Written by Robert Niles
Published: June 6, 2004 at 4:31 PM
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.
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.
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.