Popeye & Bluto's Bilge Rat Barges

I usually 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.

Thanks to Universal's Islands 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.

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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.

First, "The 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 get nailed.

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 we.

Last, but 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.

Barr Engineering (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 attraction.

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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.

The second 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.)

Once we're 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, folks.

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!

We manage 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!"

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!" Awesome.

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Will another 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 there.

  • COURSE LENGTH: Approx. 2,000 Feet
  • TOP SPEED: Approx. 16 Feet Per Second
  • VEHICLES: 12-person rafts




© Robert Coker.
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