There's a sure sign of the times in the world of themed entertainment: Baywatch is out, French-flavored acrobatics are in. At SeaWorld San Diego, an Anheuser-Busch-owned park, the new live show Cirque de la Mer, which opened May 25, wrapped up its first season in early September. This highly stylized, colorful water pageant features acrobats, lush costumes, and evocative scenery. It replaces the Baywatch show (now retired, and not a moment too soon) in the park's lagoon area, which has been re-themed as the “Amphibitheatre.”

The back story is of an undersea civilization of friendly amphibians. They have rescued and befriended a ship's crew during a terrible storm at sea. The grateful crew has invited them to spend the summer at SeaWorld, where they show off their superhuman abilities and acrobatic prowess. The amphibians have brought along their favorite vehicle: the Zorb, a bubble-like, transparent sphere, capable of transporting individuals through and over the surface of the ocean.

Cirque de la Mer executive producer is Sam Trego, of Imagination Entertainment. SeaWorld had approached Trego and asked him to propose a show that would replace Baywatch; Trego immediately brought Scenery West into the picture to help win the bid. “I was focused on my show for the Sydney Olympics. Scenery West helped me pull everything together on time,” recalls Trego, who flew with the Scenery West team to St. Louis to pitch the show to Busch Entertainment.

The 25-minute show was choreographed by Amy Gale, and stage-managed by Eric Underwood. It runs six times a day, featuring 18 performers, bringing Amphibia to life in bright, underwater fantasy costumes. From 35' towers erected at three points around the stadium seating, performers launch themselves into amphibious acrobatic feats. Also, from a performance island 252' out in the lagoon, two Amphibians fly out over the water and land in the audience, where they perform a hand-to-hand strong-man act on a 12' × 20' recycled plastic platform, cantilevered 13' out over the sea.

The performance island, clad in undersea scenery reminiscent of an opera set, also holds a launch ramp for the Zorb, which is a featured attraction of the show. The clear plastic 12' Zorb sphere sails down the 110'-long curved ramp, then drops 37' to the water. Meanwhile, all around the island is a vortex of sound, motion, color, and texture, both in and out of the water. Multicolored flags and inflatable shapes, provided by Air Dimensional Design and others, fill the air.

photo courtesy Scenery West

Although Scenery West is best known as a fabrication house, it has recently moved into providing design services as well, and this SeaWorld project is a distinct advance in that direction. After meeting with Trego, Scenery West, with creative consultant Ryan Harmon, helped develop the Cirque de la Mer storyline and characters that would serve as the guidepost for the construction and production of the finished live show. Scenery West also supplied concept and schematic designs in addition to overseeing physical construction and installation.

According to Stewart Zilberberg, Scenery West vice president, Cirque de la Mer was a natural fit for his company. “One of the reasons I feel we were chosen for this project was our recent experience creating entertainment venues utilizing the natural environment, such as our work on the Atlantis Resort on Paradise Island, as well as COSI science center in Columbus, OH, and at the Viejas Casino and the Alpine California Turf Club,” he says. “In particular, all those projects utilized either open or closed large-scale water systems, so Cirque de la Mer was really a natural next step.”

Water, Water Everywhere

Despite the show being all about water, no structures could go in the water.

“We were advised that it would take six to 12 months just to sign off with the coastal commission if we put any foundations in the water,” explains Trego. “We had tremendous restrictions due to a very tight deadline. From conception to opening was only 240 days, and, since SeaWorld leases its site from the city of San Diego, everything had to be approved by the city.” Because of the tight deadlines, design and installation overlapped with the approval processes. “We were building up until a week before the show opened, and until a few weeks before opening day, we didn't know if the city would do final signoff in time. Needless to say, in the course of things we established a close relationship with the city of San Diego.”

The team considered establishing the small performance island — a natural island in the middle of the lagoon — as the stage. It would have been an easy way around the city signoff process, but it would have put the action too far away from the audience. “That would have been an incredibly non-intimate situation,” explains Trego, who solved the problem by rigging two 252' cables with hand trolleys to fly the hand to-hand act from the island onto the performance platform.

“We originally had planned to cantilever it much further into the water, but then we discovered that in order to meet building codes, it needed to be strong enough for 100 people to stand on, instead of the five we had in the script,” adds Trego.

The zip line that connects the island to this platform was a special challenge. “Almost everyone was afraid to try to build it,” explains Trego, who hired Inversion Entertainment to engineer the new device. “It is extremely difficult to engineer a zip line specifically for a traveling load, much less one that goes over water and changes as the degree of slope changes. Just half a degree of slope difference changes the load exponentially.”

Jodi Roberdes, director of design for Scenery West, designed graphic elements and a team of subcontractors began fabricating the non-structural elements such as the floating trampolines and the air flame towers with inflatable silk kelp and seaweed decorations, while awaiting city approval to go forward with structural design.

“By the end of October 2000,” reports Zilberberg, “all decisions had been made and contracts were in place so we could move forward in terms of actual structural design drawing. That took about two and a half months.

“We only had 10 weeks to physically build the set,” he continues, “so we had to coordinate with Sam and the performers to make sure we weren't in the area painting or working on a certain apparatus they needed during rehearsals. And because we were extremely short on time, we knew we had to do our homework and put in all the necessary time on the front end doing engineering, shop drawings, due diligence, and weather testing.”

Scenery West erected 35' bungee towers, a 30'-tall arch to support the Russian Swing artists, a 60'-tall tower slide, the 110' curved ramp for the Zorb, and five sphere towers that range up to 60' tall. Coastal Commission regulations required that everything over 30' had to be designed so that it could be removed and stored during the show's winter off-season.

SeaWorld restrictions prevented the fabrication and installation team from working double or night shifts. Consequently, there were often as many as seven different companies on the small island at the same time. “It was amazing to me how well we all managed to work together,” marvels Scenery West project manager Shawn Ellis. “Our vendors — All Access Staging and Rigging, Bigger Than Life [inflatable manufacturer], and Air Dimensional Design [creators of undulating fabric tubes called Airflames] — worked right alongside the electricians, ironworkers, the owner's rep, the crane operators, and the concrete guys.” In addition to using boats to get workers to the island, a barge with a crane was used to transport all the scenic elements from arriving trucks onto the island, which had to be transformed into a greenroom/staging area before opening day.

Worth Its Salt

To coordinate the immense undertaking, weekly planning meetings were held. Two project managers from SeaWorld's design/engineering and entertainment divisions, a representative from Rudolph and Sleton, (builder of the cantilevered platform), a Scenery West rep, and occasionally, the electrical contractor and a SeaWorld VP, would go over every detail. Because it was in a saltwater environment, everything metal that wasn't stainless steel had to be galvanized or painted with four coats of epoxy marine paint.

“Someone dropped a pen on the island, and when they picked it up the next day it had already started to corrode!” exclaims Ellis.” Even though the show is only performed during the summer, all of the equipment and scenery has to be constructed to remain in this tough environment all year long.” Sea tides were also a problem. The Russian Swing acrobats needed to dismount by diving into the water, but changing tides caused the water depth to vary from 6' to 14'.

“An 8' change in water level is a big safety factor to consider,” points out Steve Gale, the show's technical director. “We had to design the show for the lowest tides as well as the worst weather conditions. Safety issues were key every step of the way. We have a two-page-long safety check-off sheet we go through before every performance. Performers don't go on if the wind gets above 25mph.”

Changing tide levels also dictated where the bungee towers were located. “Environmental concerns by the city required that we do a lot of soil testing to see how close to the water we could put the bungee towers because there was quite a bit of concrete needed under them,” observes Ellis.

The towers, a structural necessity, double as “Chinese poles,” with beautifully sculpted organic wind turbines on top that rotate erratically as the winds pass through. They were not electrically wired, but SeaWorld has plans to add an illuminated night show for next summer.

Natural Light

Because the show was planned for daylight hours, very little was required in the way of electrical equipment. While saving time and money during construction, the lack of lights proved to be challenging when staging the show.

“Because the characters in the show are from under the sea and don't have electricity, we consciously tried to develop a show that limited the use of electricity, but that meant we had to find a way to develop theatre in its finest form by using natural light,” states Zilberberg, who comes from a strong theatrical and opera background.

With the exception of the existing sound systems, the Yamaha Wave Runners, Airflame generators, and a single chain motor to raise the Zorb to the top of the ramp, everything is energized by physical forces. Instead of relying on lighting to direct the audience's attention, it is done with activity, blocking, music, colors, and material. There is constant movement and layering of performances. The opening act starts in front of the audience, then their eyes are redirected a bit closer to the island by another act, then brought into the water with a third act, then further away until the acts are originating off the island. “The transitions happen so quickly it appears that only one act is going on at a time,” observes Zilberberg. “When we wrote the show we knew the pacing and transitions were critical.”

The colorful water-friendly costumes designed by Nina Correra were done in wild, Dayglow colors to make them as visible as possible for a daytime show in natural light. “During the design stage, we applied a lot of color theories, but before we saw it on opening day, we weren't sure we believed our own pitch,” confesses Trego, who plans to replace the costumes at the end of the season, after more than 400 shows' worth of honorable service.

No one knew how well the Zorb balls would hold up, as this was a trial application of them in a water environment, but they lasted out the season. “We were afraid that with heavy use, the balls would become too scratched up,” says Trego, “so we made sure that every scenery surface they touched was as non-abrasive as we could make it, and it's worked.”

The production itself has met or exceeded the expectations of everyone involved, according to Trego. “SeaWorld says we have raised the bar on this type of entertainment,” he notes. “This show is the beta test of Busch's new corporate mandate to make its new shows as spectacular as its attractions.”

Attendance confirms the success of Cirque de la Mer. Throughout the summer, the 3,000-seat stadium was at or near capacity for every show, seven days a week. And no one seemed to miss Baywatch in the slightest.