When MJ and I started planning the weekend with our niece, it hadn't really occurred to either us that it would include anything but Disney. Since it was her 10th birthday celebration, I decided to send "Bug" an email to ask what theme parks she'd like to visit, fully expecting her to say Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom. Her reply...
"I want to go to the Magic Kingdom and Sea World. They have penguins at Sea World."
Let's just say, this was the first of numerous curve balls I had to adapt to in this uncharted territory of travel with kids. MJ and I have a somewhat neurotic rule when it comes to our trips to Disney - once we are on the Mouse's property, we don't leave until it is time to come home. Quite obviously, a visit to Sea World would mean we'd have to break this long standing, if somewhat silly, rule. But for Bug, we were more than happy to make an exception.
It had been many years between visits to Sea World, and I knew as we passed through the turnstiles that much had changed since then. For starters, the park is now owned by buyout kings Blackstone Group, which brought the end of the wonderful Hospitality Centers - translation: free beer dispensaries - operated by longtime Sea World owner, Anheuser Busch. Not 90 seconds into our day, we found ourselves in line for a photo with "Shamu" and I wondered just how badly I'd start to miss the park's former proprietors.
Sea World is a completely different animal than the Disney theme parks. Although there are several rides and roller coasters, the bulk of the experience centers around the various shows around the park. This makes planing quite a bit more important than normal theme parks, because the shows are only offered a handful of times each day. We picked up a schedule and decided to start the day by scouting out some good seats for the dolphin show.
This show was something along the lines of Flipper meets Cirque du Soleil. The synchronization of the tricks the dolphins performed was pretty impressive, and I was happy to have missed being in the "splash zone" by just a single row.
We had about a half hour to kill before we needed to head to Shamu Stadium - by Bug's estimation this was just enough time to stop and feed the stingrays. Despite my aversion to anything which involves getting my hands dirty, I remembered this to be one of my favorite "attractions" at Sea World. Not much had changed. After going through two trays of stingray food - shrimp - we walked away a little slimy and very wet. Still, it was $10 well spent.
For a late October afternoon, it sure felt like summer in Central Florida and I was beginning to miss the Hospitality Centers of old. The trek clear across the park to Shamu Stadium certainly would have been more enjoyable with some of Augie Busch's finest, but then again it was probably for the best. I had failed to take into account that Sea World's "kiddie land" was on the way to the stadium, and we had to make several unexpected detours, one of which was their equivalent of the Mad Tea Party.
Finally, we arrived at Shamu Stadium for the show which made the orca famous in the first place. The show had changed dramatically since my last visit - changes which were sadly the result of tragedy. This combined with details from the documentary "Blackfish" - which I have yet to see myself - put the show into a new perspective for me. There is no denying it was a spectacular display, and the orcas are some of the most beautiful creatures on the planet. Still, I walked away with something of a moral dilemma.
By now, all of us were very hot, very hungry, and Bug was beginning to feel a little wonky. Thankfully, there was a cafeteria style restaurant nearby where we could refuel. We loaded up our trays and began to make our way to the only open table in the dining room - a booth next to a half wall separating the cafeteria line. As MJ got within a few feet of the table, a dad lifts his roughly 2 year old kid over the half wall and sets him in the booth. A family in the adjacent booth observed the whole thing, and was gracious enough to give us their table as they were leaving. While attempting to bring my blood down from its boiling state, Bug proceeded to point out that "Well if that boy didn't already know how to steal, he does now." Apparently, kids really do say the darndest things.
The relief was short lived, as it was time to go claim a spot in line to feed the dolphins. Well, MJ claimed a spot in line while Bug and I went and fed the stingrays again. Eventually, they filed us into the dolphin cove, where everyone plunked down $7 for a few slimy sardines. Naturally, the experience was worth every penny, even if the whole thing only lasted about 3 minutes.
Finally, it was time for the whole reason we came to Sea World in the first place... Penguins. The new Antarctica section of the park is easily the best themed area in the place. It could have been my imagination, but as we stepped into the faux-ice covered land I could have sworn the temperature dropped several degrees. Probably theme park placebo effect...
The new land is anchored by the Empire of the Penguin ride, which thankfully was only sitting at about a 20 minute wait. The ride itself was OK at best, but it had one of the best endings of any I've experienced. Well, I'm probably a bit biased here, because that opinion was formed entirely by Bug's priceless reaction as the final scene of the ride put her face to face with real life penguins. We lingered around in the freezing cold of the penguin habitat for quite some time - well beyond the point of losing feeling in my fingers and toes. When Bug had finally seen enough of her favorite animal, we decided to call it a day.
Or so I thought...
It seems that to kids - and Aunt MJ - the best way to warm up from visiting "Antarctica" is to go on a water ride where you're guaranteed to get soaked. I had no one to blame but myself for the predicament. At the beginning of the day, I promised Bug that we would ride Journey to Atlantis - among countless others made that day - and naturally, she had not forgotten. In the end, I walked off nearly bone dry while the two of them were completely drenched. Thanks Universe...I owe ya one.
We took the long way out of the park so Bug could do a little trick or treating at the Sea World Spooktacular. Although I was just as drained as the previous day's adventure to the Magic Kingdom, I was happy to make the detour thanks to the promise of Junior Mints. The event was clearly quite fun for kids - even if their 20 character hashtag made me roll my eyes in disgust - and Bug came away with plenty of treats to hold her over on the next day's plane ride home.
As we trudged across the massive expanse of asphalt that is the Sea World parking lot, our collective steps were probably a bit slower with the realization that the weekend was basically over. In the end, I was happy that Bug had chosen for us to go to Sea World - even happier to have been there to see her face light up at the sight of those penguins. Soon we were passing under the giant, and somewhat obnoxious, sign for Walt Disney World, when Bug piped up from the back seat...
|My two favorite ladies and one travel blogger in training.|
"Uncle Deej...do we still have time for dinner at Rainforest Cafe?"
Another unforgotten promise. You can probably imagine my answer.
Enjoy Your Stay
Special thanks to Sea World Orlando for hosting this Adventure with Uncle Deej.