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Water and whimsy

Aquatica will be the first new park in Orlando since 2000.

Published March 6, 2007


ORLANDO - Sea World is building a lush new water park here that's supposed to let guests swim with the fishes. But the park, called Aquatica, had to rustle up some stand-ins for Shamu.

"When we showed them to focus groups, people said they looked just like Little Shamus," said Jim Atchison, executive vice president of Sea World Adventure Parks.

So when human thrill seekers barrel down a water slide through a clear acrylic tube, they will shoot through a saltwater tank teeming with leaping and cavorting Commerson's dolphins.

They're native to South America. They're black and white and have never been on permanent display in North America. Their metabolism is three times as fast as a killer whale like Shamu.

Sea World animal trainers say the dolphins - each one is about 5 feet long and weighs 100 pounds - are "energetic, edgy and whimsical" enough sights to become the star attraction of Aquatica, a water park designed to be different from the industry standard.

The theme park unit of Anheuser-Busch Cos. is pouring more than $50-million into Aquatica. When it opens in March 2008, the 59-acre spread will offer lots of shade, a sandy beach the size of a Kmart and 36 thrill-style slides.

The park also is the first to have side-by-side wave pools and feature a second lazy river that moves four times as fast as conventional ones. And it had been poised to have the world's largest water park play area for kids.

"Then we found out the manufacturer just agreed to build a bigger one for another park overseas," shrugged Tim Cuddihy, the manager of Aquatica.

While the wave machines are capable of throwing 6-foot breakers, Busch will keep them toned down to keep surfers and boogie board fans from taking over. Bigger waves could be created, however, for special events.

The biggest difference, however, is that Aquatica, which will be touted as "Sea World's water park," will offer patrons the chance to swim past thousands of colorful freshwater tropical fish, dolphins and interact with a variety of birds and other critters such as iguanas and a giant anteater.

Actually, patrons will not be sharing the water with the parks aquatic inhabitants. They will be separated by clear plexiglass partitions in water heated by natural gas to 84 degrees year round.

Water parks today are typically dominated by youth-oriented thrills and chills and water-soaking kids play areas. Aquatica will have all that but will offer more of a balance with laid-back grottoes, private alcoves and two lazy rivers. It's a concession made to appeal to aging baby boomers who may have the urges but not all the gumption to keep up with their children.

Indeed, Aquatica is built with a capacity about a third larger than the company's Busch Gardens Adventure Island park in Tampa, which opens for the season this weekend, then operates daily on March 19. Busch says Aquatica will never have longer than "minimal lines" for its attractions.

Most water parks today were built with a capacity of 8,000 people, but often are jammed with as many as 10,000 at one time. Aquatica is being built with a capacity of 16,000 an hour, but Busch promises to only allow 8,000 people in at a time.

It will be the first new major park attraction to open in Orlando since Busch opened Discovery Cove in 2000. While Discovery offers guests swimming encounters with dolphins, it carries admission of more than $200 a person.

Exact prices for Aquatica, which is located across International Drive from Sea World, have not been set. But pricing will be in the $35 to $40 a day range with several package discount deals aimed at getting families to spend more of their vacation time on Busch's other properties in Florida. That's comparable to other rival theme parks such as Wet n' Wild in Orlando, which is owned by Universal Orlando.

"While Discovery Cove is about an experience with sea animals, Aquatica will be an immersive experience with a variety of our animals," Atchison said.

Mark Albright can be reached at or (727) 893-8252.



Aquatica water park

* Across International Drive from Sea World. Expected to open March 2008.

* Can handle 16,000 visitors an hour, but only 8,000 allowed at a time.

* Admission price not set, but likely between $35 to $40 a day.


[Last modified March 6, 2007, 06:35:12]

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