By Pat Sherman
That crane perched above SeaWorld the past month isn't hoisting Shamoo for a deep cleaning. It's part of a construction project for the amusement park's new, manta ray-themed roller coaster.
SeaWorld received final approval for the project from the California Coastal Commission earlier this year. The coaster and an expanded manta exhibit are scheduled to open in spring of 2012.
To circumvent the Commission's 30-foot height limit for new construction, the ride's 54-foot drop will include a plunge 24 feet underground. Park officials had to obtain special approval from the San Diego City Council and the Coastal Commission to build SeaWorld's existing roller coaster, Journey to Atlantis, which has a 70- foot drop.
The new coaster, Manta, is modeled after a similar ride at SeaWorld Orlando , though park spokesman David Koontz promises the San Diego version will offer different twists.
Cars will launch from two stations along the track, skirt over a pond and pass a water feature that makes it appear as if the cars are skimming the surface of the water. The nearly two-minute ride will reach a maximum speed of 43 miles per hour.
"You can almost kind of equate it to when a jet launches off an aircraft carrier," Koontz says. "It's a shorter drop (than Atlantis), but it's going to have much more speed."
The first launch station will be encased in a tunnel featuring projections of bat rays on screens.
"It has a lot of highbanked turns and twists," Koontz says. "We're trying to simulate the fluidness of the movement of a bat ray or a
manta ray through water."
Coasting Through History
San Diego's first roller coaster was part of Wonderland Amusement Park (1913-16), which covered eight acres along Voltaire Street in Ocean Beach , on portions of the land where Dog Beach is now located.
Wonderland was an anomaly in the wasteland of a largely undeveloped Ocean Beach, which at the time had fewer than 300 residents. The park contained a giant water slide; carrousel; casino; bowling alley and zoo that housed leopards, pumas, bears, lions and as many as 350 monkeys (most of the animals were later transferred to Balboa Park , forming a basis for the San Diego Zoo).
"It was very short-lived, but it's become an icon of our history," says Pat James of the Ocean Beach Historical Society.
The 1915 Panama- California Exposition in Balboa Park eventually drew visitors away from Wonderland, hastening its demise.
"The crowds diminished, and some flooding took out part of the roller coaster," James says. "That was just one of the nails in the coffin."
Rebirth of a Giant
San Diego's iconic Giant Dipper in Belmont Park is one of the few remaining coasters to skirt the California coastline.
The 2,600-foot-long ride, which opened July 4, 1925, cost just $50,000 to build. It remained a popular attraction for decades, before falling into disrepair in the late '60s, eventually closing in December 1976.
The dilapidated structure sat rotting for nearly 15 years, becoming an eyesore and a magnet for vagrants. It was nearly demolished in the '80s, before a group of preservationists worked to have it designated as a U.S. National Historic Landmark. The coaster reopened in August of 1990, following a roughly $2 million renovation.