride's 60-foot main flume drop. As with other SeaWorld attractions, on Journey riders aren't supposed to get just a little bit wet. They are supposed to wallow in torrents of water until utterly soaked. To that end, SeaWorld provides plenty of water cannons, spouts and fountains to drench anyone fortunate enough to be sitting in a seat that missed the splashback on the flume drops. Still, I didn't get drenched on this version as I did in Orlando, where our boat returned to the loading station with a good two inches of standing water in the bottom. Just a good showering here.

After a turnaround, passengers enter the show building for the defining element of San Diego's Journey to Atlantis. Audio narration explains that the people of Atlantis lost their connection to the sea, taking it for granted. (Brutal payback there, guys.) And that *we* must prove our ability to face the forces of the sea, and learn to communicate with the dolphins, lest we face the Atlanteans' fate.

Nice set-up, but might I suggest a lesson from journalism school? "Show, don't tell." Some animation would help reinforce the plot and heighten the suspense throughout the ride.

But before I can stew too long about SeaWorld's gutting the dark ride, my attention is drawn to the car ahead flying straight up in the air. Hello? That's right, instead of a traditional lift hill or launch start, Journey to Atlantis takes its ride vehicles up to the coaster's crest with an elevator.

What this ride misses in drama, it delivers in breathtaking technology. Our boat floats forward into a small chamber with video of Commerson's dolphins projected on one wall. A moment later, it's our turn to fly up the darkened tower, emerging into sunlight as our boat drops smoothly into a sweeping roller coaster curve. One quick hop up and we sweep through another long curve into our splashdown behind the loading station. A few more water spouts spray the remaining dry sports on our shirts and it's time to call it a ride.

Journey to Atlantis

Don't rush too quickly through the exit and miss the 130,000-gallon Commerson's dolphin exhibit. These protected mammals sport distinctive markings that evoke SeaWorld's famous Shamu and the park reports this display is the only one of this species in the Western Hemisphere.

It's never a great sign for a ride when its best thrills result from marveling at its technology. But, hey, it's a flume ride and roller coaster with an elevator in the middle. Not to mention a unique animal display at the end. That ought to be enough to get encourage any curious theme park fan to queue up for a look.

No, Journey to Atlantis won't satisfy the most extreme thrill junkies. But if it does entice a few more theme park fans to visit, those who do will not be disappointed by the entertaining mix of rides, shows and exhibits that they'll find at SeaWorld San Diego.

Next week: A Legoland tour with one of the park's master builders.

Readers' Opinions

From Rhys Evans on June 6, 2004 at 5:06 PM
Well, I for one was confused about the storyline in Orlando...the elevator sounds neat.
From David Allen on June 6, 2004 at 6:35 PM
Well, I live in San Diego. I have not yet been to Sea World to ride Journey to Atlantis, but when I do, I will make an obscene gesture in the general direction of Donna Frye, environmental obstructionist city council member.

Donna Frye wanted the permit revoked for Journey to Atlantis, because she, not the voters, felt that Sea World should not have any entertainment value. And definitely NO rides. All of this despite the approval of a height limit exemption by the voters of San Diego.

Sorry, Donna, you lost.

From Robert Niles on June 6, 2004 at 7:51 PM
What the heck is San Diego's problem with gadfly residents filing suit against any major public attraction? Consider not just SeaWorld, but all the mess that Petco Park (the new baseball stadium) had to endure before being built.

If people want to live in a place unspoiled by entertainment attractions, might I suggest someplace like Omaha? But let the rest of us enjoy a San Diego that develops its full entertainment potential. No one's proposing to close off or pave over a beach here. Let us have a few well-themed thrill rides for goodness sakes.

From Kevin Baxter on June 7, 2004 at 12:09 AM
Well, these people have lived decades and decades in a town that doesn't have a lot in the way of entertainment! Why change that???

Not that I necessarily miss the lame dark ride portion of the original, but isn't this too much of a step down? When I first read about it, I thought you would be able to see the dolphins during the ride. That would have been cool. The rumors of this made me want to visit SeaWorld for the first time in over a decade. No longer...

From Robert Niles on June 7, 2004 at 9:22 AM
The only time you see dolphins in the ride is when they are shown on the video screen in the lift tower.

Seeing the dolphins swimming alongside while your boat floats through an underwater "tunnel" would have been a showstopper. But I'd have settled for positioning the dolphin pool alongside the flume, a la Turtle Island on Shipwreck Falls. Granted, that would have required setting up a wave control system, as to not disturb the dolphins. But any such step would have improved the skimpy theme on this attraction.

From Bryan Fear on June 7, 2004 at 10:58 PM
Robert, I think I can answer that. My former job in the late 90's brought me through John Moores' office on a daily basis. I had the opportunity to see how he worked. This guy built a ballpark on the taxpayers money when we just got done financing the expansion and upgrade of our current ballpark. We did not NEED a new ballpark. We had already spent millions on the rennovation. Moores ( on the other hand ) had an ego and the desire to spend taxpayer money.

It's not an aversion to attractions in the case of the ballpark. Also, as a former employee of the downtown San Diego area, I can assure you that the LAST thing we needed was to take a parking deficient area like downtown and then put in a ballpark that requires parking for about 60,000 people. Great plan there. Just f***ing brilliant.

Sea World? Yeah, that's like the previous post said. That's a separate issue and one related to tree-hugging environmentalists who are never happy until the world marhces in lockstep with their views. ( ...and since their kind is never truly "happy", lets just call it "less miserable." )

The smart money is on a more zen approach. You want people to learn your lessons? Slip them in quietly and with a degree of "influence". People enjoying a park may pick up a message here and there. If the hard-core ( like certain city council members ) have their way, people will be beaten with THEIR point of view over their heads until everyone marches in lockstep. No one responds to that, but SLIGHT influence often works better. ( "...more flies with honey.", et al )

Thanks for posting this Robert. I'm so sorry this ride fell short of the Orlando version. I'm going here in August and still look forward to riding it.

From Robert Niles on June 8, 2004 at 10:45 AM
As a resident of L.A. County, I've no problem with local governments refusing to pony up the bucks to pay for sports stadia (or to support theme parks, for that matter). But if the majority of voters in a community want to throw away their money on taxes or bonds for a stadium, they they should be able to. Opponents of such projects ought to direct their attention toward changing people's minds and attitudes, rather than clogging the courts. Yes, there are cases when environmental, financial or legal problems demand court action. I don't know all the specifics of what's happened in San Diego, but, up the road here, it looks like there's enough wackiness going on down there that no one should forget that S.D.'s part of Southern California.

By the way, San Diego, whatever you do, please do not force us in L.A. to take the wretched Chargers!


From Jeffrey Saunders on June 12, 2004 at 5:43 PM
Good for SeaWorld I'm glad they finally got their thrill ride. If a park is goingto suceed in this day and age they need to appeal to the diverse groups that visit. Yes at times the traffic may be bad but in the end it only adds more tax dollars into the city.

On the notion that people are upset that you can't see the dolphins on the ride give it up. Do you really think that the dolphins would swim anywhere near the ride track? Think how many Guests many of us included that would get upset and make their way tro guest relations because they stood in line for a long time and did not see dolphins on the ride? This is the very same reason Disney changed the name Tiger Rapids Ruyn to Kali River Rapids before the attraction opened.

From Kevin Baxter on June 13, 2004 at 1:37 AM
They have invented these things called TUBES, which could put the ride below the surface, making it easy to see into dolphin habitat. Kinda like the seacabs inside Epcot's Living Seas pavilion. Then people could see the dolphins from above off the ride. Two different views.
From Robert Niles on June 13, 2004 at 6:41 PM
That's what I was getting at with my earlier comment about the underwater tunnel. Clearly, wildlife could not be in the same body of water as the ride, even if there was a fence to keep the animals away from the ride system. You'd need to seperate bodies of water, isolated with Plexiglas or something like that. But even then, the sight and sound of the nearby ride system might be to stressful to some species.

But I'd still love to go on a water coaster that took me "underwater" to see real sea life. Hint, hint, hint....

From Kevin Baxter on June 14, 2004 at 12:25 AM
I never thought of the machinery, mainly because I pictured the tunnel being the slow, water-propelled portion of the ride. Like It's a Small World or Pirates.
From Bryan Fear on June 17, 2004 at 5:07 PM
I like your idea for tubes. It's revolutionary and the next logical step for rides to take. I'm not sure about the interaction with animals though. Even if a ride goes underwater in tubes, who's to say the dolphins will be near enough the tubes that we can see them? More importantly, is it humane to the dolphins ( or whatever ) to stick them in an area where a flume ride shoots through a tube ever few seconds? I suspect a thing like this hasn't been done in a ride before for a very good reason.

On the flip side, they've done riskier things. Every time I go to Sea World I see the ( expensive ) attraction when you can pay to have your kids suit up in a wetsuuit and get into a dolphin tank with a trainer for a one-on-one experience. Does anyone else here remember hearing how dolphins are known for being rapists? Not just amongst their own kind but anyone? ( Not making that up ) Is they can get people to pay $200 a pop for an attraction called "Humped by a whale" then anything goes.

...and you thought your KIDS were happy to see the dolphins!

The Chargers? That was a low blow. But since we're on the topic, if anyone out there is in the market for a mediocre footbal team who has let down it's fans every year despite growing attendance, let us know.

From Kevin Baxter on June 18, 2004 at 1:14 AM
Well, when we did the dolphin thing, both were females, so maybe that is intentional. Plus, dolphins aren't actually rapists, since basically that's how many animals mate. The big thing about dolphins is that they are GANG-rapists. Other males are expected to trap females so one of the other males can climb on. Some have been known to get a little too friendly with humans, but since they do the deed horizontally, the danger doesn't involve penetration, but being drowned.

Anyhow, I'm not talking about someone zooming through a tunnel. Just a slow portion that moves with the flow of the water. No machinery. No sound.

From brandon s. on June 26, 2005 at 11:40 PM
hello id just like to say that they could put dolphin tanks in the ride because the dolphins cant hear the ride or us because their hearing range is higher than what the ride makes

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