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.

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