& Bluto's Bilge Rat Barges
put whitewater raft rides near the bottom of my "gotta-do"
list because, from one to the next, they're not all that dissimilar:
some rapids, some slow spots, a fountain or water curtain, maybe
a tunnel. Fun, yes, but they usually don't tug at my heartstrings
unless the sun is really beating down hard. And when that happens,
of course, lines for these soakers become interminably long. Kind
of a Catch-22.
of Adventure, there's now a whitewater rafter that qualifies
as "gotta-do," heat or no heat. Just as Marvel Super
Hero Island's Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man raises the
bar for dark rides, Toon Lagoon's Popeye and Bluto's Bilge
Rat Barges sets a new highwater mark (pun very much intended)
for its category. Elaborately themed, exquisitely long and turbulent
beyond belief, the Barges are a solid A+ from start to hair-raising
finish. It simply blows away every other raft ride out there.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
From early on, a rapids ride was planned for the Islands and choosing a 'toon
to host such an attraction was a no-brainer; as Christopher Stapleton,
Toon Lagoon's Show Producer, explained, "Popeye's a sailor;
his character was perfect for the theming of a boat ride."
But before he began mapping out the kinetic specifics of Toon
Lagoon's whitewater expedition, Stapleton traveled all over America,
sampling a wide variety of rapids ride installations. That research
led him to a number of important conclusions.
key is not how wet we get, but how we get wet." Stapleton
made note of the fact that changes in velocity, not speed itself,
make a rapids ride most effective. And the element of surprise
is all-important. Ideally, riders are doused when they least expect
it. So, Stapleton knew the Barges should spin as much as possible.
Everyone on board should be wondering when it's their turn to
He also recognized
that most whitewater rides don't offer much dynamic vertical movement;
boats typically float along level to the horizon. Stapleton wanted
his rapids to generate severe changes in boat lift and angle,
"super-elevations" of as much as three feet off horizontal,
more like a genuine rapids run would produce.
A major let-down
he discovered was the idiosyncratic placement of the lift hill.
This slow, yawn-inducing climb normally comes at the end of a
whitewater ride for a dull-as-dishwater finale. Stapleton was
determined to make the lift build to the climax and incorporate
it into the drama. Even the mechanical nature of the lift was
taken into account when the surrounding, ahem, "show
elements" were conceived.
Stapleton also wanted to make sure we never felt as though we were just careening
through a cement trough, as we do on far too many rapids rides.
And the ride's story would be carefully interweaved with our travels
so that when Popeye, Olive and Sweetpea are in jeopardy, so are
not least, Stapleton wanted this ride to finish us off with a
whollop (and, man, does it ever). The final, post-lift section,
which I'm not going to disclose just yet, went through several
design changes. The designers initially went over the top, literally
and figuratively, then pulled back a little. But after several
full-scale tests, they got just the effect they were looking for.
(the same firm that created the ride systems for Valleyfair's
Thunder Canyon, Silver Dollar City's Lost River of the
Ozarks, Dorney Park's Thunder Canyon, and Dollywood's
Smoky Mountain Rampage) was first approached to help develop
the Barges in early 1996 and according to Stapleton, they dove
into the project with real enthusiasm, ready to push the envelope.
By 1998, the basic hardware systems were in place and the taps
were turned. Several months later, a fully-loaded boat was sent
on an inaugural voyage. And when Islands of Adventure had its
grand debut in May of 1999, the Barges instantly became a star
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Like just about all of the ride queues at Islands of Adventure, the Barges'
pre-voyage wait is an integral part of the fun. This particular
path winds through a slapdash jumble of seaside shanties and the
"story" begins as soon as we enter, walking around a
platform above the circular, rotating load dock. We're on our
way to rent one of Popeye's pleasure craft, ready to sail to Paradise
Island. Early on in the queue, there are several letters of appreciation
tacked to a bulletin board, all praising the Sailor Man for his
exceptional rental operation and seaworthy vessels. But once we
hit the "Boat Load" entrance, we're greeted with a hastily
assembled "Detour" sign. Something funny about that...
We're forced take the detour only to discover that Bluto, no-good ruffian
that he is, has changed our plans. Now, we're gonna have to rent
one of his leaky Barges. Bluto's hapless customers have been less
than satisfied; be sure to read the posted letters some of his
former clients have been compelled to write. These testy testimonials
are our first clue that we're in for a rough ride.
clue hits us when we finally board our barge. The circular 12-person
craft offer central Velcro-fastening compartments to stow our
valuables should we have been foolish enough to bring any along.
(Which reminds me - throughout the park, there are a number of
excellent "Smart" lockers that are free of charge for
up to an hour. Use them when you can.)
clear of the continually rotating wharf, get your feet off the
floor and brace yourself. We pour into a sloppy drop beneath a
bridge - kerplunk! - and those passengers on the forward edge
get a drippy taste of the mayhem to come. We careen towards a
fork in the river and there's Bluto with an evil grin on his face.
Looks like he's been monkeying around with the directional signs.
One of 'em reads "Paradise Island" and other reads -
uh, oh - "Hurricane River." From the way they're pointing,
we seem headed in the right direction, but as we pass, he bellows,
"So long, Suckers!" Paradise Island is off the itinerary,
Our barge picks up speed
and we surge into a orange-walled canyon, crashing left and right
through some radically twisting channels. The vessel spins, tipping
from side to side, diving down into watery valleys, bouncing over
the whitecaps, completely out of control. Waves pour up and over
the tops of our seats, splashing down without warning. Now, these
are rapids, people, faster, wilder and wetter than any you've
ever seen. Yippee-ki-yay!
to keep afloat, but most of us will have gotten a solid splash
or two already. The barge exits Hurricane River and we hit a milder
patch, only to start spinning right towards the beached wreak
of a small boat. And buckets of water are pourin' from its steam
pipe! Slowly we turn... who's gonna be under that spout when we
pass? Closer, closer... Sploooosh! Several unfortunate seafarers
get hopelessly doused and the rest of us get a good laugh at their
expense. Ha - Ha!
Past that mess, we float by Popeye's Ship, The Olive. It seems like we're
in the clear for a bit - "What the...!" - till streams
of water start falling down from above. Observers on The Olive
have an opportunity to spray us with rail-mounted squirt guns
and trust me, they will. But here's a word of warning for those
pulling the triggers: each gun has more than one nozzle and they
randomly backfire, spraying the assailant rather than the target.
Take yer chances and suffer the consequences.
Around a curve, we head under a bridge, over small dip, and into a blue-walled
gorge. Oh, man, there's another big, leaky pipe! We're barely
past that little dribble when - Ka-Boom! - the sound of cannon
fire grabs our attention. We turn to see Bluto aboard his ship,
the S. S. Stinker. He's got Olive Oil! And he's the one firing
that water cannon! "Save me, Popeye!" Luckily, Bluto's
aim is off and we slip past the Stinker to enter a dark grotto.
There's some frantic activity just around the bend; poor Popeye
is locked in a wrasslin' match with a giant 18-foot-tall octopus.
Watch those tentacles, pal! We escape the monster's grasp, but
we aren't out of trouble yet.
Around another turn, we approach the base of this ride's most brilliant feature:
the long, slow climb up through Bluto's Boat Wash. "Boat
Wash" pretty much sums it up, friends. We rumble past spinning
brushes, spurting water guns, exploding pipes and whirling mops.
Hee-Hee! Just try and avoid gettin' splattered. Higher and higher
we climb, and there's Olive, Sweetpea and Popeye helplessly dangling
above. How are we to escape?!
Finally, the barge reaches the boathouse at the top. The lift hill carries
our raft over the peak and starts back down... and wait till you
see what it's dropping us towards. Directly ahead, an honest-to-gosh
waterfall, a swirling, churning cascade over the edge of what
looks to be a vertical drop. "No way!"
The rear of the boat tips up and we dump over the watery precipice.
And that's just the start of the final descent. We twist to the
left and the barge hurtles down a long ramp, smashing through
a burbling wave with sheets of water raining down into the boat.
Round a bend at the bottom of the ramp, we see that Popeye has
finally got Bluto right where he wants him: stretched like a slingshot
by his suspenders and ready to be sent flyin' through the air.
"I've taken all I can takes and I can't takes no more!"
We make another turn and there's
Bluto, hung out to dry. Popeye's rescued Olive and we make it
back to port, safe and sound. "I'm quick to the finish, 'cuz
I eats my spinach, I'm Popeye, The Sai-lor Man! Toot-toot!"
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
park ever build a whitewater raft ride wilder than Popeye and
Bluto's Bilge Rat Barges? It's possible, but it ain't gonna be
easy. Disney opened its first rapids ride, the highly-themed Kali
River Rapids, at the Animal Kingdom theme park in 1999, and
that was a step in the right direction. They're currently prepping
a major rapids attraction, dubbed Grizzley River Run, for
the new California Adventure theme park, now under construction
adjacent to Disneyland and due to open in 2001. We can only hope
that some of the innovations the Barges introduced to the whitewater
genre will inspire ride designers to ever greater achievements.
All I know is this: if a better rapids ride does come along, I'm
LENGTH: Approx. 2,000 Feet
- TOP SPEED:
Approx. 16 Feet Per Second
- RIDE SYSTEM
MANUFACTURER: Barr Engineering