Over a two week period during the first two weeks of August 2014, my family of four (including my wife and two sons, 8 and 10 years old) visited 7 theme parks in Southern California. It was our first visit to SoCal since 2009. We lived in the area for two years, from 2006 to 2008, and visited some of these parks many times during that period. These reviews recount our impressions of the parks, the changes made, and challenges faced by them. There are no photos included in these reviews as others (including MiceAge itself) do a much better job in this area than I do, and I want to concentrate solely on written review and critique. The reviews will go in reverse order of which parks we, as a family, had the most fun and enjoyment in (from 7th to 1st).
Ranked 5th of 7 parks: Sea World California
This was our first time to a Sea World park. Driving to Sea World and entering the parking lot were nice and easy. Staff were on hand to direct the cars, and the line at the parking fee gates were fine, and well-staffed. As soon as we left the car it started to downpour, but it quickly subsided as we approached the main gate, and it was bright, sunny and hot for the rest of the day. The lines at the ticket counters were relatively short as we approached with our printed tickets bought online. It seems the ticket scanners don't work if the printed paper is even a bit wrinkled or folded, as one of the sheet's serial numbers had to be entered manually. But finally we were into the park, and Sea World handled this important first test (of mine) well. They don't hand out park maps but encourage you to download an App. Walking over to guest relations, I was able to secure a paper map.
The new opening area is quite nice with small pools of sea creatures for kids to touch and observe. There was a coffee stand behind the pools so I went to get some snacks. Sea World serves Starbucks so the drinks would at least be familiar and decent. The chai tea latte tasted a bit more watery than it would normally be at a Starbucks. I bought a Shamu cookie as it reminded me of a Mickey cookie at DL covered in chocolate. What I did not realize, as there was no note in the display, is the cookie had a distinct lemon flavor. The kids rejected it for that and I ended up snacking on it all day. Food would continue to be a problem at Sea World throughout the day.
The first thing I wanted to check out was the One Ocean whale show. This show, and housing the whales in tanks, has been one of the biggest PR problems for Sea World the past few years. I wanted to see it and judge for myself. Before the show started I was surprised by a "salute the military heroes" prologue. Some people here will hate me for saying this but I generally find overt political/military messages in a theme park out-of-place and tacky unless done very carefully and in context (Lincoln at Disneyland, for example). And it wasn't a brief message as it was on the video screen, then a trainer asked all current military and veterans to stand, and then allied military personnel to stand, then applause... and this was before a whale show? It just felt strangely out-of-place, and that Sea World was just trying way too hard to appear patriotic/nationalistic before a show about one ocean for all (an oddly mixed message). Also lessons from history class make me cringe when corporations "salute" the military, it's just got a bad feeling about it. Okay, now that half of MiceChat hates me for that opinion, I will continue on to the show. The trainers no longer get into the water with the whales, which took a big part of the interaction out of the show. The show wasn't educational either, it was mostly "look at the whales slap their fins and make the audience wet." It felt so 80s, and not in a good way. By the end of the show, most audience members looked bemused. My overall impression is that everyone is asking the wrong question about whether Sea World should keep and use whales in the show, as the show itself just isn't very compelling. It was actually the most boring thing we did at Sea World all day, and it's supposed to be the park's signature. As we made our way through the park, the shows turned out to be the least interesting aspect of the park's charm, and felt strangely anachronistic as a form of entertainment.
There are not many rides in the park, but the ones they have are quite good. We went to Manta multiple times and enjoyed it very much. It is a really fun family coaster as advertised. I also liked the ray pool by the ride entrance, that's a nice touch. The Shipwreck Rapids ride was also quite fun as we went on multiple times. And Journey to Atlantis was good, but could have been better. Knowing that the Florida Sea World has a dark ride portion made me envious for that version. Without the dark ride's storytelling, I don't know if the ride actually had a story at all. It's called Journey to Atlantis but I didn't clearly get the story behind the ride. The ride itself is a lot of fun with the lift elevator/flood, and hybrid flume/coaster set-up, but it seems like a missed opportunity to put a story to the ride. The whole area could have been themed to Atlantis as a sea village and tell the story of Atlantis from the ancient Greeks through modern iterations. Actually I think this kind of sea history and myth is where I think Sea World will need to go in the future in order to survive and thrive in the theme park business.
We stopped by the Sesame Street area for some play in the structures, which was fun for the kids. They're too big now for the simple spinners so we didn't spend much time here, but it was amusing for a brief break. Didn't bother with the spinner Riptide Rescue, and don't know why they even bothered putting something so subpar in relation to the other rides in the park. Flat rides, outside of Sesame Street for the little ones, is not what the park needs. We did love all the aquarium style displays throughout the park. The arctic exhibit was great, though the simulator was probably unnecessary (though the kids liked it, and that's presumably the point of having it). The sharks, the dolphins, the turtles, the penguins and all the fish were fantastic. It was educational without being information overload. The park struck a nice balance here between education and entertainment, and it's where the park really shines. The park grounds itself are pleasant and well-maintained. We saw some wild rabbits that were fun to observe, and there were quiet corners to just sit and take a break.
But the food at Sea World was quite abysmal. They really need to up their game here. I had a fried shrimp with salad entree that was awful. The shrimp was tough and rubbery from being under an overhead heater for who knows how long. The food was simply uninspired amusement park food. Sea World can, and should, do better than this. There was no sit-down restaurant as far as I saw. Even the "Dole Whip" in a pineapple tasted overly sweet like they put too much sugar in the machine. The park, unfortunately, failed miserably on food.
We also went to some of the shows (Madagascar was closed unfortunately). The Pets Show was kind of fun but nothing special. It seemed somewhat beneath the park's educational mission. We then went to the Dolphins show, which was better than the whale show in the morning, but still disappointing. The humans mostly dive into the water and run around, while the dolphins swim and drag them around the pool. It just wasn't entertaining and felt very dated. This may seem like sacrilege but Sea World should get rid of all the shows as they currently stand, and concentrate on the exhibits and rides as they were great. I imagine the shows are expensive to produce and they have limited repeatability for guests. Instead they should set the theme to sea animals, exploration of the sea by humans, and the history/legends of man's relationship with the sea and its creatures. That could be entertaining, educational and a unique niche in theme parks. As it stands, Sea World is the only theme park that still takes somewhat seriously its educational mission. Disney has given up on Epcot, and Universal has given up on showing how movies are made. The animals shows are expensive, a PR nightmare, and, perhaps most importantly, just flat-out not entertaining.
In all, we enjoyed our day in the park but saw no need to come back until another year (or two). The park doesn't tell a compelling story that makes me want to come again and again. And the food was terrible. Pardon the pun, but Sea World feels adrift and needs a bold new direction away from the animal shows to concentrate on the theme of man, creatures and sea (as the rides and exhibits were excellent). There are some good stories there from history so it wouldn't cost them any intellectual property dollars to get started. I'm rooting for Sea World to make these bold changes for its future, but we'll see if they have the foresight, or simply double down on what's not working anymore.