“Lava Drifting” is no ordinary river ride. Forget about soaking in the rays while drifting along on an inner tube or even the near-miss waterfalls common to a high-backed rafting ride. Your first clue this is going to be different is the length. At 11 minutes and nearly 1 kilometer, Shanghai Haichang Ocean Park’s signature ride is one of the world’s longest spinning river rapids rides. More than that, though, it’s full of surprises.
Conceptualized by Legacy Entertainment and designed by WhiteWater, “Lava Drifting” begins like any spinning rapids ride. The pace is fun, and there is some spray from the water. Prepare yourself, though, for the drops. There are tunnels, actual rapid rivers, conveyor lifts, and a surprise ending.
“We design things for 130%, because we know they’ll always get chopped back and ‘value-engineered,’” says Legacy President and Chief Creative Officer Taylor Jeffs. “But in the case of the rapids ride, they built the 130% version. We were honestly quite shocked.”
Not only that, WhiteWater amped up the design even more. Instead of a long spiral down the volcano, WhiteWater asked, “Why not culminate instead with a Manta?” Fusing this signature WhiteWater water park ride—with its massive walls, oscillating movements, and steep drop—to a spinning and traditional rapids ride was a radical idea, one that would present engineering challenges and lead to Manta’s first appearance in a dry park.
“Legacy really pushed our entire team,” reflects Nathan Jones, WhiteWater president for park attractions.
Challenges in making the design a reality included developing a state-of-the-art ride-control system
with multizone control and advanced vehicle tracking that could “manage the world’s longest ride path with precision, safety, and accuracy.”
“In many ways, this ride represents the best of industry collaborations,” notes WhiteWater Chief Business Development Officer Paul Chutter, who brought California’s Cogito Automation on board to build “Lava Drifting’s” control system and Van Stone to install a “radically different conveyor system.”
Competition Breeds Success
With roots in the famed summer resort and port city of Dalian, and a history of investing in shipping, oil, real estate, and wine, the Haichang Group entered the attractions business 17 years ago. Since then, the Hong Kong listed company has become one of China’s biggest theme park operators. One hundred and twenty million people have visited its parks since 2002. Even more are expected now, with the opening of Shanghai Haichang Ocean Park.
The US$800 million project was so important to Haichang that it commissioned three international design firms to produce full concepts for the park. None of the firms knew the others were working on the same project. Haichang presented the three plans to local government officials and asked them to choose.
Legacy’s winning design features two polar opposite zones—one a snow-covered tundra, the other a tropical volcano—connected by a gondola and two pedestrian bridges that arch over a canal.
In addition to Legacy and WhiteWater, Haichang engaged other international vendors as well: Intamin to build a double-launch linear synchronous motor (LSM) steel blitz coaster, Zamperla for family rides, France’s Poma for the three-minute cable car, and Severn Lamb for electric Texan trains. (China’s Dalian Bo Tao built a 216-seat 4D theatre and a dome theatre that features a multimedia story produced by Shanghai Heng Run.)
One reason for the additional investment is competition. Located just 45 minutes from Shanghai Disneyland, Haichang knew it needed world-class attractions and theming in order to succeed.
Take the park’s family attractions, for example. A family coaster, bouncing tower, and classic mini jet, among others, all are classic Zamperla rides that appear in parks across the globe. Haichang was not the first to buy them in China either. What makes the rides stand out is their unique ocean theming, keeping with the mood of the park. The jumping tower is a lighthouse; the flying tiger is now a bionic fish.
“The market is focused on rides they know are working successfully in other parks,” explains Zamperla Senior Sales Director Tullio Falcon. The fact that the rides are already approved by Chinese regulators, guaranteeing fewer headaches and a quicker time to market, is a selling point as well.
“When they came to us, they wanted exactly the same ride. But now they developed a very high level and a sophisticated need for theming. So even if it’s a small ride, they are coming with heavy theming,” Falcon says.
An Integrated Approach
Located in a relatively undeveloped part of Pudong called Lingang, more than an hour from popular commercial areas like Nanjing Road, Shanghai Haichang Ocean Park is relying on a mix of domestic bus tours and local Shanghainese to meet its 6-million-visitor attendance target. A polar-themed, family-friendly hotel encourages guests to stay overnight. So far, the strategy seems to be working. According to a report in the China Daily, Shanghai Haichang Ocean Park became one of the top five summer holiday destinations in China in its first year.
Soon, more tourist destinations will complement the park, including a planetarium, aquatic sports center, and Ice and Snow World, which will be one of the world’s largest indoor ski resorts when it opens in 2022.
“One of the big wins for the park is the integration of the attractions to their environment,” says Jeffs. “Many mainland Chinese theme parks don’t do this, instead taking a ‘cookie-cutter’ approach, with a walkway here, a ride over there, over and over again, with no link between them.”
In contrast, Jeffs strived to ensure that the various elements at Shanghai Haichang Ocean Park were layered to “create a park that is visually interesting and kinetically thrilling.” The best examples of this are “Steel Dolphin,” the 16-seat Intamin coaster, and “Lava Drifting.” “Steel Dolphin” passes by the family rides, winds through the entrance area, jumps the canal, dives into a shark’s mouth, then emerges to cross the water again and return to base. “Lava Drifting” weaves through half the resort before finishing in one of the park’s two iconic mountains. In each case, the rides bring excitement to bystanders throughout the park.
The gondola has also proved to be quite popular, as well as an excellent marketing tool, as visitors post aerial shots of the park on social media.
“At the end of the day, the park is a big step forward for mainland Chinese theme park design and operation,” says Jeffs. “I hope other operators and designers are inspired by what they see at the park and will also aim to continue to advance the medium here in China.”
Michael Switow is a Singapore-based writer who covers the Asia-Pacific attractions industry for Funworld.