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Summer Splash

A Cool Super Soaker

Shipwreck Rapids, Sea World's first adventure ride, features plunges, a cafe and--what else?--animals.

May 20, 1999|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — The buzzword for Shipwreck Rapids, the newest attraction at Sea World, is immersion.

Immersion, as in a total experience, a park-within-a-park, a theme-within-a-theme, with visitors wandering into a lushly landscaped, five-acre "island" site and getting all their entertainment cravings satisfied: food, souvenirs, an eye-catching set, a splashy new ride and even interaction with Sea World animals.

And about that ride: Yes, you and the kids are going to get wet. That's the other wrinkle to immersion.

The trend in the amusement park industry for several years has been for "experience" attractions that take visitors somewhere far away and maybe long ago--with the aid of a large helping of willful suspension of disbelief.

"People want a more immersive venture," said Bill Davis, Sea World general manager. "They want to be put into a new place."

With Shipwreck Rapids, set to open May 29 amid a gala ceremony featuring comic Howie Mandel, Sea World is joining the trend in a big way.

"It's a kind of quantum leap for Sea World," Davis said. "We're advancing the state of the art. We want to transport you."

For openers, Shipwreck Rapids is Sea World's first adventure ride--presuming you don't count the doughnut-shaped elevator to the top of the 320-foot-tall Southwest Airlines Skytower and the gondola-like sky ride.

Shipwreck Rapids is also the first time that food concessions--five serving areas, sit-down places for 1,000, menus tailored to the "stranded on an island" theme, everything cooked and prepared fresh--are being integrated into an attraction: Shipwreck Reef Cafe.

In a Word, It's

Eater-tainment

While you're devouring your grilled salmon, stir-fry vegetables or mango-carrot cake, you can expect a young sea lion, Magellanic penguin or tropical bird (seen recently on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno") to drop by your table for conversation (accompanied by a trainer). Farther away but still visible are sea turtles, flamingos and other more delicate animals.

There's a word for this experience, too: eater-tainment.

The theme of Shipwreck Rapids is an isolated South Pacific isle littered with remnants of four shipwrecks: the Implausible, RMS Royal Star, Wholly Mackerel and Dream Boat II. The survivors--Gilligan would be right at home--have perforce created civilization where none existed among the palms, tree ferns, philodendron and banana trees.

Naturally, the castaways have tried to float back to more populated areas in hopes of rescue.

Enter nine-passenger, raft-like boats that shoot the rapids down a curvy river--a five-minute, 1,620-foot-ride--with water pressure provided by two 40-foot-long Archimedes' screws. The voyage includes a dark, forbidding tunnel, a near collision with a ship's propeller, a roaring waterfall, a trip through an engine room of one of the wrecked ships, still hissing its disapproval.

The ride is expected to be particularly attractive to the 14- to 25-year-old set, the age group that makes theme parks hum. Castaway characters will mingle, and musical groups will play. Tiki torches will blaze after nightfall.

Older and younger park-goers will still zero in on the animals and the entertainment shows elsewhere in the 160-acre park beside Mission Bay, but Shipwreck Rapids should be catnip to that middle range.

"Our guests are looking for total experiences all day," said Dennis Burks, Sea World's corporate vice president of food.

Sea World, owned by Anheuser-Busch since 1989, has always been keen on watching where the market is going.

On a family-fun continuum with the sober-sided San Diego Zoo at one end and thrill-a-minute Universal Studios on the other, Sea World is somewhere in the middle: dedicated to both education and entertainment. (Please, no cards or phone calls: We know the animal-rights movement is not enamored of Sea World, but that's a story for a different day.)

Last year, sensing the taste of the public for more zip, more "experience" in its entertainment, Anheuser-Busch modified the name to Sea World Adventure Parks, a harbinger of attractions to come. Two years ago the San Diego park opened Wild Arctic, a simulated work station with beluga whales and polar bears swimming nearby.

In tone, Wild Arctic is clearly the progenitor of Shipwreck Rapids (including the story line about a shipwrecked boat), but the latter is larger, more adventuresome and more interactive. Although Sea World won't talk dollar figures, officials say it represents the most expensive attraction added to the park in its 35-year history in San Diego.

"Once you're in here, you should feel you've left San Diego," said Pat Owen, vice president of design and engineering.

BE THERE

Sea World summer hours are 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. Take the Sea World exit off Interstate 5 in San Diego. Tickets are $38 for adults, $35 for seniors, $29 for children (3 to 11). Parking is $6 for cars, $8 for recreational vehicles. Wheelchairs and strollers are available for rent. To put Fido in the pet center for the day: $5.

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