What is it that makes a theme park a good park? It’s a simple question with a very complicated answer. There are a lot of things I tend to consider. How is the park’s atmosphere, or theming? Is the park clean, well landscaped, and well maintained? Is the food good, and how varied are the options? How friendly (and competent) are the staff? Are they actually running their attractions efficiently or are their operations plagued by apathy?
Then there are the attractions themselves. The three SeaWorld parks all have the same weakness here. While the quality of their attractions is (usually) better than the discount chains, they all lack in quantity. SeaWorld San Antonio is no exception.
For years the park was anchored by only four major attractions, and to be honest, only one of them was a standout. The only ride experience really unique to SeaWorld San Antonio was Steel Eel, a delightful “miniature” hyper coaster that provides copious amounts of parabolic airtime.
The 2017 addition of WaveBreaker: the Rescue Coaster, was also somewhat notable, providing a fun, lightly themed family thrill ride, sprinkled with the powerful conservation messages SeaWorld is known for, but overall it wasn’t enough to reform a park that felt like it had been neglected for too long. It wasn’t a star, more like a solid backup singer.
I remember during my first visit in 2018, walking the long stretch of nothingness between Journey to Atlantis and Rio Loco and thinking to myself that this entire section of the park felt like it’d been abandoned for years. That was when it really hit me. Having grown up with SeaWorld Orlando for the last twenty years, SeaWorld San Antonio felt in a lot of ways like the SeaWorld of my childhood. The problem is, in 2018 that just didn’t cut it. The park felt notably neglected. I remember when Texas Stingray was announced for the 2020 season, I was skeptical it would be able to make much difference to a park so far behind. Having now ridden it in person, I couldn’t be happier that I was wrong.
Texas Stingray: A Welcome Revival
The moment I stepped into Texas Stingray’s plaza (which it shares with Turtle Reef) I instantly felt the difference. It took a huge section of sad abandonment and made it feel exciting and reinvigorated. The ride isn’t a towering, looming structure, nor does it have some huge themed marquee like WaveBreaker or numerous other SeaWorld attractions in San Diego and Orlando. Instead, a simple sign, a clean, colorful station building, twisted oak trees, and a good dose of country/western music welcome you to Texas Stingray.
The theme itself was one I never would have expected from SeaWorld. It’s not really themed to Stingrays at all. It’s themed to Texas through and through, but with a Seaworld twist. While the ride and station (and merchandise) might be plastered with texas flags, hidden throughout the queue are small plaques with facts about Texas’ marine ecosystems and the important conservation efforts that take place throughout the state. It’s a clever way to apply the park’s conservation and wildlife message to the theme of the coaster. It’s a very minimalistic theming package, but one that does a lot more than you’d expect. Somehow, as bizarre as it is, it works.
The coaster itself looms over the extended queue, with some impressive sight lines. The park also made the great decision leave some trees in the infield, and the area around the coaster feels very natural to the San Antonio area. It’s simple, but it works.
As for the ride itself? In short: it’s incredible.
As we dispatched, I was very much expecting a ride like Invadr at SeaWorld’s sister park Busch Gardens Williamsburg, an exciting, albeit somewhat tame wooden coaster. A very solid family thrill ride, but nothing more.
While climbing the lift I couldn’t help but notice that this ride, like many of it’s counterparts at SeaWorld Orlando, has music on the lift hill. I immediately burst into laughter as I realized that the lift music was country music. It matches the aesthetic of the station and queue, but it’s rather hilarious, and bizarre. Finally at the top of the lift, you make a brief turn and get a look at the San Antonio hills and sweeping mess of track in front of you, and of course, the hundred foot plunge ahead.
The ride very much has two distinct sections. The first half, starting right away from the drop, is graceful, flowing, and swooping, yet still has a lot of bite to it. It almost felt like a hyper coaster to me, with long moments of parabolic floating airtime, wide sweeping turns, and some nice twisting floater hills. It’s intense, fast, graceful and very smooth.
Then, about halfway through the course, something changes. The pageant queen gets swapped out for a Texas rodeo girl. The ride is suddenly low to the ground, full of fast, lateral filled directional changes, and strangely angled twisting jolts of powerful airtime. The pacing becomes relentless, fast, and aggressive, yet still smooth and comfortable. There are several pops of ejector airtime hidden in the chaos, and plenty of floating and laterals to keep you guessing. There’s even an effectively placed tunnel that helps push the ride’s pacing faster and faster right until you pull through the finish line and into the transfer shed (which also plays country music for your enjoyment).
After my first ride my jaw was slack. I couldn’t believe what I’d just experienced. Let me make it very clear. This is no family coaster. This is no Invadr. This is a ride that takes inspiration from rides like Thunderhead, Mystic Timbers, and other great GCI coasters that have come before it, and gives that inspiration a personality all its own. It’s one of the best layouts the geniuses at Great Coasters International have ever made, and it’s sure to put a smile on patron’s faces.
A Step In The Right Direction
So what if the ride is great – why does it matter so much? Parks build great rides all the time after all. The answer is that the ride represents something that’s more than it seems on the surface. It’s far more than just a great attraction. The ride both nails the core demographic of the park, and shows a clear vision for their future growth, which if they continue, has the potential to lead the park in bold new directions.
With only a 46 inch height restriction, the ride has the lowest height restriction of any of the park’s major coasters. With SeaWorld’s branding of providing adventures for the whole family, this lower height restriction, especially coupled with the smart design choice not to present the ride from the guests view as being too “intimidating” should greatly broaden its appeal with families. It hits their target demographic right on the nose, while still delivering the best actual coaster experience in the park.
More importantly, by giving the ride such a clean powerful aesthetic that is totally different from anything else in the park, yet still leaves a very distinct taste in the rider’s mouth, it shows that this attraction is one of ambition. It’s a ride clearly intended to be a star, not a backup singer.
The park’s best chance of success, especially in a market competing with Six Flags Fiesta Texas, is to focus on offering a high quality product aimed more at exciting family friendly experiences than aimed at teenagers. Texas Stingray executes both of those perfectly, and makes a bold and welcome statement about where the park wants to head in the future.
While at the present time SeaWorld San Antonio may still be lacking in quantity of attractions, if Texas Stingray is any indication of what the future holds, this park may finally be leaving its days of stagnation behind, and be ready to emerge as the real standout that it has the potential to be. It’s all in the hands of management at this point, but one thing is clear. Texas Stingray, no matter which way you cut it, is exactly the ride SeaWorld San Antonio needed.
For more information about SeaWorld San Antonio https://seaworld.com/san-antonio/