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This Ride Could've Been Orlando's Next Big Hit. Now, It's Sunk. Here's the Story.

Image: coastergallery.com

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 closed classics. That’s why our Lost Legends collection emerged as a living library with unabridged entries focused on MaelstromSpace Mountain – De la Terre à la Lune, Kongfrontation, Son of BeastAlien Encounter, the Peoplemover, JAWS, Test Track and literally dozens more... From Orlando to Anaheim; Paris to Cincinnati, and everywhere in between... if it's a loved-and-lost fan favorite, chances are we've told its story. Watch for links to Lost Legends across the site.

But hits are only half the story. That’s why our companion series Disaster Files seeks to record as much as we can about rides that are remembered for... well... very different reasons. From Stitch’s Great Escape to Superstar Limo and Disneyland’s Rocket Rods, to Epcot’s Journey into YOUR Imagination and the aptly named Disaster Transport, these in-depth entries record theme park failures, flops, and forgotten attractions destined for disaster. 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.

Image: Jeremy Thompson, Flickr (license

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?

Image: SeaWorld Parks

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?

Image: SeaWorld Parks

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.

And that is precisely where the unusual story of Journey into Atlantis begins… 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...

Anheuser-Busch

At first glance, Anheuser-Busch must seem an odd operator for a chain of parks. Even if the 1990s 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 neighbored 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 Disaster File: Drachen Fire.)

In any case, in 1989 the four SeaWorld parks were simply folded into (and indeed, became the cornerstone of) their Busch Entertainment division. But rather than staying the course, Busch had ambitious plans for SeaWorld Orlando particularly, given that the Orlando theme park market was very quickly becoming more competitive (with the Disney-MGM Studios and Universal Studios Florida both opening within a year of Busch's purchase of the park).

To the thinking of Busch Entertainment leadership, SeaWorld was positioned to be a contender in the growing tourism wars of Central Florida, and being exclusively a really good zoo priced to Disney’s market wasn’t going to be enough.

So in the early 1990s, SeaWorld Orlando opened its first real play at being a competitor. A few years earlier, 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. The motion pods here would be cast as deep-sea submersibles with guests encountering the wonder and wildlife of the infamous Bermuda Triangle up close.

Image: SeaWorld Parks

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, 1997’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.

A new philosophy was afoot. And as the industry changed, so would SeaWorld.

Elsewhere

As the ‘90s continued, Busch saw an avenue for expanding SeaWorld to more closely follow the path pioneered by Busch Gardens… to infuse audacious and bold thrill rides into their thoughtful parks.

Image: SeaWorld Parks

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. SeaWorld was no longer just an animal park… it was a destination.

Meanwhile, clones of the Orlando-bred simulator spread, too, even to the miniscule SeaWorld Ohio where Mission: Bermuda Triangle opened in 2000.

Image: SeaWorld

Just as evidence of Busch’s game plan, consider that oft-forgotten Ohio park… SeaWorld there was actually situated along the northern shores of a 100-acre lake… The southern shore of that same lake, directly across the way, was Geauga Lake (later, Six Flags Ohio), a family park of thrill rides and coasters. Allegedly, a county ordinance governing SeaWorld’s side of the lake and a non-compete clause with Six Flags meant that SeaWorld Ohio was banned from building coasters… a limitation that irked Busch so much, they offered to buy Six Flags Ohio outright, operating the two parks on both side of the lake.

Interestingly, Six Flags declined the offer but instead counteroffered to purchase SeaWorld Ohio! Busch – seeing that the Ohio park couldn’t match their new theme park vision – sold, and Six Flags merged the two parks into the world’s largest theme park, Six Flags Worlds of Adventure.

Click and expand for a more detailed view. Image: Six Flags

The gargantuan mega-park of coasters, dolphins, waterslides, DC Heroes, and simulators lasted less than three years, folding altogether. We chronicled that in-depth story in its own Lost Legends: Geauga Lake feature that’s a must-read for theme park fans.

But it goes to show just how serious Busch was about turning SeaWorld into more than an animal park. And given SeaWorld Orlando’s unique and daunting proximity to the growing entertainment powers of Disney World and Universal, their plan for the Floridian park had to be exceptionally ambitious, meeting both Disney and Universal in their own turf… Themed E-Tickets….

And when it comes to legends of the sea, one whale of a tale seemed perfectly primed for SeaWorld.

Designing a Lost City

SeaWorld’s largest, costliest addition ever would have to match Disney note-for-note, emulating their 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), the park would need to develop into a place of unforgettable experiences.

The king of all nautical fables must be the story of Atlantis. Often described as “the Lost Continent,” Atlantis is a legendary island whose existence and mythology traces back even to the oral traditions of Plato roundabout 400 B.C. For thousands of years, tales of the submerged city dragged into the murky depths of the Atlantic Ocean (whose Greek name,  Ἀτλαντικῷ πελάγει, literally means Sea of Atlantis) have inspired archaeologists, philosophers, treasure hunters, and explorers.

Writers imagine a supercontinent of unfathomably advanced technologies, an entire lost civilization of ancient treasure, and the unthinkable knowledge of generations, all consumed by the sea when the city fell out of favor with the gods. The ruins of Atlantis are even a stop for Captain Nemo in Jules Verne’s 1872 novel and the Disney fan favorite attraction it inspired, a Lost Legend: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – Submarine Voyage.

Atlantis would be the perfect oceanic legend to serve as the basis for SeaWorld’s first Disney-style dark ride.

Click and expand for a more detailed view. Image: SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment

Busch Entertainment contracted with Mack Rides GmbH & Co to build a custom flume ride that would weave through a 10-story tall showbuilding designed to look like the ancient city risen anew along the white sand shores of Greece. Spanning 6-acres, the entire ride complex would require 116,000 gallons of water. Impressive statistics, but they mean nothing until we face Atlantis ourselves…

SeaWorld Adventure Park

Click and expand for a more detailed view. Image: SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment

The year is 1998.

Just down the road, Walt Disney World has seen a radical expansion… its unprecedented fourth theme park has opened, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom has set a new precedent for theme parks… Photorealistic, detailed beyond compare, and sufficiently wild, the animal-oriented park is a must-visit.

But up the road, SeaWorld is determined to be a must-visit, too, and their coup is – oddly enough – the opposite of Animal Kingdom’s.  While Disney’s new park soaks up the zoological limelight, SeaWorld has left animals behind for the first time in a long time with its new addition…

Image: Alberto, Flickr (license)

As you approach the park, you’ll notice a brand-new, 12-acre entrance. Magic Kingdom has Main Street; the Disney-MGM Studios has Hollywood Blvd. And SeaWorld Orlando has a brand new harbor, with the gentle waves of a bright blue bay lapping against a boardwalk with docked ships and ceramic sea creatures setting a immersive tone. That’s on purpose. So is the park’s new name: SeaWorld Adventure Park.

Image: SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment

That’s intentional. Busch Entertainment wants to make it clear that this is more than a zoo; it’s an adventure. Sure, you’ll see animals. But you’ll see them among thrill rides, simulators, water rides, and more. A day at SeaWorld Adventure Park is imaginative, transformative, and transportive, whisking you into the magic, mystery, and majesty of the oceans and the legends it inspires.

And speaking of which, the destination today has to be the park’s newest ride; a real competitor to Disney and Universal’s efforts…

Risen Ruins

Image: SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment

Your first sight of Journey to Atlantis is the kind of experience that may temporarily take your breath away. The truth is, Atlantis is unimaginably beautiful. The towering, palatial temple is gorgeous, with sandstone turrets and aqueducts, oxidized copper domes, sea-blue tiled roofs, and jagged oceanic rocks bursting from within. The building’s bridges and arches are covered in frescoes, murals, and hieroglyphics that betray some distant relationship with Greece’s Knossos temple.

Water-carved rocks and sandbars with palms jut from the crystal clear waters before the temple, where a distant, hazy mist hovers as if from recent geothermal activity. A Greek fishing village set precariously along the water’s edge will serve as the queue. But weaving through these gleaming white villas based on the Greek isle of Thera, the dripping temple set among bubbling, gushing, trembling waters is a sight… This is a structure that tells a story.

If only the ride could do the same…

Image: Jeremy Thompson, Flickr (license)

A gleaming news van parked outside the village seems to indicate that we’ve walked into a live story, and indeed, throughout the queue we see reports of the miraculous temple’s emergence from the depths as scientists, historians, and locals are at a loss. One person who seems acutely aware of what’s going on is a local fisherman named Stavros. The old man has a simple word of advice: “Keep out.” Something decidedly sinister lurks within the ancient city, and we’d best stay far away.

But where’s the fun in that?

On the next page, we’ll climb into a fishing boat and sail into the unknown… And on the subject of unknowns, we guarantee you, Journey to Atlantis will leave you puzzled. Read on…

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There are 4 comments.

Great look into one of my favorite log rides. The rumor is that Atlantis will be refurbished whenever Kraken is to make the area one cohesive story. Any truth in those rumors?

First, she snaps, "NOW you've DONE it! You puny little PONY!"

In our podcast, we addressed all the disjointed elements on the ride: https://youtu.be/b_T1_K0zVis

I actually first encountered the San Diego version of the ride since I live here, and, while not tremendously ambitious, it is fun and has a nice pace and the elevator life section works with the whole "dolphin-friendly" theme...I was horribly disappointed in how the Orlando ride looked...even with the story working, it seems like the pacing is unforgivably clunky..My home park may be considered the more "minor" Sea World, but having seen the park in Orlando twice now, I much prefer how well the simpler rides work here

I mentioned that the change to Journey to Atlantis mirrors a major downgrade at Cincinnati's Kings Island when TOMB RAIDER: The Ride became the generic The Crypt. What's funny is that Kings Dominion – a sister park in Virginia – got a smaller, outdoor, less ornately themed version of the ride called TOMB RAIDER: Firefall. It, too, became The Crypt when Cedar Fair took over, but it kept all of its light theming and, ultimately, was the better experience! Didn't see that coming...

Same thing now with the Journeys to Atlantis in Orlando and San Diego... The San Diego ride – even if it's "simpler" and "cheaper," it actually successful at what it set out to do / be! Great point!

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