The Life Aquatica: Orlando's New Big Splash
Sunday, May 25, 2008
It's at the top of the Dolphin Plunge that you first see it: classic American ingenuity colliding head-on with contemporary American excess. There, not far from the sounds of muffled glee emanating from a turquoise pipeline, a pipeline that turns suddenly transparent as passengers slide through a tank of Commerson's dolphins -- there stands a sign. Its purpose? To remind potential riders that they need to weigh less than 300 pounds in order to take the plunge. On the day I visited Aquatica, the first major theme park to open in Orlando since 2000, a few unhappy visitors were indeed forced to make a slow, sad retreat back across the swinging bridge and down the mesh stairs.
This seemed to me ironic, especially as Aquatica was created by SeaWorld, whose success can be traced not only to ingenuity and excess, but also to a few outsize mammals. Shamu, for instance. Also the late, great George Millay.
It was Millay who founded SeaWorld in 1964. A big guy with big dreams ("The Wave Man," a biography, is a better read than you'd expect), Millay ultimately gambled everything and walked away from the sea-life park, setting his sights on a new kind of entertainment that changed summer forever.
"Anyone who goes to central Florida in the middle of summer, walks around on hot asphalt for a couple of hours and sits on concrete benches soon realizes there must be a better way to be entertained," he told his biographer. Millay hit upon that better way in 1977 with the creation of the first modern water park.
That would be Wet 'n Wild, which still stands five miles north of Aquatica. You can almost see the older park from the staircase leading to the Taumata Racer, a 300-foot-long, eight-lane set of toboggan slides whose stomach-churning descent shows just how much the ante has been upped in the intervening decades. The audacity would have pleased Millay, even if Taumata is only a logical extension of his own humble inspiration: a makeshift slide he accidentally encountered at a California trailer park in 1974. To everyone else, it was a crude, 25-foot flume that emptied swimmers into a pond where cows came to drink. To Millay it was yet another chance to dream big.
Wet 'n Wild's central feature was a wave pool surrounded by a faux beach, which Millay liked for its ability to draw, as he put it, a wider demographic. Flash forward three decades and Aquatica, operating on the same principle, has seen Millay and raised him one, boasting two wave pools, side by side, surrounded by sand. Whatever your taste in choppy seas -- crashing surf or rolling swells -- this place has the wave for you (and at an admission price that's a buck less than Wet 'n Wild's $39.95 adult ticket).
Coming upon Aquatica's two lazy rivers (yep, it's Noah's water park), I was reminded that these too owe a debt to Millay, even if one of them, Roa's Rapids, carries riders at speeds up to four times faster than the lazy rivers of old. With its current and unpredictable spouting geysers, the rapids are yet another nod to an age of extremes and -- it must be stated -- a total delight. Even the more traditional Loggerhead Lane comes with a twist, allowing inner-tubers the chance to glide through an aquarium-lined tunnel, its 10,000-gallon tank loaded with exotic fish.
"The concept of aquatic recreation is immense and challenging but the imagineers and risk-takers that are needed to make it grow are now few," wrote Millay, who died in 2006. With regard to much of Aquatica, his words proved prophetic. The park -- a mob scene, by the way, even though at 59 acres it's almost twice as large as Wet 'n Wild -- contains the familiar roster of single- and double-rider slides, toilet bowl slides and family raft slides, all of them cinched together via a halfhearted Aussie motif (lots of "mate" this and that over the loudspeakers).
But then you come to the kids' playground, Walkabout Waters. Clever and fanciful, it promises to become a mecca for fans of tumble buckets and water cannons the world over, a park-within-a-park that's equal parts Rube Goldberg and backyard garden hose.
It, too, is reminiscent of Millay's Wet 'n Wild playground, which was inspired by the water fights he loved as a kid in San Francisco, long before anyone realized there was money to be made in such diversions. Walkabout Waters isn't much more than a variation on a theme, but only a killjoy would complain. (Among the overheard assessments: "This place is awesome," "This place is totally awesome" and the ever-reliable "AWESOME!") Most children, it seems, would happily lose themselves for hours among the candy-colored sprinklers and fountains, and turn up their noses at the long lines and gimmickry of the Dolphin Plunge.
But nevertheless, here I was, at last atop the Plunge, having successfully, and improbably, endured a 45-minute wait in the broiling Florida sun by meditating on water parks past and future. A moment later I was off, barreling in the dark through a disorienting series of turns, dropping farther and farther, racing toward the dolphin pool and what would be a comically brief glimpse of a trio of Commerson's.
Given that, Aquatica's signature attraction is something of a misfire. Then again, it's a bold misfire, and I have no doubt George Millay is smiling somewhere.