Defunctland: The History of the Worst SeaWorld Ride, Submarine Quest
On March 19, 2015, it was announced that Joel Manby would become the new CEO of SeaWorld Entertainment. Manby was previously the CEO of Herschend Enterprises, the largest family-owned amusement park company in the United States. The charismatic Manby had a proven track record in the theme park industry and was even somewhat of a public figure after appearing on the CBS reality show Undercover Boss. Manby faced a great challenge when he took the helm at SeaWorld.
The corporation’s portfolio comprised of six parks, Busch Gardens Williamsburg, Busch Gardens Tampa, Sesame Place in Pennsylvania, and three Sea World branded amusement parks, the original, SeaWorld San Diego which opened in 1964, SeaWorld Orlando which opened in 1973, and SeaWorld San Antonio, which opened in 1988. It was no secret why the position of CEO was vacant, as for the past two years, SeaWorld had been in crisis. In 2013, the documentary Blackfish premiered.
The film was a scathing look at the treatment of captive orcas, specifically those held and bred at SeaWorld amusement parks. By the end of 2013, the documentary was airing regularly on CNN, and activists, government officials, and the general public as a whole were putting overwhelming pressure on SeaWorld to end their signature Orca program. Manby assumed the position of CEO at the height of this crisis. Up to this point, SeaWorld’s main response to the outcry had been to attack the documentary, the filmmakers, and the interviewees, but after this only made matters worse, the company pivoted to improving the living conditions of its orcas. In August of 2014, SeaWorld had announced an initiative titled the Blue World Project, that if approved would almost double the size of the orca tanks at SeaWorld SanDiego and subsequently in San Antonio and Orlando.
When Manby joined the company, this project was still awaiting approval by the California Coastal Commission, which had jurisdiction over construction projects in the California coastal zone, which included SeaWorld San Diego, which sits in San Diego’s Mission Bay. Just over six months after Manby joined SeaWorld, the commission approved the Blue World Project, but only on the condition that SeaWorld stop breeding and transferring orcas, effectively forcing them to end their Orca program entirely once the park’s current orcas passed. SeaWorld planned to sue the Coastal Commision to have the conditions removed, but Manby was already taking SeaWorld in a new direction.
The month after the Commission's conditional approval, Manby held a conference call with investors in which he outlined a new vision for the company. Manby’s plan was to shift focus away from animal shows and put resources into more traditional amusement park attractions with a nautical theme. In the call, Manby announced three new attractions, all themed after a single television show named Sea Rescue. Sea Rescue was a documentary series that followed a group of veterinarians and experts attempting to rescue and rehabilitate marine life.
The first attraction based off of the show was a unique roller coaster named SeaWorld Rescue The Ride, which would be constructed for SeaWorld San Antonio. Another was tentatively titled Sea World: Rescue, and concept art depicted guests boarding a rescue truck and receiving unique views of an aquarium. This attraction was earmarked for SeaWorld Orlando.
Finally, the third attraction would be a submarine ride named Ocean Explorer to be built at SeaWorld San Diego. The Sea Rescue rides were multi-million dollar attractions, and in order to pay for them, Manby explained that he was diverting money away from the Blue World Project. Four months later, in March of 2016, Manby made the bold decision to end SeaWorld’s orca breeding program, despite continuing to sue the Coastal Commission for trying to force them to do it. The following month, SeaWorld announced that the Blue World project had officially been cancelled, and as Manby had outlined, the money was instead invested in new attractions for SeaWorld’s three parks. While the Sea Rescue truck ride for Orlando would be scrapped, Sea World San Antonio would receive its Sea Rescue attraction, a double launch coaster now titled Wave Breaker: The Rescue Coaster. SeaWorld San Diego would also receive its submarine ride, but the company promised much more.
In February of 2016, SeaWorld announced that a new 3-area section, or a new realm as it was officially called, would be added to SeaWorld San Diego named Ocean Explorer. The children’s area would feature aquariums, rides, and digital technologies, all focused on exploration and adventure, with a theme of ocean conservation. On top of some small flat-top rides, the area would feature a flagship attraction, named Submarine Quest. This was the realization of the attraction that Manby had announced months early in his conference call. The press release for the ride explained that “guests will be adventurers on a global expedition of scientific exploration, traveling aboard submarines to see Ocean Explorer’s remarkable undersea animals.” Concept art of the area showed some of the marine life children would be able to interact with and torment incessantly with new creative glass placement.
This concept art was either hastily made or sloppily made or both, with some really poor compositing, as seen by this piece of concept art for Submarine Quest. While these seem to just be stock photos quickly placed inside a rendering of the submarine, the inclusion of this kid is perfect foreshadowing. Construction began in the summer of 2016, and it was scheduled to open in late spring of 2017. Ocean Explorer would be built just to the right of the park’s entrance, on a relatively empty parcel next to one of the park’s cafes.
A flag display and a small animal viewing area would be removed to make way for the new realm. Concept art for the land was circulated as construction began, and it appeared that the area’s signature attraction, despite the name Submarine Quest, would actually be an elevated dark ride with outdoor sections, similar to Disney’s PeopleMover attraction and The High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride! at Universal Studios’ Islands of Adventure. Both of these attractions were gentle trips around their respective lands, providing guests a relaxing outdoor ride with some short dark ride portions. With Submarine Quest, it was assumed that these dark ride portions would be more elaborate, providing guests with special views of the new aquarium during their adventure. In a statement, SeaWorld assured the public that Submarine Quest would not be a “shoot-em-up style dark ride,” even though no one considered that this was a possibility. Instead, the press release explained that by “using digital touchscreens mounted in the ride vehicles, riders will play games and score points as they spot ocean creatures during the indoor and outdoor journey.”
The company launched a significant media campaign to coincide with the release of the new realm. SeaWorld SanDiego published a video series on YouTube titled Meet the Deep, in which hosts Mike and Jenna chronicled the area and specifically Submarine Quest’s development and construction. It seems that the SeaWorld San Diego’s public relations team just found the two nicest employees to host the series, because Mike is the assistant curator of fish and invertebrates and, like his enthusiasm for the new realm, his oceanographic knowledge is deep and impossible to contain. The Meet the Deep series is quite possibly the most in depth documentation of a ride’s construction by a theme park. The web series explores almost every aspect of construction.
In the third episode, Mike and Jenna introduce Brian Morrow vice president of theme park experience design. Brian shows off the model ride vehicle for Submarine Quest and explains the interactive elements that were being installed in the ride, noting the touch screen game that would be the attraction’s signature feature. Days after this Meet the Deep episode was published, the final ride vehicle model was revealed at The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions expo in 2016, in epic fashion.
A trailer was also released during the expo with a new opening date of summer 2017. "Set a course for discovery in the new Ocean Explorer at SeaWorld!" In January of 2017, a Meet the Deep episode was published in which Brian gave a tour of Chance Rides in Wichita, Kansas, which was the manufacturer for the attraction. They gave the first glimpse of the full-scale sub still in production, complete with lighting and the touch screen game. The next episode featured Mike and Jenna actually playing this game. It was explained that the in-ride game would feature difficulty resistance, so that it was challenging for players of all ages. It was also revealed that there would be different levels of awards depending on how well the riders played.
Also during this time, SeaWorld announced that a new roller coaster named Electric Eel would debut at SeaWorld SanDiego in 2018. This coaster would be part of a Phase 2 expansion to the Ocean Explorer realm. Throughout the spring of 2017, as construction crews were putting the finishing touches on the new land, Meet the Deep walked the site multiple times. In April, SeaWorld held a ceremony to unveil the final submarine to park guests. The submarine remained on display as construction neared completion.
Ocean Explorer and Submarine Quest had an impressive turnaround time. Despite being delayed from Spring to Summer of 2017, the new land was still set to debut just 16 months after being announced. No one seemed more excited for the land to open than those internally at SeaWorld, and executives and the ride’s designers hoped that enthusiasm would spread to guests. Tempting fate, SeaWorld San Diego President John Reilly said “Our guests’ response to new attractions has always been tremendously positive.”
On June 1, 2017, Ocean Explorer held its grand opening ceremony. Sea World pulled out all of the stops for the event. Iqthq There were ribbon wavers, confetti, flares, the eel from a discontinued ice show at Busch Gardens Tampa, and they even got a bubble guy.
With the land now open, dozens of guests who had waited minutes for the land’s opening casually walked inside the new world of exploration, discovery, and conservation, by apparently immediately trampling the plants due to lack of fencing. Ocean explorer featured four new kiddie rides, Sea Dragon Drop, the Octarock, Aqua Scout, and the most well-received, Tentacle Twirl. The aquariums throughout Ocean Explorer were quite small, but they did feature the unique viewing angles as promised.
There was also an interactive attraction, the Skill Training Pod, as well as the Explorer’s Cafe, whose signage choices were a bit confusing as everything else in the land is designed for small children, except for the craft beer apparently. The signature attraction was of course, Submarine Quest. The ride vehicles could be seen as guests entered the land, making their way around the ride track. After hearing a year’s worth of press describing the ride as an immersive and interactive experience, many guests were excited and curious about what the ride had in store. Guests entered the attraction through an outdoor queue, with television screens featuring a host named sub commander Sparks giving the ride’s safety spiel and introducing his companion Link, the ride’s star and the land’s mascot. A figure of Link could also be found at the realm’s entrance.
After entering the show building for the loading station, guests passed by a few simple art pieces and immediately boarded their subs. There were seven subs, each with a special name, with no clear direction. Two of them are named after parts of a ship, Axel and Rudder, one of them is a fish with a first name, Maci Mackerel, and another is just a first name with a nautical adjective, Bubbly Bailey. As guests sat in their ride vehicle, Sub Commander Sparks returned to instruct riders to pull down on their lap bar, before Link joined him for the voyage. Sub Commander Sparks told riders to tap the screen in order to release the air lock, and guests began their expedition into the majesty of the deep blue, blinding sunlight. After passing by some trees and some concrete, guests entered the first show scene of Submarine Quest, which was that of a deep sea coral reef.
This scene is supposed to be in the twilight zone, a zone that is so deep below the surface that sunlight cannot reach it. Of course, the ride represents this in broad daylight with two screens that briefly display an octopus. “Whoa that octopus was totally camouflaged” After the twilight zone was the sunlight zone, where guests saw eeeeelllllsss. “Eeeeellllsss” Sub Commander Sparks detects a large animal ahead and the guests begin their pursuit. Riders are able to see Link in front of them.
This static figure featured a digital face that never quite synced up with the audio from the ride vehicle. The two decide to send out the beacon buddies on a mission. The beacon buddies are presumably these orange things, but on the screen they are yellow. The beacon buddies find huge jellyfish and something even bigger ahead, as guests escape to the old sea pod to take a look.
Riders are instructed to open another hatch, despite the hatch opening before the instruction audio is finished. The sub then enters a sea pod full of screens that display a giant CGI squid. After a brief stop in the sea pod, riders open the escape hatch and reenter the ocean, just as the squid breaks the glass on the sea pod and releases ink.
As guests exit the sea pod, water sprays at riders. The water effect was incredibly inconsistent, and it is not clear whether the water was triggered by a game mechanism and only appeared sometimes or if it was simply an unreliable effect. It was shot from the left of the ride vehicles, and instead of giving all of the riders a light mist it just hosed the rider in the front left seat. After this scene, the subs take a final turn back into the loading station.
During this short segment, guests found out what type of explorer they were. There were three options, Junior Explorer, Super Explorer ,and Master Explorer, even though in play testing Mike scored Marine Veterinarian which did not seem to be an option that made it into the final game. Guests then reentered the loading station and exited their vehicles, following a long, elaborate exit corridor. Incredibly, Submarine Quest was not a hit with guests, and this is putting it lightly.
In general, guests were shocked to find out that Submarine Quest was neither sub nor marine as it took place fifteen feet above the ground in the open air. The outdoor show scenes were sparse, and the one dark ride scene was a disappointment. The ride did look better at night, as there was at least a chance of the illusion of being in the deep ocean, but sunset in the summer in San Diego is around 8:00 PM, and most nights, SeaWorld closed at 9. Even the interactive game that SeaWorld was so proud of and advertised heavily was nothing more than button mashing if a rider could even find the correct button to begin with and assuming that the button actually worked. The designers clearly took a lot of pride in their work, and it seems as though this part of the experience was built from more or less the ground up, which is theoretically impressive. However, in practice, all that is noticeable is the inherent and consistent flaws in the mechanics of the game, most obvious in the consistent confusion during the beacon buddies section, which was present all the way back during playtesting.
To add insult to injury, the entire realm had a branding problem, as seemingly everyone believed that Ocean Explorer was the name of the ride and not the name of the realm. Not only was Ocean Explorer featured on the original Submarine Quest concept art, but Ocean Explorer just didn’t sound like the name of a land or realm, it sounded like the name of an attraction. This confusion was experienced by both the media and guests.
The creative decisions made for the ride were quite confusing. Many guests speculated that the ride had its budget cut late in development, which could be possible, but concept art for the land did display the ride almost exactly as it was built. It seemed that a significant portion of the budget was put into research and development for the unique ride vehicle rather than putting that money toward show scenes.
The majority of the press leading up to the ride focused on the ride vehicle, and it seemed to be the pride and joy of everyone involved, but this was not enough to carry an entire attraction. On June 3rd, two days after the ride’s debut, the San Diego Union-Tribune released a scathing review of the ride, saying “The biggest disappointment is the heavily promoted Submarine Quest. SeaWorld is touting it as a high-tech trip through the ocean ecosystem, but it turns out to be a slow-moving track ride past a few animated animals on video screens. Fortunately, your young riders will be too busy punching buttons on the sub’s interactive dashboard to think, “I stood in line for this?” Brady MacDonald of the Orlando Sentinel said “The new land's centerpiece ride is basically a slow-moving transportation system that doesn't take you anywhere and encourages you to ignore your surroundings.”
On August 8th 2017, during Sea World’s Quarter 2 Earnings Call, Manby stated that Ocean Explorer had been a disappointment. He said “I think the one that I'm not satisfied with is I think the Ocean Explorer. We did not market this as well as I wanted to.
It's completely designed for young children and we need to make sure that's the case.” However, poor marketing and bad reviews would not be Submarine Quests only problem, as technical issues plagued the attraction as well. The ride often had a significant wait, as only two to three subs were run at a time, rather than the seven the ride was capable of. This was only a problem when the ride was operating, which it frequently was not. Throughout the ride’s debut summer, Submarine Quest was constantly closed for maintenance.
By September, frequent guests noticed that the ride was barely ever open. One visitor noted that they had been four times since the ride debuted and the attraction had been closed all four times. The ride operated intermittently throughout the summer of 2017, but was closed for most of the fall.
It did reopen in December, and on December 30, 2017 during the busy winter holiday, it accumulated a 130 minute wait time, baffling those that had already ridden the attraction. This was one of the last days of operation for Submarine Quest. It is unclear if the ride operated in early January or when its true final day of operation was, but by mid-January 2018, a mere seven months after opening, the doors to Submarine Quest were blocked off, leaving guests speculating on the future of the ride. On February 28, 2018, SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby resigned from his position at the company after less than three years as the chief executive.
Falling attendance and steep quarterly losses were cited as the main reason for Manby’s exit, but multiple publications were quick to mention the recent failure of the Submarine Quest attraction. While clearly not the main reason for his departure, the realm’s failure could have been a contributing factor to Manby’s exit. Just four days later, it was announced that Chief Creative Officer Anthony Esparza and Vice President of Theme Park Experience Design Brian Morrow were resigning from their roles as well. Many online again wondered if the resignations were related to the poor reception of the Ocean Explorer realm, but this is merely speculation.
Other rumors circulated attempting to make sense of the ride’s closure. Some believed that an injury had occured on the ride or that SeaWorld was suing either the designers or the manufacturers over technical issues. Currently, there is no evidence to support these claims. Without explanation, Submarine Quest remained close throughout the spring of 2018. In May, The San Diego Union Tribune ran a piece on the attraction.
SeaWorld San Diego’s official statement on the ride was “As we’ve conveyed to our park guests who’ve asked, the Submarine Quest ride at Ocean Explorer is currently undergoing maintenance. As soon as there’s additional information we will communicate that to you and our guests.” Theme park consultant Dennis Speigel believed that the maintenance issues were not so severe that the ride needed to be shut down, but rather the public’s response to the ride was so overwhelmingly negative that it was best to keep it closed. Despite the open-ended response on the ride’s status, SeaWorld removed all mention of the ride from the park’s website.
The attraction’s name was soon removed from the park’s maps as well, with the illustration being modified to remove the ride cars. On May 10, 2018, Electric Eel debuted at SeaWorld SanDiego. Billed as an addition to the Ocean Explorer area despite being fairly disconnected from it geographically, the short coaster was received well, and it effectively distracted guests from Submarine Quest’s continued closure. In the summer of 2018, leftover Submarine Quest toys could be found at Sea World Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa, despite the ride remaining closed and also being on the other side of the country.
On July 2, 2018, Legoland California, a theme park just 30 miles north of SeaWorld San Diego, debuted their own Submarine Ride, named Lego City Deep Sea Adventure. The attraction actually placed guests under the water to view real sea creatures, while also featuring more story and more show scenes. With a longer ride time and an actual feeling of discovery and exploration, Lego’s submarine ride was everything that guests wanted and expected from Submarine Quest, and audiences were quick to notice the juxtaposition.
In October of 2018, 16 months after its opening and 10 months after its closure, the sign for Submarine Quest was taken down. The ride sat dormant for over a year while the rest of Ocean Explorer continued to operate. On March 16, 2020, SeaWorld announced the closure of all its theme parks due to the COVID-19 pandemic. SeaWorld SanDiego was the last of the SeaWorld parks to reopen, not opening its gates until April 12, 2021. When it did, it was revealed that work walls had been constructed around Submarine Quest. One guest noted that around 20% of the ride track had been removed, including the showbuilding for the only dark ride portion, meaning that Submarine Quest is now officially defunct.
Submarine Quest is a perplexing story. Most tales of ride failures have an obvious contributing factor, such as a budget cut, a mechanical flaw, a rush to market, or a world-shattering news event that suddenly makes the initial concept taboo halfway through development. However, Submarine Quest did not have an obvious hurdle.
While budget, time constraints, and mechanics certainly could have contributed to the attraction’s failure, based on available information, it seems just as likely that it was simply a bad idea with bad execution. The design team clearly put a lot of energy and thought into the attraction, but in all of the wrong areas, and the heavy marketing efforts and enthusiasm from SeaWorld staff could not distract from the ride’s glaring and overwhelming creative failures. Submarine Quest is not only a result of the precarious position SeaWorld was in at the time of its construction. It’s also a perfect representation of it. Submarine Quest, like Sea World as a whole, has a huge identity problem.
It did not know what it should be, and it certainly did not know what audiences wanted from it. As SeaWorld continues to rebrand and evolve, the company can only hope that their parks as a whole meet a different fate than that of Submarine Quest.