Review: SeaWorld Orlando's Manta roller coaster a whale of a ride

Theme Park Ranger

I was lucky enough to ride Manta, SeaWorld's new roller coaster, Sunday. The attraction, which will have a sneak preview beginning Tuesday leading up to its official opening on May 22, was in private-party mode when my friend Tim and I arrived. But later in the day, it was available to anyone willing to stand in line. We did.

My expectations were high. They were exceeded. Wow, what a ride!

Manta is a sneaky coaster. From the ground, it looks so placid and docile. Doesn't even look like it's going THAT fast. Once on board, it's a different story told from a new viewpoint -- there's nothing else like it in Central Florida attractions.

SeaWorld wisely gave it the usual an aquatic theme, nice and soothing. But instead of Manta, they could have named it Man-Eater and mothers would have hidden their children. Rightfully so. The coaster is a wonderful, disorieting assault on its riders.

Let's not go turn for turn in review -- frankly, there are points that I'm not sure where I was.

After strolling through the subsurface queue (more on this later), riders hop into place, four people across. As they pull the harness down over their head and shoulders, clamps collect the danging feet. (There's no floor, of course). It's snug -- and a little bit electric chair.

Once all folks are secure, an odd mechanical noise -- kind of like a monster groaning -- signals that you're about to move into a new position. It's kind of like your feet have been kicked out from underneath you. Within a couple of seconds, passengers are now dangling face down, about 6 feet over the concrete, head and torso parallel to the ground. It's akin to being on all fours. If you look up, er, forward, you see the bottoms of the feet of the passengers previously sitting right in front of you.

Manta trains now move forward, usually to great hurrahs and applause. Almost immediately begins the lift hill, and down below are a net and dozens of grounded onlookers, friends and photographers. You're beginning to relax in the new fetal Superman position ... There's quite a view, including Aquatica, the Orange County Convention Center, various resorts. But you keep going higher. And then it occurs: you're going down.

Actually, you're going down head-freakin-first. And fast.

OK, so the first half of the ride is very very intense and disorienting. You're moving and twisting, sometimes seeing ground, then sky, then trees, then rail, then feeling your skin peel back from the G's of the first big loop. After that there's knotting and threading and general chaos and screaming.

The second half of the ride is about the "near misses" with water and other structures. The blast/splash across the front of the park is even better on board, and the close encounter with the waterfall is disturbing even though from dry land, you can see how much distance is between H20 and feet.

Even the turn toward home is rattling as the scenery changes rapidly from sky to trees to waterfront to wall to blue metal landing zone.

What you don't notice is other riders' heads and feet. Once everyone is parallel to the ground, it's like everyone has a front seat with unimpeded view.

Meanwhile, back in the queue, folks are entertained by several windows that look into a water environment for rays and other sealife. The chops up the wait effectively. Some folks are so taken in by the scenery that the line can be a little stop and go. (The non-riders aquarium was not open for us Sunday). And it's all inside, away from the Florida sun.

Eventually you reach a blue hallway with trippy aquatic lighting and a stairway. You're surfacing right at the load station.

Manta is going to be a boon for coaster buffs. It might be a bit intense for the borderline adventurer. "It's a great attraction," said my friend Tim, "But I'm never getting on it again."

I did. Well, after collecting myself. Here's how good it is: I don't stand in line at theme parks, but for the second trip, I willingly waited 45 minutes.

OK, the official word is that Manta will be open to the public at noon on Tuesday, and at noon on the subsequent days through next Sunday. Might you luck out this Monday? I haven't a clue. Only the RealShamu knows.

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