It’s still artifice, of course. But imitation rivers and wave-generators seem more exotic than the cheerful sophistication manufactured by interior designers Jeffrey Beers and David Rockwell for the Cove. I mean, who do you call when you need a fake river? Where does artificial nature come from? The ancients—the real ancients, that is—had river gods, such as Tiber and Arno. And if this were, say, the 16th century, there would be in-house fontanieri—"fountaineers.” In the Baroque era, when there were no electric motors to run pumps, making the myriad fountains at an estate like Villa d’Este work required incredible strategic skills. According to Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, author of Landscape Design, the fontanieri were “virtuosic hydraulic engineers with an understanding of metaphysics as well as physics, and a reputation akin to that of magicians because of the ingenuity of their creations.” Who, then, are the fontanieri of Atlantis?
One morning I go for a walk with Mark R. Gsellman, whose business card says he’s senior vice president and general manager of marine and water-park operations. He tells me he’s been in the theme-park business since he was 17 and reels off a string of names: Discovery Cove, Seaworld, Boardwalk & Baseball.… It could be the résumé of a 21st-century fontaniere, although Gsellman doesn’t come across as metaphysical. At Atlantis, he’s in charge of making sure that Aquaventure’s three-million-gallon system is up and running every day. “This rapid is sixty thousand gallons a minute at the top,” Gsellman says as we walk past a bucket-brigade line of employees tossing freshly inflated inner tubes into the water. “It’s eighty thousand at the rapids. How you start that up takes a little sophistication.” He takes me inside the Power Tower and shows me a room full of plumbing where all the water that runs through the Current is chlorinated, ozonated, warmed, and filtered. Four waterslides also emerge from this building, and so many huge green pipes—each big enough to hold a large adult with inner tube—emerge from it that it could be an oil refinery.
After my behind-the-scenes tour, I jump on a tube and float to the Power Tower along a slow, narrow tributary that leads to a long, steep, rubberized conveyer belt carrying a line of tubes and riders, like products on an assembly line, up to the top of the tower. The experience is more Rube Goldberg than Fritz Lang. The conveyer belt stops a lot on the way up—traffic—and as our queue of people in bathing suits sit in the temporarily beached tubes, we can hear screams emanating from the big green pipes next to us. Once at the summit, we pop off the conveyer belt one by one and float into a holding area designed a bit like a highway interchange. You can take the first left and go down the gentlest slide, the Falls, or go around a long curve to the Drop (or you can pluck your tube out of the water and dash upstairs to the truly scary slide, the Surge). Taking Gsellman’s advice, I start with the Falls. And I discover that the disturbing part isn’t so much the steepness or the speed, but the fact that a large portion of the swift ride takes place in the dark. I find myself inside one of those green pipes spinning round and round in blackness.
It could be argued that the whole of water-ride history, more than 100 years’ worth, leads to this state-of-the-art moment. Louis XIV’s guests at Versailles placidly floated along his Grand Canal in gondolas. The first real waterslide was probably the Shoot-the-Chutes, introduced in the 1890’s at Coney Island, in which thrill seekers would ride down a steep watercourse in a simple wooden boat and end up in a lagoon. Amusement parks’ long flume rides came later, and since Orlando’s Wet 'n’ Wild opened in 1977, water parks have become increasingly popular. According to John Schooley, who has been in the business since 1980, and whose company designed the new Atlantis water features, “transportain-ment,” as he calls it, means that “pretty much the entire park is designed as one giant ride.”