To Fight Floundering Attendance, SeaWorld Turns To Roller Coasters

Jun 12, 2016
Originally published on June 14, 2016 3:10 pm

The last few years have been rocky ones for SeaWorld. While other theme parks have prospered, SeaWorld's parks have seen attendance declines — in part because of public concerns about captive killer whales raised by the documentary Blackfish.

In March, SeaWorld agreed to end theatrical orca shows and its captive breeding program. Their Florida location is now adding new attractions and is hoping to lure visitors back with the area's tallest and fastest roller coaster.

It's called Mako, named after the fastest species of shark. The coaster is 200 feet tall and goes up to 73 mph, according to Sophie Bolliger of the Swiss engineering firm Bolliger and Mabillard.

"It's 4,760 feet long. So, it's a big coaster," Bolliger says.

She says it's not just any roller coaster — it's a "hypercoaster." Hypercoasters typically have a drop of at least 200 feet. They're built for speed and what the industry calls "airtime" — those moments when riders are literally lifted from their seats. There are taller and faster hypercoasters elsewhere in the country, but this is the first for Orlando.

When it commissioned the ride, SeaWorld told Bollinger and Mabillard it wanted lots of airtime. But airtime, Bolliger says, along with height and speed, are just ingredients. How you blend them together is the key to a great coaster.

"You want to create a harmony of experiences, a harmony of sensations," she says. "You have to create some kind of a symphony of sensations and experiences. You want to give a rhythm to the coaster, a certain cadence to the coaster."

Because SeaWorld is a theme park, it sees the new Mako coaster as much more than just a ride. It's the centerpiece of a redesigned section of the park dedicated to sharks and their conservation.

Unlike another roller coaster Bolliger and Mabillard designed, Mako doesn't have any inversions, which turn riders upside down. Inversions are popular with older teenagers and young adults, but not so much with younger teens and older adults. Instead of inversions, Mako has height and speed.

SeaWorld's Vice President of Theme Park Development Mike Denninger says he's most proud of the series of hills that riders go over, called "camelbacks."

"The geometry of these hills is specifically drawn and designed and built to maximize airtime," he says. "So those shapes are parabolic. That shape along with the speed that the coaster crests — that shape, that is the reality of the physics that deliver the forces that you feel as airtime."

In the end, describing a roller coaster isn't enough. As with wine, theater or music, the only way to fully appreciate a roller coaster is to experience it.

Mike Denninger and Sophie Bolliger join me in Mako's front car as we begin the smooth ascent up. And then the drop.

The track suddenly curves away under us and we plummet 200 breathless feet before bottoming out in a 73 mph adrenaline-fueled rush.

But the biggest surprises come with the camelbacks. As the coaster crests the hills, there are split seconds that feel much longer. We're lifted from our seats with only the lap restraint holding us in.

The ride on Mako is just two and a half minutes — fairly long for a coaster.

Outside of people in the industry and hardcore fans, Sophie Bolliger says few recognize the amount of art that goes into designing a coaster. She says coaster designers get their recognition elsewhere.

"When they get off, and they're smiling, this is when you have the recognition. When you see smiling guests coming back in the station, you have people going again and again on the coaster, that's when you have the recognition."

As it works to rebuild its image and attendance, SeaWorld is hoping Mako will help bring guests back to the park time and again.

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Immigrants from Latin America who've recently arrived in the U.S. often have poor access to health care in general and mental health treatment in particular. The University of North Carolina at Charlotte is one of several universities trying to change that. From member station WFAE, Michael Tomsic brings us this report.

PATRICIA BECERRIL: (Speaking Spanish).

MICHAEL TOMSIC, BYLINE: Patricia Becerril comes to Bethesda Health Center in north Charlotte every other week. It's no easy trip.

BECERRIL: (Speaking Spanish).

KATHERINE WILKIN: It takes her two hours to get here. She takes two buses. So coming here, she's definitely devoted to getting this treatment. And she comes every time.

TOMSIC: Translating is UNC Charlotte student Katherine Wilkin. She's Becerril's mental health counselor. And Becerril says she's helped her deal with depression.

BECERRIL: (Speaking Spanish).

WILKIN: With therapy, she's gotten able to organize her thoughts and feelings. And she feels better, not frustrated, less stressed.

TOMSIC: Becerril initially came to this free clinic for diabetes treatment. Director Wendy Pascual says primary care is often the starting point for patients here, most of whom are immigrants.

WENDY PASCUAL: One thing that we have been seeing year after year is that many patients came here with physical problems but really are mental health problems.

TOMSIC: Meanwhile, a counseling professor at UNC Charlotte named Daniel Gutierrez was looking to get more involved in the community. So a colleague put him and Pascual in touch and they set up a partnership last year.

Eight or so master's or Ph.D. students in counseling or psychology provide treatment. They're unpaid. It's part of their training. Some speak Spanish. Some use an interpreter. Gutierrez says they see a variety of issues.

DANIEL GUTIERREZ: The big three we keep finding are depression, high levels of anxiety and then high levels of trauma.

TOMSIC: And the clinic's focus on the immigrant community means treating many people who are uninsured and often here illegally.

GUTIERREZ: Latinos, although they're experiencing a lot of these mental health concerns, they are least likely to be able to get services.

TOMSIC: There are similar partnership at Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Georgia and the University of Denver. In Oregon, professor Shahana Koslofsky is involved in one at Pacific University.

SHAHANA KOSLOFSKY: We were wanting to train our students to be able to respond from a more culturally informed model in general.

TOMSIC: And Koslofsky says the need was great among Latinos who often face a language barrier and may have had a traumatic trip from their home country.

KOSLOFSKY: There are stories of sexual assaults and rapes that happen during border crossings. And then there's more cumulative experiences of growing up in poverty or dealing with drug cartels or gangs. Or some people have difficult experiences in their country of origin.

TOMSIC: Pacific University has around 20 master's and Ph.D. students providing counseling at any given time. Even with that, she says Latinos face waiting lists for treatment. Back in Charlotte, a handful of people line up the one day a week the clinic's Ana Farrera signs up new patients.

ANA FARRERA: The thing is that the rain must have scared them away today because usually we have, like - last week, we had, like, 10 people. So I had to turn five away.

TOMSIC: Farrera says there have been some mornings where 20 people line up before she opens the door. They're mostly waiting for primary care. But Farrera says many will get referred to the UNC Charlotte students for counseling. She says the students are making a big difference at the clinic. Student Katherine Wilkin says it works the other way, too.

WILKIN: For me, it's been good because that experience hasn't been just the easiest client I can think of that we read about in textbooks. I feel very comfortable building up from this.

TOMSIC: So do UNC Charlotte professors. Later this year, the university plans to scale up the partnership with Bethesda Health Center. For NPR News, I'm Michael Tomsic in Charlotte.

WERTHEIMER: This story is part of a reporting partnership with NPR, WFAE and Kaiser Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.