By ANNE GLOVER
Times Staff Writer
Roller coaster riders know that one of the best parts of the experience is the slow climb to that first dramatic drop. As the train slowly cranks up the rail, you look out and see only the horizon and sky as you wait for the plunge.
At SeaWorld's new Manta experience, that sense of anticipation literally gets turned on its head as you ascend facedown, watching the people on the sidewalk below staring up at you. It's then that you realize how far from the ground you're getting and how scary that first plunge is going to be in that position.
If that doesn't scare you, you're going to love the flying coaster that the marine park is officially opening this weekend, its newest thrill ride in nine years.
Designed by Brian Morrow, 35, director of design and engineering at SeaWorld Adventure Parks, Manta sits squarely in the middle of the park on acreage that once housed a flamingo pond and the original aquarium.
Rather than just build a new coaster, Morrow and his team wanted to create a cohesive experience that would immerse the rider (and nonrider) in the habitat and life of the rays in the ocean. That's why there are actually three parts to the new attraction, which is built like a mountain grotto: an aquarium that anyone can go in; the viewing tanks as you wind your way in the queue toward the ride; and the coaster itself.
I took an inaugural plunge, so to speak, this past Saturday and came away thrilled with not only the ride, but with the level of detail that has gone into making this newest park attraction. Here's some of what you can expect when you visit.
Say hey to the ray(s): There are 300 rays in the 186,000-gallon main tank. But the view from the nonrider side of the exhibit is from beneath the gliding creatures, thanks to a massive piece of Plexiglass that weighs 16,000 pounds.
Creature features: Look closely at that reddish-purple lump to your left when you go in. That's a Pacific octopus, right, and it's about 6 feet in size when it wakes up. It likes to explore, said director of marketing communications Nick Gollattscheck, so they have installed a tube for it to travel between two tanks. Look around and you'll see thousands of fish and sea residents, representing 100 species of sea life.
Photo op for kids: One of the viewing tanks in this area has an opening where smaller kids can climb in, then pop up as if they are inside the fish tank. Smile!
QUEUE WITH A VIEW
Cool and collected: Forget what you're used to when you're waiting in line for what seems like an eternity for a ride that lasts about 2 minutes. First, this one is inside and air-conditioned. But best of all, there are more fish-filled tanks to keep you occupied as you wind your way through a single-file pathway. Many are smallish tanks with tropical fish, but you also come back around to that massive rays tank, where you can watch the varied species of rays swim with a guitar fish (something that looks a bit like a hammerhead with its snout).
Look down, up and all around: SeaWorld employed 96 rock artisans to build and carve the grotto, and they were told to use their imagination and add rays in the rock anywhere they wanted. If you look closely at the rock at the very front of the rays tank, you'll see one. The carvers also threw in two Easter eggs of Shamu. Nick Gollattscheck showed me one in the rock (about armpit high on the right) on the way to the ray tank, but he hasn't found the other one.
Load and lock: As you can imagine, the safety harness for this ride is crucial. You'll notice as you strain to pull it down into its locked position that something is closing around your ankles. That's when it really dawns on you what's about to happen. And then it does, as the cars tilt forward 90 degrees and you are hanging face-down suspended from the rail. The harness that you had expected to push hard against your chest is surprisingly comfortable and breathing is easy (if kind of fast at this point). You're ready.
A purple people mover: The climb seems to take a while, and you really notice when you see the drop zone netting below disappear behind you. (Somehow, seeing that netting was reassuring.) And then the first plunge happens and you are careening along at speeds up to 56 mph as you pull through loops, corkscrew through turns and "scrape" the ground. I say that because I was warned that things would seem closer than they really are because of your view and because you go as near as 2.5 feet next to the water. At various times, I thought we would hit a tree, a tourist and even the waterfall at the end. Along the way, there are a couple of milliseconds of weightlessness caused by the G forces. And unlike some the noisier roller coasters (Kumba comes to mind), this one has a softer whoosh, made possible because the supports are filled with sand to muffle the noise.
Be a manta pro: As with all coasters, where you ride on the train makes a difference. Ride up front on Manta and you experience a smoother ride than if you sit on the back, where the "whip" of the plunges can make it a bit more rugged. Sit on the right and you'll be on the side where you appear headed right into the waterfall. Sit on the left and you'll be on the side where the wing dips and a fountain sprays water 14 feet into the air. But, really, don't worry too much about where you sit because unlike upright car coasters where all you see is the back of the people in front of you, Manta riders all have the same viewing looking down.
Soar score? It's sky high, and coaster lovers are going to love riding it over and over again.