For thousands of years, explorers, adventurers, and globetrotters have sought remains of an ancient civilization swallowed by the sea; a lost continent abandoned by the gods. The story of Atlantis has endured for centuries and centuries, a mythological marvel as celebrated as the gods of old. And for theme park fans, it seems like the perfect foundation for a dark ride.
We’ve made it our mission here at Theme Park Tourist to chronicle the in-depth, full stories behind landmark attractions across the world... including those that taught us what not to do... And that brings us to our Declassified Disasters series, examining failures and flops from Stitch’s Great Escape to Superstar Limo; the Rocket Rods, to Epcot’s Journey into YOUR Imagination and many more. And when it comes to “forgotten” rides, there’s perhaps no better example than a would-be E-Ticket languishing away at the unfortunately troubled SeaWorld Orlando.
In the 1990s, an unexpected company took the helm of SeaWorld, determined to grow and expand the park to compete with Disney and Universal down the road. They wanted to transform the animal park into a destination for theme- and thrill-seekers alike. Journey to Atlantis was poised to be the perfect blend, matching Disney note-for-note in thrills, theme, score, special effects, and story. But the ride designed to exemplify a new direction for an ever-changing park is – today – all-but-sunk.
Today, we'll dive deep into the story of SeaWorld's Journey to Atlantis and dissect the making of, experience of, and 2017 changes to this would-be E-Ticket in an in-depth, full-fledged history. But this intense look at the ride has to start with a simple question...
What is SeaWorld?
SeaWorld. Given just that word – SeaWorld – what comes to your mind? What images? Thoughts? Sounds? Feelings? What is SeaWorld?
On a grand, philosophical level, some view SeaWorld as an inspiring animal park that provides up-close encounters with living creatures that, otherwise, would feel a world away. If it weren’t for SeaWorld, after all, many Americans might never see a sea lion, dolphin, orca, or shark in person in their entire lives… A competing (and recently vocal) group suggests that SeaWorld is a catastrophe of animal rights violations and moral reprehensibility that should be shut and buried.
But today, we’ll avoid that (important) discussion in favor of a simpler thought… Morality and philosophy aside, what is SeaWorld – as in, literally?
Maybe you’d label it a zoo, given its emphasis on animal enclosures and encounters. Folded in here is SeaWorld’s commendable animal rehabilitation and release program (which has rescued well over 25,000 animals in its history) and its AZA-accredited zoological practices (including enrichment, veterinary care, exhibit design, etc.) that, observably, make it a very, very good zoo... and a very, very expensive one, many times costlier than your local zoo.
Maybe you’d call it a theme park. After all, time, money, and care have been spent crafting themed “lands” with notable detail, some well-designed dark rides, and entertainment (both animal and acrobatic) quite unlike anything else in Orlando. SeaWorld stands apart from your local amusement park in so many ways.
But in just as many ways, it doesn't stand apart. Frankly, isn’t SeaWorld a thrill park, with its anchor attractions all being bare, behemoth steel roller coasters to rival any Six Flags or Cedar Fair park?
Animal park? Theme park? Amusement park? The uncomplicated answer is that SeaWorld is all of those, and more. That’s because – quite unlike Disney or Universal’s parks – SeaWorld has been handed from owner to owner over the course of its nearly 45-year life, bending continuously to the changing whims of changing powers and changing times.
So to tell the story of Journey to Atlantis, we need to start in medias res – right in the middle of SeaWorld's history… In 1989, the four SeaWorld parks (in San Diego, Cleveland, Orlando, and San Antonio) were acquired outright by a company that may initially seem out of left field...
At first glance, Anheuser-Busch must seem an odd operator for a chain of parks. Even if the 1980s and '90s had seen a wave of movie studios try to break into the “studio park” business, the international brewing company (producers of Budweiser, Bud Light, Michelob, Rolling Rock, Shock Top, and dozens of other recognizable alcoholic beverages) seemed to have no connection to the world of animal parks.
However, the beer behemoth had a résumé perfect for overseeing SeaWorld. That’s because they’d been operating their own theme parks for decades. Anheuser-Busch breweries in Tampa, Florida and Williamsburg, Virginia had long been adjoined by Busch Gardens parks that, in a post-Magic-Kingdom-era, were flourishing.
Sure, each had a roller coaster or two… But the emphasis at the two parks – themed to Africa and Europe, respectively – was on the authentic entertainment, cultural merchants, and homemade food reflecting the vast cultures represented within. (The Williamsburg park, in particular, has hosted two rides that are the subject of their own in-depth features – a Lost Legend: Big Bad Wolf and another Declassified Disaster: Drachen Fire.)
So upon their purchase in 1989 by the brewing company, the four SeaWorld parks were simply folded into (and indeed, became the anchor of) their Busch Entertainment division. In particular, Busch Entertainment took great interest in SeaWorld Orlando. You can imagine why. SeaWorld had been a Central Florida staple since 1973 – opening just two years after Walt Disney World! And while the park had grown substantially in the 25 years since, Busch's purchase of the park in 1989 coincided with a major change in Orlando (and the whole industry).
That was the year that Orlando became home to the Disney-MGM Studios, followed shortly by Universal Studios Florida; the dawn of the "Ride the Movies" era that would see competition in Central Florida (and indeed, all of North America) rachet up as amusement parks across the country were gobbled up by movie studios, eager to follow Disney and Universal's new route to accessible and affordable theme parks. By purchasing SeaWorld, Busch had secured a footprint right in the middle of the growing tourism wars of Central Florida.
But to own and operate a park (literally) in between Walt Disey World and Universal Studios, Busch needed to commit to transforming SeaWorld from a mere marine animal zoo into a world class, destination theme park itself. Their way into the war would be to completely redefine what SeaWorld was... initially, by borrowing from Disney's own ambitious innovations...
Wild life, wild rides
In 1987, Disney had broken new ground with the incomprehensibly complex (and expensive) simulator technology that powered Disney's Lost Legends: Body Wars and the original STAR TOURS. And now, SeaWorld would get its hands on the technology with 1992’s Mission: Bermuda Triangle. Rather than exploring the blood stream or a galaxy far, far away, the still-groundbreakings simulator technology here would be used to simulate an oceanic adventure.
And unlike the tepid offerings of a zoological park, Mission: Bermuda Triangle took things in a distinctly-dramatic direction, plunging guests into rusted shipwrecks and magnetic anomalies in a thrilling journey through the supposed supernatural occurances of the Bermuda Triangle. The idea opened an untapped world for Busch: SeaWorld could be a theme park, with rides focused on nautical legends and adventures told in the story of Disney and Universal.
Just a few years later, SeaWorld caught on to the technology’s adaptability long before Disney would, swapping the queue and ride film to create Wild Arctic. The simulators switched from subs to helicopters, flying guests on a frigid journey to the North Pole. Even more radically, 1995’s Wild Arctic’s simulated flight was only the prelude to an animal encounter, as exiting guests would step not into a gift shop, but into an enormous "arctic research base" simulating freezing conditions, home to the park's Arctic animals.
SeaWorld's quick and cutting-edge adaptation of the still-new Star Tours technology demonstrated a new model for the park. Not only could SeaWorld raise itself to meet the cinematic splendor of Disney and Universal by way of telling nautical fables... it could do what its competitors couldn't: plugging signature animal experiences right into the attractions.
At the same time that SeaWorld's Orlando park was arming itself against Disney and Universal, its other three parks – San Diego, San Antonio, and Cleveland – began to experiment with that fundamental question – what is SeaWorld? – via their own forays into thrills.
In San Antonio, two steel coasters rose above SeaWorld’s otherwise unassuming skyline, with Great White (1997) and Steel Eel (1999, above) redefining the park for the region. For Texans, SeaWorld was no longer just a marine life zoo; it was an animal park with thrills.
Meanwhile, clones of the Orlando-bred simulator spread, too. Wild Arctic opened in San Diego in 1997, while Mission: Bermuda Triangle debuted at the curious (and now-closed) SeaWorld Ohio in 2000 (below). In fact, that Cleveland-area park is itself a good example of SeaWorld's push in the era since, restricted from building roller coasters due to a county height requirement, SeaWorld actually put in a bid to purchase the operating Six Flags Ohio located directly across a lake (but in a different county); famously, Six Flags counter-offered to instead buy SeaWorld, combining them into the world's largest theme park... before it all predictably crashed and burned.
But it goes to show just how serious Busch was about turning SeaWorld into more than an animal park, ushering in a new era of themed attractions and thrill rides. And that brings us back to SeaWorld Orlando with its unique and daunting proximity to the growing entertainment powers of Disney World and Universal. As such, Busch's plan for the Floridian park had to be exceptionally ambitious, meeting both Disney and Universal in their own turf… A Disney-quality E-Ticket dark ride.
SeaWorld’s largest, costliest addition ever would have to match Disney note-for-note, emulating Imagineering's detail, storytelling, and special effects. And if SeaWorld were determined to evolve into a standalone theme park earning a precious day of tourists' Orlando vacation (and a steep entry fee on top of it), that would require a truly monumental nautical fable...
And when it comes to legends of the sea, one whale of a tale seemed perfectly primed for a SeaWorld adventure. On the next page, we'll descend into the myth of Atlantis... and the race between Disney, Universal, and SeaWorld to open their own voyages to the sunken city first. Read on...