Florida Travel

The making of a roller coaster: SeaWorld’s Mako

When a SeaWorld team of engineers, creative staff, zoologists and others started brainstorming a new attraction several years ago, the first decision was that it would be a hyper coaster — Florida’s first. Fast, tall and mostly straight with no loops or inversions, the ride would focus on air time, when riders feel like they are floating.

The second major decision was that the coaster would have a shark theme. SeaWorld already had a shark aquarium next to space where a loading station could be built, and the zoologists wanted to use the ride to educate the public about sharks and the threats they face from people.

Finally, SeaWorld brought in Bolliger & Mabillard, a Swiss engineering firm that is one of the world’s premier coaster companies, known for its smooth rides, including two at SeaWorld, Manta and Kraken.

Together, they created a spindly purple and blue coaster that will open on June 10, during an early summer that is busy with new theme park attractions. The ride starts and ends in a faux shipwreck-turned-reef. Its key feature, in coaster jargon, is a camelback: a series of hills, the first one 200 feet tall, each successively smaller than the last. It has a relatively simple layout, few turns, and almost a mile of track — about a third of it over water.

The coaster’s name is Mako, after the fastest shark in the world.

“We were looking for something new,” recounted Mike Denninger, senior director of rides and engineering for SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment, “and we quickly got to hyper coaster. I like to think of [a hyper coaster] as the purest coaster experience because it’s all about speed and air time.”

Air time occurs when motion — with roller coasters, usually when the car crests a hill at high speed — causes forces that make riders feel like they are floating. The body still has the momentum of upward movement while the coaster car turns downhill, and the body may briefly lose contact with the seat.

Mako has nine hills plus several other spots where riders will experience air time, restrained by a lap bar but no over-the-shoulder restraints.

Hyper coasters, usually at least 200 feet tall, achieve high speeds, and that’s the case with Mako. Coming down from Mako’s first hill, the car will accelerate to 73 miles an hour, faster than any coaster in Orlando. At 200 feet, Mako is also the tallest coaster in Orlando — at least until the 570-foot coaster called Skyscraper is built nearby on International Drive.

“SeaWorld needs a hyper coaster,” said Jeff Putz, editor of coasterbuzz.com and an Orlando resident. Hyper coasters “are a known quantity, people love them. We just don’t have a ride of that size and caliber … and that’s pretty surprising.”  

Although Florida’s big theme parks have a combined collection of about 18 roller coasters (not counting kiddie coasters or simulated coasters), they aren’t in the same league with other locales. For example, there’s Six Flags Magic Mountain in Southern California and Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, amusement parks that have the most coasters (19 and 18, respectively) of any U.S. park, and Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, New Jersey, which has Kingda Ka, which is both the tallest (456 feet) and fastest (128 mph) coaster in the country.

SeaWorld tries to make a connection between its rides and its animals. Manta, its most recent roller coaster, is built around an aquarium and lagoon that hold more than 300 rays. The movement of riders, positioned on their stomachs like Super Man in flight, is supposed to mimic the glide of a manta ray.

“We want our guests to feel like they have a connection with our natural world,” Denninger said.

Choosing the shark theme was an easy decision, Denninger said. “We have this great attraction already here,” he said, referring to Shark Encounter, a walk-through aquarium with Pacific blacktip, leopard, brownbanded bamboo and other sharks; and the adjacent shark-themed restaurant, Underwater Grill.

“Sharks kind of get a bad rap … People are scared of them, they think sharks are going to harm them. But people cause a lot more harm to sharks” through overfishing and pollution, he said. “We shouldn’t be fearing sharks, we should be revering them. [We said], ‘Let’s find a way to connect people to sharks.’ The rides becomes a delivery of the message.”

The coaster will launch from a plaza called Shark Wreck Reef that will tie together the park’s existing shark-related elements and some new ones — shops, a shark sculpture made of beach trash, images of sharks etched into the concrete, educational kiosks, and a mural and merchandise by Guy Harvey, marine artist and conservationist.

For SeaWorld, which recently ended its whale breeding program and moved to phase out its theatrical shows starring killer whales after years of intense criticism for holding whales in captivity, it was important to emphasize the park’s connection to animal rescue and conservation programs. Visitors to Shark Wreck Reef will learn about the approximately 450 species in the world and about how as many as 100 million sharks — including mako — are killed each year to make shark fin soup.

As the vision of the coaster evolved, SeaWorld brought in more specialists — industrial designers, lighting and audio people, show systems experts. Finally, when SeaWorld had a rough design of its new coaster, it hired Bolliger & Mabillard to fine-tune and build it.

SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, parent company of three SeaWorld and two Busch Gardens parks, has been working with Bolliger & Mabillard since the early 1990s. Apollo’s Chariot, the first hyper coaster for either the Swiss firm or SeaWorld Entertainment, opened at Busch Gardens Williamsburg in 1999. “Their rides are notably smooth, super smooth,” Denninger said.

“When we do these projects, it’s very collaborative,” he said. “We know what our guests want; they know what their technology can provide. We end up in a much better place than either one of us could have gotten by ourselves.”

Last August, the first pieces of the roller coaster began arriving on flatbed trucks from the Clermont Steel Fabricators plant in Batavia, Ohio, almost 1,000 miles from Orlando. Most of Mako’s track is outside the public part of the park, and as it was being assembled, little evidence of the coaster was visible to guests — except from Kraken, whose end is near Mako’s beginning.

In the meantime, the cars — the sleek lead cars inspired by the physiology of the mako shark, with five gills on each side — were being manufactured in Switzerland by Bolliger & Mabillard.

In March, the final, 12,500-pound piece of track was lifted into place, topped with a waving American flag. By mid-April, the cars had been loaded onto the track and testing had begun.

Mako launches from the back of the shipwreck building, designed so riders have a shark’s underwater point of view. The track runs out to International Drive, then turns and runs along it on the park’s eastern edge. It’s a simple out-and-back ride, with a bulbous turn called a hammerhead at the turnaround point, and a horseshoe turn near the end of the ride, where the coaster roars over the plaza and SeaWorld’s central lake.

“Mako will provide a great sense of height when guests reach the top of the 200-foot-tall lift and the top of each successive [hill] with a fantastic view,” Sophie Bolliger, head of marketing for Bolliger & Mabillard, wrote in answer to questions from the Miami Herald. It also will provide a great sense of speed, airtime and “two majestic curved elements: the horseshoe and hammerhead … with overbanked curves where guests will be inclined to approximately 118 degrees and 110 degrees,” she wrote.

The day after testing of Mako had begun, Denninger and his team watched it run, and he reported in a phone interview: “It’s beautiful to watch, it’s sleek and smooth. The first drop is perfect … the ride vehicle is so sleek and beautiful, it looks like a mako.”

It’s an exciting time for the SeaWorld crew, seeing the thrill ride they brainstormed evolve from sketches to a screaming, plunging, first-in-Florida hyper coaster.

“We’re very passionate about what we do,” Denninger said. “There’s nothing like standing there when the ride is open. You see people stopping and looking at something you developed. It’s very gratifying.”