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Sea World's Roller coaster's designer fulfills lifelong ambition

His father is a chemist, his mother a nuclear scientist in Oak Ridge, Tenn. But Brian Morrow wanted to build theme park attractions. Armed with an engineering degree from Auburn, he worked for Six Flags over Georgia and Texas. He spent four years at Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa designing the kiddie rides area (including the Flying Bananas) and Safari Africa habitat. At 35, he's now director of design and engineering at SeaWorld Adventure Parks in Orlando, where he oversaw a team of two dozen that turned 4.5 acres into Manta, SeaWorld's new $50 million coaster tribute to rays, which doubles as the peaceful home to 3,000 creatures and 100 species of marine life.

How did you get in this business?

I don't remember wanting to do anything else. During the summers I spent at my grandmother's in Nashville, we went to Opryland most weekends. Any remote-control toy car track or train I turned into a ride. I used a water pump to convert a toy penguins slides-and-ladders set into a flume ride.

How about turning a college degree into a job?

I was so desperate for an internship that my very first job was food safety intern at Six Flags in Atlanta. I went around checking the temperatures of frying grease for nine days until I found the right people to get me in design and engineering. But the best experience was supervisor for a contractor at Disney's Animal Kingdom. That's where I learned an obsession for detail and the down and dirty of making sprayed concrete look like natural rock. I turned that into building animal habitats at nonprofit zoos.

The challenge with Manta was making a thrill ride — a giant piece of industrial machinery — fit into a passive experience about our connections to a gentle, delicate and agile type of marine life. How do you make it fit?

It must be seamless so people who aren't here for thrill rides enjoy it. We put an air-conditioned, dark grotto with an exquisite undersea habitat right under the coaster. It's a way to break up the wait in the line for the ride and offer a separate, inspiring experience about rays and sea life before and after the ride. After they pass a waterfall at the entrance, we introduce guests to this peaceful environment with restricted views of soaring rays, first looking up from the bottom. We set the mood with dramatic lighting, a sound track, projections and brief explanations of rays and other creatures here. You never actually see from a single vantage point all the 186,000-gallon main tank until the end. All told we'll have 300 cownose rays from the Florida coast and 10 other aquariums with animals from different types of water environments. We have freshwater rays from the Amazon, rays with a 4-foot wing span, octopi and a guitar fish from Thailand.

You etched the grotto walls with tracks sting ray tails leave in the sand in shallow water. Why the artwork?

We embedded in the sculptured rock a story line that offers hints other people, other life was in this place before. Most of the 96 rock artists etched their own visions of rays before they ever saw one here. There's even a primitive drawing of Shamu. I was stunned at how quiet guests are during the experience. They are enthralled by the rays. There's no hint a thrill ride is above you.

You use the layout to heighten coaster riders' anxieties. The screaming starts the moment a hydraulic hiss and a startling "whoosh" sound erupts as their seats tilt forward 90 degrees, leaving them prone for a facedown, head-first ride. How do you build the tension?

We play on fears. Most of the coaster is hidden from public view, and we never let riders see the seats until just before they go up the stairs to get in them. The mechanical whoosh sound was created in a recording studio. It's the sound of a manta ray hugging you close.

The original plan was for the coaster wings to dip in the water, sending up a spray. Instead of water scoops used on SheiKra at Busch Gardens Africa, you did the effect with a series of water jets. What happened?

The coaster designers said it wouldn't work. So we found a fountain builder who said they could pull it off. We spent hours studying water skier sprays trying to imagine what it should look like. We built a 12-foot model of Manta in a Fort Lauderdale warehouse. It threw a spray of water 27 feet high and can be adjusted.

How did the Manta get selected.

We started four years ago by tossing out four or five ideas. It starts with what research says our guests want. We put the others back on the shelf and chose Manta, because this fits our family demographic, was the right technology, and it all perfectly fit our brand. It's SeaWorld. What other giant flying coaster could look like manta rays and interact with land and water?

What was the first ride you ever designed?

It was Dungeon Drop at AstroWorld in Houston. It was one of the first free-fall rides to use a magnetic levitation braking system. The story was very gothic, about how the king used the 200-foot drop to test his knights. The park's gone now, and so is the ride. I actually watched it being removed via Web cam. It was very sad.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

Sea World's Roller coaster's designer fulfills lifelong ambition 05/09/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 9, 2009 4:31am]
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