Great ride, great theming, confusing operations: Leviathan wooden roller coaster opens at Sea World

After delays of biblical proportions, Leviathan, the centrepiece of the $50-million New Atlantis themed area at Sea World, has finally opened to the public. Does the ride live up to years of hype?

Image: Parkz. Leviathan is now open at Sea World.

It's not the first time an attraction has faced opening delays and it certainly won't be the last time an Australian theme park opens an attraction behind schedule. But three-and-a-half years from announcement to opening might be a record that's not broken anytime soon at an Australian theme park.

Leviathan opened at Sea World on Friday 2 December 2022, some two years after its original planned opening date of late-2020. COVID-19 and the associated financial challenges, working restrictions and supply chain challenges justifiably deserve much of the blame. Navigating Australia's stringent building and amusement standards and legislation saw the ride delayed a further year beyond its structural completion; it's these entirely predictable commissioning delays that could perhaps have been factored into the project's timeline. But here we are.

The headline attraction of The New Atlantis has finally opened. The first wooden roller coaster constructed in Australia in 37 years. The first 'modern' wooden roller coaster to operate in Australia since Wonderland Sydney's closure in 2004.

And it's a winner.

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The Gravity Group has got the wooden roller coaster down to an art form. The legendary roller coaster engineering firm behind Leviathan's design pride themselves on delivering tight, twisted rides that don't let up from start to finish.

And with Leviathan, it's as near perfect as any of their mid-sized wooden coasters.

Leviathan is an impeccably designed wooden roller coaster.

Compared to other Australian roller coasters, it holds up remarkably well. There's no meandering middle section of filler (that's you, DC Rivals HyperCoaster and Steel Taipan) and it's not over before you blink (a la Superman Escape). Just unrelenting dips, twists and turns for the 50-odd seconds from the crest of the lift hill to the reprieve of the final brake run.

It packs a punch, that's for sure, but it's a ride that keeps things solidly in the realm of fun rather than white-knuckle thrills. Sea World's efforts to position the ride as a family thrill ride are spot on.

There are bursts of airtime throughout, but you float in your seat, rather than feel your body forcibly flung against the restraint like on Rivals or Superman Escape. And every twist and turn is so perfectly engineered that it's a graceful transition from one to the next. You won't find yourself constantly bracing for each turn like neighbouring Jet Rescue.

On day one Leviathan is as smooth as wooden roller coasters can be. Thanks to the sleek, articulated Timberline trains from the ride's designer, the ride careens the twisted mess of wooden track with effortless ease. There is of course that trademark rattle and playful side-to-side shuffle that wooden roller coasters are renowned for, but not a single moment of jolting, bouncing or roughness wooden roller coasters of bygone years were infamous for.

It is without a doubt the best-designed roller coaster we've ever seen in Australia. Impeccably paced, perfectly engineered and fits the brief perfectly: a thoroughly enjoyable family thrill ride. It won't top anyone's list for intensity or outright thrills, and other Gold Coast roller coasters have more singular standout thrills, but the entirety of Leviathan is as near to flawless as anything we've ever seen in this country.

But the physical roller coaster experience is just half of the package.

It is the themed experience that separates Leviathan from most other wooden roller coasters. Waterfalls, gargantuan Atlantean statues and vertical gardens stand at the entrance to Leviathan.

Vertical gardens and imposing statues sit at Leviathan's entrance.

I'm still not entirely sold on this 'New' Atlantis concept. The bright colours and shiny finish on the statues and the chrome-scaled waterfalls have a plastic toy vibe that's hard to shake. And fake plants in the vertical gardens were likely a budget necessity but come across as a tad clinical rather than lush. But nonetheless it's one of the most cohesively presented areas we've seen in an Australian theme park in decades.

At any rate, the 'New' of Atlantis is left at the door beyond Leviathan's entry archway. Rock work – some of the best we've ever seen at an Australian park – takes over for the main queue, found in the middle of the ride, where queing riders are treated to the roar of the trains and screams of riders as it races through the near-vertical banked turns.

Groups are sorted in this open-air area, dispatched one trainload at a time into the dark pre-ride pathway that snakes its way up to the roller coaster's station. 

The dimly lit pathway features an audiovisual experience that's timed for each group of riders, who eventually make their way up to a fully enclosed station, full of rockwork and LED screens depicting an undersea lair. It's the most immersive ride station we've seen since Scooby-Doo Spooky Coaster: Next Generation.

Caves give a glimpse out of the cave-themed station and are put to great use for the main 'show' that plays just prior to the train dispatching.

Riders board, and are soon treated to Leviathan's show; perhaps the most closely guarded secret of the ride experience up until now. The ride's namesake mythical sea creature snakes his way around the lair, speaking to guests with a deep, foreboding voice through an incredible array of speakers located and sends them on their way. It is without a doubt the best-produced ride show currently in Australia, and certainly harks back to the early days of Warner Bros. Movie World or Sea World where attractions were more show than ride. The array of screens and speakers have been put to amazing use for a truly three-dimensional audiovisual experience.

It's a shame then, that the show detracts so much from the complete ride experience by giving Leviathan perhaps the lowest guest throughput of any major ride in Australia.

In Jewish mythology, Leviathan might be a 300-mile long dragon. In Sea World lore however, Leviathan is a wooden roller coaster with an inexplicable 300-mile long queue.

In recent years Australian theme parks had finally cottoned on to some of the best practices of queue management used overseas. Queuing, boarding and riding should be intuitive and as self-directed as possible. The queue should be positioned so that riders observe previous groups loading and unloading from the ride to subconsciously condition themselves to know what to do. Ride attendants are there to count numbers, sort groups, check heights and keep an eye out for contraband, but by and large guests should navigate their own way through rides, start to finish.

Steel Taipan and Rivals got it right. Leviathan however throws all this by the wayside to preserve its show experience and the big reveal. In crafting a ride experience around a themed section and show – that the physical ride wasn't explicitly designed for – makes for a frustratingly slow process.

The term world-class is thrown around all too often in this industry, but Sea World have pulled off a world-class audiovisual experience here. The Leviathan show is a remarkable feat, to be sure. And the creative and technical teams behind it should be endlessly proud of their efforts here.

But it should not exist in this format, on this roller coaster.

Ideally the roller coaster would have been designed to facilitate this experience from the ground up. A section of track snaking its way from the load station to the lift hill would have been the perfect setting for a show experience like this, like Superman Escape or Scooby-Doo Spooky Coaster before it. It would clear the station so that the previous train can be unloaded swiftly, and loaded again without impacting the ride's narrative.

By shoehorning the entire experience into the station, and slowing the flow of guests to a trickle so as to not ruin the reveal, Sea World have severely impacted the ride's ability to operate at a capacity befitting a major drawcard attraction.

The concept of a big reveal is used at Disney or Universal theme parks all the time. But never at the cost of capacity.

It's hard to say what the long-term solution would be here. The overly complicated pre-ride experience will surely become burdensome for crews to manage once the newness wears off. But we're still left with a station platform with little room for what would be considered best practice queue management, should they ever decide to tackle these capacity issues.

Several minutes could be shaved off the experience if the ride show were turned into a passive AV experience on a loop with a shortened show timed to play as the train rolls out of the station.

Sea World will no doubt face guest concerns and complaints about the lengthy pause on the brake run in the hot sun, sitting and waiting for the train in the station to unload, load and then experience the show before the roller coaster journey begins. The lazy solution would be to add a shade cloth (shaded seating, anyone?). The cynical solution would be to give up on two train operations. You can only hope that the operational issues are solved in a manner befitting the world-class roller coaster and themed experience.

Dreamworld managed to rectify much of the sub-par queue and operational aspects of Sky Voyager shortly after it opened, so let's hope Sea World too can refine the experience they offer on Leviathan.

After the somewhat disappointing debut of Steel Taipan at Dreamworld last year – which failed to have any significant impact on the park's post-COVID results – there might have been concerns that the Gold Coast has become too saturated with roller coasters.

It's still early days, but Leviathan's reception already would suggest that if the offering is unique and marketed appropriately, there's room for  more coasters on the Gold Coast. Which is just as well, given both Dreamworld and Warner Bros. Movie World plan to open several each in coming years.

In addition to the exceptional physical ride experience, Leviathan is without a doubt the most impressively themed roller coaster this country has ever seen. Though it comes at the cost of capacity, the show aspects of the ride are truly unique on a global scale.

Sea World undeniably have a hit on their hands. It's a truly unique roller coaster experience for the Gold Coast, and one that Sea World desperately needed. An incredible roller coaster that caters perfectly to Sea World's family audience.

The entry plaza is effectively the centre of The New Atlantis.
The detail on these statues is amazing.
From some angles the faux vertical gardens look quite picturesque in the way that they follow Leviathan's track, though this effect is all but lost when looked front-on.
After the main outdoor queue, rivers walk through a dark section full of AV effects.
Loose item bins have become more and more complicated in recent years. For Leviathan they revert to this refreshingly simple concept: two sets of compartments that feature a sliding lid to cover one train's riders while the other unloads and loads.
Smoke pours out of the rockwork as part of the immersive show experience.
The sleek Timberliner trains from the ride's designers The Gravity Group.
The seats are roomy yet secure. These are nothing like the clunky, uncomfortable trains found on wooden coasters from bygone years.
Restraint checks. Ride attendants will push down to ensure restraints are very tight, but these trains are so comfortable that it doesn't detract from the ride even on some of the most intense and rattly sections.
One of the ride's many sweeping, banked turns.
This giant hill in the centre of the ride is one of the few moments where you travel in a straight line for more than a split second – and it's a great moment of airtime.
The first public riders of Leviathan hit the brake run.
Daily checks and ongoing maintenance of Leviathan's trains will take place in this shed.
The ride's maintenance building sits off to the side of the brake run.
Compressed air tanks next to the final brake run, used to control the ride's friction brakes.
The switch track for the maintenance shed. The curved steel rail in the middle rotates to change the track direction when they need to add or remove trains from the main course.
Friction wheels that move the stationary train from the brake run into the station for unloading.
The first drop on Leviathan. Two years later than expected, but this incredible wooden roller coaster is finally open.