One of the rarest rollercoasters in the nation may come to SeaWorld Orlando, new documents hint

The project name "Penguin" has some suspecting this project might be a drop coaster similar to Bolliger & Mabillard’s SheiKra, found at SeaWorld Orlando’s sister park Busch Gardens Tampa.

One of the rarest rollercoasters in the nation may come to SeaWorld Orlando, new documents hint
Image via Bolliger & Mabillard

SeaWorld Orlando still has plenty of work to do on Ice Breaker, its new coaster set to debut later this year, but the park is already developing plans for another big project. Permits filed with Orange County confirm a large project is in the works for the park’s Bayside Pathway, with rumors pointing to another custom-built signature coaster.

The construction of Mako began a multi-year updating process to the SeaWorld waterfront. Prior to that hyper coaster’s opening, nearly all of the rides were located in the northeast section of the park, away from many of the park’s more popular animal habitats. In an attempt to balance out the park, SeaWorld has slowly been working its way around the lake. 2016 saw Mako and the Shark Wreck Reef area open. In 2018, Infinity Falls opened in front of the former Hospitality House. Last year saw Sesame Street Place open, where Shamu’s Happy Harbor was previously located. This year will see Ice Breaker open just west, along the lakeshore. The final piece of the waterfront yet to receive any update is a section on the western edge of the lake, which includes a pathway mostly used for festivals but otherwise sits unused for large amounts of the year.

Via a public records request, coaster fan site The Coaster Kings was able to confirm that this new project, known internally at SeaWorld as Project Penguin, will take up 3.6 acres along this festival pathway, from the Flamecraft Bar to Bayside Stadium. The construction area includes the entire festival pathway and all of the Ports of Call outdoor area, where guests meet characters like Rudolph during the holidays.

Days before the documents were published, a user on the fan forum site Inside Universal said they had heard a new coaster was coming to SeaWorld and would include a new entrance plaza. The post got the exact location of the project correct.

The project name "Penguin" has some suspecting this project might be a drop coaster similar to Bolliger & Mabillard’s SheiKra, found at SeaWorld Orlando’s sister park Busch Gardens Tampa. It is true that SeaWorld is currently building a penguin-themed drop coaster by B&M at SeaWorld San Diego, but with the already well-themed and popular penguin area on the opposite side of the Orlando park, it’s unlikely this area would be receiving a penguin-themed coaster. The code name is more likely just a placeholder designed to throw off fans, a common tactic that many parks use while planning their new attractions.

In the Inside Universal post, the user, GACoaster, said they believed a wing coaster was in the works. This wouldn't be the first time a wing coaster was rumored for SeaWorld, but this time the rumor has multiple insiders supporting it. Both The Coaster Kings, who initially broke the story, and Lance Hart of Screamscape, known for his insider knowledge of the industry, agree that a custom-built wing coaster by Bolliger & Mabillard makes sense for SeaWorld Orlando. The park already has a strong relationship with B&M, with Kraken, Mako and Manta all being from the Swiss coaster design firm.

Wing coasters offer a unique experience, with riders sitting on either side of the track. The design creates a supernatural sensation, with the area above and below the rider completely open. Usually arranged in a two-by-two configuration, wing coasters offer a different experience in the two interior seats from the two exterior seats, and different experiences on the right or left sides of the track. This means many riders prefer multiple rides to enjoy all angles.

While many wing coasters have opened in recent years, nearly all of them have been in Asia. According to RCDB, the roller coaster database used by the industry, there are currently 12 wing coasters in operation in the United States, though the majority of these are the small footprint "4th Dimensional" coasters that offer a far different ride experience than a more traditional wing coaster. Half of the 12 wing coasters in the United States are off-the-shelf 4D Free Spin coasters by S&S Sansei Technologies, all of which operate at Six Flags parks and carry a Batman or Joker theme.

If SeaWorld Orlando did open a wing coaster, it would be the first traditional wing coaster in the nation since Holiday World opened Thunderbird in 2015. With Disney, Universal, and Busch Gardens all building coasters of their own, SeaWorld would need a unique coaster to counter. A traditional wing coaster would be unique to the region, with the closest currently in operation being Wild Eagle at Dollywood in Tennessee.

In the middle of last year, B&M filed plans for a still undisclosed new “surf coaster.” Little is known about this project, but some, including Screamscape’s Hart, believe that SeaWorld Orlando may be receiving the new coaster vehicle design. Hart noted that he has previously heard B&M was working on a wing coaster design that would allow riders to rotate forward and backward similar to the ride vehicles used on 4D coasters like those found at the Six Flags parks, but with a custom-designed coaster layout. Others have theorized the surf coaster may be an updated stand-up coaster or a type of water coaster. All of which would fit into SeaWorld’s ocean theme, though technically the park already has a water coaster due to a small roller coaster segment towards the end of Journey to Atlantis.

The documents published by The Coaster Kings show the construction area includes a part of the rarely used parking tram lane on the edge of the main parking lot. This small inclusion has some speculating that the new project may involve not only a thrill ride but also an updated entrance into the park. In late 2015 all of Orlando’s theme parks added metal detectors and other updated safety protocols to the front gates. Since then, Universal has remodeled its hub area to allow for more permeant and better-looking security checkpoints. Disney World is currently updating the entrance areas at all four of its theme parks, in part to better accommodate the now-standard security checkpoints. SeaWorld has shifted its entrance plaza around a few times but the current entrance area still struggles to adapt to the more stringent security protocols now in place.

With changes in how many guests buy their tickets and access them, the current entrance area, with its large amount of ticket booths and small guest services area isn’t ideal. SeaWorld San Diego received an entrance overhaul a few years ago but opened to mixed reviews, so any new entrance update in Orlando will not likely be based on the San Diego design, which SeaWorld already plans to update. Instead, the new Orlando entrance plaza, if it does happen, may point to a brand new image for SeaWorld, where thrills are more of a focus than animals. That thrill focus of the possible new entrance plaza lines up with another piece of this still-mysterious project.

An entrance plaza integrated into the coaster sounds similar to what Cedar Point did in 2013, when it opened GateKeeper. In the post-Blackfish reimagining of SeaWorld, the company has drawn heavy inspiration from Cedar Point’s parent company Cedar Fair, and so copying Cedar Point’s entrance plaza wouldn’t come as much of a surprise. The new unique coaster would also help legitimize SeaWorld Orlando as must-visit for coaster enthusiasts, a core demographic that Cedar Point relies on and that SeaWorld Parks have been leaning on more as they evolve their target demographics.

Even if Project Penguin doesn’t include a new entrance plaza, it will still very likely cause crowd flows within the park to be dramatically changed. The construction site consists of the pathway that begins near the current Dolphin Nursery and wraps along the western edge of the lake to Bayside Stadium. A small path through this area is currently only opened during special events. In recent years, SeaWorld Orlando has begun shifting more of its festival offerings away from this area to other areas of the park, with many booths now open in the Waterfront village. This project would likely mean the pathway will be open year-round with festival offerings being more spread around the park, similar to how Epcot or other parks operate their festivals.

For now, little is known about the park’s 2021 plans, but it seems clear that they don’t plan to slow down the ride-after-ride investments that have proven successful for the company.

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