SeaWorld, Samland and the Eminent H2O
by, 03-08-2012 at 05:08 AM
Every once in a while it is a good thing to go out and explore new worlds. A few weeks ago I decided to do just that with a weekend trip to LEGOLAND California in Carlsbad and SeaWorld in San Diego. I documented my impression of LEGOLAND in a previous Samland and this week my focus is on SeaWorld.
I really cannot remember the last time I went to SeaWorld. It had to be more then 25 years since my last visit. There are some memories of visits from the past but I honestly can’t tell them apart from memories of Marineland, the former aquatic park on the Palos Verde peninsula in Southern California.
When I arrived, I noticed a very long line for the one and only open ticket booth. As usual, I was there well before opening. Just to the right are ticket vending machines that are very sophisticated. You can purchase whatever type of ticket you need, even an annual pass or the use of an AAA discount.
Automated ticket kiosk.
I had three objectives for this visit. First, I just wanted to relax and enjoy the experience. I had all day, the crowds were light, and everything for the most part was open - Except the sky tower. What is up with the tall rides in the parks being closed on this visit? I ran into the same thing at LEGOLAND.
Second, I am always looking for new material for this column. Thank you for visiting.
My third objective may seem a bit eccentric but it reflects the twisted kind of thinking that runs through my brain. As long time readers have seen, Disney’s Animal Kingdom (DAK) in Florida fascinates me. Although it tends to get flamed for not being a full day worth of entertainment and other deficiencies, I think it may be the most beautiful of the six North American Disney parks. At DAK, the heavy-handed conservation message has been reduced since the early days but the park’s physical design is still consistent with its original theme - the celebration of animals from the past, the present, and of our imaginations.
DAK was, in part, a corporate reaction to the success of SeaWorld and Busch Gardens, two animal-based theme parks in Florida. I have always admired how integrated the animal exhibits at DAK are within the landscape. I was curious to see how others approached the same design opportunity.
It was raining very hard when I woke up. I stayed locally so that I could be there early. Fortunately, by the time I made the five-minute commute from my hotel to the park’s entrance, the rain had stopped. The overcast skies held their moisture for the rest of the day. It was a perfect day to be at a theme park.
My first impression of SeaWorld was how suburban the theme park felt. Everything is spread out with wide, gently winding paths connecting various pavilions that seem to be buried into the landscape. As you wander about the Disney and Universal parks, as well as LEGOLAND, the designers try to put you within an immersive environment based on a given theme that hopefully manipulates your emotions and ties all of the visual elements together. At SeaWorld, there is never that critical mass of buildings. Don’t get me wrong the landscaping is outstanding. The park is beautiful and a very casual walking environment. Much of the time, I felt as though I was walking through a garden. It only hit me when I got home and downloaded all of the photos that I took of my trip. I came to realize that the park is very pretty but it does not photograph well. That may be a good thing. Most of the best things are inside while viewing the animal habitats. The architecture is not the star. The park meanders and is not logical. You basically loop around the outside and work your way in and out of the attractions in the middle as you need to by the show schedule.
This may be due in part to the park trying to live up to the park’s mantra outlined by Senegalese environmentalist Baba Dioum. He said, “For in the end we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.” This theme is reflected in virtually everything you see.
For many, SeaWorld is Shamu. The killer whale is the heart and soul of the park. Shamu is so important to the image of SeaWorld they have a customized VW Bug and dressed it as the whale out front.
The current Shamu Show, One Ocean, is a sentimental plug for conservation - blending videos, whales, music, and trainers. The trainers are no longer able to enter the tank as you may recall from the old days, so they are limited in what they can do. Regardless, the sheer size of these animals (males can be 19 to 22 feet and weigh 8,000 to 12,000 lbs, while the females average 16 to 19 feet and weigh 3,000 to 8,000 pounds), the power, and the novelty of the whales doing jumps and flips are still a big thrill. The show was a touch over the top trying to tug at your heart but it is not inconsistent with many theme park shows today.
Shamu Stadium surprised me. The facility seats 5,500 people in steeply banked rows of benches. Fortunately, the benches have backrests something other parks should copy. The lower half of the stadium was marked “soak zone” and I took that warning seriously. Good idea. It seems the trainers and whales have conspired to get guests as wet as they possibly can. That sideways tail flip thing just tosses buckets forward. Unless you are an eight year old who likes to have whales spitting water at you, you may want to aim higher up in the bleachers.
Take your time before and after a show. The enclosure is actually multiple tanks and you can peek in from above through a series of catwalks. There is also an underwater viewing area that is well worth the time.
Blue Horizons arena.
Another show that hammers home the conservation theme is Blue Horizons. The show brings together dolphins, birds, pilot whales, acrobats, and more dancing trainers. There must have been a memo to the production team to check out as many Cirque du Soleil shows as they could.
The interaction between the trainers and the dolphins was priceless. I realize this is a show and they were going to do this twice that day, but there was a sense of joy in the play between the trainer and dolphin that was truly captivating. And then came the bungee jumpers. And the divers. And the trained flock of birds.
In both the dolphin and Shamu shows, the ability and marvel of the animals is melted down. Not so with Pet’s Rule! This was one of the big surprises of the day. It is a delightful and entertaining show with all sorts of animals including more than 50 trained cats, dozens of dogs, a couple of Kangaroos, pigs, and whatever else, this show is non-stop. There was a bit of play between trainers and animals but most of the time it was a slapstick paced blur of animal stunts, most of which are kind of corny but in a good way. For example, a bunch of white cats jump into a barrel of ink and a bunch of black cats jump out. A large dog goes into a dryer and comes out an identical small dog. Imagine what happens to the long hair cat that jumps into the hair remover. Yes. That is what happens.
The other shows? I did not see the Sesame Street presents Lights, Camera, Imagination!, a 4-D movie. Just couldn’t do it. Sadly, I missed the Sea Lions LIVE show. That was because I had to take multiple rides on the Bayside SkyRide.
They have a sky bucket ride!!!
The Bayside SkyRide is a sky bucket ride just like the long lost Skyway that ran between Fantasyland and Tomorrowland at Disneyland. While that one went from one world, through a mountain, and landed in the future, the SeaWorld version takes you high above the water, down into the station where a guy with a camera yells, “Smile!” and you go right back up and return right where you started. I can’t tell you how excited I was to see this. With the rain, I was fearful this attraction would be closed. I made it a point to get to the outskirts where this attraction is based as early as I could. I sensed this was going to take multiple rides. Warning, this ride goes high over the water. I forgot about the little butt tingle one gets when you are hanging way other there on just one cable. The ride is a round trip and lasts about five minutes. The pathway to get to the SkyRide follows along one of the waterways in Mission Bay and a pleasant walk.
Journey to Atlantis
To stay competitive, SeaWorld is beginning to add big thrill rides, The focus is on the rides and not so much the animal encounter experience. The big one right now is Journey to Atlantis, a hybrid that combines elements of a roller coaster with a boat ride. Two large towers, one equipped with a huge flume drop, dominate the vista. You would think that the drop would be the dramatic climax but you would be wrong. This is the first element that you experience once you are strapped into the little boat. Once you make the big hairpin turn you are whisked up into an elevator and lifted to the top of the second tower. Although the use of a lift is a fun element it would have been more effective if the forward view was screened and you were not seeing the inside of the building. From this point, it is a fun, swooping rollercoaster that uses a water break (naturally) to slow you down. The exit checks the box for the animal encounter with a huge tank filled with manta rays.
Manta coaster artwork
I am looking forward to the opening of the Manta roller coaster in late May. This coaster is going to be a huge hit and I sense will begin to change the overall character of the park.
Wild Arctic is an attraction that uses thrill ride technology as a tool to set up a grouping of animal exhibits. We are about to go on a nature expedition in a specially equipped helicopter (a simulator vehicle). Our destination is an archeological dig where two sailing ships are being dug out of the ice.
Polar Bear enclosure: Wild Arctic
This helicopter has the ability to poke its nose into the water to give an underwater view of the wildlife. Somehow the propeller blade is still able to operate and the “quiet” mode reduces the ambient noise by more than 90%. During the simulator ride we get to see beluga whales, polar bears, and walruses.
Beluga Whale enclosure: Wild Arctic
If you miss the older version of Star Tours then you owe it to yourself to ride this thing. Of course, something goes horribly wrong and we barely escape death. The real treasure lies beyond the exit doors of the simulator. You enter the set of the research base and walk among the hulls of the ships. We get to see all of the animals featured in the simulator ride. The habitats were beautifully designed with multiple viewing spots so that everybody can get a good view and both underwater and above the water observation areas. Each of the habitats furthered the storyline. I say well done.
This was just one example of way the newer habitats have been designed. The designers took care to provide different spaces so that guests that who want to rush through can do so without getting frustrated while those who want to linger can do so. There are lots of smaller exhibits Turtle Reef and the Penguin Encounter are popular spots. The Shark Encounter features a walk-through tank with sharks passing all around you.
If you need to get wet, Shipwreck Rapids is not a groundbreaking raft ride but it will get you wet, and you will have some laughs. The park also sports a number of dressed up traditional amusement park rides for the real little ones in the Sesame Street Bay of Play.
Want to get closer to the animals? That is very easy to do. Each of the exhibits has feeding programs and there are upcharge activities like having breakfast, lunch or a late afternoon snack with Shamu. You can even get in the water with a Dolphin or Beluga Whale.
All in all, I found the park clean and friendly with lots to see and do. Since I want to ride the new coaster I took advantage of their buy a day get the rest of the year free program.
I have to come back. They have a sky bucket ride. Plus, the SeaWorld Skytower was unfortunately closed. I found it strange that both of the tower rides at LEGOLAND and SeaWorld were closed on my trip. Have you been to Sea World? What was your experience?