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Sea World joins the thrill ride wave

Add Sea World to the list of Florida theme parks flocking to big thrill rides.

The Anheuser Busch Cos. park, which for 24 years limited itself to animal attractions and shows, said Wednesday it is building a combination roller coaster/flume ride called Journey to Atlantis. It will open in the spring of 1998.

The ride will feature several new twists, one of which is an S-turn in the track as the coaster takes its final plunge into a splash pool at 50 mph.

The ride will cover 6 acres, giving riders a seven-minute, special effects-laden tour of the mythical underwater city of Atlantis. The ride is being touted as the most expensive attraction ever built for any of the nine Busch theme parks, including Busch Gardens in Tampa. Busch executives, however, declined to reveal the price tag.

Over the past several years thrill rides have made a big comeback in the theme park world because they draw younger patrons and because they can be used to create excitement in advertising.

Busch Gardens got such an attendance boost from its $10-million Kumba roller coaster in 1993 that it built a $20-million companion that opened in 1996. Two of the three Disney theme parks near Orlando now have thrill rides. Aside from three thrill rides at Universal Studios Florida, Universal City's Islands of Adventure park will have at least four coasters when it opens in two years. In addition it will have an updated version of the Lost World/Jurassic Park thrill ride that opened last year at Universal Studios Hollywood in Los Angeles.

Sea World, which has had a single small simulator ride called Wild Arctic for some time, has steered clear of the $50-million to $90-million blockbuster thrill rides that have helped distinguish competitors.

Consumer research guided the decision. Customers said they wanted a thrill ride that remained true to the park's aquatic theme.

"But they said it had to be something that they could not do anywhere else," said Vic Abbey, executive vice president and general manager. "In Central Florida, that's a pretty tall order."

The ride's 750,000-gallon pool will be one of the few bodies of water at Sea World that do not have living creatures such as Shamu or water skiers cavorting in it. Another one will be a 1-million-gallon pool at the park's remodeled front gate that will come complete with machines capable of churning up a continuous surf 2 feet tall.

"This is really the capstone of all the improvements Busch has added through its first six years of ownership in Sea World," Abbey said. "We have opened 20 new attractions in that time, spending more on improvements than we did to buy the park."