ORLANDO — SeaWorld unleashed its cure for recession attendance doldrums three weeks early on Tuesday: its first thrill ride in nine years.
Manta — the first "flying coaster" in Florida — showed that beneath that gentle manta ray theme lies a coaster not to be trifled with.
"One of the best I've ever ridden," enthused Ben Matlack, a 19-year-old University of South Florida sophomore. "The g-forces in the 360-degree twist in the pretzel loop are just awesome."
"I've been on flying coasters, but this one is faster, has more inversions and is much better," said Bas de Jong, a 19-year-old vacationer from Holland.
Flying coasters have been around about 15 years. But Walter Bolliger and Claude Mabillard, the Swiss coaster design team who dreamed up SheiKra and Montu at Busch Gardens Africa and the Hulk at Universal Orlando, added many new twists with Manta, which is supposed to look like a soaring school of rays.
Indeed, the screaming starts before Manta leaves the station. After strapping in, riders are tilted 90 degrees. That leaves riders in a sort of fetal position, face to the ground, their feet sticking out the back of padded shackles. This is when it sinks in they are going head first down all the hills at speeds up to 56 mph and as low as 6 feet above the ground.
The coaster barrels through a near miss with a waterfall and drops riders' faces to within 3 feet of a lake, where the coaster appears to dip its manta wings into the water. The 6-foot-high spray, however, is a timed effect done with water jets. Riders don't get wet.
For nonriders Manta is interwoven with a marine life display with 3,000 fish and saltwater creatures. A 186,000-gallon tank teems with 300 rays and a lumbering guitarfish that looks half ray, half shark. Ten aquariums showcase 100 species including SeaWorld's first octopuses. The grand opening is May 21, but the ride is in technical rehearsal, meaning it's open most of the time.
SeaWorld marketers are making Manta the core of a summer ad campaign run from South Florida to Atlanta to lure vacationers within a day's drive.
Joe Couceiro, Busch Entertainment Corp. vice president of marketing, said, "The winter and spring have been challenging, but we found at Christmas and Easter that people will travel again when the kids are home."