Sunday, June 30, 2013

It's Shamu(s)!

Sea World. I hadn't been there since I was a kid, but had some really strong memories of the place. It was a pretty unique experience - and it still stands out, even among so many theme parks and zoos.

It's a place filled with stadiums. There are the obvious shows with orcas and dolphins and the less obvious ones with circus acrobatics and trained pets. Then there are the now classic, amazing exhibits that opened with such fanfare when I was younger - the Shark Encounter, the Penguin Encounter, and the more recent Turtle Reef, just to name a few. I don't think it's possible to do absolutely everything in one day, and with the limitations of young kids we focused on our must-sees very carefully.

Add in the fact that we decided to forego a stroller entirely this time, and it made for a jam packed, long haul.

Oh, there's also a Sesame Street area with lots of climbing and a few kiddie rides. We hit that first, and I'm glad we did. Zero lines, which led Theo to try a couple of spinning rides. They hadn't even started up for the day so he had no idea what he was getting into. It seems spinny rides disagree with him, no matter how many times he runs around in circles at home. That and a quick look around and we were done with Sesame Street land. Later in the day that area looked like a crowding nightmare.

Walking away from it we passed the backside of the dolphin show stadium, where you could clearly see the dolphins hanging out. When the trainers came wandering back there the dolphins immediately jumped up, trying to please them to get treats. The trainers talked to them and petted them, and it was amazing to see the relationship between them, without any glitz or story to get in the way. It's a genius move on Sea World's part to make the backstage totally transparent, letting you know that they have nothing to hide.

Theo's cousin had her heart set on riding a thrill ride so we visited Journey to Atlantis. This ride is pretty unique, as it's a water flume and a roller coaster in one. I hate to spoil any surprises here, but it takes some weirdness to make those two things mesh together. When you walk up to the exterior it's an oasis of strong themeing, and just really pretty. I'd say the ride doesn't have much story to it but the oddity of it was enough to make this ride geek gleeful. We took turns riding and watching Theo, and he got a pressed penny out of the deal. Showing up early has its no-line privileges.

When we were done there it was time for Shamu, so we made sure to get over there in time. Theo's cousin wanted some serious soak zone real estate so we split up, with us sitting at the very upper limits of splash area. While we waited they showed video of a new "Baby Shamu" being born in February of this year. I was surprised that I hadn't heard about it, but that's the thing, it's really not as big a deal as it used to be. I later learned the first Baby Shamu was born in 1985, and man, I sure do remember that. Didn't everyone have a Shamu toy or cup or shirt, when we were growing up?

They still use the name Shamu generally but no longer assign it to any one orca because in our performing set alone there were FOUR OF THEM.

I mean, think about it. You know they must have a few others, older, younger, etc. There were four of these huge monsters doing all the adorable tricks perfectly, with only the most minor of direction from the handlers. It was breathtaking.

I remember seeing it when I was younger that they did a lot of talking and educating, brought a kid out of the audience to talk to Shamu, put a mic up to Shamu so you could hear the noises it made....but they did none of that this time. This show is called One Ocean and it's supposedly about the unity of the world and its creatures but it's really orcas doing tricks. Which is totally awesome. Theo was definitely interested and entertained.

Theo's cousin got a full soaking with freezing cold water (oh yeah, they're from the deep ocean) so count me glad for not sitting there.

We had lunch, where a Night Heron decided to pull up a chair and watch us eat. The park is littered with rad sea birds looking for a handout.

I insisted we see the sea lion show as that's always a good time. And just like my childhood memory of it, at one point a performer got lazy and rebellious, which I just adore. You can definitely see the gap between the fully trained, automatic orcas and the preschooler attitude of the sea lions. They do each trick individually, whether it's waving or scooting backwards, and every step needs a reward. The show itself was cute and pretty clever with lots of pop culture references. And an adorable otter!

Afterwards we bought a tray of smelly fish to feed to some sea lions. Theo and his cousin loved this, as did the gorgeous Snowy Egret who sat inches away for a shot at a snack.

We visited Shark Encounter and Theo was definitely interested in the crazy teeth on some of them. Turtle Reef is spectacular, with some humongous turtles, including a massive one that was at least 6 feet long. Again, good amount of interest.

Greg noticed that Theo did better here in many ways we realized that Sea World has larger breaks between things. It's not a rapid fire arrangement. You have to get to the next place and there's definitely distance between. (Note: Should have gone with the stroller.) The breaks let Theo reset and be ready for more fun.

The dolphin show is called Blue Horizons and features lots of mimed story, aerialists, divers, and birds. Not enough dolphins and way too over the top cheesy. I found myself wishing for the edutainment portions. Still, dolphins, and the kids enjoyed.

We went up in the tower which is air conditioned with comfy seats and just lovely. Cousin and family went to see the performing pets, while we wandered to the dolphin encounter, where you usually get to pet and feed dolphins. At that exact moment they set up a photo op with dolphins where you wait in line to get a picture. Not our favorite thing in the world and Theo wasn't amenable anyway. Posing for photos is a bit of a sore spot, and there was no way I was gambling on a line for it. Instead we headed over to the backstage of the Shamu show where you can walk up to the glass and watch a couple of them swim in a massive tank. We got to see one jumping up and diving back down right in front of us, the water and bubbles swirling beautifully, and all without needing to get wet.

When we reunited it was at the penguin encounter, another thing that was shiny new way back when, and involves architecture that makes me feel very old indeed. We saw the adorable penguins and puffins and we were knackered, but we were right next to the arctic exhibit, so we trudged off to see a polar bear, two beautiful beluga whales, and an incredibly massive walrus, who looked for all the world like an invention of Henson's Creature Shop. Then, home.

We were so destroyed that we forgot to pick up a fridge magnet, another thing Theo loves to collect, though he did get a stuffed turtle which is adorable. I was eyeing some lovely tote bags but never committed and now wish I had. You can't find much at all in Sea World souvenirs online. Bummer.

Day three was a little rough without a stroller, and it was hard to imagine another day of walking at all, but we had the Safari Park ahead of us, and we were up for the challenge.

More later.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

You belong in the zoo...

...the San Diego Zoo.

Before I continue I want to mention that Legoland exceeded my expectations. Large, varied, interesting to parents as well as young children (though I expect among teens only the most Lego-geeky would enjoy themselves). The food was good. For some reason, lines were at their worst first thing in the morning, and the loading procedures would give any theme park fan a heart attack, but it was all very forgivable after seeing Theo's glee at everything we did. They have an awesome splash zone that merits a full swimsuit, and that's what I'll bring for him next time. End review.

The one really big thing we forgot to bring with us was a stroller. It seems crazy, but I don't have it in the car all the time anymore, and it just didn't make it onto the packing list.

At Legoland we rented a stroller and it worked just fine, except that Theo's cousin was a wee bit jealous. We decided to rent a double stroller for our second day out, this time at the San Diego Zoo.

Turned out this was a genius decision. The kids loved riding together. When one wanted out, the other wanted out too, translating into more participation from Theo. There were tons of ramps and hilly parts allowing for speedy downhill runs to make the kids squeal. We covered a ton of ground and shared the duty among four adults. WIN.

We saw endless animals, too many to list, and it was endlessly fascinating, at least for us adults. Theo likes animals the same way nearly all kids do. He's not overly into them, but he enjoyed many of them, especially when you take into account the sheer number of times we said "Look, Theo! Get out of the stroller so I can pick you up! See, in the corner? See his head?" There's a point where you stop trying to get him to see the obscured or sleepy animals, and realize later that he's so full up that no, he doesn't want care about the amazing full view lions you're seeing, and that's that.

I remember as a kid having only a small appreciation for zoos. My memories involve being annoyed that animals were always hidden or asleep. I didn't care at all to look at a sleeping animal. I'm also sure that I had no appreciation for the rarity or the power of the species. You can see that same "so what, I've got all these guys in a book at home" look on Theo's face. As it is, the enclosures are so well constructed these days, you get maximum viewing, all the time, and it's pretty overwhelming.

All that said, he got a kick out of many of the exhibits. Pandas, elephants, apes and monkeys, various birds, big cats, all kinds of things caught his eye and interest for a least a little bit.

Every bit as exciting was our commitment to the penny press. We started Theo on a squished penny diet back at Disneyland and now it came to full fruition. The machines are everywhere at these parks, and in SD they're more fun, because they're operated by a manual crank. We ended up allowing two pennies per park and Theo adored every penny-squishing second, as well as the clanking keepsakes he's now got in an old Altoids tin.

We planned our day at the zoo well, and ended up at the back of the park for the Skyfari, which we called the Skyway after the long-gone Disneyland ride. The Skyfari takes you back to the entrance. Throughout the day we could see the ride above us and Theo was always mentioning it, always asking about it, and always seeming brave enough to take it on. Just like Legoland, I was surprised and optimistic, but as I said last time, it can seem like you're flipping a coin, and you never know what you'll deal with at the very last minute.

Once again he stepped up to the situation perfectly and had no qualms about getting onto the loudly banging buckets and swinging up into the sky. He loved the view, he loved being up high, he loved all of it.

Win, win, win. Baby Upgrade.

More to come.

Friday, June 28, 2013


Greg has had his heart set on an extended weekend vacation with Theo for a while now. Our date nights and weekends away from the kiddo seem few and far between, but compared to some, we do get away from parenthood fairly often. Whenever we planned another bit of babysitting we would kick around the concept of a family stay at a hotel somewhere, sometime in the future.

I have to say it wasn't at the top of my to-do list. I know I'm not awful at planning or even coping in the moment when things go awry, it's just the prior anxiety and worry that can make me less than enthusiastic. Having a three-year-old can be like flipping a coin every time you encounter new stimuli. Will he be ok with the hotel? Will he drink enough fluids on the hot days? Will he want to participate in anything, at all, never mind actually enjoying things? This kind of chaotic lifestyle makes me a wreck. It's bad enough when it's part of our predictable routine, but when everything is new, and under the pressure of having fun while the day's exhausting just contemplating it.

We had let our Disneyland passes expire back in February because Theo had stopped enjoying the place. He had always been picky about rides, but even that short list shrank down to near nothing. Even rides he enjoyed before became a source of fear for him, and just going to the park became a full day of attempted coercion and tears.

A month ago I took Theo to the LA Natural History Museum and the Science and Industry Museum with family. Greg couldn't go as it was a weekday. Theo spent about 10 minutes completely enthralled in the amazing dinosaur exhibit, then spent the rest of the time whining and begging to go home. There were only a few other spots of interest throughout our day there - Shuttle Endeavor merited another 10 minutes - but 90% of the day was temper management.

So when Greg wanted to do four days in San Diego to hit the major attractions I was not super thrilled. We planned it way in advance and were hoping he would be up to the task by the time it rolled around. Getting closer to the date we saw some good signs from Theo, doing things he had been frightened of for the longest time - he rode the train at the mall, he stood on an escalator instead of being carried, he sat on a big kid swing and allowed himself to be pushed. I felt confident going in that we had a much better shot at a good time now than we did back in February.

I don't remember how early on in the plan we decided that bringing Greg's sister (and by extension, Theo's cousin Sadie) along, but we knew it was a good idea to make this an event to remember. Theo and Sadie get along very well, often keeping each other occupied and on track. Having other adults to lean on sounded good, and I think bringing others in can help alleviate the friction of being together constantly.

The original plan included the San Diego Zoo, the Safari Park (formerly known as the Wild Animal Park), and Sea World. After more consideration we decided to get Legoland in as well. Legoland is aimed at very young children. It won't be long before my niece grows out of their offerings, and we figured it might work well for Theo, too.

We stayed at a Comfort Inn which offered attached rooms including separate, closed door rooms for the kids - each with their own bunk bed! The kids were thrilled at the novelty and we were thrilled that they could get to bed while we stayed up a little longer.

On to the parks!

Legoland was a HUGE hit with Theo. We realized it was a good choice from the moment we drove into the parking lot and Theo started pointing out all the statues and signage. "It's made of Legos!" he said over and over, which lasted the whole day.

He was into everything we did. A slow "safari" with Lego animals; a pedal car on a rail high above the ground; a "driving school" which is a Lego version of Power Wheels. No track, all by himself, he's never used one before, now you're driving for real, would he do it?

He did, and loved it, but not as much as he loved the pirate themed Splash Battle.

He got pretty wet on this and was nothing but smiles.

This horsey ride was a biggie which went all by itself, trotting up and down, on a long rail far from us and momentarily out of sight. It also had an age 4 requirement which required a small falsehood (he's 3 and a half and I made a judgement call).

In all of these cases he looked at the rides, in action, and said "I want to do that." Then he did them. No cold feet, no hesitation, and nothing but joy during and after. We have a term for days like this: "Baby Upgrade!"

He chased the vehicles rolling around Miniland's tiny cities, and even had some appreciation for the Star Wars exhibits. The big boat ride was a predictably big hit. We had a near-perfect day and a smooth hotel check in and easy bedtime.

It was all too much to believe. Yes, it was hot, some lines were long, and there were the usual squabbles over the usual things. But the newness of the place and the challenge of the rides came effortlessly and his enjoyment was real, not forced. He was up for this adventure as much as we were, with no trace of his current stubbornness and rebellion.

To be continued.