Busch Gardens Tampa Bay and SeaWorld Orlando held an unusual simultaneous news conference on Thursday looking to the future of the parks, noting many new attractions, coasters and waterslides coming in 2020 as the company resurfaces from years of stormy seas.
Some of the attractions detailed at the conference had already been announced, but park representatives released more details and showed off what coaster enthusiasts are saying could be one of the best of its kind coming to Busch Gardens (as in, tallest, fasted and steepest).
That would be the new thrill ride at Busch Gardens called Iron Gwazi. The hybrid shocker pairs the wooden aesthetic of the old Gwazi coaster, which closed in 2015, with a slick steel track. It will be North America’s tallest hybrid coaster at more than 206 feet, with the world’s fastest and sharpest hybrid coaster drop of 91 degrees.
Reporters were allowed to tour the Iron Gwazi construction site and the size alone is intimidating. Only about 25 percent of the old wooden coaster remains, an engineer said, mostly in the form of the concrete foundations. Riders will have to be 48 inches tall to travel its 4,075-foot-long, 110-second course. Among the twists and turns will be 12 moments of airtime — that fluttery lift that takes riders momentarily out of their seats. There will also be three upside-down inversions and a 180-degree stall that will hang riders upside down for a few seconds.
“We love being Florida’s thrill park leader,” said Busch Gardens president Stewart Clark, “and this coaster takes that to all new levels. People that love coasters will travel all over to ride them and now they’ll be able to come to sunny Florida."
Also coming to Tampa next year, at Adventure Island water park, will be Solar Vortex, called “America’s first dual tailspin water slide.” The 55-foot-tall two- to four-person raft slide will move riders 20 miles per hour with high-banking rotations, rapid descents and two tailspin features. It will have three dynamic AquaLucent elements — that’s a buzzed-about visual effect that creates bursts of colors and dreamlike patterns as riders race through tubes. Riders will have to be 42 inches tall.
At SeaWorld, a new multi-launch coaster is coming in 2020 called Ice Breaker. It will have a 48-inch height limit, putting it in the family coaster category, and feature a quadruple launch. At one point the trains will move riders laterally into the launch section. The cars will launch backward, then forward, then backward again, and finally forward with enough of a boost to reach 52 miles per hour. There will also be an 80-foot drop and loads of airtime.
Both theme parks are owned by SeaWorld Entertainment, a company that has struggled with years of declining attendance after the opening of Harry Potter land at Universal in 2010 and the 2013 documentary Blackfish that questioned the park’s handling of killer whales.
But a recent uptick in profits and attendance has buoyed the company. A big part of its comeback plan has been its ticket strategy just below Disney and Universal price points, and focusing on attractions that don’t involve animals.
The public backlash after Blackfish was harsh, and organizations like PETA kept up relentless attacks on SeaWorld on social media. A billboard on Interstate 4 has been up since 2015 featuring a picture of an orca and the words “Free World Not Slave World. End Whale Captivity." SeaWorld has sought to repair its image by retooling shows to highlight “natural behavior” rather than entertainment and emphasizing its conservation and education efforts. The current population of orcas at the parks will be its last. Though animal rights groups are still pressuring the company to release the whales into a seaside sanctuary, SeaWorld and the U.S. Humane Society have said such a move could kill the whales, and that they are safer at the park.
SeaWorld Entertainment has gone through a string of CEOs since Blackfish. The most recent CEO, Gus Antorcha, previously worked at Carnival Cruise Line and started in February.
Across the company, not a single new animal habitat has been announced. Instead, every park has thrill rides in the pipeline. Some longtime SeaWorld fans worry about the change.
“No other park can match the quality of animal exhibits and live animal shows that SeaWorld has,” Kai Honua wrote on the Behind the Thrills theme park site. “If roller coasters took the place of animal exhibits and shows, SeaWorld would lose what separates it from the competition.”
Clark said thrill rides still play a part in their zoological message. Iron Gwazi is themed after the slender-snouted crocodile found in West Africa, which is endangered due to hunting and habitat loss.
“We are one of the few places anywhere in the world that has ever had them successfully reproduce, so we are very proud of that,” Clark said of the crocs in the Edge of Africa exhibit at Busch Gardens. By using it as the ride mascot, “we can highlight animals we already have.”
Meanwhile, Busch Gardens now has the most coasters in Florida, with 10 by 2020. SeaWorld Orlando is gaining ground with six major coasters by 2020 and a water thrill ride called Infinity Falls that opened in 2018. SeaWorld also recently added a new Sesame Street land.
Industry observers have noted that the company has found success with its pricing, incentives such as free beer and ambitious new rides and attractions.
Earlier this year, SeaWorld Entertainment reported that full-year attendance climbed to the highest number since 2013, the year the critical documentary was released. The company posted a profit of $52.7 million in the second quarter, a 132 percent increase from the same period in 2018, and 6.5 million people visited its parks, a almost a one percent uptick.
“I think they are definitely on the comeback trail,” said Dennis Speigel, president of Ohio-based consulting firm International Theme Park Services. “I think at some point in time we will see them back to where they were years ago.”
Coaster fans have been buzzing about Iron Gwazi, from manufacturer Rocky Mountain Construction. The company has made a name for itself in the industry by turning old wooden coasters into much better, smoother rides. They became the kind of attractions coaster enthusiasts drove across the country to experience, like when New Texas Giant and Iron Rattler opened in the Texas.
With more regional parks upping their coaster game, Rocky Mountain Construction has more than 20 retrofitted coasters across the country. This will be Florida’s first hybrid coaster. But that doesn’t necessarily mean an attendance bump is assured, said Robert Niles creator and editor of Theme Park Insider.
“RMC coasters are great rides. I have yet to have a bad experience on an RMC coaster,” Nile said. “But hybrid coasters are no longer unique.”