Sea World Orlando unveiled new additions for two of its Florida theme parks on Wednesday: a saltwater environment dubbed “Grand Reef” for Discovery Cove in Orlando, and a launch-style roller coaster called “Cheetah Hunt” for Busch Gardens Tampa Bay.
The Florida projects, along with a new drop tower and a water slide announced last month for the company’s two Virginia theme parks, constitute the first wave of capital investment at Orlando-based Sea World Parks since it was acquired last fall by the private-equity giant Blackstone Group in a sale valued at approximately $2.5 billion.
It also marks the first significant expansion of Discovery Cove, the 10-year-old boutique park that has carved a unique niche in Orlando’s theme-park industry. While the area’s larger theme parks depend on huge volumes of visitors buying tickets, food and souvenirs every day, Discovery Cove caps its daily attendance at about 1,000 people, which allows it to offer resort-style pampering and personalized encounters with animals — and to command much higher ticket prices than those for a typical theme park.
Sea World Orlando says Discovery Cove has cultivated a loyal following since opening in 2000, and the expansion is designed to ensure that return visits continue.
The 2.5-acre Grand Reef, to open next June, will be a lush tropical environment with a white-sand beach, underwater grottoes and a palm-tree-lined island. It will be built around an aquarium filled with more than 1 million gallons of water and 125 species of fish, rays and sharks.
Guests will be able to wade and snorkel with tropical fish, cross a rope bridge over a shark-filled lagoon, and relax in island hammocks. But the most interesting addition will be an underwater walking tour dubbed “SeaVenture,” in which guests will don dive helmets and follow a submerged path, roughly 10 feet below the surface, that will take them through schools of tropical fish and past venomous lion fish and sharks that can be viewed through panoramic windows.
That limited-capacity experience, which will cost an additional $59 on top of Discovery Cove’s base admission price, will last about an hour and accommodate as many as six people at a time. Some details are still being worked out, such as age limits and when the park will begin accepting reservations.
Sea World Orlando said Grand Reef will feature improvements over Discovery Cove’s existing reef. For example, the layout will allow people who are only able to wade in shallow water to see many of the same sights witnessed by guests snorkeling in deeper water. There will be less underwater sand, to reduce instances where silt is kicked up and impedes visibility. And Grand Reef will incorporate several new species of fish, including moray eels and reef sharks.
The existing reef will close once Grand Reef opens. Discovery Cove will build a new feature in its place, to debut in 2012, though he would not discuss specifics.
Meanwhile, Cheetah Hunt will be Busch Gardens’ first “launch” coaster, designed to immediately propel riders from 0 to 60 mph. Three separate launch points will be spread throughout the 4,429-foot-long track, which will include a 130-foot drop and will pass across a faux Serengeti plain and through an artificial canyon. The layout will also include a mid-ride parabola that will give riders the sensation of weightlessness for three seconds.
“Riders are actually going to feel the full speed, power and agility of a sprinting cheetah,” Jim Dean, president of Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, said in a video unveiling the attraction.
The coaster will be paired with a new habitat dubbed “Cheetah Run” that will permit guests to view cheetahs up-close through oversized windows and learn more about the animals on touch-screen computer terminals. What’s more, trainers will conduct daily sprints with the cheetahs, which are the world’s fastest land animals and can reach speeds of more than 70 mph.
Busch Gardens officials say the Cheetah Hunt will have the largest “footprint” of any attraction yet built in the Tampa theme park. It will open next spring.
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