Between no-sail orders, quarantine regulations, trip cancellations, vaccination requirements, omicron spikes, ever-changing CDC protocols, and other tribulations, navigating the pandemic has been something of a roller coaster ride for the cruise industry. One ship, however, Carnival’s Mardi Gras, has a great way to forget all about COVID, at least for a little while. It has an actual roller coaster affixed to its upper deck-and it’s a literal blast.
Known as the “Fun Ships,” Carnival has brought cruising to the masses for 50 years. More recently it has been upping the fun factor with onboard water slides, pedal-powered SkyRides, high ropes courses, and other attractions more typically found at amusement parks. Launched in 2021, Carnival‘s newest mega-ship takes the parks connection to new heights with Bolt, the first roller coaster at sea.
Why would an operator make the audacious decision to build a roller coaster atop a ship? “Why not?” responds Christine Duffy, Carnival Cruise Line’s president, saying the company wanted to take the guest experience up a notch while acknowledging that the project required a team of naval architects, amusement ride developers, and other pros to pull off. Among the challenges, Bolt’s overseers had to figure out how to secure the structure to the ship and how to dampen the ride’s sounds and vibrations from the staterooms beneath it. “It was an amazing feat of engineering,” Duffy says.
Bolt is not like typical roller coasters. For one, there is no soaring lift hill followed by a steep drop to start the ride. In fact, gravity as well as potential and kinetic energy, the key factors that propel the trains on most thrill machines, play no role in its operation.
“A gravity-driven roller coaster would be particularly challenging on a moving ship,” says Glenn Aprile, Carnival’s director of new build product development. Instead, Bolt uses a rack and pinion system to move its vehicles. The single-car trains never disengage from the gear drive. By any conventional measure, Bolt is a roller coaster. But some diehard ride enthusiasts might beg to differ; because it never freely coasts, Bolt doesn’t meet the strict definition of a coaster.
Regardless of its designation, by maintaining constant traction with the track, the power-driven attraction is a “perfect fit” for a ship sailing the high seas, Aprile says. The rack and pinion system, which allows the vehicles to accelerate or brake at any point along the track, also makes for a unique and thrilling ride experience.
Each vehicle accommodates two passengers in a single-file arrangement. The cars have no sides and are essentially seats, er, bolted to a chassis. A single lap restraint leaves riders unencumbered. The low-slung vehicles straddle a single rail (as opposed to the two rails that are found on most coaster tracks), and guests sit just above the rail. They mount the cars, not unlike a motorcycle, with their legs to either side of the seats.
Sticking with the motorcycle analogy, the passenger in the front has handlebars to grab. They are more than just places to put your hands, however. The right grip has a throttle, while the left one includes a boost button. The interactive controls truly distinguish Bolt from most coasters.
When the ride begins, the vehicle blasts out of the station on a straightaway. A guest can augment the acceleration by goosing the throttle and/or pressing the boost button. It’s a giddy sensation to have control over the ride experience.
Located on the aft of the Mardi Gras, the vehicle races towards the end of the ship, then hits a helix that sends it soaring up as it reverses direction. Cruising along the starboard side of the ship, the car navigates a couple of small hills before encircling Carnival’s iconic red, white, and blue funnel. The final part of the course is a long straightaway that gives passengers the opportunity to really floor it.
When Bolt first opened, guests only got to experience one circuit of the relatively short 220-meter course. When I rode it in October, however, each vehicle got to make two rounds. (Aprile says that Carnival plans to stick with the two-round configuration.) Therefore, instead of having to slow down to unload, the cars can, um, bolt right through the station and continue careening at high speed to start the second lap of the course.
The passenger controls are surprisingly responsive. While intrepid riders may be tempted to just let it rip the entire time, they may want to consider taking a more nuanced approach. By boosting the speed while heading uphill, for example, they could experience a brief pop of airtime, that giddy negative-G sensation passengers feel as they float out of their seats. Slowing the vehicle heading downhill and then revving it on the straightaways might help make the ride more thrilling.
With a top speed of 60 kph, or about 37 mph, Bolt isn’t especially fast. But coaster kicks aren’t necessarily all about face-melting speeds.
“Acceleration is actually where the thrills are,” contends Steve Boney, executive business development for Maurer Rides, the company that designed and built Bolt. “And this has massive acceleration on any part of the track.” As Boney explains it, the ride has a busbar embedded in the track that distributes power on the fly to the vehicle’s onboard 100 horsepower motor. “That’s a lot of power for a small vehicle,” he adds.
Known as a Spike coaster, Bolt represents the first iteration of the model in North America. There are two other Spike coasters in European theme parks with more in development. Maurer won industry awards for best new product when it introduced the groundbreaking attraction.
The ride’s sophisticated computer control system determines the distance between vehicles along with other data to calculate a speed range within which guests can accelerate at any moment. It’s exhilarating to put the pedal to the metal and peel out in the middle of the ocean.
It currently costs $15 for guests to ride Bolt. Carnival’s Duffy says the fee is less about generating revenue and more about managing demand for the popular attraction. Mardi Gras passengers can reserve a time to ride either at the coaster or by using Carnival’s app.
The cruise line is planning to include a similar coaster on its next ship, Carnival Celebration, which is scheduled to launch this November.
A lifelong amusement park and theme park fanatic, Arthur Levine has been writing newspaper and magazine features about the industry he loves, as well as general travel articles, since 1992. He is a regular contributor for USA Today, and you can also find him at AboutThemeParks.