In June 1998, Universal Studios bought Pearson PLC's 37% stake in Port Aventura, the Spanish theme park located near the eastern coastal town of Salou in the Costa Daurada region of Spain. Joining Spanish bank La Caixa and American brewer/entertainment entity Anheuser-Busch, Universal became the managing partner, renaming the 800-acre park Universal Studios Port Aventura. Open since 1995 and located in a year-round sunny climate, Port Aventura serves Universal as a formidable beachhead into the European leisure market, and with an eye to future expansion, the new partners acquired 1,200 additional acres nearby.

The park is divided into five zones, themed after the Mediterranean, Polynesia, China, Mexico, and the American Old West. It blends graceful landscaping, live shows, and a mix of attractions, including the continent's biggest roller coaster, the Dragon Khan. But although at the time of acquisition it was already Europe's number-two theme park destination, Port Aventura was trailing a distant second to Disneyland Paris. According to the September 1998 issue of The European, the park attracted just 3.5 million visitors in 1998, compared to 15 million at Disneyland Paris. The media buzzed about how Universal would elevate the park into a world-class destination, galvanize investment into the region's tourist infrastructure, and transform Salou into Orlando-on-the-Mediterranean.

"We very quickly wanted to plant the flag," affirms Craig Hanna, Universal Studio's director of attraction development. "It immediately became apparent that we needed to create a major attraction."

That attraction is Sea Odyssey, billed as part thrill ride, part sea exploratorium. "It's a simulator experience with an elaborate queue and series of preshows," explains Hanna, who supervised the ride's creation. "Guests are invited into a secret oceanographic institute for a rare open house and invited to explore the floor of the ocean."

But as is the case with all clandestine world government organizations operating out of theme parks, the Institute quickly botches its public relations exercise. Shortly after the guests arrive, things go awry. A huge gash is cut into the side of a recently returned shark sub; the Octabot--an animatronic half-robot, half-octopus--upsets the Institute's scientists with his conclusion that a sea monster is the culprit, and the multilingual dolphin Sami (fluent in English, Spanish, and Catalans, thanks to his language-translation harness) reports that another sub is trapped inside a dormant underwater volcano. The guests are quickly recruited to save the day. Taking their seats in the ride vehicle, which is themed as a submarine shaped like a whale (ostensibly a "state-of-the-art, aquadynamic, nuclear-powered submersible" named Sea Odyssey) Sami leads them on a ride film adventure to rescue the stranded mariners. Along the way, they explore a sunken shipwreck and narrowly escape a close encounter with a gigantic prehistoric serpent.

During the 20-minute experience, guests wind their way through a series of elaborately themed environments, including the lushly landscaped queue line tunnel, the 60'-high Moon Pool room, a more intimately scaled tunnel, the laboratory where they first meet Sami, and one of the attraction's two loading areas, where visitors receive their final safety instructions before entering the whale sub, which is actually the motion base theatre.

Sea Odyssey reprises and expands upon Seafari, a simulation attraction Universal developed in 1994 for Porto Europa in Wakayama, Japan. At the heart of Sea Odyssey is the four-minute motion-base experience, which features the ride film originally produced by CGI house Rhythm and Hues. Executive-produced by Sherry McKenna, produced by Ellen Coss, and directed by Mario Kamberg, who also provided the production design, Seafari won the 1997 World Animation Celebration Award for best theme park simulation. It set a standard for quality and execution in computer animation, especially its water effects. But not until now has the Seafari ride film been used in another attraction.

"The idea was to pay as much homage as possible to Seafari, while giving it a new flavor for Spain," says Mike Yager, a principal with My Design, which worked closely with Universal and project manager Idletime Network, Inc. to develop the lighting, scenic, audio, special effects, operations, and other design packages. Differences in European engineering codes, site conditions, and the building's physical layout, as well as a higher guest capacity (16,000 versus 6,400 per hour), called for a complete redesign.

Universal worked with Coleman/Caskey Architects (CCA) to design the 25,000-sq.-ft. facility that houses Sea Odyssey. Local architect ITP ensured that the engineering complied with European building codes and EDAW provided the landscape architecture. Careful not to overwhelm the Polynesian zone in which Sea Odyssey is located, Universal submerged part of the structure into the rocky terrain, clad the exterior with a fabricated rock face, and extensively landscaped the area. During peak hours, when the wait is expected to last as long as an hour to an hour and a half, the design directive was to disguise the Institute's presence. "It takes a lot of rockwork, vines, and foliage to make a structure of that size disappear," quips CCA's Elsa Coleman.

But the Institute does manage to keep a low profile. It's not until guests cross the gangplank and pass behind a waterfall that they spy the first indication of man's tampering with the seemingly natural landscape: a giant open hatch embedded in a grotto. The portal leads inside the cavernous Moon Pool room. As guests cross over from outside, the lighting enhances the effect of entering a top-secret clandestine organization. Although the Moon Pool room is the Institute's garage, with the low hum of mechanical noises, Universal wanted to avoid bright white light, opting instead to create a more mysterious effect. "We couldn't just throw up standard theatrical fixtures," says Scott Preston, a lighting designer with My Design. "It had to be practical to the scenery." The Moon Pool room uses three different levels of lighting: ETC Source Four ellipsoidal fixtures provide the general illumination; safety fixtures along the queue rail help guide the guests; and at foot level, Lighting & Electronics Mini-Strips fixtures provide a rhythmic theatrical effect.

Copious scenic devices and special effects support the illusion that you're snaking your way farther and farther underneath the sea and out into the open water. The graphic panels that line the walkway in the Moon Pool room depict the Institute's fictitious layout. In the center, a dripping shark sub is hoisted over a water-filled cavity churning with waves. "The wave ball (manufactured by Wow Company) is one of the niftier little tricks," says Yager. "Its standard application is to agitate sewage in sewage plants." Painted bright orange, the wave ball is disguised as a buoy, bobbing up and down in the center of the pool. In the more intimate queue line tunnel, you hear the sounds of metal stressing under pressure, giving the illusion of vessels passing overhead. The laboratory is dominated by an empty tank, until Sami swims in and splashes water over the top. Sami is a rear-projected animated figure stored on an MPEG2 file and played back on an Alcorn McBride DVM2 digital video machine. In the loading room, gangplanks suspended over water lead to the whale sub. A bilge pump draws water up into the sub and a fuel hose twitches as the sub prepares for its rescue mission.

The motion base theatre, integrated by SimEx, showcases a number of technological innovations. After guests are secured in their seats on the four forward-facing, 20-passenger platforms, the two-tiered, 1,600-sq.-ft. floor drops away 8' in seven seconds. The custom-designed, linear-actuated Gala Spiralift, capable of bearing 200,000lbs, lets guests easily mount and dismount from the ride vehicles while also providing complete clearance for the motion bases. Gala Spiralifts are found in some 480-plus theatrical stage productions and concert halls around the world, but Sea Odyssey is the first theme park attraction to utilize the Gala system. Likewise, Universal says that Sea Odyssey is the first European attraction to feature a 70mm rear-projection system, manufactured by Christie. When the doors covering the portals collapse, revealing the 38'-wide by 48'-high screens, the nautical adventure is already underway. Unlike front projection, which would allow guests to see the start of the film, Universal selected rear projection because it provides a seamless transition into the ride film sequence. Without the overhead ceiling space to accommodate fly-up doors, even the doors that cover the screens were specially created for the attraction. Dubbed "iris doors," after the iris covers that protect a camera lens, the doors are made up of six panels. Half cascade up, while the other three cascade down, folding in on one another like the sections of a collapsing cup.

The theatre convincingly creates the interior of a mechanical whale. Fluorescent lights, recessed in the top of the curved ceiling, give off just enough of an eerie glow to illuminate the beluga's rib cage. The Moog 6-dof electrical motion bases create the rolling sensation of traveling underwater and being pounded by the ocean's currents. When the sea monster takes a bite out of the sub, water spritzes the guests. But in the end, the nautical heroes are triumphant. They escape the toothy embrace of the monster and rescue the stranded sub.

Following on the heels of the park's acquisition, the European press speculated that Universal's first alteration would be a movie-based attraction. Instead, Universal selected Seafari, to complement the park's seaside locale. "We wanted to introduce Europe to the Universal style of entertainment, but offer an experience that harmonized with the park's 'ports of adventure' theme," explains Hanna.

In addition to Hanna, the top echelon of the Universal team consisted of Ben Sheldon, director of engineering; Craig Doyle, director of environmental design; and Kelly Reiner, art director. ITEC Productions integrated the show control system, Advanced Animations fabricated the Octabot animatronic character from Universal's specs, and Lexington Europe collaborated with Universal and My Design on the scenic design.