Florida has nine major theme parks. Four of them (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney's Hollywood Studios, and Disney's Animal Kingdom) comprise the massive Walt Disney World Resort, and are among the most visited theme parks in the world. Two of them (Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure) make up Universal Orlando, the other destination theme park resort in the state. One of them (Legoland Florida) is off on its own is generally passed up by tourists due to its appeal to a specific demographic. The last two (Busch Gardens Tampa and SeaWorld Orlando) are owned by SeaWorld Parks & Resorts, and they are the closest thing Florida has to regional theme parks. By process of elimination, it's easy to see which of these nine parks I had yet to visit.
Part 9: SeaWorld, or Coaster World?
Wednesday, October 4th, was the final day of my Florida trip. By this point, I had been in Florida for 10 days, and I had experienced all the theme parks that I'd dreamed of visiting for years. All, that is, except one: SeaWorld Orlando.
SeaWorld, as a chain, is a company that was once highly respected and is now holding on to their position by a thread. A combination of changing public interests, backlash from a controversial documentary, and poor management since the parks were sold off (and especially since they went public) have lead to a steady decline in attendance and revenue for the chain. In an attempt to reverse this slide, SeaWorld has taken the approach of playing a destination park with the budget of a regional park, which has generated mixed results. Occasionally, the end product is a great new attraction, but just as often it is a total failure (see Ocean Explorer at SWSD for an example of that). Unfortunately, even when the attraction is a hit, it hasn't always resulted in the growth it should.
Admittedly, my primary interest in SeaWorld Orlando was not the animals. With SeaWorld San Diego just slightly over an hour from my house, I can go see the wildlife and the shows whenever I want. My motivation for SeaWorld Orlando, therefore, was the thrill rides. Contrary to what may be expected, this park has the second largest roller coaster collection in Florida, with three monster B&Ms often rated among the best of their types. In fact, the park's newest coaster, Mako, is generally considered to be the best in the entire state.
Unfortunately, my visit to the park started off on a bad note. Right inside the entrance to the park, I found a sign stating that Kraken was closed for the day. Of all the rides in Florida, this was probably the most disappointing to miss. I was especially curious about it as I wanted to compare the ride with Medusa, a very similar B&M Floorless that is my favorite of the type. Sadly, it will have to wait until next time. If there is a silver lining, it is that by the time I ride I may no longer have to deal with the VR equipment, which reportedly has dropped the hourly capacity of this coaster to below 400 riders (it should be able to do 1,500).
Without the need to rush to Kraken, we instead made our way to Manta. A B&M Flying coaster, Manta dominates the front of the park.
While sharing the name and theme with SeaWorld San Diego's Manta, the Florida incarnation is much different. This ride features a very well themed queue full of opportunities to view marine life. Afterward, guests ascend the steps into the station, and then the ride begins.
After a 140 ft climb, Manta begins with a swooping drop that leads directly into the pretzel loop. From here, the first half of the ride consists of a series of curves and inversions, most flying over empty terrain or guest walkways.
The second half of the ride is significantly better, with themed elements for the ride to interact with. I particularly liked the water skim element, an illusion that makes it appear trains are actually touching the water. Overall, Manta is a top tier coaster, and it is really difficult for me to decide whether it or SFMM's Tatsu is the better ride. There are things I like on Tatsu that Manta doesn't have, such as the height, the pacing, and the intensity, but Manta is undoubtedly better themed and flows a bit better. If forced to make the call, I'd probably say I prefer Tatsu by a very slim margin, but Manta is still among Florida's best coasters.
Instead of heading back to Mako, we opted to take a detour to Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin. This was SeaWorld's attempt at an E-ticket dark ride, but unfortunately it missed the mark. The ride contains an elaborate facade, a well decorated queue, and a good pre-show, but once the ride begins there isn't too much to it. This attraction uses a motion base on a trackless ride vehicle, but for a large portion of the ride the vehicles are simply parked in front of a screen while the motion simulates the action. The other portion of the ride takes place in a single large room that resembles an empty ice cavern, with plenty of static decoration on the walls but nothing for the vehicles to interact with.
After the ride, guests enter a penguin habitat, which is probably the best part of the attraction. It isn't exactly a bad ride, but it was overhyped and missed the mark in several areas. I'd say check this one out if the line is short, but skip it otherwise.
Next to Antarctica is Journey to Atlantis, a Mack Rides Water Coaster. This particular attraction was the first use of the technology, which enables a flume ride to have sections similar to a typical roller coaster. It is, in my opinion, one of the most interesting innovations in flume ride tech, and to this day I'm surprised SeaWorld is the only American park that purchased it.
In California, Journey to Atlantis is minimally themed and focuses on the coaster aspects, but the original incarnation in Florida begins with a lengthy dark ride section. Due to maintenance, a lot of the effects in here no longer work, but it is still visually beautiful. The remainder of the ride consists of two lifts, a drop, a tiny third lift leading to a tiny drop that floods the boat, and a fourth lift that leads to the roller coaster section, which takes place in the dark. All of this is accompanied by what I can only describe as Atlantean dance music, and it doesn't really fit the ride at all. Jokingly, I told Evan that the story of this attraction is that you were invited to a party and nobody else showed up. It is a ride that was originally ahead of its time, but now it doesn't hold up well and is little more than a fancy flume ride. To my surprise, I significantly prefer San Diego's version...it may not have the theming, but it has a lot more coaster elements and still contains a unique elevator lift. If everything worked, Florida's would be far superior, but it's a bit sad to see it now.
With the other rides complete (except Shamu Express, which I went to ride toward the end of the day), it was time for Mako. A B&M Hyper, Mako is smaller than average for its type but is still the largest roller coaster in the entire state of Florida. Unlike most SeaWorld attractions, the queue for this attraction is quite plain, with simple switchbacks around the remains of a shipwreck.
The ride itself is largely unthemed, but it doesn't need it. Mako is all about airtime, and it delivers it in copious amounts throughout the ride. While there is a bit of trimming, the ride still delivers a ton of floater air, and it is a long ride that is worth riding over and over (though, on this particular day, one-train operation made it the longest line in the park (25 minutes), so I only got a couple rides). Is it the best hyper coaster? No, but it is near the top. Is it the best coaster in the park? Absolutely, unless you dislike airtime. Is it the best coaster in Florida? Maybe. After my initial ride, I declared it as such, but upon later reflection I'd give Incredible Hulk the slightest edge over Mako for one reason: Hulk is a unique ride, while Mako isn't all that different from other hyper coasters. Either way, you can't go wrong with Hulk, Mako, Manta, Montu, or SheiKra...the top five coasters in Florida.
With the main attractions conquered, I spent the rest of my time at SeaWorld Orlando grabbing a few re-rides and checking out the animal attractions.
As expected, a lot of the animal attractions were similar to those in San Diego...Dolphin Cove features Bottlenose Dolphins, Shark Encounter is an underwater tunnel through a shark tank, and Wild Arctic has creatures found near the north pole (which is accessed via a cheesy simulator ride). I did notice that a lot of the Orlando attractions had better viewing areas, likely due to the larger crowds this park sees, and there was often a bit more detail to the exhibits than in San Diego (where most things are an enclosure with signs surrounding it).
The most unique animal attraction at SeaWorld Orlando was Turtle Trek, an exhibit about Sea Turtles and Manatees that features a 360 degree 3D movie as part of the experience. While the movie wasn't the greatest, it was an interesting concept and probably the best non-coaster attraction at the park.
Due to a flight out in the evening, my time at SeaWorld Orlando was limited. However, I feel I got a good look at the park, and I managed to do almost everything of high priority. The main disappointment was missing Kraken, but I know I'll be back. While it isn't the best park in Florida, I still enjoyed SeaWorld Orlando, and I'd probably rank it above the lower tier Disney parks in terms of quality. Plus, thanks to containing some of the best thrill rides in the state, this is going to be an automatic re-visit on my next trip. If you see all the shows, it's definitely possible to spend a full day at this park. However, it's also possible to stop by for a few hours on arrival or departure day and enjoy the highlights. I could see visitors not wanting to pay full price for the park, but if you can find any sort of discount I highly recommend including at least a half day here on your next visit to Florida.
From SeaWorld Orlando, it was back to Orlando International Airport. Security was awful here (much worse than I've ever experienced at LAX), and by the time I got to my gate the flight was already boarding. Fortunately, I made it on, and it was a smooth flight back to California.
And thus ends my Florida adventure. Eleven days, nine theme parks, and several other attractions crammed into that time. It was exhausting, but it was also a whole lot of fun, and while I don't think I'll return for several years I look forward to doing so at that time.
But this is not the end of my report. As I've mentioned before, part of the reason for picking the late September/early October timeframe was to take advantage of the many Halloween events. So there is still one part to come, covering the pros and cons of Howl-O-Scream, Halloween Horror Nights, and Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, as well as a few other thoughts on the trip.
SeaWorld Orlando Rankings:
Animal Exhibits (overall) - 8/10
Antarctica - 7/10
Journey to Atlantis - 7/10
Mako - 9.5/10
Manta - 9/10
Shamu Express - 5.5/10
Wild Arctic - 6/10
Overall Park Score - 8/10Tweet
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