When SeaWorld San Diego unveiled its now closed Submarine Quest attraction last year, passengers quickly discovered that the closest they were going to get to seeing sea life during the three-minute long ride was a brief encounter with a digital version of a giant octopus in a darkened enclosure.
Not so for Legoland California, which is delivering an abundance of marine life – more than 1,000 sea animals, from stingrays to sharks – as it has debuted its version of a submarine ride that really does go underwater.
Standing in for an actual ocean is a 300,000-gallon aquarium populated with multiple species of sharks, rays and tropical fish, a feature that differentiates the park's Lego City Deep Sea Adventure attraction from other theme park submarine rides, including the last incarnation of Disneyland's longstanding Submarine Voyage, now dubbed Finding Nemo. None incorporate real sea life.
Inspired by a similar ride at three other Legoland parks overseas, Deep Sea Adventure marks parent company Merlin Entertainments' single largest investment in an attraction in any Legoland park, outside of Carlsbad's Sea Life Aquarium. Park officials, however, will not disclose how much was spent on the ride.
The attraction is located in the northeast corridor of the park where its miniature golf had previously been situated.
While the Carlsbad park is no stranger to underwater life considering it also operates the Sea Life Aquarium, it is no small feat creating a massive concrete-walled tank and the accompanying infrastructure needed to navigate 12-seat vehicles through the watery environment.
"This is a big deal because any other submarine ride is mostly simulated and there isn't even water in them much less sea life," said Larry Wyatt, owner of Pasadena, Calif.-based Wyatt Design Group, which does design work for theme parks and was involved in the original planning for Legoland California. "For a lot of these it's animation or animatronics so this is something no one has done, not even Disney.
"There is a lot of competition in Southern California so every so often you have to do something really big to make a difference."
The ride inevitably invites comparisons with SeaWorld's ill-fated Submarine Quest, a ride that ran on an elevated track and did not traverse water. It has been closed since early this year with little explanation for the closure. In a May post on his website, ThemeParkInsider.com, editor Robert Niles said of Legoland's Deep Sea Adventure: "no matter how this turns out, it's got to beat last summer's Submarine Quest ride at SeaWorld San Diego."
Conceived four years ago, the attraction has a direct tie-in to Lego's Deep Sea Adventure line of toys and complements its aquarium that opened eight years ago. It also builds on the popularity of similar attractions at the Windsor, Dubai and Japan parks.
"Sea Life Aquarium is an extremely popular attraction here and part of the formula that makes Legoland a successful resort," said park president Peter Ronchetti. "So bringing that into the ride in a very controlled way opens up a whole new area of discovery for the children. It checks all the boxes for us, it's something different for us, it's in an exciting environment, and we're bringing the ride and fish together in a whole new way."
It's also designed to appeal to Legoland's demographic of young children who likely haven't been exposed to submarines or even sharks, Ronchetti said.
"How many 10-year-olds have been on a submarine and looked out and seen a shark?" he said. "The industry benchmark in North America has been submarines with animation and mechanical fish. But this is real so we've broken new ground for North America."
The ride's story line is structured around a voyage in which the passengers are searching for sunken Lego artwork, swords and other treasures strategically located on the "ocean" bottom.
In keeping with the Legoland tradition of Lego model-building, the journey starts in the ride's queue area where children are invited to construct sea creatures at a large table dominated by a 5-foot-tall shark crafted from more than 80,000 Lego bricks. As they move through the line, submarine passengers are treated to a bit of high-tech wizardry as they're given a briefing on the mission that awaits them by a 3-foot-tall Lego diver whose face appears to be moving as he speaks.
Except the figure itself isn't really moving.
"This was specifically developed for Legoland California," said Tom Storer, senior project manager with Merlin. "We spent a lot of R & D to find the projector that would fit into the microphone so you can feel like the figure is talking to you. This came from Merlin Entertainments creative team, so this is a unique idea developed for this project."
The real treasure-hunting quest begins as passengers step down to board the submarine while it advances very slowly along the track. Once seated, riders can gaze out at the water via portholes in front and back or through large picture windows on either side of the vehicle.
They are soon greeted by the voice of a master diver. "There's incredible sea creatures and treasures to discover out in the deep," he says. "We're going to have a whale of a time."
As exotic fish glide by and an occasional nurse shark or southern stingray with a 5-foot-wide wing span come into view among the faux coral, the guide says excitedly, "Wow, there must be hundreds of fish here. Keep your eyes open, too, for blacktip reef sharks.
Above are individual touch screens where kids and adults can tap icons of treasures as they spot them in plain sight. The more treasures they successfully detect, the better their outcomes at the end of the ride as they strive to become a master explorer.
"Keep looking explorers," the guide urges, "you're off to a flying start."
An occasional cloud of bubbles erupts outside the windows, designed to mimic a sub descending. While the vehicle itself does not descend, the depth of the tank changes at one point from 7 1/2 feet to 10 1/2 feet.
Most of the fish that have been curated for the attraction are native to Australia and were acquired from multiple sources, including accredited zoos and aquariums in the U.S. and Europe, said Marie Collins, displays curator for the Sea Life Aquarium and Deep Sea Adventure. Eventually, there will be more than 2,000 sea animals.
The fish are fed throughout the day, occasionally in sight of those riding the subs, but before the park opens, aquarium staff do the heavy feedings. Because of the variety of fish, food varies from algae and garlic-soaked nori to shrimp, clams, tuna and salmon.
With eight submarine cars continuously operating, Legoland hopes to process 1,000 passengers an hour on the ride.
Storer of Merlin was formerly a lieutenant in the Navy and recalls not so fondly his training on submarines.
"Compared to that, I like this a lot more," he said. "There are no windows on a real submarine so it's refreshing to look out and see real sea creatures as opposed to a white wall."
SUBMARINE RIDE: FUN FACTS
Length of ride: 4 minutes
Number of passengers per sub: 12
Weight of submarine: 22,000 pounds
Tank size: 300,000 gallons
Animal species: Eventually 2,000, including blacktip reef shark, southern stingray and bigscale soldierfish
Underwater treasurers: crown, pearl, sword, portrait art, treasure chest, six gems