This is the park people are referring to when they’re talking about SeaWorld. There’s an impressive slate of trained animal shows featuring dolphins, sea lions, and of course Shamu as well as informative and educational sea-life exhibits and a steadily growing roster of thrill rides—the newest coaster, Manta, opened in 2009.
While the park isn’t quite as idyllic as one might hope from a nature-oriented attraction, it’s lushly landscaped, and the animals all seem to be treated respectfully with clean modern habitats.
Although most thrill-seekers head straight for the high-speed steel coaster known as Kraken, I have to give the nod to Journey to Atlantis when it comes to picking SeaWorld’s best ride. Sure, dropping 145 feet at 65 mph makes for a winning ride by nearly any yardstick, but there’s something about Atlantis’ combination of the dark ride theme, the log flume soaking, and roller coaster speed—not to mention the enormous fake-out at the end—that makes the ride a truly unique experience.
A somewhat more sedate experience can be had at Wild Arctic, which combines a motion-simulator ride with a walk-through animal exhibit filled with polar bears, walruses, and beluga whales.
A 140-foot-high flying steel coaster called Manta that out-adrenalines Kraken opened in 2009.
The heart of SeaWorld is its variety of animal shows. Although all are centrally focused on the amazing abilities of the animals—and the unique capabilities of the trainers and water acrobats that join them in the shows—each has a somewhat different premise and emphasis.
Believe and the seasonal Shamu Rocks are both held in the spacious Shamu Stadium. The enormous facility—and its seven-million-gallon tank—is needed to accommodate the iconic killer whales who star in the shows. Of the two, Shamu Rocks is definitely the cornier, themed around a rock concert motif with a fantastic light show and less-than-fantastic tunes. Believe is all about Shamu, casting aside story and theme in favor of dazzling trainer-animal choreography and visual effects.
Blue Horizons is a fast-paced show designed around some stunning dolphin tricks; the song-driven plot has something to do with a young girl’s vivid dreams and is incredibly hard to follow, but the dazzling costumes and gymnastic interplay of the dolphins and the human actors make the story more than secondary.
Also integral to SeaWorld’s identity are the various animal exhibits, which allow visitors to get up close to various denizens of the deep. All are pretty self-explanatory—you can see manatees at Manatee Rescue, penguins at the Penguin Encounter, and stingrays in the Stingray Lagoon.
The chance to touch and feed the dolphins at Dolphin Cove and the thrill of traveling through an underwater tube while sharks swim overhead in the superlative Shark Encounter attraction make both of these exhibits must-sees.
The menu of pasta, steak, chicken, and ironically, seafood at Sharks Underwater Grill (lunch and dinner, main courses from $14) is decent enough, but its the dining room—in which one wall is shared with the glass of an enormous shark-filled aquarium—that’s the real attraction here. If being surrounded by marine life all day has dampened your appetite for seafood, Voyager’s (lunch and dinner, main courses from $9) has a limited selection of home-style barbecue dishes served with watermelon and grilled corn-on-the-cob, as well as salads.
SeaWorld also has a few special dining events on a daily basis; the Bud ’n’ BBQ All-You-Care-to-Eat Family Picnic (11:30 a.m.–4 p.m. daily, $15.95 adults, $8.95 children 3–9, reservations necessary) is the best value, with the smoked and grilled selections from Voyager’s augmented by burgers and hot dogs. Soft drinks are included in the price, but beer is not.
The Makahiki Luau (nightly at sunset, Seafire Inn, $46 adults, $29 children 3–9) is as campy as the name implies, with nearly every cliché of the South Pacific—hula dances, giant tiki torches, and more—trotted out to accompany your feasting on barbecue spareribs, fried rice, mahimahi, and “Hawaiian chicken.”
Obviously, you won’t actually be in the tank when you Dine With Shamu (at the killer whale habitat, $42 adults, $22 children 3–9), but the poolside tables at this buffet-style dining experience provide an up-close look at SeaWorld’s star; the behind-the-scenes look makes up for the pedestrian selection of pasta, chicken, and turkey dishes.
Bud ’n’ BBQ (Feb.) celebrates the all-American trifecta of beer, smoked meat, and country music, while Viva La Musica (Apr.) is a Latin music event that usually brings in at least a couple of high-profile pop stars for performances.
During the summer, SeaWorld stays open late for SeaWorld After Dark (late May–early Sept.), which allows guests to ride rides, do a little extra shopping, and see seasonal shows like Shamu Rocks. On weekends in October, kids can don costumes and trick-or-treat throughout the park as part of SeaWorld’s Halloween Spooktacular.
The Polar Express Experience (Dec.) transforms the Wild Arctic attraction into a recreation of the beloved children’s story.