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July 4, 2017

SeaWorld Orlando launches new Killer Whale Up Close Tour

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SeaWorld Orlando has introduced a new tour designed to give guests even more interaction with its animals. The Killer Whale Up Close Tour just debuted, and already fans of the park are giving it positive reviews on social media channels.

The new tour begins each morning with the participants meeting their tour leader at the Dolphin Nursery at 9:45 a.m. From there, the group heads to Shamu Stadium, which is where the entire program takes place. There is no behind-the-scenes component to this program; it all happens around the show pool.

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When the group arrives at the stadium, they head down to the lower bleachers and choose a seat to hear the educator talk about the orcas. Then, it’s time for what they have been waiting for – interacting with the killer whales. A trainer divides the tour group into three smaller groups, each of which is assigned to an orca. Trainers teach each group simple hand signals and each participant is allowed to use several with the orca and watch the results. Visitors do not feed or touch the killer whales during this experience, which is different from other up-close tours at SeaWorld.

Next, a SeaWorld photographer takes images of individuals and families with the whales “posing” underwater in the tank and some with the majestic animals jumping behind them. Visitors may also use their own cameras.

Then the tour moves to the slideout, which is the shallow area set slightly above water level where the orcas slide out of the tank. A trainer discusses training and husbandry, and participants have the opportunity to ask questions. Finally, a group photo is taken in front of the slideout with all three orcas up and out of the pool.

The Killer Whale Up Close Tour lasts about an hour, and the price ranges from $79 to $99 depending on the season. The pass member discount of 10 percent can be applied. Admission to the theme park is not included in the price of this tour.

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SeaWorld Orlando also offers another opportunity for guests to get closer to its beloved orcas: Dine With Shamu. If you’re trying to decide between the Killer Whale Up Close Tour and Dine With Shamu, here are some things to consider:

** As the name indicates, Dine With Shamu includes a meal for the human participants. It’s a buffet full of delicious, sustainable foods and kid favorites.

** Dine With Shamu takes place adjacent to one of the behind-the-scenes pools, so if getting a glimpse of something the public doesn’t see is important to you, this might be the choice for you.

** The Killer Whale Up Close Tour allows participants to directly interact with the orcas, and Dine With Shamu does not. Although you will be just as close to the tanks, you will not be giving the whales hand signals during dinner.

** Both presentations are educational with demonstrations but not choreographed shows.

** Both the Killer Whale Up Close Tour and Dine With Shamu last about an hour.

** Dine With Shamu costs between $26 and $34 per adult, depending on the season.

To learn more about Dine With Shamu, please read my blog about my family’s experience at the event.

If you’ve tried the new Killer Whale Up Close Tour at SeaWorld Orlando, tell us about it in the comments.





June 15, 2017

Pass member preview: SeaWorld Orlando's Kraken Unleashed virtual reality overlay

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SeaWorld Orlando has just revamped its Kraken roller coaster to add a new dimension for riders – the 3D Virtual Reality option. The new Kraken Unleashed opens to the public tomorrow (June 16), but my 12-year-old daughter and husband rode during pass member previews. Here, I share their experience and what you can expect if you choose to ride.

For those not familiar with Virtual Reality coasters, guests ride an actual roller coaster while wearing a headset that gives the passenger a 3D show to watch that is synced to the movements of the attraction. Earpieces contribute to the story with synced noises and music.

SeaWorld’s Vice President of Theme Park Design Experience Brian Morrow described Kraken Unleashed’s story this way: “It’s going to take you into a new story told by SeaWorld of legendary sea creatures and exotic underwater environments like you’ve never seen before. When you put your headset on, you’re going to be in Sea Base. Our coaster station will be transformed into this environment digitally – 3D, 360 stereoscopic-sound-involving conversion experience. Once you leave the sea base, you dive into the ocean and we found there is seismic activity taking place. And we go take a look. We get sucked into a glowing crack and into a world we could not have imagined. … This is an action-packed cinematic coaster experience we are delivering.”

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For my daughter and husband, Kraken Unleashed was their first experience with a Virtual Reality overlay on a roller coaster. They had previously ridden attractions with Virtual Reality, such as Sum of All Thrills at Epcot and Aladdin’s Magic Carpet Ride at DisneyQuest, but those experiences cannot exactly compare because they lack the G-forces of a coaster ride. However, both by daughter and my husband are quite familiar with Kraken and have ridden it often over the years because we are SeaWorld Orlando annual pass members.

So, what was Kraken Unleashed like?

Approaching the entrance, they first noticed that the Kraken sign has been updated to reflect the new name and the sculpture of the sea beast has been repainted different colors. Plus, the wait time clocks have been replaced with a single, large digital clock, which is much easier to read. Guests still are not permitted to bring bags on this ride, and lockers are available outside the entrance. They cost $1 initially and $2 for every subsequent hour.

Although the queue is the same queue, it has been repainted primarily in blue and yellow patterns and graphics to re-enforce the idea that the ride starts at a Sea Base. There are larger video screens throughout, as well. Visitors will notice that the Kraken Unleashed cars still have the overhead restraints, but now they have a box attached to the seatbelts for the storage of the headsets. Plus, handles have been added at seat level for new places to grip during the ride.

When you board the Kraken Unleashed cars, you will have a choice of whether you want to wear the Virtual Reality headset. If you do, your face must be free of any cuts or scrapes and if you wear glasses, they must be removed. (You can put them in a pocket or store them in bins next to the coaster.)

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Once the headset is on, a team member will make sure it is tightened appropriately. (The headset remains tethered to the ride.) Although she didn’t need it, my daughter noted that there are additional settings to make the headsets fit younger children. Kids have to be at least 54 inches tall to ride. Riders also can adjust their view of the 3D graphics with a knob on top of the headset to prevent blurry vision.

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And then they were off!

“I know the ride well, but after the first two elements, you lose track of where you are, so it instantly changes it from the coaster you knew to a very different experience [with the headset],” Morrow said.

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Both my husband and my daughter agreed with Morrow. However, my daughter enjoyed the experience a lot more than my husband did. He said that even though the movement of the coaster matched the story, he still experienced motion sickness -- and he usually is not prone to motion sickness on roller coasters and simulators. My daughter enjoyed the new experience but said that she thinks roller coasters are more thrilling when you can actually anticipate and see where you are going.

On the straightaway into the station, passengers are asked to remove their headsets. Once the train is stopped, team members clean each headset before allowing a guest to exit. Clearly, this process adds to the loading time – and, in turn, the wait time – for Kraken Unleashed. That may be a deal-breaker for some guests. However, Morrow told members of the media at an event recently that SeaWorld Orlando will be introducing a new system to help visitors manage wait times.


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June 7, 2017

SeaWorld Orlando pass members: Sign up now for extra summer perks

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SeaWorld Orlando pass members should be receiving notices by mail and/or email about a host of summer offers just for them – and most are free! Many experiences require the pass member to reserve a space online, so if you’re interested, don’t delay because the events fill up quickly.

Beginning this week – June 8 to be exact – SeaWorld Orlando is hosting a pass member preview of its new Kraken Unleashed. Each pass member can register to bring a guest to the event, but he or she must have or pay separate admission into the park. The popular roller coaster will have a Virtual Reality overlay, and guests can choose whether to wear the headsets or not.

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“It’s going to take you into a new story told by SeaWorld of legendary sea creatures and exotic underwater environments like you’ve never seen before,” said Brian Morrow, vice president of theme park design experience. “When you put your headset on, you’re going to be in Sea Base. Our coaster station will be transformed into this environment digitally – 3D, 360 stereoscopic-sound-involving conversion experience. Once you leave the sea base, you dive into the ocean and we found there is seismic activity taking place. And we go take a look. We get sucked into a glowing crack and into a world we could not have imagined. … This is an action-packed cinematic coaster experience we are delivering.”

Kraken Unleashed roller coaster opens to the public on June 16. If you miss the preview, pass members will be given early access to the ride on Tuesdays and Saturdays June 17 through Aug. 5 during the hour before the parks opens. (It’s not necessary to sign up for early entry.) Also, in July, pass members can register for one-time, front-of-the-line access to the ride.

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SeaWorld Orlando’s new “Pop” bubble show starring world record holder and bubble master Fan Yang debuted over Memorial Day weekend in the Nautilus Theater. Pass members still have time to register for reserved seating, which is offered daily through June 16. Each pass member can register to bring a guest, but he or she must have or pay separate admission into the park.

“It is a show inspired by our natural world, a show inspired by the bubbles we find in the natural ocean – the bubbles we find in the froth and the foam at the shore, the bubbles a penguin can leave behind as it is diving through the water, the bubbles that dolphins and beluga whales actually blow, and even shapes like jellyfish and deep sea creatures,” said SeaWorld’s Steve Welch. “Those things were inspirational for us, and they are core and crucial to make this show a SeaWorld experience.”

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Pass members also have the opportunity to sign up for reserved seating at Shamu’s Celebration: Light Up the Night. Part of the new nighttime Electric Ocean celebration, Light up the Night features orcas performing to high-energy music and a fireworks finale. (You can read my review of the show here.) Pass members can sign up online for one-time reserved seating at shows daily from June 17 through 30.

Other summer pass member benefits include:

** Celebrate Mako’s one-year anniversary with a one-time, front-of-the-line access to the ride and a ride photo for just $10. Sign up online.

** 1 free SeaWorld car magnet per pass member in July. Print receipt online and redeem in the park.

** Meet marine wildlife artist and conservationist Guy Harvey on June 24 and 25 in the park. Pass members can donate $5 to the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation and receive a dolphin-themed commemorative hard stock pass.

** The redesigned dolphin nursery is expected to reopen this month, and pass members will be given early access on Tuesdays and Saturdays, one hour prior to park opening.


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May 23, 2017

SeaWorld Orlando announces it will build Sesame Street-themed land

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Oh, what my children would have given to step into Elmo’s World when they were little! They, like countless other little ones, were just obsessed with the adorable red puppet. Elmo’s widespread appeal – and that of his furry friends – has prompted an expansion of SeaWorld’s partnership with Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization behind Sesame Street. The Orlando theme park has announced it will bring to life Sesame Street with its own new land.

The new land will fit into the park in the current children’s area, Happy Harbor, which will undergo a renovation that will be completed by fall 2022. The Orlando Sentinel reported the new Sesame Street land will be “more immersive than the Sesame Street Bay of Play kiddie areas in its San Diego and San Antonio theme parks or its Safari of Fun at Busch Gardens Tampa.”

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That’s a tall order because Safari of Fun at Busch Gardens Tampa offers quite a number of Sesame Street-themed attractions and experiences. Among them: Air Grover, a junior coaster; The Count’s Zambezi Rally, a kid-size car ride that takes you on a jaunt through the desert and tribal trails; Zoe-patra & the Hippos of the Nile, a splashy fun flume ride; Snuffy’s Elephant Romp, fly around and around and up and down with Snuffy’s fun friends; Elmo’s Safari Go-Round, a tribal-inspired carousel; Rosita’s Djembe Fly-Away, a swing ride through the jungle; Big Bird’s Whirly Birdie, a playful ferris wheel; Telly’s Jungle Jam, a play area to explore sound, shapes and shadows; Elmo’s Treehouse Trek, Elmo’s 3-story hideaway; Cookie Monster’s Canopy Crawl, a three-story net climb; Slimey’s Sahara Sand, sand-filled beachy oasis; Bert & Ernie’s Watering Hole, a water adventure filled with bubblers, geysers, jets, dumping buckets; Abby Cadabby’s Treasure Hut and Cookie Monster’s Trading Post, exclusive Sesame Street gift shops; Big Bird’s 123-Smile with Me, a character meet-and-greet; and Sunny Day Theater, home to a stage show featuring the Sesame Street characters.

“We’d like to build the actual Sesame Street that kids can be on and walk down,” SeaWorld Entertainment CEO Joel Manby told the Sentinel. “We will have hopefully a Sesame parade, rides, show where they can see and meet the Sesame characters.”

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Sesame Street characters currently only appear at SeaWorld Orlando for stage shows during the holidays. Previously, they also met guests during character breakfasts. SeaWorld parks have had a 37-year partnership with Sesame Workshop.

There is a single theme park dedicated to Sesame Street – Sesame Place -- located in Langhorne, Pa. between Philadelphia and New York City. A second such park will be built no later than mid-2021, though a U.S. location has yet to be determined. After the opening of the second Sesame Place, SeaWorld will have the option to build additional Sesame Place theme parks in the United States.

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“Expanding our Sesame Place theme park footprint will both deepen our relationship with longstanding fans and help us to connect with new families,” said Steve Youngwood, Chief Operating Officer of Sesame Workshop, in a press release. "This partnership will also enable the Workshop to continue producing high-quality educational programming for the next generation.”


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April 14, 2017

SeaWorld Orlando announces Infinity Falls water rapids ride and Pop bubble show

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SeaWorld Orlando is doing it again – promising to thrill its visitors with the tallest drop on yet another new ride. This time it is Infinity Falls, a water rapids ride scheduled to open in time for the Summer 2018 season.

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“Infinity Falls is an adventure that feels like you are on Class IV river rapids. It’s the world’s tallest drop on a river rafting ride set in an exotic jungle setting and the chance for our guests to play the roles of scientists and explorers to help this fragile ecosystem right here at our park in Orlando and have an immediate impact on freshwater ecosystems globally,” said Brian Morrow, vice president of theme park design experience.

SeaWorld has created the 40-foot drop at the end of the Infinity Falls ride with the use of a unique elevator lift for each eight-person ride vehicle. Still, this is a family-friendly ride that is open to anyone at least 42 inches tall.

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“But it’s more than just a ride,” Morrow said. “We have characters and animals that live in these fragile [freshwater] environments on the river shore like sloths, reptiles, birds, etc. Those guys will all be here as well and they’ll all be part of a very important story to share as well about the fragility of this environment and how we can make a difference. Infinity Falls represents the next generation of experiences that matter for the organization and for this park as we develop brand-new ways for our guests to turn “play with purpose” into direct and immediate impact on ecosystems around the planet.”

Infinity Falls will be located in the Sea Garden area of SeaWorld Orlando, adding four different levels of topography to the landscape, Morrow said. He said that there is a big demand for water rides, especially in Orlando, and SeaWorld only has one, Journey to Atlantis. Expect to see construction walls go up next week and work to begin.

Meanwhile, the theme park is preparing to open two new experiences soon for the Summer 2017 vacation season. On May 26, a new show – “Pop” starring world record holder and bubble master Fan Yang – debuts in the Nautilus Theater.

“It is a show inspired by our natural world, a show inspired by the bubbles we find in the natural ocean – the bubbles we find in the froth and the foam at the shore, the bubbles a penguin can leave behind as it is diving through the water, the bubbles that dolphins and beluga whales actually blow, and even shapes like jellyfish and deep sea creatures,” said SeaWorld’s Steve Welch. “Those things were inspirational for us, and they are core and crucial to make this show a SeaWorld experience.”

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The star of the one-man show, Yang, was asked how he became interested in bubbles. “When I was a little boy, I was fascinated watching bubbles forming at the base of the river. It was actually created by a small waterfall and the vortex. I was always thinking, how can I make bubbles big. And then I started to mix various solutions and tried to come up with the perfect blend of the formula to make it last longer to be big enough to do different things. I never thought I would bring this kind of media to stages around the world. It has taken me about 35 years to have the show like today. The show is incorporating science, art and entertainment all together for audiences of all ages.”

Yang’s bubble artistry will be set to a majestic score created by Grammy award-winning producer Dan Rudin that will be heard on a brand-new sound system in Nautilus Theater and a laser light show that will highlight the beauty of the bubbles. Video screens on either side of the stage will enable all guests to see “Pop.”

Finally, the Kraken roller coaster will debut with its Virtual Reality overlay on June 16. It closes on Monday for employees to prepare for the new experience.

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“It’s going to take you into a new story told by SeaWorld of legendary sea creatures and exotic underwater environments like you’ve never seen before,” Morrow said. “When you put your headset on, you’re going to be in Sea Base. Our coaster station will be transformed into this environment digitally – 3D, 360 stereoscopic-sound-involving conversion experience. Once you leave the sea base, you dive into the ocean and we found there is seismic activity taking place. And we go take a look. We get sucked into a glowing crack and into a world we could not have imagined. … This is an action-packed cinematic coaster experience we are delivering.”

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Guests can choose to ride Kraken Unleashed (the Virtual Reality experience) simply by putting on a headset, or they can ride the Kraken coaster as is.

“I know the ride well, but after the first two elements, you lose track of where you are, so it instantly changes it from the coaster you knew to a very different experience [with the headset],” Morrow said.

He also hinted that the reopening of the coaster will come with a new system of helping visitors manage wait times, which he said can be longer for more immersive experiences.


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March 4, 2017

SeaWorld Orlando to debut new Dolphin Days show, plus Discovery Cove deals

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SeaWorld guests have two new dolphin experiences to look forward to soon at the Orlando theme park. Plus, a new deal at Discovery Cove gives SeaWorld and Aquatica pass members the opportunity to experience an all-inclusive day with a dolphin swim at a deep discount.

A new show called Dolphin Days will debut at SeaWorld Orlando on Saturday, April 1, replacing the popular Blue Horizons after its eleven-year run at Dolphin Theater. SeaWorld describes the new show this way: “The audience will learn more about the individual personalities of each Atlantic bottlenose dolphin while witnessing the special bond they share with their trainers. A soaring rainbow of macaws and other tropical birds will also delight guests, uniting the mysteries of the deep oceans with the wonder and beauty of the skies above.”

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The new Dolphin Days also will give young guests interactive opportunities. During each show, one lucky young volunteer will be selected from the audience to learn firsthand from the training team in an up-close encounter with one of the dolphins and a green-winged macaw.

During the show, all guests will learn how they can help protect dolphins in the wild. Revamping its dolphin show is another example of how SeaWorld is shifting the message of its animal shows to one of conservation and not just entertainment.

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Dolphin Days won’t be the only place to learn more about dolphins. The park’s new Dolphin Nursery will open in time for summer, offering an interactive educational experience for guests to see dolphins up close. Large-scale acrylic windows will give guests better viewing opportunities, including multiple levels to give kids a face-to-face perspective with dolphin calves. New slide-out areas and a lifting floor will also allow for easier access to mom and baby for the veterinary and animal care teams. Plus, the next generation of multi-purpose digital displays will allow SeaWorld educators to share information about dolphin behavior, biology and conservation with our guests by interacting with video from the team’s educational and animal care content.

SeaWorld’s Discovery Cove water park is offering pass members a deep discount on its all-inclusive tickets. Those who want to experience a dolphin swim will pay $169 per person and visitors who choose to just enjoy the other amenities will pay $99.

Every admission comes with an all-you-care-to-eat breakfast, lunch, snacks, drinks and alcohol for those 21 and older. In addition to food and beverages, your admission includes complimentary parking, the use of a wetsuit (short and long styles are available) and life vests, a locker for the day, samples of sunscreen that is safe for the dolphins, the use of a mask and snorkel (and you keep the snorkel), unlimited towels, changing facilities with complimentary body wash, shampoo, conditioner and the use of a hair dryer, and bags to take home your wet swim suit.

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My family and I have been to Discovery Cove twice and thoroughly enjoyed each visit. Here is what you can expect from the dolphin swim experience, and here are details about all the other fun things to do at Discovery Cove.

My daughter, who one day plans to be a marine biologist, has been inspired with each visit to a SeaWorld park and its interactive experiences. We especially look forward to the new dolphin show and nursery.


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January 19, 2017

SeaWorld Orlando unveils food, performers, pass member deals for new Seven Seas festival

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SeaWorld Orlando has just released more details about its brand-new Seven Seas Food Festival – and there is a lot to look forward to, including special deals for annual passholders.

Beginning Feb. 11 and continuing on Saturdays through May 13, guests can visit the new food festival, which features some of the same components that they have come to love at the theme park’s other festivals – special food to purchase and enjoy and concerts that are included in the day’s admission.

The food has been created to replicate international street food traditions from 11 coastal markets. Guests will “set sail” on a taste adventure as they discover more than 60 unique Asian, Latin, European, Polynesian and North Atlantic dishes throughout the park. Plus, more than 55 local and international craft brews will be featured exclusively during the festival, as well as wine pairings and specialty cocktails. A selection of menu highlights include:

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Asian Market - Peking Duck Lo Mein with Fresh Oriental Vegetables
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Korean Market - Bingsu Salted Vanilla Ice Cream topped with Caramel Popcorn
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Mexican Market - Braised Chicken Adobo with Mole Sauce
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Caribbean Market - Cinnamon Slow Roasted Pork Belly with Sweet Plantain Mash
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Florida Market - Fried Kataifi Orange drizzled with Local Honey
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Mediterranean Market - Smoked Cured Salmon topped with Sweet Dill Mustard
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North Atlantic Market - Banana & Caramel Cheesecake topped with Whipped Cream & Caramelized Bananas
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Brazilian Market - Brazilian Churrasco with Chimichurri & Garbanzo Frito
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Pacific Coast Market - Braised Pork Cheeks with Savory Apple Polenta
Polynesian Island Market - “Loco Moco” Grilled Spam, White Rice, Scrambled Egg & Brown Gravy
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Gulf Coast Market - Southern Creamy Cheese Grits with a Blackened Shrimp

In addition to the market booths, the event will feature an array of barbecue and comfort cuisine including Slow Smoked Ribs, caramelized in a SeaWorld original BBQ sauce, Pulled Pork Mac & Cheese and a Grilled Kielbasa Sausage Sandwich.

At a media event for the announcement of the festival, I sampled Hawaiian Pulled Pork Slider served with Pineapple Pepper Cole Slaw and Asian BBQ sauce, Watermelon Gazpacho topped with Tecate Beer Jalapeño Foam and Vermont Pound Cake Grilled Cheese topped with a freshly made Raspberry Sauce.

SeaWorld Orlando pass members are invited to an exclusive preview tasting of the Seven Seas Food Festival with Chef Hector Colon on Saturday, Jan. 28 from 1 to 4 p.m. For $19, each pass member will sample six dishes and hear Chef Hector speak about his inspiration for creating the new foods. Reservations are required and can be made on the pass member website.

The Seven Seas Food Festival also features live performances each Saturday from top country, rock and Latin music artists. Concerts take place at 3 p.m. or 4 p.m., depending on the artist. The lineup, which was just announced, is as follows:

Lynyrd Skynyrd (February 11)

Lee Brice (February 18)

Bill Engvall (Feb 25)

Styx (March 4)

Justin Moore (March 11)

ZZ Top (March 18)

Phillip Phillips (March 25)

TBA (April 1)

Village People (April 8)

Commodores (April 15)

Oscar D’León (April 22)

Olga Tanon (April 29)

Grupo Mania (May 6)

TBA (May 13)

Beginning at 10 a.m. Jan. 19 through Jan. 25, pass members have early access to purchase front-row and other reserved seating for concerts. This can be done on the pass member website.

Finally, pass members can take advantage of a third offer. If they Visit SeaWorld Orlando on three Saturdays during the Seven Seas Food Festival, they will receive an exclusive pass member mason jar glass. To collect it, pass members scan their passes at Wild Arctic gift shop every time they visit and pick up the free glass on the third visit.

SeaWorld’s Seven Seas Food Festival begins at 11 a.m. every Saturday -- Feb. 11 through May 13 -- and continues through park close. Like all special events at SeaWorld, the Seven Seas Food Festival is included with park admission.



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November 19, 2016

Shop for SeaWorld Orlando's 2016 Blue Friday deals from home

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SeaWorld Orlando is preparing to celebrate "Blue Friday" (its version of Black Friday) and is offering quite a few deals to save you some green. There are a number of Buy One, Get One offers, and new for the first this year, shoppers can give the gift of Discovery Cove with discounted admission packages that allow the gift recipient to choose their own reservation date. The offers are available online beginning at 12:00 a.m. Friday, Nov. 25.


To take advantage of the Blue Friday deals, guests must register to receive SeaWorld Orlando's e-mail updates or already be subscribed at http://seaworldparks.com/en/seaworld-orlando/ Fans can subscribe any time between now and Nov. 25 to participate. The deals are available through 11:59 p.m. EST on Monday, Nov. 28.

New this year for Blue Friday:

** Save up to $110 on gifted Discovery Cove admission packages

** SeaWorld/Aquatica Dining Plan for pass members (Must use by March 6, 2017.)

** BOGO SeaWorld All-Day Dining Deal

** 30 percent off your total purchase at SeaWorldShop.com

** 50 percent off 1 Year PhotoKey

Other offers include:

** SeaWorld & Aquatica Orlando 1 Year Annual Pass Buy One Get One 50% Off Ticket (First visit must occur by Jan. 31, 2017.)

** SeaWorld Orlando Buy One Get One 50% Off Ticket (Must use by Jan. 31, 2017.)

** Aquatica Orlando Buy One Get One 50% Off Ticket (Must use by June 30, 2017; some blockout dates apply.)

** BOGO Quick Queue Unlimited (Must use by March 6, 2017.)

** BOGO Any Animal Up-Close Tour (Must use by Dec. 31, 2016.)

** BOGO 50 percent off Large Shamu Plush

Some of the new offers look great for Orlando visitors, but I’m a little disappointed by the admission offers that would appeal to locals and repeat visitors. The annual pass deals just are not as good as the past two years. There is no offer for BOGO annual passes to SeaWorld Orlando only. And the combination SeaWorld and Aquatica annual passes are being offered at a Buy One, Get One 50 percent off rather than just Buy One, Get One as they were in the past.


If the Blue Friday offers don’t meet your group’s needs, there are two other admission deals that are good until the beginning of January. Visitors who purchase a Fun Card or annual pass through Jan. 3, 2017, will receive an extra three months free. So, a 15-month Fun Card costs $99.99 plus tax for adults. A SeaWorld Orlando annual pass – with three months free – costs $168 plus tax for an adult. Fun Cards and annual passes do not have blackout dates. However, the Fun Pass must be redeemed with a first visit by Jan. 31, 2017. Both offers must be paid in full at the time of purchase and are not eligible for monthly EZpay service.

Sesame Place Christmas Ticket + Meal - Furry Friday offer

Busch Gardens Tampa Bay Annual Pass + 3 Months Free

Finally, guests who visit SeaWorld on select days through Dec. 31 also can experience SeaWorld's Christmas Celebration for the price of regular admission. This is a wonderful value, especially when you consider that other area theme parks require separate tickets for holiday events. Holiday events take place Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays Nov. 25 through Dec. 11 and then run daily Dec. 16 through 31. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and friends are new to SeaWorld properties this Christmas season.



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September 28, 2016

What's new and next at SeaWorld Orlando for 2017

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SeaWorld Orlando has announced eight new ways it plans to take visitors under the sea and inspire them with marine life in 2017.

Perhaps the most-talked-about addition is the Virtual Reality experience that will be added to Kraken in time for the summer season. Kraken will be the first roller coaster in Central Florida to have a Virtual Reality overlay.

The story of the coaster is that “There is a crack in time in a sea bed and you’re going to dive into that crack and you’re going to discover a world of times gone past – animals that used to live in our oceans and animals that might have lived in our oceans and you’re going to have a close-up encounter with the Kraken herself,” said Brian Morrow, vice president of theme park experience design for SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment.

SeaWorld has developed its own custom Virtual Reality system that it plans to integrate into the current ride. Passengers will have the option to place the headset on themselves to experience the overlay or to ride the coaster without the addition.

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“[The Virtual Reality system is] fully 3D with audio. Fully immersive. Fully tethered, fully synchronized so we won’t have any motion sickness issues,” Morrow said.

Kraken opened in 2000 and remains one of SeaWorld Orlando’s most popular coasters with its floorless seats and seven inversions. Morrow said the attraction only will be taken down for two months to add the Virtual Reality experience.

The current minimum height requirement to ride Kraken is 54 inches, but Morrow said he didn’t know if it would be same for the Virtual Reality overlay.

SeaWorld Orlando also is adding more of what of what guests love in another area – its themed festivals and parties. In February, the theme park will launch its Seven Seas Food Festival, which will take place for 14 weekends in the spring.

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Hawaiian Pulled Pork Slider served with Pineapple Pepper Cole Slaw and Asian BBQ sauce
Watermelon Gazpacho topped with Tecate Beer Jalapeño Foam
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Vermont Pound Cake Grilled Cheese topped with a freshly made Raspberry Sauce

“You’re going to get a chance to travel around the world right here at SeaWorld and taste cuisine from the shores and the coasts and little stands and roadside kitchens that you can find all over the globe. You’ll get to taste food from Hawaii, North America, South America, Mediterranean, all over the world,” Morrow said.

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At about the same time the food festival begins, a new bar featuring microbrews, will open at the Waterfront. FlameCraft Bar with its expansive lagoon views will be designed to look like lantern repair shop, and patrons will be able to sample 15 draft craft beers that are sourced locally. Many of the beers also will be available during the food festival.

A second party, Electric Ocean, will debut for the summer season and become a daily nighttime event that includes lighting, music and pathway entertainment.

“[We asked ourselves] what would happen if we dove deep in the water and the bioluminescent animals all started talking to us with light and it transformed the park as it transitioned from daytime to dusk to nighttime,” said Morrow.

“And it wouldn’t be a great night festival if it didn’t have a great finale. You’re going to get to participate in an electric dance party on our lake, surrounded by fountains with a finale of fireworks like you’ve never seen come from this organization.”

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Also for Summer 2017, SeaWorld Orlando’s Dolphin Nursery will become more interactive. Large-scale acrylic windows will offer up-close viewing, including multiple levels to give kids a face-to-face perspective with dolphin calves. New slide out areas and lifting floor will also allow for easier access to mom and baby for the veterinary and animal care teams.

The next generation of multi-purpose digital displays will allow SeaWorld educators to share information about dolphin behavior, biology and conservation with our guests by interacting with video from the team’s educational and animal care content.

Morrow said that beginning Memorial Day weekend, the Nautilus Theatre, which has been dark, will house a dedicated summer show. Details are not being announced yet.

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Aquatica pass members can look forward to a new pavilion designed for their exclusive use, much like the one at SeaWorld Orlando, just in time for spring break. The Aquatica space will feature concierge service, complimentary sunscreen and fountain beverages, a separate entrance to Banana Beach and private animal encounters.

SeaWorld Orlando pass members now can purchase new, innovative passes that allow them to bring different guests for each visit. The “host” purchases an annual pass for $168 and also a transferrable pass at the same time for $208. The host then can use the second pass to bring anyone he or she chooses with the second pass, but it is limited to one visit per day and the host must accompany the guest. This pass offer also is available for a SeaWorld and Aquatica combination at $192 for the host pass and $232 for the transferrable pass. Also, a special offer right now adds three months free to a regular annual pass.

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Finally, beloved Christmas character Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and friends -- including Clarice, Bumble, the Abominable Snow Monster and Yukon Cornelius -- and Rudolph-themed attractions will be making their debut as part of the 2016 Christmas Celebration at SeaWorld Orlando. They will return for 2017 with additional experiences.

“Our company is going through a fantastic moment in time where we’re creating our future,” Morrow said. “We’re developing experiences that not only matter but experiences that can create a lifestyle with purpose within our guests to explore, protect and help this environment that we all live within.”



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September 20, 2016

What's it like to volunteer for a SeaWorld beach cleanup?

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For years, SeaWorld has organized beach cleanups in Florida and California, and pass members are invited to join team members at some of these community events. This past weekend, my family and I were able to participate in such an event at Cocoa Beach.

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Frequent readers of my blog may know that my tween daughter loves dolphins and is interested in a career in marine biology. So, this was not our first beach cleanup because these events are a way for her to involved with the environment she enjoys and appreciates. However, this was our first time participating in a cleanup hosted by SeaWorld, and there are a few differences. Here’s what you can expect.

SeaWorld usually hosts beach cleanups that are open to pass members in June for World Oceans Day and in September for Coastal Cleanup Day. Watch the pass member website and direct mailings for the announcements. Then, if you want to participate, sign up as soon as possible because spots fill up quickly.

Once you’re registered, you will be sent an email confirmation with directions and a safety waiver you are asked to print, sign and bring to the event.

When we arrived, we signed in and completed additional waivers to allow SeaWorld to photograph and video us that day. Then we each were given a SeaWorld Cares T-shirt and asked to wear them for the event. The shirts are soft with an understated design – a nice souvenir after they served their purpose at the cleanup.

We also were provided with gloves, trash bags, hand sanitizer, bug spray and an ocean trash data form from the Ocean Conservancy. We were asked to keep track of the types of trash we collected on the beach. According to the form, we were most likely to find cigarette butts, food wrappers, plastic and foam take out containers, plastic and metal bottle caps, plastic lids, straws and utensils. Sure enough, my family alone picked up more than 100 cigarette butts.

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Our large group of SeaWorld pass members and team members fanned out in both directions on the beach at Lori Wilson Park and worked steadily for about two hours. During that time, we were given bottles of water and encouraged to take breaks as needed because it was a humid, hot 88 degrees that day.

At the end of our shift, we stacked our bags of trash on the beach and gathered for a group photo. We were told at that time that we would each be given a complimentary print of the group photo, which we could pick up during our next visit to SeaWorld. Another nice surprise!

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My family and I had a positive experience volunteering with SeaWorld Orlando and would encourage pass members of all ages to give the beach cleanups a try. Volunteering gave us an opportunity to see another side of SeaWorld’s conservation efforts and how small things can make a big difference to the sea life around us.

Tips

** If you want to join a SeaWorld event (or, really, any theme-park event), sign up as soon as possible because spots fill up quickly.

** SeaWorld team members are happy to sign forms for students who are earning community service hours. My teen son is in the process of doing this, and he earned two hours for his efforts at the beach cleanup.

** Want to get involved with a beach cleanup before the next one hosted by SeaWorld? Keep Brevard Beautiful organizes beach cleanups each month. (Brevard is the county for Cocoa Beach and many of the Florida east coast beaches south of New Smyrna and Daytona.) Check keepbrevardbeautiful.org for the current schedule, which now includes cleanups at Satellite Beach and Indian Harbour Beach.



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August 9, 2016

SeaWorld Orlando hosts Summer Soak Party, Jack Hanna Weekend

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It’s summer in Orlando, which means temperatures in the 90s every day -- and locals and visitors alike searching for relief. SeaWorld Orlando has introduced a new way to beat the heat this summer with its daily Summer Soak Party, and it’s included with regular admission or an annual pass.

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Sprinklers and rain curtains are the highlights of the Summer Soak Party, which takes place on the stage at Bayside Stadium. All ages are invited, and swimsuits are not required. (You may want to at least bring a change of clothes for afterward, however.)

My almost-12-year-old daughter experienced the Summer Soak Party last week while she was attending a SeaWorld Orlando summer camp, and she came home raving about it. The concept is not high tech, but it is a fun way to cool down after a day in the theme park. In addition, the party features a DJ spinning pop music and dancers to keep things lively.

My daughter and her fellow campers went barefoot to keep their sneakers dry, but she said the pavement was rough and hurt her feet. She pointed out that was great because the surface was not slippery, but it was uncomfortable so she would bring water shoes next time. (A kiosk by the Bayside Stadium kiosk sells water shoes if you want to purchase some on the spot.)

The Summer Soak Party also has food and beverages on sale nearby, including:

** $1 Cotton Candy
** $1 Popcorn
** $3 Beer
** $3 Novelty Ice Cream
** $2 Water

Pass members can save even more on these culinary offers with their 10 percent discount. Also, pass members can get one free 12-ounce draft of Mako Red Ale per person daily through Aug. 31 at Terrace Bar, Mama's Pretzel Kitchen or Spice Mill.

The Summer Soak Party takes place from noon to 6 p.m. daily through Aug. 14, and then on weekends through Sept. 5.

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In the meantime, world-renowned animal expert “Jungle Jack” Hanna is back for another weekend of storytelling at SeaWorld Orlando on Aug. 20-21. The conservationist, author and television personality will share animal facts and his travel tales during interactive presentations at the Nautilus Theater. The shows are included with park admission.

SeaWorld also will have several opportunities for guests to individually interact with Hanna at the park for an additional charge. A package that includes a meet-and-greet plus a reserved seat to his 1 p.m. Saturday show is $39 per person. Guests can Dine With Shamu for dinner Saturday, meet Hanna and have a reserved seat at his 3 p.m. show for $59 per person. On Sunday, guests can opt to Dine With Shamu for breakfast, meet Hanna and have reserved seating at his 11:30 show for $49 per person. Pass members receive a 10 percent discount for all Hanna events. Tickets can be purchased online now.

SeaWorld Orlando continues its summer hours – 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. – through Aug. 14 and then its closing time reverts back to 6 p.m., except for Labor Day Weekend.



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June 9, 2016

SeaWorld Orlando's Summer of Mako begins Friday with coaster's grand opening

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SeaWorld’s newest roller coaster, Mako, opens tomorrow (Friday, June 10), and the theme park is also kicking off a host of related activities and entertainment called “Summer of Mako.” Through Aug. 7, the new event celebrates Orlando’s tallest, fastest and longest roller coaster with experiences for all ages.

The coaster itself is a hypercoaster, “which means it’s all about speed, tight turns and that weightless feeling you get at the top of each hill. Its design and engineering was inspired by the real mako shark – one of the ocean’s fastest shark species,” according to SeaWorld Orlando. You must be at least 54 inches tall to ride the coaster, which is the same requirement as the park’s two other big coasters, Manta and Kracken. The grand opening of Mako takes place at 9 a.m. Friday, and park guests are invited to attend.Take a look at our behind the wall story .

Here's a video (filmed and edited by SeaWorld) of my daughter on Mako, and much of it is point of view, so you can get a feel for whether you're as brave as a fifth-grader. On Saturday, I’ll have another blog post about what to expect on the ride with interviews from park experts.

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Like any new theme-park attraction, Mako is sure to draw big crowds for the foreseeable future. One way to beat the crowds is to become a SeaWorld annual pass member and take advantage of perks in June that allow those guests to ride the coaster without long waits. Among them:

** Each pass member can reserve a complimentary, one-time use of Quick Queue for Mako on a date between June 11 and 30. Register online. This is limited to 500 pass members per day.

** On Tuesdays and Saturdays from June 18 to Aug. 13, pass members can get into the park early at 8 a.m. to ride Mako before it opens to other guests at 9 a.m.

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Mako is the centerpiece of Shark Wreck Reef, a two-acre realm that also includes Shark Encounter, Sharks Underwater Grill, shops, shark and shipwreck theming and educational experiences featuring sharks. Shark Wreck Reef is designed to make guests feel like they’re underwater and part of the group of sharks that have taken over a shipwrecked reef. Renowned artist and conservationist Guy Harvey has painted a large mural of a mako shark swimming with fish in the Shark Wreck Reef and also has exclusive special merchandise for sale at SeaWorld Orlando.

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During the “Summer of Mako,” visitors can touch a shark at the new Shark Touch Pool located near the Wild Arctic attraction. They will have the chance to learn about and interact with brown-banded bamboo sharks, white-spotted bamboo sharks and epaulette sharks. (This experience is included in park admission and does not have an additional charge like some of the feeding experiences.)

Guests can join the frenzy as they race around SeaWorld Orlando to find some of the tallest, fastest and longest creatures that call oceans home with a park-wide, text message-based scavenger hunt. Those who complete the Mako Challenge will have $1 donated to the SeaWorld Busch Gardens Conservation Fund on their behalf.

For the limited-time event, SeaWorld is introducing new food and beverage offerings, including a honey vanilla mako shark cookie; a SeaWorld exclusive Coca-Cola Freestyle mix, Mako Blast (and Diet Mako Blast); a specialty alcoholic beverage only available at Shark’s Underwater Grill; and Mako American Red Ale, a SeaWorld exclusive brew available in several locations around SeaWorld. My family and I love South Pole Chill, the exclusive Coca-Cola Freestyle mix that was introduced with the opening of Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin, so we can’t wait to try Mako Blast.

Pass members can take advantage of other special offers related to Mako in June, as well:

** Stop by the new pass member lounge and purchase an exclusive Mako T-shirt for $10 plus tax.

** Get 10 percent off the price of a ride photo to commemorate your first experience on the fastest coaster in Orlando.

** Purchase admission for guests for half off. Each pass member can buy up to six tickets at the discounted rate through Dec. 31, 2016. The tickets must be used by Dec. 31, too.

Other popular summer entertainment returns this year, including extended hours (closing at 9 p.m.); Shamu’s Celebration: Light Up The Night; a block party along the Waterfront area; and concerts and fireworks for Fourth of July weekend.



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May 26, 2016

Artist and conservationist Guy Harvey partners with SeaWorld Orlando, paints mako shark mural

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This week, visitors at SeaWorld Orlando had a rare opportunity to observe renowned artist and conservationist Guy Harvey at work in the theme park. Harvey was painting a mural depicting a mako shark surrounded by fish in the new area of the park, Shark Wreck Reef, which will be home to the new Mako roller coaster that opens June 10.

Harvey, perhaps best known for his wildly popular T-shirts depicting marine life, also has created paintings and apparel that will be available only at SeaWorld. SeaWorld will donate a portion of the proceeds from the sale of such items directly to the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation.

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“I personally have been spending the last 20 years researching sharks in one form or other for science and for my artistic renderings,” Harvey told members of the media on Tuesday. “The last five years we have focused on the mako shark, and we are about the only organization –- based at Nova Southeastern University at Fort Lauderdale -- that is doing any comprehensive work on mako sharks, which is why SeaWorld came to me for help with branding for their new roller coaster.

“And by branding, I mean, not only am I licensing the use of my artwork for the roller coaster ride and the merchandise that ensues from it, but also more importantly, from an educational aspect. We want people to know more about sharks.”

In addition to the science and research efforts, Harvey and SeaWorld also will work together to increase public awareness about ocean health and the need for shark conservation, using the Mako coaster as a platform. In the queues for the new ride, videos hosted by Harvey will show guests sharks in the wild and ways they can help protect them, as well as some of the conservationist’s actual shark expeditions.

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Harvey took some time out from working on his art project to tell us more about it.

Why did SeaWorld choose a mako shark as a model for its new hypercoaster?

Harvey: “The mako shark is the smaller cousin of the white shark. They’re one of four members of that family that include the porbeagle, the salmon shark, the white shark and the mako. They are the fastest, most developed of all the sharks. … They’re also regarded as game fish by the International Game Fish Association because of their speed and their prodigious leaps; they can jump out of the water like a sailfish or a marlin.”

Are you going to ride the roller coaster?

Harvey: “I am not going to ride the roller coaster. I’m going to be honest with you: I’m afraid of heights, and I hate speed. It’s pretty hard for me to get into an airplane. Lots of people will have lots of fun, especially the young people, so I’m looking forward to a lot of excitement and thrills.”

Why have you spent so much time studying mako sharks?

Harvey: “They are highly sought after both commercially and from a recreational perspective, and so that puts a lot of pressure on the species. We reckon nearly half a million makos a year are killed in the Atlantic Ocean alone. That’s half a million sharks in one species. And we know that somewhere between 30 and 60 million sharks are killed every year worldwide. That a very high rate of attrition on the shark species. So there’s a bit of urgency involved in (a) studying but (b) getting the results of all the research out to the public.”

With the education component, will that be geared to adults only or will there be things for children, as well?

Harvey: “Most kids that I’ve met are already very sensitized about the demise of sharks. Actually, young boys just love sharks anyways. They’ve got a head start over everybody else. So we want to work on that base and inherent interest in kids and we’re definitely going to do that though the SeaWorld machine. It’s more effective than my machine. Our combined efforts are going to be reaching a lot of kids.”

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Will this mural rank in your Top 50 works of art?

Harvey: “It’s definitely going to rank in my Top 50 pieces I’ve done over the years. I’m not known for my murals. My very good friend, [Robert] Wyland, and I have done a lot of murals in Florida, but he’s really good at it and I’m not that great at it. He’s an airbrush master; I’m a paintbrush master. He paints mostly marine animals, and I like to paint fish. And that’s why we work together in harmony. It’s a nice piece. I’ve done really big pieces in the past, and it’s very appropriate for this setting. It’s going to become an iconic piece for all the people who come by here in the next five or ten years. There will be millions of people who pass this mural, and they’re going to leave SeaWorld with a much better impression and idea of what this animal does, how important it is, and its aesthetic beauty.

“Another important point: mako sharks cannot be kept in captivity like many of the other big ocean-going sharks. … This is the importance of art and TV documentaries: We dive with the animal in its natural environment and bring the image back to you. That’s the only way you can really interact with them safely. And they are few and far between so it’s pretty hard to find them, and people don’t realize the amount of time that we put into accessing the animal.”

What is your favorite fish to paint?

Harvey: “The blue marlin. It is the most amazing fish to catch, to dive with. They are a top ocean predator like mako sharks, but mako sharks have it on blue marlin. They’ll eat a blue marlin but a blue marlin would not eat a mako shark. So, the mako shark really is the top dog out there, and I say top dog because they’re not ambush predators like a white shark or some of the other shark species. They can outrun anything, and they can outrun a blue marlin or a swordfish and take it on. “

What drew you to marine life when you were younger and how did you decide to dedicate your life to this?

Harvey: “I grew up in Jamaica; I’m a 10th generation Jamaican. Both parents loved to sport fish. In those days – the ‘50s and ‘60s – we killed everything so it’s amazing to see the turnaround now, how catch-and-release sport fishing has taken off since then. So growing up there, I was really severely impacted by the sea. I read Ernest Hemingway’s story “The Old Man and The Sea” many times and it had a great impression on me. I began to draw that whole story in pen and ink. At that time, I was just using pen and ink. It’s kind of an illustrative form of art. And then I studied marine sciences at university and I did my PhD at The University of The West Indies at Kingston, Jamaica, where I lived at the time.

“After a couple of years of having informal art shows and doing fishing tournaments, I got an introduction in Fort Lauderdale to a T-shirt company in 1986. So that’s 30 years ago to this year almost to the month, and because of that, my hobby became my profession. My profession became painting art and going around to places and doing what I’ve done for the last 30 years. But it’s come full circle because my background as a marine scientist has really helped in the formation of the Guy Harvey Research Institute at Nova and, of course, the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation. We do a lot of research work now on the large biologic animals like sharks, billfishes and tunas. That’s our focus. We have gone into other work as well, like stingrays and groupers and lionfish – contemporary issues that face the Caribbean. But that’s it in a nutshell, and here I am today in my 60th year having fun.”



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March 24, 2016

Buy SeaWorld Orlando annual pass, get Aquatica annual pass for free

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SeaWorld Orlando fans looking for a deal have one month to claim the theme park’s latest offer – and it’s perfect spring break and summer. Visitors who purchase a SeaWorld annual pass receive a year’s admission to Aquatica for free – if they purchase the pass before April 24.

The cost of the two-park pass deal is $168, which is the current price of a SeaWorld Orlando annual pass. A separate Aquatica annual pass costs $108, so that’s a significant savings. Visitors must pay the total at the time of purchase, but Florida residents also have the option to use the monthly payment program, which does not require a down payment for this deal. (It’s the norm for Orlando theme parks to require an amount equal to one day’s admission for a down payment on annual passes. The balance then can be financed through a monthly payment plan.)

This is the best deal for the SeaWorld Orlando-Aquatica combo pass since Blue Friday, otherwise known as Black Friday to most shoppers, in November. At that time, the combo pass was offered for $180, but it was a Buy One, Get One deal, so customers could purchase two combo passes for $180.

Having annual passes to both SeaWorld Orlando and Aquatica means not having to pay for parking at either park, which can really add up. It’s normally $13 per car per visit at Aquatica and $17 per car per visit at SeaWorld for general parking. If you are an annual pass member, you also receive 10 percent off food, beverages and merchandise at both parks and summer camps for children. Plus, Aquatica pass members can get up to three guests admission for half off the regular gate price of $58 throughout the year. SeaWorld pass members also can get their guests a discount on admission, but it usually is not quite as much. However, in recent years, SeaWorld pass members each were invited to bring a friend for free (January and September) and experience other perks throughout the park. See the 2016 perks here.

Pass members also receive other exclusive offers, such as the opportunity to preview new attractions, such as the Mako roller coaster scheduled to open this summer; reserved seating at special events, such as the Fourth of July fireworks; and the gift of an annual Christmas ornament. There are no blockout dates for either park, and regular admission includes the Halloween and Christmas celebrations, as well as other special events, such as Wild Days and Bands, Brew and BBQ.



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February 13, 2016

SeaWorld Orlando's Bands, Brew & BBQ event starts today, honors military

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SeaWorld Orlando kicks off its annual Bands, Brew & BBQ event today, and like last year, it is partnering with USO Central Florida to honor members of the military with special activities and discounts. The event, which runs Saturdays and Sundays through March 6 and is included with admission, features a concert each day and many experiences related to country and classic rock music. Plus, visitors can sample barbecue from local restaurants and craft beers.

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Bands, Brew and BBQ events begin at noon, with the concert at 4 p.m. Today’s headliner is Grammy-nominated Smash Mouth, and Sunday’s concert features R&B legend Gladys Knight. The concert seating is first-come, first-served, but reserved seats are available for purchase. Guests can choose from a VIP Front-Row Seating & BBQ Package (that includes Quick Queue) for $40 or Concert Floor Seating & Quick Queue for $24.

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In addition to the signature acts, the event also will feature a secondary stage to showcase local bands, and a DJ spinning music for guests to show off their line dancing. Beyond the stage, guests can enjoy a Harley-Davidson Orlando display of motorcycles and a collection of classic cars.

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Bands, Brew & BBQ is not just for adults, either. Well, the brew, is, of course, but the patriotic-themed USO Family Garden is returning, offering kids the chance to line dance, too. Plus, there will be animal encounters, Explore Zones and a host for the afternoon of activities.

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Come hungry because the smell of barbeque along Bayside Pathway will tempt your tastebuds! Local restaurants, such as Sonny’s and Tony Roma’s, join SeaWorld’s own outdoor kitchen, giving visitors many choices to sample. This year, SeaWorld Executive Chef Hector Colon has expanded the park’s offerings beyond traditional meats and sides to dishes such as slow-smoked ribs, a creative twist on chicken and waffles, and Corn Chip Chili Pie.

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To complement the barbecue, guests can taste more than 30 local and craft beers. Among them: Sierra Nevada Nooner Pilsner, Abita Brewing Co., New Belgium and Crooked Can Brewing Company. There also are wine flights available for purchase.

SeaWorld Orlando visitors can choose from three sampler packages to experience a variety of barbecue dishes and beers:

** BBQ Tasting Sampler – Guests can choose up to five menu items from SeaWorld’s sampler selections at any of the Bands, Brew & BBQ food locations for just $20.

** Craft Brew Sampler – Guests sample 10 ice-cold craft beers -- from a selection of more than 30 brews -- for just $30.

** BBQ Tasting and Craft Brew Sampler (Best Value) – This sampler includes five menu items and five craft brew samples along the Bands, Brew & BBQ Pathway –all for only $35.

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Deb Wills has attended Bands, Brews & BBQ in the past. You can read about her visit here.

Active-duty members of the military and veterans can get half off Fun Cards, which provide admission to SeaWorld Orlando for all of 2016. They also receive 10 percent off all event packages, food, raft beer and merchandise on event dates.



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February 6, 2016

More students eligible to apply for SeaWorld Orlando's 2016 Environmental Scholarships

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SeaWorld Orlando is aiming to help more local students pursue careers related to the care and conservation of animals and the environment with its 2016 Environmental Scholarships. Now in its second year, the program has undergone some changes.

Students who are chosen as recipients of SeaWorld Orlando’s 2016 Environmental Scholarships will be receiving more college assistance from the theme-park company than winners in past years. Instead of awarding $1,000 scholarships, SeaWorld is giving four winners each a one-time award of $5,000 to be used at any college or university they choose to attend.

In addition, the scholarship program also is open to more students than it was in 2015. Any Florida high school senior who has a GPA of 3.0 or higher is eligible to apply. Last year, the program was only open to students in Orange County, which is where the theme park is located.

The remainder of the application process is the same. Students must visit this page on seaworldparks.com to complete the application. The application consists of written questions about the student's plans to help protect the environment. Each applicant also must submit a video that summarizes his or her conservation plans. The video cannot be longer than 5 minutes and has to be uploaded to YouTube.

The deadline is March 31, 2016.

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All of the applications received will be evaluated by representatives of SeaWorld's Education & Conservation Team. They will consider originality, creativity, content, organization, neatness and the general presentation of the application.

The winners will be announced in the spring, and their awards will be presented by SeaWorld at the winning students' school awards ceremonies.

All winners will be notified by phone and/or email. Any award notification returned to the sponsor or its agencies as undeliverable will result in disqualification and the presenting of the award to an alternate winner. All application materials submitted become the property of SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, and none will be returned.

The fine print of the rules: Winners may be asked to complete photographic and video release forms. No substitution of awards will be offered and non-cash prizes may not be redeemed for cash value. The award money is intended to provide funding for the winners’ college education and may not be transferred to a third party or be used for unrelated purposes. By accepting an award, all representatives agree to permit SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment and SeaWorld Orlando to use their name, voice, picture or other likeness for advertising, marketing, public relations or other promotional purposes in connection with awards program or otherwise without further compensations. Federal, state and local taxes on award money, if any, are the responsibility of the winners.

A global leader in animal care and conservation, SeaWorld has assisted more than 25,000 orphaned, injured or ill animals over the past 50 years.



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January 14, 2016

SeaWorld Orlando promotes animal care, conservation at upcoming Wild Days

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Beginning Saturday, Wild Days return to SeaWorld Orlando for the third year. Wild Days are three themed weekends designed to showcase the park's conservation efforts and inspire guests to get involved in protecting and preserving the Earth's wild animal population. Included with regular admission are special interactive shows, the opportunity to meet leaders in the world of animal rescue and rehabilitation, and up-close encounters with animals.

For my daughter, Wild Days are a fantastic opportunity to learn more about the animals she wants to one day help. We have made it a point to attend Wild Days each of the past two years. But even if you are not a future marine biologist, the special events make these days worth a visit to the theme park. Here are some of the highlights:

Wild Weekend with Jack Hanna -- Jan. 16-17

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** See renowned animal expert “Jungle Jack” Hanna at a show at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. at Nautilus Theater. Hanna talks about his unique travels and personal experiences, as well as interacts with animals during his presentation. Visitors can meet Hanna after the show. (This show is indoors, so no need to worry about the weather!) The show is included in regular park admission.

** In addition to Hanna's shows that are open to all guests, visitors can choose a more intimate gathering with the TV personality and conservationist at a breakfast or a dinner at Sharks Underwater Grill. Both meals include a meet-and-greet with Hanna, a family photo and reserved seating for one of Hanna's shows. Breakfast on Saturday and Sunday costs $49 for adults and $39 for children ages 3 to 9. Dinner on Saturday is $59 and $49, respectively.

Penguin Lovers Weekend – Jan. 23-24

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** SeaWorld Animal Ambassador Julie Scardina talks about her lifelong love of animals and the parks’ commitment to wildlife conservation at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. at Nautilus Theater. Scardina has worked at SeaWorld for more than 30 years, beginning as a trainer with sea lions and otters. In her current role as an animal ambassador, she has traveled to all the continents, including Antarctica, which is home to the greatest number of penguins in the world.

** Meet a Penguin at Glacial Collections, the gift shop in the Antarctica section of the theme park. When my family and I did this last year, we saw a pair of penguins were playing in a small, elevated area in the store. Visitors were asked not to touch the birds, but the setup was great for up-close observation and photos. There was no charge for this interaction.

Sea Rescue Weekend – Jan. 18-19

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** SeaWorld has rescued more than 27,000 animals over 50 years, and these amazing animal stories are featured weekly on the popular Saturday-morning ABC TV series “Sea Rescue.” Hear first-hand accounts of marine animal rescues, rehabilitations and returns by SeaWorld’s Animal Rescue Team, heroes and partners featured on the show. This presentation takes place both days at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. at Nautilus Theater.

All three Wild Days weekends feature these additional offerings:

** “Ocean Discovery” killer whale presentation – Guests can learn more about killer whales, also called orcas, and other species of whales during an interactive, 30-minute presentation. "Ocean Discovery" is new this year and different from the daily “One Ocean” shows at Shamu Stadium. (Check a park map for daily times.)

** “Inspiring Stories” pre-shows – Animal trainers describe how caring for SeaWorld’s resident animals has helped with the rescue and rehabilitation of wild animals that need help. “Inspiring Stories” take place at the beginning of three of the park’s popular shows: "Blue Horizons," "Pets Ahoy" and "Clyde & Seamore’s Sea Lion High."

** Explore Zones – More than 14 interactive education stations can be discovered throughout the park, featuring games and hands-on experiences that teach guests about animals and what they can do to protect the wild world in their own lives.



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September 1, 2015

Mama's Pretzel Kitchen opens at SeaWorld Orlando

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At SeaWorld Orlando, you no longer have to settle for plain pretzels with melted cheese for dipping. The new Mama’s Pretzel Kitchen, which opened a little more than a week ago, serves 10 different kinds of pretzels and six dipping sauces. And guests can choose from eight craft and seasonal beers, as well as other beverages.

Though a pretzel by itself might not sound like a meal worth seeking out during a day in the park, the addition of the eatery gives SeaWorld guests one more food choice and another way to make sure everyone in your party is satisfied for the day.

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Want to try something a little out of the ordinary? How about the Bacon Pretzel Twist, the Bratwurst Pretzel Dog or the hearty Jumbo Pretzel Dog? If you have a sweet tooth, the Cinnamon Sugar Nuggets or the Jumbo Cinnamon Sugar Pretzel might hit the spot. Any of the pretzels can be paired with a variety of sauces: beer-infused cheese, beer-infused mustard, marinara, spicy mustard, cheddar cheese and cream cheese.

Orlando’s Pretzel Kitchen is not the first for SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment. The original store is located at the Busch Gardens Williamsburg park, and a second opened last year at Busch Gardens Tampa.

Executive Chef Hector Colon spoke with me at a recent media event for the new Mama’s Pretzel Kitchen. “The great thing about [our location] is that we do two pretzels that you can’t get anywhere else: The meatball pretzel and the mustard-infused pretzel. The meatball pretzel is three meatballs on the salty pretzel with mozerella cheese and marinara sauce.”

Acknowledging that those offerings might appeal more to adults and adventurous eaters, Colon said he thinks kids will like the pizza pretzels the best. “It’s two comfort foods together that everybody likes.”

To that end, SeaWorld is taking the pizza pretzel a step farther, Colon said. “We’re working on a family pretzel. It’s going to be a giant pretzel that is stuffed with cheese and pepperoni, but it is pizza-sized.”

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There is a range of prices for the pretzels at Mama’s Pretzel Kitchen. Soft pretzels and dessert pretzels are priced in the $5 range. Pretzel twists – which are specialty items and bigger portions – cost about $8 or so. Dipping sauces are less than $1 each.

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My husband also visited the Pretzel Kitchen recently and enjoyed the beer selection. The Shock Top Pretzel Wheat was an obvious choice for the location, he said, and he appreciated being able to get a Sierra Nevada Seasonal IPA there, too – a choice he didn’t think he had at other restaurants and locations in the park. Among the other beers for sale: Orlando Red Ale, Sam Adams Seasonal – Oktoberfest, Blue Moon – Belgium White, Woodchuck Cider, Bimini Twist IPA and Beach Blonde Ale.

Chef Hector said that although the dark beer pairs well with the pretzels, here in Florida it’s really hot so many people like the cold, light beer.

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Mama’s Pretzel Kitchen also sells, wine, specialty frozen cocktails, assorted Coca-Cola products, and ICEE frozen drinks.

Craft beers are $7.99 and a flight of 4 is $9.99. Wine – chardonnay and cabernet – costs $6.99 a glass.

Mama’s Pretzel Kitchen is located near Shamu Stadium and Shamu’s Happy Harbor.

DISCLAIMER: I was a guest of SeaWorld Orlando for the Mama’s Pretzel Kitchen media event. This did not affect my story; my opinions are my own.



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May 14, 2015

SeaWorld Orlando to host Canine Companions for Independence graduation

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On Saturday, SeaWorld will be honoring some very important animals, and park guests are invited to share in the celebration. Although these particular animals are not ones that will perform in the theme park's shows or serve as company ambassadors, their specialized training has prepared them for equally challenging and rewarding roles.

The Southeast Region of Canine Companions for Independence will be hosting its Puppy Matriculation Ceremony at SeaWorld Orlando's Nautilus Theatre at 11 a.m. Saturday, May 16. Teams of 14 graduates and their new assistance dogs will graduate in front of their puppy raisers, instructors, volunteers, and Canine Companions staff members and graduates. But SeaWorld guests are also welcome to attend the ceremony, as well.

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Graduation marks the end of an assistance dog's professional training and the beginning of a partnership between a human in need and a canine that will provide service and companionship. The organization says these dogs are expected to 'provide emotional support to children in the courtroom settings, will help special education children in schools, will turn the child in a wheelchair into the cool kid and will give independence to adults so they can live on their own.'

The Southeast Region of Canine Companions for Independence was established in 1989. Its regional training center, which serves the states of Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, is located in Orlando. SeaWorld's $1 million donation allowed the state-of-the-art facility to open in 2000.

Canine Companions for Independence has placed more than 4,680 assistance dogs with program graduates during the last 40 years. Graduation celebrations are taking place across the country this weekend. Those who would like to watch the graduation ceremonies but who cannot attend in person can view them on CCI's website, where they will be live streamed.

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To achieve its mission, Canine Companions for Independence hosts fundraising events --called DogFest Walk 'n Roll -- throughout the year in different cities. Orlando's event is on Nov. 21 at Lake Lily in Maitland. Owners and their canines are invited to register now for the community dog walk and find out how they can support the organization with fundraising, sponsorships and donations.



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April 28, 2015

SeaWorld Orando says it is building tallest, fastest, longest roller coaster to open in 2016

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SeaWorld Orlando has announced that it is building Orlando's tallest, fastest and longest roller coaster. The 200-foot thrill ride is expected to open in 2016.

Although few details were released in its short press release, the theme park did provide some clues about theming, indicating the ride will 'rise from the ocean depths' and 'take its place atop the food chain.' Which marine animal do you think that could that be? And if you're thinking shark, what kind?

Visitors and SeaWorld fans can follow the progress of the ride's construction by using the hashtag #nothingfaster on social media sites. More information is promised in late May.

SeaWorld employed a similar marketing technique leading up to the opening of its most recent thrill ride, Ihu's Breakway Falls at its Aquatica water park. Guests could follow along using the hashtag #nothingtaller.

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That ride definitely lived up to its billing with an 80-foot-tall platform. Just ask my daughter, the only member of my immediate family brave enough to put herself in an enclosed box and wait for the bottom to drop out so she can free fall into a water slide. You can read more about her experiences here and here. Ihu's Breakaway Falls is the tallest, steepest and only multi-drop tower slide of its kind in the southern United States.

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Back on dry land, SeaWorld Orlando has two large-scale roller coasters. Manta and Kraken. Manta, which aims to give riders the feeling of 'what it's like to spin, glide, skim and fly like a giant ray,' is the more daring of the two. Riders are strapped into this attraction almost parallel to the ground as the ride starts and remain facing forward as they race up steep hills, aim for sprays of water and twist and turn. It's definitely not for the faint of heart, especially with a head-first, face-down inverted nosedive. Kraken is based on the mythical tales of a sea creature of the same name. It, too, is a floorless coaster with high and long drops and quick spirals. Imagine the new rollar coaster topping Manta and Kraken!

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SeaWorld Orlando also has a more in-depth expansion on the horizon. The Blue World Project is a multi-million-dollar project that will create first-of-its-kind environments for its signature killer whales at all three theme parks. SeaWorld San Diego will roll out the new environment in 2018, with Orlando and San Antonio to follow. Each new environment will have a total water volume of 10 million gallons, nearly double that of the existing facility, and a surface area of nearly 1.5 acres. The wow factor comes with the views that will be more than 40 feet tall, providing guests with the world's largest underwater viewing experience of orcas. Plus, guests will be able to walk alongside the whales as if they were at the shore.

AllEars.Net will bring you the latest details about all of SeaWorld's new attractions.



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March 3, 2015

Get a sneak peek at SeaWorld Orlando's 'Clyde & Seamore's Sea Lion High'

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This weekend, SeaWorld Orlando gave its pass members and some members of the media a sneak peek of its new show, "Clyde & Seamore's Sea Lion High," which is expected to debut in April. Although we did not see the show in its entirety, we did get a glimpse into what all visitors can expect in a couple months.

When we entered Sea Lion & Otter Theater, we could see the new finished set, which is designed to look like various rooms in a typical high school. It's just as colorful and richly detailed as the pirate ship that used to sit squarely on the stage.

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Audience members had fun speculating on what different aspects of the set would be used for. The moat remains, and there is a large slide, what looks like water tanks, and various lifts and steps. It will be fun to see where all the animals pop up and exit on the different platforms. The curtains that allow the larger animals access backstage are now cleverly designed as school lockers.

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The cafeteria even has its own quirky menu, featuring dishes such as Holy Mackerel Pot Roast that is "so good it will make you say its name!" Water and Sardine Smoothies are sold by the gallon, of course.

Kelly Flaherty Clark, SeaWorld's curator of animal training, described the story line of "Clyde & Seamore's Sea Lion High" this way:

"The show opens on graduation day at Sea Lion High, and Clyde and Seamore have each been nominated for one of two scholarships at a university. One of the scholarships is in mathematics and one is in athletics. And they both are being awarded the scholarships - until we find out that, even though it's the last day of school and everyone is getting ready for graduation, they find out they have not completed all their classes and they only have one day to finish them. The high school's self-proclaimed pompous athlete, Tripp, tries to get in the way, but Clyde and Seamore use their education to come along and save the day."

The show starts with peppy music, and that continues to be a theme during the show. One of the classes at Sea Lion High that students must take is dance. We saw the sea lions and their trainers attempt the conga, the tango, the salsa and the "high-low," which prompted some chuckles in the audience.

After dance class, the sea lions must head to gym, if they are physically fit. Of course, no one wants to go to gym class, even the sea lions, so Seamore feigns an injury. He is sent to see the school nurse, where more hilarity ensues.

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Flaherty Clark described what it took for the sea lion to learn the "Feigned Flipper" behavior, and you can see that in the video below. As with all animal training at SeaWorld, she said, this was accomplished through a combination of positive reinforcement with behavior modification.

"In training the animals, we try to focus on things that highlight their natural abilities," Flaherty Clark said. "These guys are amazingly agile."

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SeaWorld visitors who saw "Clyde & Seamore Take Pirate Island" will recognize some of the animal behaviors that have been reworked in the context of a new story and will no doubt be amazed by the new tricks. Look for the show to debut in April, though no official date has been announced yet.

TRAINING TECHNIQUE

SNEAK PEEK

DISCLAIMER: I was a guest of SeaWorld Orlando for the preview of "Clyde & Seamore's Sea Lion High." This did not affect my story; my opinions are my own.



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February 26, 2015

Ways you can interact with SeaWorld's dolphins now that public feedings have been discontinued

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SeaWorld Orlando announced this week that it has closed its popular dolphin feedings to the public. Our family, along with many others, will miss this rare -- and affordable -- opportunity to interact with dolphins.

Readers of this blog might recall that I began going to SeaWorld Orlando and writing about my family's experiences there because of my daughter's interest in learning about dolphins. Going to the dolphin feedings was one of the first things we did, and it became a regular stop on our visits. My then-seven-year-old daughter was in awe of the friendly dolphins, and being able to get so close to them was a dream come true for her.

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Because the dolphins obviously had learned they would be fed, they were not shy about approaching the visitors along the wall. For the price of a tray of fish -- $7 - each guest could feed, pet and take photos with the dolphins. In the three years since our first dolphin feeding, we have tried a variety of dolphin experiences in Florida. They all have been amazing, but none are as inexpensive as the now-discontinued dolphin feedings.

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Still, there continue to be experiences to interact with dolphins at SeaWorld parks - just not as many opportunities to feed the mammals without the direct supervision of a trainer. Visitors can book new Dolphin Encounter packages that start March 3 and will take place at the same location adjacent to Dolphin Cove. The packages, which will start at $15, will allow each participant to pet a dolphin with a trainer's assistance. A $30 package also includes one 6 x 8 professional photo. Both Dolphin Encounters last 10 minutes and include an educational overview. The new packages are similar to what is offered at SeaWorld's other parks in San Antonio and San Diego.

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In addition, SeaWorld Orlando continues to offer its Dolphins Up-Close Tour. When we experienced the tour a couple years ago, it included learning how to scatter-feed the mother and baby dolphins in the nursery. This is a different technique than what was used at the feedings at Dolphin Cove, where visitors drop a single fish into a dolphin's open mouth. (Each tray contained four fish.) Scatter-feeding means tossing handfuls of fish into the water and is intended to teach dolphins how to hunt for food, as they would in the wild. During the tour, we also visited Dolphin Cove, where a trainer taught our family to communicate with the dolphins with hand signals, and we were able to take photos. The regular price of the Dolphins Up-Close Tour is $59 for adults and $39 for children ages 3 to 9. Prices may vary with the season, however.

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SeaWorld Orlando also has a sister park -- Discovery Cove -- dedicated to dolphin interactions. The park is known for its unique dolphin swims, which allow guests to be towed a short distance by a dolphin. Before that happens, though, a small group of visitors stands in the lagoon and learns about dolphins and interacts with one of the mammals assigned to them. The interactions don't focus on feeding the animals, however. I visited Discovery Cove last month, and we spent the time before the swim petting various parts of the dolphin and learning some of the signals used by the trainers. Although a few of the people in our group were asked if they'd like to give the dolphin a fish, it didn't seem as if that was a planned part of the experience. And, honestly, that was fine with me. It was far more memorable for me to be standing in the water next to dolphin, touching it, and then to swim with it than to feed it. (You can read about my experience at Discovery Cove and the dolphin swim on previous blogs.)

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And I suspect other SeaWorld and Discovery Cove visitors will feel the same way. It's disappointing that the public feedings are no longer available, but the new Dolphin Encounters still allow visitors to touch and interact with the dolphins. And I've seen firsthand with my daughter, who surely will be a future marine biologist, how such interactions can inspire conservation in a new generation.



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February 24, 2015

Last week to apply for SeaWorld Orlando's new environmental scholarship

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SeaWorld Orlando is giving away $20,000 in scholarship money with its new Young Environmental Scholars Awards, and the deadline is fast approaching. Local seniors in Orange County have until March 1 to apply. That's Sunday!

SeaWorld said the 20 $1,000 scholarships are intended to "reward high school seniors for their academic performance and passion for animals and the environment." The one-time awards can be used at any college or university that the winner chooses to attend.

High school seniors in Orange County (Florida) with at least a 3.0 GPA are encouraged to apply for this scholarship and must visit this page on seaworldparks.com to complete the application. The application consists of written questions about the student's plans to help protect the environment. Each applicant also must submit a video that summarizes his or her conservation plans. The video cannot be longer than 5 minutes and has to be uploaded to YouTube.

All of the applications received will be evaluated by representatives of SeaWorld's Education & Conservation Team. They will consider originality, creativity, content, organization, neatness and the general presentation of the application.

The winners will be announced in the spring, and their awards will be presented by SeaWorld at the winning students' school awards ceremonies. In addition, there will be a special event held at SeaWorld Orlando for the winners and their families to celebrate their accomplishment.

All winners will be notified by phone and/or email. Any award notification returned to the sponsor or its agencies as undeliverable will result in disqualification and the presenting of the award to an alternate winner. All application materials submitted become the property of SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, and none will be returned.

The fine print of the rules: Winners may be asked to complete photographic and video release forms. No substitution of awards will be offered and non-cash prizes may not be redeemed for cash value. The award money is intended to provide funding for the winners college education and may not be transferred to a third party or be used for unrelated purposes. By accepting an award, all representatives agree to permit SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment and SeaWorld Orlando to use their name, voice, picture or other likeness for advertising, marketing, public relations or other promotional purposes in connection with awards program or otherwise without further compensations. Federal, state and local taxes on award money, if any, are the responsibility of the winners.

A global leader in animal care and conservation, SeaWorld has assisted more than 24,000 orphaned, injured or ill animals over the last 50 years.



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February 17, 2015

Registration is open now for SeaWorld Orlando's summer camps

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Does your child love animals? Does he or she dream of being a marine biologist (just as my 10-year-old daughter does)? Or perhaps you are looking for a unique camp experience for your child. If you said "yes" to any of these questions, SeaWorld summer camps may be a great fit for your family.

SeaWorld Orlando offers a wide variety of day camps for kids from preschool age through middle school. Sleep-away camps are available for middle- and high-school students. Registration is open now for all of the camps, which are designed to allow children to interact with the marine animals as well as learn about the park's animal residents. The first camp begins June 8, and the last camp of the summer begins Aug. 3. They all run Monday through Friday.

Day camps are organized by grade level for children going into preschool through eighth grade. Campers will focus on a different animal each day -- including whales, dolphins, penguins and sea lions -- and learn about them through songs, take-home arts and crafts, as well as by talking with zoological staff. Lunch, snacks, a camp T-shirt and water bottle are included in the price of camp. Participants who meet the height requirements also will have the opportunity to experience rides together.

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Children ages 3 and 4 can experience SeaFari from 9 a.m. to noon each day. The price is $250, and this is the only camp planned for a parent and child to experience together. That price is for the pair, a complimentary T-shirt and water bottle for the camper, and a snack each day. The camp offers up-close animal encounters, crafts and select animal shows.

Camps for children in grades 1 through 8 take place from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. each day and cost $325 per week. (SeaWorld pass members can save $35 per camp by registering through the website or by calling 1-866-479-2267.) After care is available from 3 to 5 p.m. for an additional $75 per camper per week.

Programs for upcoming kindergarten and first-graders include: Sea Hideaway (learn how animals find the best hiding places and explore animal camouflage); Do You See What I Sea? (find out how your senses compare to sharks, whales, dolphins and much more); and Secrets of the Sea (uncover the secrets of killer whales, polar bears, and other sea critters).

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Kids going into second and third grade can pick from these topics: What's For Lunch? (find out what types of food the animals eat and then help feed dolphins, flamingos and sting rays); Ocean Odyssey (discover why some animals migrate and where they go); and Animal Addresses (learn how killer whales, sea lions, penguins and other animals adapt to their surroundings).

Campers entering fourth and fifth grades in the fall have their choice of Animal Antics (explore the world of animal behavior and training with up-close encounters); Walk on the Wild Side (learn about a variety of animals with hands-on experiences); and Feeding Frenzy (learn how SeaWorld prepares food for over 60,000 animals and feed some of the residents).

The oldest campers, upcoming sixth- to eighth-graders, will focus on careers related to animal care: Wild Careers (go behind the scenes to see what it's like to work with the animals and help construct toys for them); Marine Biology 101 (discover what it's like to be a real marine biologist and conduct hands-on experiments); and Animal Sciences (learn how biology, geography and other sciences all play a role in studying marine animals and visit the park's research facilities). During these three camps, the participants will spend one day at Aquatica, SeaWorld's nearby water park.

For day camps, a same-day after-camp admission to SeaWorld is available at a discounted rate.

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Students going into seventh through twelfth grades can attend resident career "sleep-away"� camps. These campers experience what it takes to train and work with marine animals and have the opportunity to touch a penguin, snorkel in a shark cage, work with the animal care staff and create an enriching environment for our animals. Plus, participants spend a day at Discovery Cove swimming with dolphins, snorkeling with tropical fish and rays and feeding exotic birds in a free-flight aviary. They also will visit Aquatica.

Resident camps cost $1,200, which includes all camp activities, lodging onsite at SeaWorld and at its partner hotel for five nights, plus all meals and snacks. Supervision and guidance is provided 24 hours a day for the entire duration.

SeaWorld camps are accredited by the American Camp Association (ACA), a nationally recognized association focused on health, safety and program quality.

For more information, visit SeaWorldCamps.com/Orlando or call 1-800-406-2244.



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February 12, 2015

Tips for maximizing your day at SeaWorld Orlando's Discovery Cove

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With the many amazing experiences theme parks in Orlando offer, it would be difficult to pick a single favorite place. But SeaWorld Orlando's Discovery Cove is among our family's top picks because of the unique and relaxing day it provides guests.

In my previous blog, I wrote about the park's signature Dolphin Swim Package. Although that certainly is one of the main attractions for many visitors to Discovery Cove, we also enjoy that there is enough to do at this park to fill a day for even the most active family.

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Reservations and pricing

First, know that Discovery Cove is not inexpensive. It is priced more like a resort than a theme park: Prices vary based on seasons and can increase as the date approaches. The current Florida resident special is $219 per person, and admission is more for out-of-town visitors, especially in the summer. Guests who do not want to swim with dolphins can purchase a Day Resort Package, which covers everything except the actual dolphin interaction, at a discounted price.

However, part of the appeal of Discovery Cove is that it is not crowded. Although officials won't give an attendance number, it's commonly thought that only about 1,000 guests are admitted each day. For these reasons, it is recommended that you book your reservations in advance. (Discovery Cove does allow one complimentary rescheduling should that need arise.)

Planning your day

Because you are paying a premium for your day at Discovery Cove, presumably you will want to make the most of it. As basic as this sounds, one way to do this is to know the operating hours: 7:15 a.m. to 5:30 a.m. This is not the day to sleep in! Check-in begins at 7:15 a.m., breakfast service starts at 8 a.m. and the waterways open at 9 a.m. You can take your time exiting the park, however. Guests can swim right up until 5:30 p.m. and still be able to shower, shop at the gift shops and purchase photos. As one team member told me, "We stay open until the last guest leaves." My daughter and I were walking to our car about 6:45 p.m. and never felt rushed. (During colder periods, the park only is open Friday through Monday.)

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What's included

Discovery Cove is an all-inclusive experience. Every admission comes with an all-you-care-to-eat breakfast, lunch, snacks, drinks and alcohol for those 21 and older. The meals include hot and cold entrees, as well as healthy and gluten-free options. Breakfast is served from 8 to 10:30 a.m., and lunch is 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. You may go through the serving line as many times as you would like during those times. Snacks and drinks are served at the Beach and Island Bars from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. I think my daughter stopped every time we passed a bar for one of the frozen drinks and either a salted pretzel or warm chocolate-chip cookies. It's fun to sit in the water seats (pictured) across from one of the bars, too.

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In addition to food and beverages, your admission includes complimentary parking, the use of a wetsuit (short and long styles are available) and life vests, a locker for the day, samples of sunscreen that is safe for the dolphins, the use of a mask and snorkel (and you keep the snorkel), unlimited towels, changing facilities with complimentary body wash, shampoo, conditioner and the use of a hair dryer, and bags to take home your wet swim suit. (An aside: Prescription-lens masks are available at Guest Services.)

Plus, Discovery Cove guests are given unlimited admission to SeaWorld Orlando and Aquatica for 14 days after their visit to the day resort.

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Explorers Aviary

So, if you're not eating and drinking or swimming with the dolphins, what can you do at Discovery Cove? My daughter especially loved hand-feeding the birds in the aviary. Team members provide cups of food, and guests can wander through three outdoor areas to entice the friendly birds to perch on the cups. The not-so-shy feathered friends rest on people's arms and even their heads. My daughter thought this was hilarious! We did the feedings twice and found that the birds seemed to approach my daughter more in the morning than the afternoon, perhaps because they were not yet full. There are not set times for feedings; guests may enter the aviary any time between 9 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. There is a hand-washing station at the exit.

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Wind-away River

The Wind-away River is my favorite non-dolphin attraction at Discovery Cove. It's essentially a slow lazy river, but one that doesn't really feel like a man-made attraction. The foliage on the banks is thick and lush, so you can't see the rest of the park, for the most part. Swimmers enter the river through a cave that features waterfalls. At the beginning, you can pick up a "noodle" to use as a float, which I would recommend if you don't have a life vest on and don't want to swim the whole route. There are many spots that are too deep to stand. Also, there are a lot more lifeguards stationed along this lazy river than I have seen at other water parks. See Wind-away River for yourself in this video I shot:

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Freshwater Oasis

In the Freshwater Oasis, swimmers can see otters and marmoset interactions up close as they float or wade by their habitats. The marmosets are located behind a moat, and a team member talks abut the creatures and answers questions. The otters are behind a glass tank, and guests can look through their masks and snorkels under the water or view them above the water's surface. The Freshwater Oasis forms a smaller circle than Wind-away River.

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The Grand Reef

The Grand Reef, which opened in 2011, is the newest addition to Discovery Cove. It covers 2.5 acres where about 125 species of marine life live. The reef is open to swimming and snorkeling, and guests seem to be most impressed by being able to be so close to stingrays whose barbs have been trimmed. The rays we saw were gentle giants, though their quick movement and size startled a few children, including my daughter. The rays allowed guests to touch them, and we even saw some of the babies in a special pen pop up as if seeking out a hand. Snorkelers also can see sharks, which are swimming behind a glass wall.

The Grand Reef also is the location for the Seaventure underwater tour. Guests wear dive helmets so they can walk along the reef floor to see and even touch the marine life. The adventure ends with schools of fish feeding around the divers. The program is about an hour long including orientation; the time underwater is about 25 minutes. Groups are capped at eight people per excursion, and the experience costs an additional $59 per person.

Upgrades

Discovery Cove offers several upgrades to enhance your day. My daughter and I were invited to enjoy one of them, a cabana, on our most recent visit. The cabanas are tucked into the landscaping around the waterways and are very private. Ours opened out onto the Grand Reef. It included a table and four chairs, two chaise lounges, a refrigerator, locker, sand toys, towels and the services of an attendant. Cabanas are priced at $199 for six people for the day and can be reserved up to three weeks before your arrival. It was such a treat for us to experience a cabana, but we didn't have as much time as some families to enjoy it. We wanted to experience all the water aspects of the park and didn't spend much time lounging. I can see cabanas being a good investment for groups that have folks that need shade or aren't interested in being in the water the entire day.

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Other upgrades are the Trainer for a Day program, which is open to ages 6 and older, and special occasion packages that are described at DiscoveryCove.com. (Children ages 6 to 12 must be accompanied by a paid adult participating in the trainer program.)

Most people, including myself, would consider Discovery Cove an expensive experience, but perhaps if you factor in everything that is included and compare that total to what you would spend at another local theme park, it would be more comparable. Either way, Discovery Cove excels in offering unique experiences and animal interactions in an uncrowded tropical setting.

DISCLAIMER: My first visit to Discovery Cove was at my own expense, and I was a media guest for my second visit. This did not affect my review. My opinions are my own.



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February 10, 2015

Swim with dolphins at SeaWorld's Discovery Cove

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Discovery Cove is an all-inclusive theme park in Orlando that is part of SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment. As far as local theme parks go, it's relatively new, having opened in 2000. (By comparison, SeaWorld is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.) In its short history, though, Discovery Cove has become synonymous with dolphins, and its layout literally is built around guest interactions with dolphins.

Certainly Florida offers many opportunities for visitors to get up close with bottlenose dolphins, but what sets Discovery Cove apart is its dolphin swim. Other locations allow guests to get in the water to pet and feed dolphins, but Discovery Cove makes it possible for guests to hold onto a dolphin's dorsal and pectoral fins and "swim" through the water. For my elementary-school-age daughter, this was a dream come true.

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Here's how it works. When guests check in at Discovery Cove in the morning, they are assigned times and locations for their dolphin interactions, which take place in one of the three pods of Dolphin Lagoon in the center of the park. A few minutes before that time, they are asked to go to the corresponding cabanas for the Sand Dollar, Seahorse and Starfish pods. There they fill out waivers and see a short video presentation about dolphins. A trainer also goes over what happens in the lagoon and answers any questions.

Once that 15-minute segment is completed, the small group of guests heads to the lagoon. Our group had nine participants, two trainers, a photographer and videographer. Talk about feeling special!

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Our trainer talked with us about how and where to touch dolphins before we were introduced to Thelma, an older bottlenose dolphin who is one of the matriarchs at Discovery Cove. Then she appeared and we were able to pet her multiple times, feed her a fish (if we wanted to), and give her some simple hand signals and see her respond. Throughout the interaction, our knowledgeable trainers shared a lot of information about the mammals.

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Then, it was time for the highlight of our 30 minutes with Thelma - the actual swim. Most people chose the deep-water swim, which required us to swim a short distance and tread water for a few seconds next to one of the trainers. When Thelma appeared, the trainer reminded each of us where to put our hands and then we were off! Thelma towed each of us back to where we could stand in the lagoon. She did all the work on the gentle ride. (Participants just hold on; they don't actually have to swim.) If the deep-water swim not something you would like to do, the dolphins will do the same tow in the shallow water so you never have to tread water. Honestly, though, the treading water does not last long at all.

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Throughout the interaction, we posed for photos with Thelma. We each were shown how to "kiss" her for the photographer. Plus Thelma posed (tail up, mouth open in a "smile") for family and individual shots. In addition, the photographer captured stills from each person's swim. And the videographer recorded the entire session. All the images and video are available to purchase as part of a photo package or as a la carte products. Be aware that participants are not allowed to take personal cameras in the water, but other members of your party are welcome to capture images from the shore.

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Things to know before your dolphin swim:

** To participate in the dolphin swim, you must be at least 6 years old. Children ages 6 to 12 must be accompanied by a paying adult who also is participating in the dolphin experience.
** Do not worry about whether the dolphin will be able to pull you. We were told Thelma weighs 600 pounds and can pull more than twice her weight.
** Guests are asked to wear wetsuits, which are complimentary and come in enough sizes to fit everyone.
** Jewelry is restricted to what trainers are permitted to wear: A tight-fitting watch and wedding and engagement rings. Guests are asked to remove earrings, bracelets, necklaces, etc. In my opinion, it's better to just leave those at home, but if you forget, you can always stash them in your complimentary locker.
** You also may wear a hat, glasses or sunglasses. This was of particular concern to me because everyone in my family needs glasses for more than just reading. Know that your head does not go under water at any time during the dolphin interaction - unless you choose to put it there! I wore my prescription sunglasses the entire time and was fine. My daughter chose to wear her glasses out into the water so she could see the trainer during the interaction, but took them off during the swim and photos.
** Dolphin swim times are booked on a first-come, first-served basis. Check-in begins at 7:15 a.m. and the park opens at 8 a.m. so get there early if you'd like your dolphin experience to be early in the day.

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As amazing as the dolphin swim is, that's only a small part of your day at Discovery Cove. My next blog will bring you details about everything else you can do there!

DISCLAIMER: My first visit to Discovery Cove was at my own expense, and I was a media guest for my second visit. This did not affect my review. My opinions are my own.



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January 27, 2015

SeaWorld Orlando invites visitors to learn about conservation at Wild Days events

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Wild Days at SeaWorld Orlando kicked off this past weekend with two days dedicated to penguins, and I was invited to join the fun and informative experience.

Wild Days are three themed weekends designed to showcase the park's conservation efforts and inspire guests to get involved in protecting and preserving the Earth's wild animal population. Included with regular admission are interactive shows, the opportunity to meet leaders in the world of animal rescue and rehabilitation, and up-close encounters with animals.

During Penguin Lovers Weekend, SeaWorld Animal Ambassador Julia Scardina hosted several shows featuring penguins and other wildlife. Scardina has worked at SeaWorld for more than 30 years, beginning as a trainer with sea lions and otters. In her current role as an animal ambassador, she has traveled to all the continents, including Antarctica, which is home to the greatest number of penguins in the world.

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"In the wild, it's a much harder life," Scardina said. "It's a very fine line between life and death for those animals, and I really saw that when I was out there."

"Penguins are having a hard time all over the world. Out of those 18 species that I talked about earlier, 13 of them are in decline," Scardina said. "And the declines are happening for a variety of reasons. They're happening because there are oil spills - and sometimes it's just oil contamination - like off the coast of South America with the Magellanic penguins. There is an estimated 40,000 that don't make it every year because they're covered in oil. There's also fishing that happens. If the fishermen are out there, they're competing with the penguins for food. If fishing is happening, the penguins have to go way farther to feed their chicks."

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But that's where SeaWorld makes a difference, she explained.

"There are so many people who love animals. Almost everybody considers themselves an animal lover. But I really feel like there is so much more that animals need from us than just loving them. They need us to know about them. They need us to be experts about not only their species but also about the Earth and how we can live together on it. " And that's where I think that SeaWorld really has the ability because of the fact that we've got people who not only love animals but have an expertise in caring for them and in understanding the bigger picture so that we can not only care at the highest level for the animals that we have here but also help animals out in the wild."

Scardina didn't shy away from addressing SeaWord's critics, either.

"There are a lot of people who are very critical of SeaWorld right now -- and I'm sure they're animal lovers, as well -- but when it comes to a rescue that needs to happen, you don't pick up the phone and call an animal lover. You pick up the phone and call an expert that can go there and save that animal's life. And that's what we're able to do at SeaWorld."

You can hear more of what Scardina had to say - plus see the adorable penguins and even a baby bird -- during one of the shows in the video below.

Wild Days continue next weekend with Generation Nature Live, which features appearances by Bindi Irwin on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1. Irwin, daughter of the late "Crocodile Hunter" Steven Irwin, is the SeaWorld Kids youth ambassador. The weekend focuses on how kids can get involved in conservation.

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"Kids really are aware because they love animals and nature, but I think in some cases, they're not really getting their hands dirty and they don't quite know what to do with that passion," Scardina said. "Generation Nature gives ideas so kids can go out and physically make a difference."

In addition to the interactive shows with Irwin, the weekend includes a block party with a high-energy DJ at the SEA Garden, a whimsical storyteller, animal encounters, and special character appearances.

Guests also can dine on Jan. 31 at the Wild Days Picnic, which is an all-you-care-to-eat barbecue buffet with music and entertainment, such as animal interactions and character appearances. The menu includes chicken, hot dogs, hamburgers, cole slaw, potato salad, baked beans, corn on the cob, homemade apple crisp, sweet tea and one drink coupon good for bottled Coca-Cola beverages or Dasani bottled water. Tickets are $19 per adult and $9 per child ages 3 to 9. Beer and wine will be available for an additional cost.

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The final event in the Wild Days series - Jack Hanna Weekend - takes place Feb. 7 and 8. In addition to Hanna's shows that are open to all guests, visitors can choose a more intimate gathering with the TV personality and conservationist at a breakfast or a dinner. Both meals include a meet-and-greet with Hanna, a family photo and reserved seating for one of Hanna's shows. Breakfast costs $49 for adults and $39 for children ages 3 to 9. Dinner is $59 and $49, respectively.

SeaWorld's goal of increasing conservation efforts among everyday people may be a lofty one. However, it begins with education and awareness, which is what the theme park aims to impart with its annual Wild Days event.

"There are a lot of things that we can do to help animals survive," Scardina said. "Some of those things have to do with being aware that we have an impact on wildlife and it takes a bit of sacrifice on our part. " There are a billion people on the planet. If we each sacrificed a little more, we'd leave them a bit more. If we do pay attention, we can make that difference."

DISCLAIMER: I was a guest of SeaWorld Orlando for the first day of Wild Days. This did not affect my story; my opinions are my own.



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December 9, 2014

A touring plan for SeaWorld Orlando's Christmas Celebration

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SeaWorld Orlando offers so many attractions for the holidays that you easily could spend the better part of a day focusing on just the Christmas activities. So, in that spirit, here is touring plan to map out just how to do that.

My plan has an arrival time of 12:30 p.m., and I am assuming you have already eaten lunch. If you want to eat on property, arrive sooner. Also, my plan is for about 9 hours in the park. If your party is up for a longer day, arrive at park opening to experience some of the other attractions.

Here we go!

12:30 p.m.: Enter SeaWorld Orlando and go straight to the Polar Express, which is an overlay at the Wild Arctic attraction. This experience typically has long lines during the holidays, so be prepared. The Singing Conductors (seen below) perform regularly in front of the queue to keep crowds entertained. Polar Express starts with a short film, and then visitors enter a simulator for the train ride to the North Pole.

Upon arrival, they will see the Beluga whales and, around the bend, Santa Claus dressed just as he is in the popular movie. There may be a short line to meet him, so I'm allowing extra time at this attraction. There also is a beautiful Christmas tree in this area that is a great backdrop for family photos.

Moving on, you can purchase the hot chocolate made popular in the movie and see the walruses before exiting the attraction.

2:45-3 p.m.: Head to Seaport Theater to grab a seat for Elmo's Christmas Wish. This is a must-see for families with little ones. Although my own children are well past the age at which they enjoy Elmo, when they were into the red muppet, they could not get enough of him. The first show starts at 3:15 p.m.

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4:30 to 5 p.m.: Time to get in line for the 5:30 p.m. 'O Wondrous Night' performance. This is SeaWorld Orlando's most popular Christmas production, so you may want to check on the queue even sooner if you want to see a particular show. 'O Wondrous Night' is a retelling of Jesus' birth that includes gospel-style singing and dancing, puppeteers and a live Nativity. The finale with three large camels truly is a sight to behold.

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6 or 6:35 p.m.: Walk to any spot with a view of Bay Harbor and enjoy the short Sea of Trees show during which the lights on the Christmas trees in the water "dance" to music. If you view the trees from the shops at The Waterfront at 6:35 p.m., you can experience "snow flurries" afterward at that location.

6 to 7 p.m.: Stroll through the Christmas Market, the pathway that runs from the dolphin nursery to Bayside Stadium. This area is jam-packed with fun holiday offerings. See large-scale trains travel through an elaborate display; warm up by a fire pit; listen to roaming carolers; take holiday-themed photos; try your hand at games of chance; shop at the toy kiosks; and sample holiday food and beverages, including hot toddies for the adults.

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7 to 7:15 p.m.: Start making your way to Shamu Stadium for the night's only performance of Shamu Christmas Miracles at 7:45 p.m. Although the killer whales make an appearance at 7:45 p.m., there is an amazing pre-show by a solo saxophonist that you won't want to miss. The orca show itself is worth seeing, combining the animal's feats with an engaging holiday story.


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8:15 p.m.: Don't delay after the Shamu show - make your way straight to Bayside Stadium for the best show of the night, Winter Wonderland on Ice, which begins at 8:30 p.m. There is a pre-show here, too, but you likely will miss it if you go to Shamu Christmas Miracles. The main production, which features ice skating to traditional Christmas songs, is my family's favorite holiday experience at SeaWorld Orlando. It's such a feast for the senses that you won't want to look away. Stay seated after the finale for Holiday Reflections, a fountains and fireworks show.

Please be sure to check a daily schedule sheet when you arrive at SeaWorld Orlando because show times are subject to change. Remaining dates for SeaWorld's Christmas Celebration are Dec. 12-14 and Dec. 19-31.

DISCLAIMER: I was a guest of SeaWorld Orlando to experience its Christmas Celebration. This did not influence my story, and my opinions are my own.

Related links:
Santa's Fireside Feast: http://land.allears.net/blogs/kristin-ford/2012/11/santas_fireside_feast_begins_w.html



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November 27, 2014

SeaWorld Orlando announces 'Blue Friday' deals and holiday savings

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It's Thanksgiving -- are you ready to hit the stores? If you're still in that turkey coma or just don't want to be pulled away from all the pigskin action, there are some great theme-park deals to be purchased from the comfort of your own home. Of course, not having to fight the crowds is a gift in itself!

SeaWorld Orlando has dubbed the day "Blue Friday" and is offering quite a few deals to save you some green. Beginning at 12:01 a.m. Friday, you can purchase these Buy One, Get One Free offers for admission to the theme park and its water park, Aquatica:

** BOGO SeaWorld Orlando 1-Year Annual Pass; a savings of $156

** BOGO SeaWorld/Aquatica Orlando 1-Year Annual Pass; a savings of $180

** BOGO Full-Paid, Any-Day SeaWorld Orlando Ticket; a savings of $75

** BOGO Aquatica Orlando Single-Day Ticket; a savings of $19

** BOGO SeaWorld Orlando/Aquatica Orlando Combo Ticket; a savings of $89

Visitors also can receive significant savings on offers for these experiences in the park:

** BOGO SeaWorld Orlando Quick Queue Unlimited; a savings of $19

** Buy one Adult Santa's Fireside Feast, get one Child Santa's Fireside Feast free; a savings of $19

** BOGO Dolphins Up-close Tour; a savings of $59

** BOGO Sea Lion and Otter Tour; a savings of $39

** BOGO Wild Arctic Up-Close Tour; a savings of $59

My family and I have experienced the Dolphins Up-close tour and highly recommend it. If you're a regular reader of my blog, you know that my 10-year-old daughter is in love with dolphins, and this experience was perfect for her with two feeding opportunities and even a training session. I wrote about our tour here. If you have a dolphin-lover in your family, this deal offers significant savings.

One of the other deals is for Santa's Fireside Feast, and we have enjoyed that as well. My son and I attended the seasonal event at the Seafire Inn Restaurant a couple years ago. It's a great way to meet Santa and Mrs. Claus without a long line and to feast on a traditional holiday meal. One child can attend for free with each paid adult.

To take advantage of the Blue Friday deals, guests must register to receive SeaWorld Orlando's e-mail updates or already be subscribed at http://seaworldparks.com/en/seaworld-orlando/ Fans can subscribe any time between now and Dec. 1 to participate. The deals are available through 11:59 p.m. EST on Monday, Dec 1.

In addition, SeaWorld Orlando is offering free admission to the theme park for each child with a paid adult for the holidays. That deal can be purchased and redeemed through Dec. 31.

SeaWorld's 2015 FunCard is on sale now and it's valid for the remainder of 2014 and all of next year -- with no blackout dates. So, adults pay $95 plus tax and kids ages 3 to 9 pay $90 plus tax for the holidays and an entire year of general admission.

Finally, guests who visit SeaWorld on select days through Dec. 31 also can experience SeaWorld's Christmas Celebration for the price of regular admission. This is a wonderful value, especially when you consider that other area theme parks require separate tickets for holiday events.



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October 21, 2014

Top 5 reasons to visit SeaWorld Orlando's Aquatica in the fall

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If you've never been to SeaWorld Orlando's water park, Aquatica, fall is the perfect time for checking it out. Many families with school-age children have fall breaks this month, and Aquatica could be a great way to spend some of that vacation time. My family and I have visited the water park at different times of the year, and we especially like the fall. Here are our Top 5 reasons why:

1. Unlike some of the other Central Florida water parks, SeaWorld's Aquatica offers several price breaks on admission right now. If you book your ticket online in advance and commit to a specific day, you will save at least half off regular admission. Weekday Splash and Save tickets are $19 and weekend tickets are $24. Want to enjoy the water park for the remainder of the calendar year? Pay just $37 for unlimited admission per person in 2014. (Regular admission is about $50 per day for adults.) In addition, Florida residents visiting SeaWorld's Discovery Cove receive unlimited admission to Aquatica through Jan. 31.

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2. The weather in Orlando is still warm enough for a day of hanging out in swimsuits. Temperatures this week will be in the 80s, and that doesn't leave room for shivering. In fact, when my children and I visited Aquatica on Sunday, the pavement still was hot enough for us to want to wear our flip-flops. It's also warm enough to crave an Icee from one of the most expansive selections we've ever seen near one of the kids' sections. Choose from Blue Raspberry, White Cherry, Coca-Cola, Orange, Watermelon, Lemonade, Banana, Strawberry, Kiwi Strawberry and Pina Colada. The kiosk even suggests ways to mix the flavors to create unique flavors for the Outback of Aquatica: Hooroo Runner, Outback Cherry Cooler, Tassie Lemon Twist and Walhalla Blast.

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3. As with other Orlando theme parks, crowds tend to be less severe at Aquatica in the Fall when most children are in school. The queue for Aquatica's newest thrill ride, Ihu's Breakaway Falls, does not extend from the eight-story platform to the ground. You get more for your money when you're able to experience more of the water park's signature attractions, and that should appeal to everyone, right?

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4. From tame to thrilling, there is enough variety in the water attractions at Aquatica that everyone can find something to enjoy. Roa's Rapids, Loggerhead Lane and the side-by-side wave pools appeal to all ages. Kata's Kookaburra Cove is designed for young children 48 inches and younger, while older children can hit up the fantastic Walkabout Waters. In addition, there are slides for families to experience together and individually.

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5. Of course, what sets this water park apart from others in the area is its focus on real animals and marine life. Perhaps the most stunning are the Commerson's dolphins that swim in the tank that Dolphin Plunge goes through. Many guests do not realize there are dolphins that look like much smaller versions of orcas. You'll also find other species, such as parrots and tortoises, in locations where visitors can learn about them.

Sure, water parks are a great summertime break from the heat, but living in Florida means our cool-down for fall still can't diminish the cool features at Aquatica. Now is as fun a time as any to make a splash and still soak up the fun in the sun that often lingers well into December.

DISCLAIMER:
Recently, I was a guest of SeaWorld Orlando at Aquatica. This did not affect my review; my opinions are my own.



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August 21, 2014

SeaWorld sponsors family friendly mac-n-cheese competition at Orange County Convention Center

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Need a fun, inexpensive activity in Orlando for your family this weekend?

Look no farther than the Orange County Convention Center, which is the location for the first O-Town MacDown on Saturday. Sponsored by SeaWorld, the competition gives professional chefs and amateur cooks the opportunity to vie for the title of Orlando's Mac-n-Cheese Champion. And attendees will benefit from their efforts with an invitation to sample their creations.

Judges include Emily Ellyn from the Food Network, Orlando Sentinel's food editor Heather McPherson, WDBO's news director Joe Kelley, SeaWorld Executive Chef Hector Colon, Louis Perrotte of the American Academy of Chefs Hall of Fame and Disney Chef Michael Bersell.

In addition to the food component, the event will include live entertainment from The SeaWorld Groove Chefs, who transform kitchen gear and BBQ grills into makeshift musical instruments; magician and comedian Tony Brent from the WonderWorks Outta Control Magic Comedy Dinner Show; acoustic guitarist Islay Rodriguez; The Orlando Improv All-Stars; and The Magic and Mayhem Comedy Magic Show.

Celebrity chefs will host cooking demonstrations, too. Look for Emily Ellyn; Jillian Hopke, the owner of Orlando's Jillycakes and a winner on "Cupcake Wars"; Maira Isabel, executive chef at Disney World Golf Courses; Jody McLeod, culinary operations manager at SeaWorld Orlando; and John Radcliff, culinary director for 4R Restaurant Group.

A kids' fun zone will feature face painting, bounce houses and a macaroni art station, and there will be meet-and-greets from theme-park characters, such as Shamu and Dolly from SeaWorld Orlando. Plus, there will be additional live entertainment designed just for kids. Check out the Mad Scientist Interactive Show; Elevate Live, a group of Central Florida kids ages 5-20 who perform a Top 40 / pop-style singing and dancing show; The Bumbles and The Honey Bees Too, a high-energy educational show for 3- to 8-year-olds; The Literacy Alliance: Scrambled Fairy Tales; and Orlando's Mr. Richard.

Attendance and participation at the O-Town MacDown benefits Give Kids The World Village, a 70-acre, nonprofit resort in Central Florida that provides weeklong, cost-free vacations to children with life-threatening illnesses and their families.

Although the deadline to enter the macaroni-and-cheese cooking competition has passed, tickets to visit the O-Town MacDown still are available. Until 5 p.m. Aug. 22, tickets can be purchased online at a discount. Prices are as follows:

** $10 for adults, which includes all the mac-n-cheese you can eat.

** $5 for kids ages 3-12, which includes all the mac-n-cheese you can eat and the Kids Zone. (Ages 2 and younger are free.)

** $35 for VIP tickets, which includes unlimited mac-n-cheese, premium seating in the VIP area, free O-Town MacDown T-shirt and a free beverage.

Tickets at the door are $15 for adults and $10 for kids. Parking will be discounted to $9 at the convention center.

The event takes place from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Aug. 23 at the Orange County Convention Center, Hall D2 West concourse.




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August 16, 2014

SeaWorld Orlando visitors will be able to interact with killer whales in new ways in the future

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On Friday, SeaWorld Entertainment announced major expansions for its three theme parks in Orlando, San Antonio and San Diego. The multi-million-dollar project will create first-of-its-kind environments for its signature killer whales.

Named the Blue World Project because of its size and scope, the construction will begin in San Diego, which has a target opening date of 2018. Then, Orlando and San Antonio parks will follow. Each new environment will have a total water volume of 10 million gallons, nearly double that of the existing facility, and a surface area of nearly 1.5 acres. The wow factor comes with the views that will be more than 40 feet tall, providing guests with the world's largest underwater viewing experience of orcas. Plus, guests will be able to walk alongside the whales as if they were at the shore.

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And although each SeaWorld park is different, the goal is to have the same features in each killer whale environment, said Terry Prather, president of the Orlando park, at a news conference.

"[The new environment] will support the whales' broad range of behaviors and provide choices that can challenge the whales both physically and mentally. Among other things, it is planned to include a "fast water current" that allows whales to swim against moving water, thus functionally increasing speed and diversity. Innovative features focused on husbandry and animal care will offer SeaWorld's animal health professionals and independent scientists unique access to the whales that can lead to a better understanding and care of the animals both in the parks and in the wild," according to a press release.

SeaWorld is constantly looking for ways to get people closer to its animals and inspire them more, Prather told media. Certainly, inspiring guests to become involved with conservation efforts is what sets SeaWorld apart from other theme parks.

"For 50 years, SeaWorld has transformed how the world views marine life. The unprecedented access to marine mammals that our parks provide has increased our knowledge of the ocean and inspired generations," said Jim Atchison, Chief Executive Officer and President of SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc. "Our new killer whale homes and research initiatives have just as bold a vision: to advance global understanding of these animals, to educate, and to inspire conservation efforts to protect killer whales in the wild."

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Former SeaWorld trainer Mark Simmons told ABC News that the new environments will provide the killer whales with improved mental stimulation, emphasizing that the type of environment is more important than the size of the body of water where they live.

"I think it's an enhancement, an obvious evolution of SeaWorld's mission," Simmons said in an ABC News story.

As part of the Blue World Project, SeaWorld has pledged $10 million in matching funds focused on threats to killer whales in the wild, especially those identified by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration related to the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whale. That includes new projects already funded this year: one that will help to understand the hearing ranges of killer whales and the other that will provide insight into nutritional status and reproduction of the Southern Resident Killer Whale. The matching funds will be in addition to killer whale research conducted by SeaWorld's scientists, which includes nearly 50 studies to date.



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August 12, 2014

What will replace Clyde & Seamore sea lions show at SeaWorld Orlando?

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On Sunday, SeaWorld Orlando's longest-running show, "Clyde & Seamore Take Pirate Island," sailed off into the sunset. After 15 years, the theme park decided it's time for its beloved sea lions, walruses and otters to embark on a new adventure.

"It's bittersweet," said Todd Coffman, assistant curator of animal training. "I love this show, but I'm ready for the chance to do something new and different."

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Coffman spoke with reporters and bloggers on Friday about the pirate-themed production's last performances and gave us a few hints about what we can look forward to when a new show debuts in 2015.

What can you tell us about the new show that is coming to Sea Lion & Otter Theater?

You can expect the same amount of humor and laughs that you get with this current show. At Sea Lion & Otter Theater, the thing that makes us great is that people get a chance to laugh. When they go to see Shamu, there is the wow factor. When they see "Blue Horizons," there is an emotional connection. At Sea Lions, it's all about laughter.

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Are there other successful elements that will translate to the new show?

I think one of the things that makes "Clyde & Seamore Take Pirate Island" so popular is that we have the ability to change our segments to keep it fresh. We can take a lot of things that are happening in the news and in the world and we can make jokes about those and put them into the show. So it's always fresh for the audience. That will happen in the new show, as well. We'll never get away from that. That's the staple of what the sea lions show does. What keeps people coming back is that this is a place for laughs. ". Even when the animals don't do exactly what they're supposed to do and we have to improv, we love that. We have fun with it, and of course, the audience has fun with it. So, all those elements together make this a winning recipe.

SeaWorld is known for its ability to entertain crowds who are waiting in its stadiums for its big shows to begin. Will the new sea lions show have a pre-show, similar to the mime at "Clyde & Seamore Take Pirate Island"?

We're still working on the whole concept -- the scope, the characters -- so it's kind of too early to talk about that, but our plan is to make it every bit as enjoyable as our current show. We're not going to go backwards.

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Will Sea Lion & Otter Theater remain open while the new show is being developed?

No. We're going to tear down this entire set, and we're going to rebuild it with a brand-new themed show. (The construction means that there will not be a Christmas sea lions show for the 2014 season.)

During that time, what will the sea lions be doing?

They still will be in their pools out back, participating in all their usual activities, plus training for the new show. It takes three to five years of training before a sea lion will perform in a show. We have gotten to the point where we train all sea lions to do all the behaviors. We have 12 sea lions in our collection and, discounting our pups who aren't quite there yet, we've got about eight sea lions who can do Clyde or Seamore.

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How do you train the sea lions?

Having a relationship with the animals is vital to training. Not anyone can just go out and start teaching them to do tricks. We build the relationship through a number of ways, including sessions where we just hang out. A target ball, though, is used to teach almost all behaviors. And the sea lions are rewarded with fish, whisker scratches and rubdowns. Sea lions are not just food-motivated animals, they're also motivated by their own curiosity. They love to learn.

What is the most difficult behavior to train?

Some of the harder behaviors that we train are the ones when we have to train them to do nothing. They have to sit there and wait and watch. For me, my favorite is always the dinner segment, where the sea lions steal fish off the plate. It's a very behaviorally crisp segment. The animals are really responsive. If you watch them, they wait for very simple, subtle cues from us and the responses are quick and sharp. That's been one of the hardest things to maintain here. We have a large cast of trainers here -- 17 people -- and multiple people play the same role, so we have to make sure that everyone is doing it exactly the same way.

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While Sea Lions & Otter Theater is closed, where can guests see the sea lions?

Pacific Point Preserve will remain open for feeding and viewing while the new sea lion show is being developed. Guests will continue to be able to see them, hear them bark and feed them. The up-close experience will change slightly, however. The separately priced hourlong tour will focus on an Asian small-clawed otter and trainer rather than the sea lions.



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July 17, 2014

Adopt a cat or dog from a shelter and receive two tickets to SeaWorld or Busch Gardens

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SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment is known for Shamu and thrill rides. And it's also known for its rescue and rehabilitation of thousands of marine animals during the last 50 years.

The company's message of conservation is apparent not only in its theme parks but also with its weekly national television show, "Sea Rescue." Viewers of the show and visitors at the parks learn about the safety and care of orcas, dolphins, sea turtles and more.

But SeaWorld's concern for animals also extends to the furry mammals many of us have as pets. Cats and dogs are the focus of SeaWorld's Happy Tails program, which encourages the adoption of such animals from local shelters. The company promotes the everyday rescues by offering a thank-you gift of complimentary tickets to SeaWorld or Busch Gardens in Tampa.

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For each cat or dog that is adopted from a qualifying shelter, the new owner will receive two free single-day admissions to a SeaWorld park or Busch Gardens. The shelters print the tickets at the time of the adoption, and they are good for any time during the following year.

Participating shelters in Central Florida are the two locations for the SPCA of Central Florida (2727 Conroy Road, Orlando, FL 32839 and 2800 County Home Road, Sanford, FL 32772). Near Florida's Busch Gardens, the Humane Society of Tampa Bay (3607 North Armenia Ave., Tampa, Florida, 33607) is an approved organization. There also are affiliated shelters in Texas, California and Virginia.

Recent "pet parent" Kathy offered this commentary on the SeaWorld website: "My husband and myself recent adopted a 9-month-old golden/ lab mix (I think!). We are in love! She stole our hearts the minute we saw her. Isn't it funny how that works? You just know as you're walking along the rows of little faces, and then your eyes meet, and you just know they're the one. We are so grateful for the service that the SPCA provides. We would never consider bringing anything other than a shelter pet home."

SeaWorld and Busch Gardens have provided homes and a second chance at life for hundreds of abandoned and neglected animals. Considered by many to be untrainable, these adopted animals now steal the stage - and fans' hearts - as stars in the parks' popular shows "Pets Ahoy" in Orlando, "Pets Rule" in San Diego and San Antonio, "Critter Castaways" in Tampa, and "More...Pet Shenanigans" in Williamsburg.

On a related note, if you are traveling with your pet to Orlando, SeaWorld does have kennels where your furry friend can stay while you enjoy the theme park. The air-conditioned kennels are staffed from park opening until half an hour after it closes. Park guests are required to bring pet food, a copy of the pet's shot record and an updated rabies tag. Guests also must return to walk their dogs during the day. The cost is $15 per day with a $5 discount for pass members.



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June 23, 2014

Review: SeaWorld's Shamu's Celebration: Light Up The Night and Generation Nature LIVE

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SeaWorld's Summer Nights kicked off Saturday -- the first official day of summer -- with two new shows. My family and I were invited to the final dress rehearsals on Friday for Shamu's Celebration: Light Up The Night and Genreation Nature LIVE, and I have a lot to share with you about them.

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Let's start with the theme park's new evening orca show, which replaces the popular Shamu Rocks. It's definitely worth the wait for Shamu's Celebration: Light Up The Night, which is the final show of the day and usually starts at 9 p.m. Featuring new, original music, ever-changing lighting and colorful backdrops, the show does indeed feel like a celebration. It even has its own DJ, who guides the evening's entertainment.

"That's really what this show is about -- moving and having a good time," said Kelly Flaherty Clark, curator of animal training at SeaWorld Orlando.

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As with the previous show, Shamu's Celebration showcases its stars performing breathtaking jumps, twists and turns, individually and in groups, under the direction of their trainers on the sidelines. But the whales also perform some new behaviors. Kayla, a 25-year-old whale, loves a challenge, according to Clark, and learned a new sequence of jumps just for Shamu's Celebration. She jumps with her dorsal fin up, then jumps with her belly up, and then returns to fin up on her third pass. Another whale gets quite a few laughs from the audience when it props up both pectoral fins on the slideout and shimmies from one side to the other.

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The slideout also provides trainers with the opportunity for more one-on-one interaction with the whales. During one of the show's slower songs, the trainer pets, kisses and even hugs the animal before signaling the orca to perform a series of up-close behaviors.

Shamu's Celebration delights in the whales' ability to get the audience wet. If you are sitting in the lower sections on either side of the slideout, you WILL get wet. Be sure to heed the multiple warnings if you have unprotected electronic equipment. The whales make multiple passes throughout the show, dousing visitors with powerful flips of their tails.

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The show ends with a bang -- quite literally -- as fireworks appear behind the stadium. Though I still wish SeaWorld offered a separate fireworks show at Bayside Stadium, I did appreciate not having to rush from one show to another to grab seats for the finale.

Shamu's Celebration is sure to be a popular ending to a day at the theme park, so be sure to get there early for a good view. Don't worry about being bored if you have a short wait because there is an entertaining pre-show presentation that gives the audience a chance to revisit music from past decades and enjoy a few laughs as cameras catch audience members caught up in the dancing.

SeaWorld's other new summer show, Generation Nature LIVE, also runs through August 10 and can be seen only on Saturdays in the Nautilus Theater. The show is an extension of SeaWorld's Generation Nature initiative, which aims to empower kids to make a difference with animals and nature. Youth ambassador Bindi Irwin, daughter of famous 'Crocodile Hunter' Steve Irwin, is the face of the campaign and can be seen in video clips at the theme-park show.

Generation Nature LIVE uses a host to introduce the audience to key experts at SeaWorld, including members of the Sea Rescue team and the veterinary staff who share their stories of interacting with the animals. Of course, the stars of the show are the animals that are brought out on stage. During our show, we saw a roseate spoonbill, a pelican and a bald eagle.


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To an adult, the show's message of conservation probably seemed a bit heavy-handed, but maybe that's not what children perceive. And, after all, they are the target audience. I know my own 9-year-old daughter was fascinated, especially by the video story about rescuing dolphins.

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"This is an opportunity to affect the next generation," Clark said. "The power of one is huge."

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Perhaps more memorable, though, is a visit to the SEA Garden outside the theater, where SeaWorld team members will introduce guests to various animals. We had a rare sighting of an Asian river otter, as well as the bald eagle from our show. Miniature ponies and flamingos can be viewed in corrals. An added bonus: Team members pass out collectible cards with information about the animals they are handling.


DISCLAIMER:
I was a guest of SeaWorld Orlando for its Summer Nights preview. This did not affect my story, and my opinions are my own.



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June 10, 2014

New at SeaWorld Orlando: Summer Shamu show and pass member exclusives

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SeaWorld Orlando is getting ready to launch an all-new Shamu show as part of its annual Summer Nights celebration, and the theme park is offering its pass members the opportunity to get a sneak peek and special seating all summer long.

"Shamu's Celebration: Light Up The Night" officially debuts on June 21. Pass members can preview the new show at 8:45 p.m. June 20 at Shamu Stadium by obtaining a wristband earlier in the day near the SEA Garden. Distribution begins at 4 p.m. Each pass member may bring two additional guests to the preview, but each person must have park admission. Pass members also will receive a commemorative gift (while supplies last). Then, through August 10, pass members can make online reservations for special seating.

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SeaWorld describes the new "Shamu's Celebration: Light Up The Night" this way: "[It's] an all-new, high energy show featuring new, original music and production elements, as well as new killer whale behaviors." The new orca presentation also will debut at SeaWorld San Diego and SeaWorld San Antonio.

"Shamu's Celebration: Light Up The Night" replaces the previous summer show, "Shamu Rocks." Based on comments from SeaWorld employees who have attended dress rehearsals of the show, visitors who may think they will miss "Shamu Rocks" won't be disappointed with the new show.

I will be attending the preview of "Shamu's Celebration: Light Up The Night" at Summer Nights and will bring you a full report soon.

SeaWorld Orlando also will introduce another new summer show, "Generation Nature LIVE." It highlights SeaWorld's Animal Ambassadors and animal care experts -- what the theme park calls its "everyday heroes" -- who dedicate their time, passion and commitment to helping wildlife in need.

The theme park launched its Generation Nature initiative, which partners SeaWorld Kids with youth ambassador Bindi Irwin, daughter of famous 'Crocodile Hunter' Steve Irwin. The conservation campaign aims to empower kids to make a difference with animals and nature and share their actions on multi-media platforms. GenN includes a website, digital apps, video blogs, online games and activities that highlight a new animal each month, such as polar bears, tigers, manatees and animals in back-yard habitats. You can read more about it on my earlier blog.

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In addition to the new shows, guests can see Clyde and Seamore in Sea Lions Tonite. My family and I think this is one of the best shows at SeaWorld. Talented sea lions, otters and a walrus parody favorite SeaWorld shows and attractions with a little help from their trainers. The popular show is laugh-out-loud funny, and even includes an Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin joke and a gentle poke at The Mouse, too.

On the Fourth of July, there will be reserved seating at the Lakeside Patio for pass members to view the fireworks. Seating begins two hours before the presentation and is available on a first-come, first-served basis.

SeaWorld Orlando stays open late for Summer Nights. Guests can experience other attractions and roller coasters until 10 p.m.



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May 13, 2014

Try a Florida turtle walk this summer or learn more about it at SeaWorld and Walt Disney World

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This summer, my family is going to experience a unique Florida event, one that both Walt Disney World and SeaWorld support, but it doesn't take place in a theme park.

Loggerhead sea turtle nesting season, which runs approximately May through October, gives Florida residents and visitors an opportunity to learn about the species. The turtles come ashore at night to lay their eggs in holes, or nests, on the beach and then they make their way back to the ocean. Only about 10 of the dozens of eggs laid in each nest will survive to adulthood, a Walt Disney World cast member told me.

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To increase the public's awareness about the plight of sea turtles, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission allow a few trained and approved groups to conduct nighttime turtle walks along certain beaches in Brevard County. The walks take place in June and July, and registration opened this month. The walks fill up quickly because they are so popular, so sign up now if you are interested.

The Sea Turtle Preservation Society is one of the approved groups that conducts turtle walks in Melbourne Beach. They take place every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday night in June and Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday nights in July along with the first Friday and Saturday in August. Children must be at least 6 years old, and a donation of at least $15 per adult and $10 per child (ages 6 to 12) is required to participate.

The Sea Turtle Conservancy also offers guided turtle walks through the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, which includes Vero Beach, on Monday through Friday nights in June and July. In addition to the loggerhead turtles, endangered leatherback sea turtles nest in the Carr Refuge. Children must be at least 7 years old, and a donation of at least $15 per person is required to participate.

For both programs, turtle watchers meet promptly at 8:45 p.m. for a brief interpretive program on threats to sea turtle survival. Afterwards, participants will wait at beach crossover points with their guides while scouts search for a nesting loggerhead. Then, they take off on a beach walk that may be about a mile in soft sand. Turtle watches can last until midnight or later.

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At Disney's Vero Beach Resort, The Sea Turtle Conservancy also will kick off its Tour de Turtles in August. Started in 2008 by the Sea Turtle Conservancy, Tour de Turtles is a fun way to learn about the long migration of sea turtles from their nesting beaches to their foraging grounds. Tracking is done through satellite telemetry, with transmitters sending signals each time a turtle surfaces to breathe. Those who follow along at tourdeturtles.org will be exposed to the science and geography of sea-turtle migration. At the same time, researchers hope to gain more knowledge about the migratory practices of the endangered species because so much still is unknown. (Read more about Tour de Turtles in my previous blog post.)

Can't make it to the Treasure Coast to see the turtles for yourself?

You can learn more about turtle conservation on June 4 at Epcot's The Seas with Nemo & Friends. Walt Disney World celebrates World Oceans Day each year with interactive exhibits inside the pavilion. I wrote about past events here.

Or, if you are visiting SeaWorld Orlando, make sure to go to the Turtle Trek attraction, which is open year round. The tanks in the pre-show area house turtles that SeaWorld has rescued and is rehabilitating. Guests move from the animal habitat into the first 360-degree dome theater, which shows a 3D film about the life of a sea turtle. The movie is from the turtle's point of view and depicts its life -- including the daily dangers -- from birth to adulthood. (You can read more about it here.) The film's message is one of conservation: That everyday heroes can make a difference in nature.

Last week, SeaWorld Orlando's Aquarium Team traveled to Hobe Sound, Fla., to return three loggerhead sea turtles, and then to Sebastian Inlet in Melbourne Beach, Fla., to return a green sea turtle. The green sea turtle was rescued by a University of Central Florida turtle monitoring group and transported to SeaWorld Orlando by the Sea Turtle Preservation Society. So far in 2014, SeaWorld Orlando has rescued 29 sea turtles and returned 13 back to the water.



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May 10, 2014

Take the plunge on Ihu's Breakaway Falls at SeaWorld's Aquatica

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Orlando's tallest, steepest water-slide attraction opened yesterday at SeaWorld's Aquatica. Are you brave enough to give it a try?

My 9-year-old daughter was -- and there were plenty of adults who wouldn't step foot onto Ihu's Breakaway Falls during a media event Thursday! Few theme-park rides frighten my daughter, but this one made her think twice before climbing 126 steps to the 80-foot-tall platform. I believe she mostly was apprehensive about not being able to wear her goggles to see better because she normally wears glasses on dry land. The "thrill" part of the ride didn't paralyze her, as it would some kids.

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After taking in the amazing view of SeaWorld and Aquatica, my daughter stepped into the clear chamber as the rhythmic drumming of a heartbeat beat in the background. When she was ready, she crossed her arms and legs, gave the team member a thumb-up sign, and waited for her countdown to start. Then, the bottom dropped out and she plunged at a rate of 20 to 24 feet per second before splashing into a spiral speed slide. (During normal operation of the attraction, three riders will be in position, one in each breakaway box, and they won't know who will drop first, adding to the anticipation.)

My daughter emerged at the bottom of the water slide all smiles. She was shaking a little from the adrenaline, but she was not upset by the experience. She said she expected it to be a scarier than it was, so she was fine once she had experienced it. Still, this attraction is not for the faint of heart or anyone with ongoing medical conditions.

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My daughter first rode the orange slide, which drops more than three stories and is the longest of the four slides, at 420 feet. Each translucent tube slide offers riders a different experience. The green slide has the shortest drop, but it's still a 28-foot fall. And the blue slide is the steepest of the trio that start with breakaway boxes.

Next, my daughter tried the purple slide, which does not have a breakaway box. It does start from the same platform, though, and it has the steepest incline. She said she liked that slide best and she rode it multiple times. Neither slide, however, caused the dreaded wedgie, she was happy to report.

See a first-person point-of-view video of Ihu's Breakaway Falls:

Although it may seem like hours for those who are frightened, the ride really only lasts about 7 seconds total, I was told. Most of us can talk ourselves through that, right?

What to know before you go:

** Riders must be at least 48 inches tall to experience Ihu's Breakaway Falls. The maximum weight allowed is 300 pounds.

** Nothing can be carried on this ride, including cameras.

** Riders cannot wear items that may come loose, such as goggles or jewelry.

For the opening weekend, Aquatica is testing a fun green-screen photo opportunity. Visitors can pose individually or with their friends and family, and their image will be placed in the promotional artwork for the attraction. The cost is $15 per image. That price buys you a 6 x 8 print, and the image also is sent via email or text to the recipient. Additional images for the same person are $5. The Ihu's Breakaway Falls photo booth is the first of its kind at the water park, which doesn't have professional photographers stationed throughout the park.

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On the day before the official opening of Ihu's Breakaway Falls, there was a small selection of branded merchandise.

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To take a look at all the other attractions that Aquatica has to offer families, please see my previous post.

One-day admission to Aquatica is $46 for adults and $41 for ages 3 to 9. The Splash and Save ticket, which must be purchased in advance online and is good through May 31, is $28 per person.



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March 15, 2014

SeaWorld Orlando educates and entertains kids with Just For Kids festival and Generation Nature initiative

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SeaWorld Orlando is focusing on kids this month -- educating and entertaining them at its theme park and inspiring them with a new conservation initiative.

Beginning March 22, SeaWorld Orlando kicks off its Just For Kids festival. On Saturdays through April 12, kids can celebrate the company's 50th anniversary with activities just for them. The new Rockin' Rockhopper Party begins each day at 11 a.m. with a family friendly DJ outside Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin. The party also includes live penguin appearances, snow moments, snacks, fun, games, face painting and caricatures.

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On Just for Kids dates, younger guests can participate in an ocean adventure, learning about marine life and at the same time collecting a stamp and a limited edition Explorer's Card at each of four locations throughout the park. Kids who collect all four receive a free Junior Animal Ambassador Medallion. Tables are set up from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. at Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin, SEA Garden, outside Shark Encounter and near Shamu Stadium. The new SEA Garden is an area where young guests can experience animal encounters during the festival.

Then end the night with Shamu and other characters at the Shamu Dance Party at the Village Square located at the front of the park. The party begins one hour prior to park closing with a stilt walker emcee who fills the square with music that the whole family can dance to, including popular line dancing songs. The Shamu Dance Party continues until 30 minutes after park closing.

This year's Just For Kids festival is a little different from the past two years and doesn't feature concerts by kid-centric artists or discounted animal up-close tours. It does run concurrently with SeaWorld's 18-month-long 50th anniversary celebration, which begins March 21.

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During the anniversary celebration, guests of all ages may be tapped by the Surprise Squad to receive prizes and experiences in the park. Plus, there are more animal encounters than ever, such as the flamingo parade. I saw these birds head out from the back-stage area a couple months ago, and it was a really funny sight to see them strutting along casually with their trainers. Be on the lookout, too, for the new mobile bubble lab vehicle and a Splash Dance.

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SeaWorld also hopes to spread its message of conservation through its Generation Nature initiative, which partners SeaWorld Kids with youth ambassador Bindi Irwin, daughter of famous 'Crocodile Hunter' Steve Irwin. The campaign aims to empower kids to make a difference with animals and nature and share their actions on multi-media platforms. GenN includes a website, digital apps, video blogs, online games and activities that highlight a new animal each month, such as polar bears, tigers, manatees and animals in back-yard habitats.

In GenN's inaugural month of March, sea turtles take center stage with a calendar that includes a video blog from Bindi about the obstacles these animals face. Because many sea turtles are affected by pollution, and nearly all waterways throughout the world are connected, March's GenN Conservation Challenge is to help "clean your world."  Families are asked to send in pictures of the oddest item they find during their clean-up, and some of the photos will be showcased online at the end of the month.

Parents also can download a fun and educational app about each month's animal. In March, the GenN app is "Ocean Tales: Turtles, Sharks and Dolphins" and features books, games, puzzles, pictures and videos. The app is available for download on iTunes.



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February 24, 2014

SeaWorld Orlando's water park Aquatica to open new attraction Ihu's Breakaway Falls on May 9

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As of May 9, thrill-seekers will have a new attraction to conquer in Orlando. That's when SeaWorld's Aquatica debuts Ihu's Breakaway Falls, the tallest, steepest and only multi-drop tower slide of its kind in the southern United States.

During a recent hard-hat tour of the construction site, I spoke with Bryan Nadeau, the vice president of Aquatica, about the new attraction.

"When the sun is hitting it and these guests are falling, at 20 feet per second -- you're going to be able to see these guys flying through these translucent tubes all the way around the structure," he said.

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Nadeau answered many questions that we expect AllEars.Net readers and water park enthusiasts to ask:

Just how high is high?

The platform where riders will start the body slides is about 80 feet from the ground. Ihu's Breakaway Falls will be the tallest structure at Aquatica at 105 feet overall.

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What am I getting myself into?

Riders step into one of three clear "breakaway boxes" that face each other. The see-through bottom drops out and guests plummet in a free fall that transitions into an exciting body slide.

Will I have any control over when I start my ride?

You will be asked to give the ride operator a thumbs up when you're ready to go. After that, you have to wait and see what happens. The ride operator can set the boxes to drop randomly or all together. Each guest will hear a countdown, but he or she will not know if other guests are hearing it at the same time.

Just how fast will I be going?

Riders will drop at about 20 feet per second. The free fall ranges from 27 feet to 40 feet on the three slides that are positioned at an 80-degree angle.

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What happens after the free fall?

Riders transition from a vertical position to a horizontal one and circle the structure in four loops at a speed of 16 miles per hour. The entire ride lasts 20 to 30 seconds.

Should I ride Ihu's Breakaway Falls more than once?

That's up to you, of course, but if you do, you're likely to have a slightly different experience each time. That's because each of the four tubes -- purple, green, blue and orange -- takes a unique path.

Can I enjoy this attraction without experiencing the free fall?

Yes, a fourth slide is an open tube that starts from the same platform and does not have a breakaway box.

Can young kids who are brave enough ride Ihu's Breakaway Falls?

Like the Dolphin Plunge and Omaka Rocka water slides, there is a 48-inch minimum-height requirement.

How are animals incorporated in the ride?

Although guests zooming through this ride won't be seeing any animals -- there's no time! -- Aquatica team members will be offering animal interactions near the attraction. Ihu, the water park's colorful gecko, will be represented by a real gecko.

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Where is this attraction located?

Ihu's Breakaway Falls is being built where the cabanas were situated adjacent to the wave pool. The cabanas are being moved to the island in the center of Roa's Rapids and are expected to open prior to Ihu's Breakaway Falls.

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How can I follow the progress of construction on Ihu's Breakaway Falls?

By reading AllEars.Net, of course! Aquatica also has set up a new Facebook page just for this attraction.



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January 21, 2014

Shamu Up Close attraction debuts at SeaWorld Orlando, giving visitors an inside look at orcas' training and care

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Most tourists who visit SeaWorld Orlando probably think of it primarily as a world-class theme park that offers an entertaining escape. But what makes the park's parent company unique is that it also focuses on educating the public about the care and conservation of marine animals while providing the fun Orlando's visitors have come to expect. During the new Wild Days event, SeaWorld has emphasized its message of nurturing nature, and now the park is giving visitors a behind-the-scenes look at how it cares for its orcas.

The new Shamu Up Close attraction opened on Jan. 6 in one of the "backstage" pools At Shamu Stadium. If you've been to Dine With Shamu, you're familiar with this location, which affords guests underwater views of the tank as well as viewing at the surface level.

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Entering the attraction is done in the opposite way you would go to the meal location. Head up to Shamu Stadium and join the well-marked queue. Although the line might appear long, it does move quickly. Team members limit the number of guests allowed in the walk-through attraction so it doesn't become too crowded and difficult to see the orcas.

Once inside, you'll be able to walk up to the glass that separates guests from the tanks or sit on benches that have replaced the dinner tables. The orcas are swimming freely, and we watched a pair who floated on their backs and appeared to be sunning themselves for quite a while. Trainers walk next to the partition and are happy to answer questions from visitors.

About once an hour, trainers will conduct a training session with the killer whales. The times are not published, so be sure to ask a team member when you enter the Shamu Up Close area. On the day we visited, the sessions began at 45 minutes past the hour, but trainers were quick to say that times change from day to day.

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As you can see in this video, we watched trainers reinforce desired behaviors using targets, or the long poles with foam balls on the ends. Marine animals learn to obey hand signals with positive reinforcement (such as a whistle and food), but when the animals are farther away, a hand signal alone may not work. So, trainers use the poles as an extension of their arms. (This same concept is used to train dolphins, as well.)

In addition to teaching behaviors for shows, trainers teach the orcas to participate in their own health care. Visitors can see another backstage pool beyond the Shamu Up Close pool where the whales are performing slide-outs, which is just what it sounds like -- the mammals sliding out of the deep pool onto a shallow bed. Once there, they can be weighed and checked by veterinarians. This maneuver also is performed during the One Ocean show by single orcas and by multiple whales together. I'm not sure guests can fully appreciate how large these animals are until they see them from nose to tail out of the water. It's truly amazing.

Shamu Up Close is scheduled to last through the week of April 7, when Shamu Stadium reopens. The One Ocean show is on hiatus while the main performance tank at Shamu Stadium is undergoing routine maintenance.

Seeing such majestic animals as the orca whales, or the playful dolphins my daughter loves, at SeaWorld inspires guests of all ages to learn more about them and even take action to help with their conservation. These up-close encounters cement that desire to become involved with the world around us, and that's worth the wait in line.



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January 14, 2014

SeaWorld's Wild Days take visitors behind the scenes of animal care

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SeaWorld Orlando has launched a new event this month called Wild Days that is aimed at spreading the company's message of conservation while giving visitors a look at what goes on behind the scenes when team members care for the animals.

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At the first Wild Day, my daughter and I were invited to take a tour to see where many of the park's rescue and rehabilitation efforts take place. Located behind closed gates near the Key West dolphin area of the park is the hub of much of SeaWorld's animal-care efforts. Once inside, my daughter recognized the "Sea Rescue" team's truck and speedboat, which can be seen on the weekly television show. Interestingly, the propeller on the boat Dundee is located in the center of the craft to protect the manatees they are rescuing or releasing.

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Turtle rehabilitation pools at SeaWorld Orlando

We arrived at the shallow turtle pools, where we were introduced to Little Hercules and Cobbler. These two sea turtles are blind and not able to be released into the wild, so SeaWorld has been charged with their care. While doing so, SeaWorld has been able to broaden its knowledge about turtles' eyesight, and the turtles have also served as blood donors for other turtles' surgeries, a staff educator told our group. Their neighbor, Pokey, is a rare Kemp's Ridley sea turtle who suffers from severe arthritis.

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John Peterson stands in front of 2 manatee rehabilitation pools.

Next, we moved to the manatee pools -- two are located in the "backstage" area and one is actually in the tank visitors can peer into at the Turtle Trek attraction. John Peterson, supervisor of animal care and a SeaWorld employee for more than 20 years, talked about the rescue process.

"We're committed to the rescue, rehabilitation and return of our animals -- as quickly as we can," he said. Peterson, who can be seen on "Sea Rescue," explained that it is state and federal agencies, not rehabilitation facilities like SeaWorld, that determine if and when a rescued animal will be released.

"We will release wherever they tell us -- east coast, west coast, north, south, cold water, warm water," he said. "Some people wonder why you would release in cold water. We'll release [manatees] in the warm springs when the head count is high from all the manatees gathered there. Then, instead of being by themselves, they're with all these other animals and they will move back out and hopefully, if all works right like it normally does for us, we won't have to see them again."

When animals leave SeaWorld's care, they are tagged for identification and follow-up care as needed, Peterson said. That system -- plus a knowledgable ranger at Blue Springs -- enabled SeaWorld to learn about one of its very successful rescues. A baby manatee that was hand-fed and required round-the-clock care at SeaWorld was found to have assimilated to life in the wild and even produced an offspring.

SeaWorld guests can take the Behind-The-Scenes Tour and see these two areas, plus touch a shark, explore a hidden polar bear den and interact with a penguin. The normal price for the tour is $29 for adults and $9 for children ages 3 to 9, but during the month of January, it is offered as a buy-one, get-one-free experience.

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As we were leaving the rehabilitation area of the park, we all had to laugh when a group of flamingos came strutting through the parking lot with two trainers in tow. The birds were on their way out for a stroll through the park. We followed the flamingos out into the park and made our way to the Dolphin Theater to see the "Blue Horizons" show. This is a must-do for our family when we visit SeaWorld.

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If you arrive a few minutes before the show, you will get to see four pilot whales and their trainers work on some basic commands in the pool. Rescued from strandings, these four are the first pilot whales at the Orlando park, though San Diego does have some in its care.

"When we working with them in quarantine, we were still hoping they'd be released, so we weren't doing much training," a trainer told us. "We weren't even feeding [the pilot whales] above the water because, out in their natural environment, they'd need to eat below it. We weren't preparing them for a show."

Once the federal government determined they couldn't be released, SeaWorld trainers started positive reinforcement training with the pilot whales.

"They're very smart in their own way," she said. "They're not as quick as some of the dolphins. By their natural biology they don't move as quickly, so that sometimes takes us a little longer because they just can't move the way a dolphin moves. But they're picking up on the basics of what we do very quickly."

False killer whales were used in Blue Horizons until the last one died, and the trainer said they hope to use the pilot whales in the show, like they do in San Diego. Trainer talks, such as this one, are open to the public and part of guests' regular admission during Wild Days.

Later in the day, my family learned about California Sea Lions before the "Clyde & Seamore Take Pirate Island" show. We watched as a trainer asked Zoe to open her mouth wide to participate in her own healthcare. And we heard about Big John and Little Chris, who came to SeaWorld from Oregon when the federal government determined it would have to euthanize 90 sea lions a year from a river near the Bonneville Dam.

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One of the most famous animal trainers was the keynote speaker during the first Wild Days weekend, Jack Hanna. "Jungle Jack," who entertained audiences with his stories and displays of rare animals, did not shy away from talking about the reality of being an animal trainer -- that sometimes things go wrong and the trainers can be injured or die. The result, he said, is that SeaWorld has taken an unfair beating on its reputation.

"I'll never forget the first time I came here with my girls, who were only 5 and 7 at that time. I got to see the most magnificent thing I'd ever seen in the world and that was the killer whales and the other animals that were here, the dolphins. I'll never forget that, just like the 350 to 400 million other people who visit SeaWorld parks," Hanna said.

"Dawn [Brancheau] who lost her life here was a friend of mine. I did the memorial service here at SeaWorld. Her family, her parents, are here today. " They came today to visit SeaWorld because they love SeaWorld. Dawn loved Seaworld. Dawn's life was SeaWorld. The whales were her life," he said as the audience applauded in memory of Brancheau's devotion to the animals with which she worked at SeaWorld.

SeaWorld's Wild Days continue on Jan. 18-19 and Jan. 25-26. Next weekend features the stars of "Sea Rescue," who will talk about the stories that have been featured on the show, including those of turtles, manatees, flamingos, pilot whales and dolphins. Plus, the rescue team will answer questions from guests. The last weekend focuses on penguins with talks from SeaWorld Animal Ambassador Julie Scardina and penguin activities for the whole family in the Antarctica section of the park. Check the daily times guide for Wild Days events.

DISCLAIMER: I was a guest of SeaWorld during its Wild Days event. My opinions are my own, and this did not influence my story.



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January 3, 2014

Tips for visiting Walt Disney World and SeaWorld when it's cold outside

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Florida might be a subtropical paradise, but it does get cold here at times, as this week's front proves. And, though "Frozen" might be a big winter hit in the theaters right now, you don't have to spend your days in the Orlando theme parks experiencing the same.

How will the cold affect your visit to Orlando theme parks such as Walt Disney World and Seaworld? When the mercury dips below 50, some things change even if others remain the same. Here are a few things of which to be to be aware:

** Water parks will close. Disney's Typhoon Lagoon already is not open to guests because of scheduled maintenance, and Disney's Blizzard Beach also will be closed today. Same goes for SeaWorld's Aquatica. Guests who had planned to visit the Disney water park still can enjoy the adjacent Winter Summerland miniature golf course, though.

** Some animals will stay indoors, but others will not be deterred by the cold. At Disney's Animal Kingdom, a three-hour process brings all animals indoors each night to climate-controlled areas. In the morning, they are given a choice whether to venture out or stay warm and cozy. When Florida has a cold snap, such as this one, extra precautions also are taken in the outdoor habitat, such as adding heating elements, for example. So, riding Kilimanjaro Safaris will not be a bust, but you're unlikely to see the Komodo dragon from the walkway along its outdoor habitat because it is sensitive to the cold. Same goes for some other animals, too.

At SeaWorld Orlando, many of the marine animals already thrive in cooler waters, such as the orca whales, sea lions and dolphins, so these temperatures don't affect their performances. The shows will go on! And although the penguins in the new Antarctica attraction reside in a climate-controlled area, guests just might feel like they've stepped onto the South Pole, too, no matter how chilly it might be outside.

** Steer clear of water rides, such as Splash Mountain or Journey to Atlantis, or the Splash Zone at the Shamu show. These places may be open but do you really want to spend the rest of your day shivering from wet, soggy clothes?

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** Seize the opportunity to drink plenty of hot chocolate or warm coffee in the theme parks. SeaWorld has the best deal for hot chocolate, with its refillable souvenir mug. It works the same way as its drink cups -- after a one-time purchase of the cup, all refills are 99 cents. At Disney World, coffee lovers can get their Starbucks fix at new locations on Main Street, U.S.A., in the Magic Kingdom and near the Fountain of Nations in Epcot. Additional stores are planned!

** When vacationers arrive at the theme parks, it's easy to get caught up in the excitement and the anticipation of their favorite attractions. But when it's cold, adjust your schedule accordingly. Plan to visit indoor attractions in the morning or evening, when temperatures are coolest. As the day warms up, spend more time outdoors for a more pleasurable experience.

** If you're staying in the Disney resorts, don't forget that some, like the Fort Wilderness Resort or the BoardWalk Inn, offer enticing fireplace settings in their main lobbies. Others, such as the Polynesian Resort or the Beach Club, also offer nightly beachside fire pits complete with s'mores that also can be fun family escapes from the rare Florida cool-downs. The cozy evening gatherings around the fire can be the perfect way to wind down after a long day in the parks, too. Who knows, if you're outside at a fire pit, you might even catch a glimpse of a fireworks show, as well.



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November 28, 2013

SeaWorld Orlando offers plenty of cost-saving deals for the holidays

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Like the other big theme parks in Central Florida, SeaWorld Orlando is a busy place during the holidays. And not only does the marine park have plenty of special experiences for guests, it also offers quite a few money-saving deals for visitors and residents alike during this holiday season.

** Starting with SeaWorld admission, guests can save a little green when they go to see the wonders of the blue oceans at the park. SeaWorld's 2014 FunCard is on sale now and it's valid for the remainder of 2013 and all of next year -- with no blackout dates. So, adults pay $92 plus tax and kids ages 3 to 9 pay $87 plus tax for the holidays and an entire year of general admission.

Or, if you're going for just one day, you might want to take advantage of the weekday rate of $50 for a single ticket. This offer is good through Dec. 20. SeaWorld pass members also can save 50 percent off a single day's admission for up to six guests. That offer is good through Dec. 25 and is not limited to weekdays.

** In addition to the all the amazing animal shows, interactions and attractions, guests who visit SeaWorld on select days through Dec. 31 also can experience SeaWorld's Christmas Celebration at no additional charge. This is a wonderful value, especially when you consider that other area theme parks require separate tickets for holiday events.

SeaWorld guests can choose from a number of moving shows, including Shamu Christmas Miracles; the always funny Clyde and Seamore's Countdown to Christmas; O Wonderous Night, The Christmas Story told through the eyes of live animals; Winter Wonderland on Ice, an ice skating extravaganza; and Reflections: Fireworks and Fountains Finale. Kids won't want to miss The Polar Express Experience, and young kids will enjoy Elmo's Christmas Wish. Plus, the Sea of Trees is a beautiful attraction to take in while sipping hot chocolate on those cooler nights in December. (Please check back for more details about this year's events.)

** Aquatica is offering significant savings on a single day's admission during December. By reserving a specific date online, guests can pay just $19 for a day of fun at the water park. (Regular admission price is $56 for adults and $51 for ages 3 to 9.) Each guest can purchase up to six tickets. Sure, the weather is a bit chillier this month, but the water is always heated to 82 degrees. My family and I have been to Aquatica in January and had a great time without spending our day huddled under beach towels. Florida residents also have a limited-time offer that allows them to purchase an Aquatica annual pass using the monthly payment program.

** Finally, tonight at 12:01 a.m. ET -- technically, that's Friday -- SeaWorld Orlando will announce its own version of holiday shopping deals on "Blue Friday." The offers will be for some of the "most exclusive park experiences," SeaWorld says, and can be purchased online through 11:59 p.m. ET on Dec. 2 (Cyber Monday). To take advantage of the deals, shoppers can follow SeaWorld on Facebook and Twitter or sign up for email.



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October 8, 2013

SeaWorld's Halloween Spooktacular brings treats to theme park

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Everybody knows that Shamu loves buckets of fish. And kids? Well, they love bags of candy.

This month, both will enjoy their fill.

SeaWorld Orlando kicked off its Halloween Spooktacular with a splash this past weekend, taking guests into the "FantaSea" of the fall holiday. The celebration, which features trick-or-treating, takes place from noon to 8 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays in October.

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My family and I think it's fun to stroll down the Underwater Fantasea Path, which runs along Bayside Pathway, past the stadium and Wild Arctic, and through Shamu's Happy Harbor. The walkway offers a street-festival atmosphere with 12 trick-or-treat stations, games of skill, characters, face painting, snacks, cookie decorating and Penelope's Party Zone. (Penelope Pumpkin is SeaWorld's signature Halloween character.)

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Certainly the young and the young-at-heart are welcome at SeaWorld's Halloween Spooktacular, but know that many of the activities are planned for the preschool set. In Penelope's Party Zone, for example, children can participate in story time with the Princess Penelope, make easy crafts and play simple games.

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On the eight party dates, a special show is presented in the Seaport Theater: Sesame Street's Countdown to Halloween. Favorite characters from the popular television show -- including Elmo! -- take the stage and invite young guests to dance and sing along with them four times a day.

In addition, Count von Count from "Sesame Street" hosts a Spooktacular Breakfast at 9:30 a.m. each day of the Halloween celebration. The price is $24 for adults and $14 for children ages 2 to 9. Pass members are eligible for a 20 percent discount by reserving ahead of time online.

Perhaps one of the best things about the Halloween Spooktacular is that it is included in regular park admission, unlike Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party at Walt Disney World and Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Orlando, which require separate tickets. Both locals and visitors can experience the fun of the season without the scary bill.

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Also, Halloween Spooktacular is an opportunity to see many, many characters at SeaWorld in elaborate and beautiful costumes. Unlike at Disney World, face characters and furry characters are not a common occurrence at SeaWorld, but they come out in full force for the Halloween celebration. Look for princesses, mermaids, stilt walkers, fish along the walkway, and Dolly the Dolphin, Shamu, and Pete and Penny Penguin in the party zone.

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Who can resist trick-or-tricking in a theme park? Candy sponsors for 2013 include AirHeads, Tootsie Roll, Jelly Belly jelly beans, M&Ms and more. We learned last year that trick-or-treating is only open to families. When I asked, a SeaWorld customer service representative said that adults typically will not be given candy, unless they are accompanied by children.

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Throughout October, children with creative costumes may be chosen as "Super Starfish of the Day." They and their families will be given VIP treatment, including limited wait times for rides, reserved seats at shows, lunch vouchers and souvenir photos with Shamu.

SeaWorld has added a Spooktacular Dance Party this year, similar to its dance party during Summer Nights. Children are invited to gather at the front of the park every night an hour before closing time to join in with line-dancing favorites as bubbles fill the evening air.

So, if you're ready for Halloween weeks before it appears on the calendar, check out SeaWorld Orlando's Halloween Spooktacular. And while you're there, watch Shamu perform a few tricks and treats, too.


September 7, 2013

Discovery Cove deal gives Florida residents more time at SeaWorld and Aquatica

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This week, Discovery Cove announced a Florida-resident deal that really is a great value. My family took advantage of this offer last year, and we think it was worth every penny.

Through the end of the year, Florida residents can book the Dolphin Swim Day for $219 per person. That's about half the price during peak times, such as the summer, when visitors from out of state pay as much as $399 per person. What also makes this Florida-resident deal so sweet is that it includes unlimited admission to SeaWorld Orlando and Aquatica water park through Jan. 31, 2014, after your day at Discovery Cove.

We spent our day at Discovery Cove in late September for our children's birthdays and then had four months to enjoy Aquatica and SeaWorld. This deal is a great way for locals to sample all the SeaWorld Orlando parks. Plus, the crowds are light, for the most part, which makes each experience all the more enjoyable. We were a little chilly swimming in January, but that didn't stop my 8-year-old and 10-year-old from diving right in and having a blast, that's for sure!

Here's a quick look at what $219 buys:

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Discovery Cove

Discovery Cove is an all-inclusive park, which means your ticket provides breakfast, lunch, snacks, drinks and alcoholic beverages; wetsuit and equipment for snorkeling; and lockers, towels and sunscreen. Discovery Cove only admits 1,300 guests per day, so the park is never overcrowded.

Guests wade with stingrays (that have been debarbed), snorkel among exotic fish in a saltwater lagoon, feed tropical birds in a free-flight aviary, float down a lazy river and relax on white-sand beaches. The highlight of the day for many is, of course, a 30-minute interaction with dolphins that includes holding onto the dolphin's dorsal fin for a short swim. (Florida residents who do not want to participate in the dolphin interaction can purchase a Resort Day pass for $149 and get the current deal with SeaWorld and Aquatica.)

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Aquatica

SeaWorld's Aquatica water park is themed to feature sea animals, of course, and its centerpiece attraction is Dolphin Plunge, which takes riders through a tank of black-and-white Commerson's dolphins. There are a variety of tubes and slides, two family raft rides, a lazy river, body-surfing rapids, and two separate kids' play areas. As with SeaWorld, there is an all-day dining option in one of the three restaurants. (You can read more in my review.)

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SeaWorld Orlando

See SeaWorld's signature Shamu show, feed a dolphin, pet a stingray, brave some monster roller coasters or play in the kids' area all in a day at the Orlando theme park. The newest attraction, Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin, opened in May and features the park's penguins and a ride. The South Pole area also houses a new restaurant, an exclusive Coca-Cola drink, and a gift shop.

Florida residents who opt for the Discovery Cove deal also can experience Halloween parties that include trick-or-treating and Christmas celebrations with amazing decorations and special shows at SeaWorld at no additional charge. This definitely is another selling point because Disney World and Universal Orlando both require separate tickets for holiday events.

Perhaps the only downside to the Discovery Cove deal is that parking is not included for SeaWorld or Aquatica. But the $14 charge is a small price to pay for all you're getting.

August 8, 2013

Ideas for celebrating kids' birthdays at SeaWorld Orlando

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Since we began visiting SeaWorld Orlando regularly a couple years ago, my son has been fascinated with orca whales and my daughter's love of dolphins has grown. Naturally, when their birthdays rolled around last year, they wanted a celebration that featured their favorite marine animals. (My children's birthdays are one day apart, so some years they have opted for a joint party.) SeaWorld -- and its other Orlando parks, Aquatica and Discovery Cove -- don't offer organized birthday parties, but there certainly are ways to celebrate a special occasion on property.

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The main event for my kids' birthday weekend was a day at Discovery Cove for our family instead of each child having a party. A day at Discovery Cove is pricey -- usually ranging form $219 to $399 per person, depending on the time of year, and including a dolphin swim. But Discovery Cove is an all-inclusive park, which means your ticket provides breakfast, lunch, snacks, drinks and alcoholic beverages; wetsuit and equipment used for snorkeling; lockers, towels and sunscreen; and unlimited admission to SeaWorld and Aquatica for the 14 days surrounding your visit. Discovery Cove only admits 1,300 guests per day, so the park is not overcrowded.

Guests wade with stingrays (that have be debarbed), snorkel among exotic fish in a saltwater lagoon, feed tropical birds in a free-flight aviary, float down a lazy river and relax on white-sand beaches. The highlight of the day for many is, of course, a 30-minute interaction with dolphins. As we stood in waist-high water, a trainer directed a dolphin to swim over, and we were allowed to pet him as the trainer explained different behaviors and facts about dolphins. Then, each family in our small group posed for photos with the dolphin. Finally, it was time to hold onto the dolphin's dorsal fin for a short swim. It was an amazing experience for all of us!

Guests even can enhance the experience by having a dolphin deliver a buoy with a personalized message. This is part of the Celebration Package, which also includes a Discovery Cove tote bag; choice of a deluxe photo frame or plush toy; and 25 percent off your choice of a photo package for $129. There are a limited number of Celebration Packages scheduled each day, so they must be booked in advance. Guests also can purchase a cake at Discovery Cove, or even bring one themselves.

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That weekend, we also went to Dine with Shamu at SeaWorld for the first time. Though my son definitely enjoyed Discovery Cove, he was more attracted to whales than dolphins, so we wanted to try something that catered to his interests. We had a great experience there, as well. Both of my children enjoyed the buffet and the front-row seat to some behind-the-scenes dolphin behaviors. And because we told our server the kids were celebrating birthdays, they each received a piece of chocolate cake with sprinkles and gummies. The server also sang "Happy Birthday." (You also can order a specialty cake when making a Dine With Shamu reservation.)

When we went to Dine With Shamu in the fall of 2012, SeaWorld offered a deal where one child was free with each paying adult. Current prices range from $29 to $34 for an adult and $19 to $24 for children ages 3 to 9 for the dinner show, which includes unlimited food, beer and wine. To read all abut our experience, including the full menu, please see my previous blog post.

SeaWorld also offers private VIP tours, which could be another way to celebrate a special occasion. They include preferred parking, front-of-the-line access, reserved seats at shows, animal interactions, a meal at Sharks Underwater Grill and a tour guide for up to seven hours. The rate is $299 per person for ages 3 and older.

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Finally, we decided to stay at the SeaWorld Renaissance hotel that weekend to avoid multiple drives back and forth to our house. While there, some family friends joined us at the hotel pool one day. The main pool is beautiful, surrounded by plush chairs and a restaurant with a bar. The kids enjoyed "riding" on the inflatable dolphin and whale I had purchased at Target. There also is a splash area just for kids that features two water slides.

I served our friends fish food (a mixture of colorful crackers and cereals) from a traditional glass fish bowl. Our cupcakes were topped with two shades of blue frosting, and the plastic whales and dolphins that can be purchased in bulk at SeaWorld. And they each took home a towel that had been fashioned into a dolphin or whale tail. (A good friend sewed strips of Velco or ribbon at one end to form the waist, and I used hairbands to fashion the tail.)

If your kids are fascinated by the aquatic life featured at SeaWorld Orlando, activities like these and more can be a perfect way to make a splash for birthdays or other special occasions.


July 20, 2013

SeaWorld Orlando releases 4 rehabilitated manatees at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge

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On Thursday, my 8-year-old daughter and I felt like we had stepped onto the set of the television show "Sea Rescue" when we witnessed a SeaWorld Orlando team release four rehabilitated manatees into the wild.

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Although many people know that SeaWorld entertains and educates people through its theme parks, another goal of the company is to rescue and help ill, injured or orphaned marine animals. And that's where these special manatees come in. Three of the sea cows -- Pipsqueak, Nitty and Braille -- were rescued at different times last December after becoming trapped in a mosquito impound in the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. They were suffering from mild cold stress, which is similar to frostbite in humans.

The fourth manatee, Asaka, was brought to SeaWorld by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) in March after rangers found she had buoyancy issues and needed treatment for wounds caused by a boat's propeller and skeg.

For the SeaWorld team, rehabilitating marine animals is a labor of love, and it's also labor-intensive.

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Pedro Ramos-Navarrette (right)

"It takes a lot of work " especially if they're orphans, it's 24/7," said Pedro Ramos-Navarrette, superviser of Animal Care at SeaWorld Orlando. "We do bottle-feeding every four hours, so we've got crews that are in from 3 a.m. for the first bottles and some stay as late as midnight to do the last bottles. Sometimes you have to tube-feed them because the animals are dehydrated. Some need antibiotics that are prescribed by our veterinary staff."

For this quartet, the work paid off. Ramos-Navarrette said, "They've responded very well to the treatment. All four animals have put on weight -- we weighed them again this morning -- and their exit weights show they have gained anywhere from 65 to 220 pounds [each]." Each manatee now weighs more than 400 pounds.

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Typically, once SeaWorld's veterinary staff clears an animal for its return to a natural habitat, it's up to the FWC to schedule the time and place for the release. This time, the agency chose Eddy Creek, which is located in Mosquito Lagoon along the Canaveral National Seashore near Kennedy Space Center. It's part of the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, where the manatees originally were rescued.

"Usually [they] try to find an area close to or in the same water system that [the animals] came from because it's a known area to them for food availability. It's just more familiar territory," said Ramos-Navarrette, who has worked at SeaWorld for 23 years.

The nearby Indian River Lagoon, which runs along 40 percent of Florida's east coast, has come under scientific scrutiny this year because a record number of manatees, dolphins and pelicans living there have been found dead -- and no one knows why. In April, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration designated the manatee deaths an Unusual Mortality Event, clearing the way for help from the federal government in determining the cause.

The puzzling and potentially dangerous phenomenon in the Indian River Lagoon shows just how important SeaWorld's mission can be for marine wildlife.

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Like other animals SeaWorld has rescued, Pipsqueak, Nitty, Braille and Asaka have been implanted with chips so they can be identified if they have to be rescued again.

"If we see them again, it means it's because they're in trouble again, so we really don't want to see them again," said Ramos-Navarrette.

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Before their release, the manatees traveled two-by-two in trucks from SeaWorld to Eddy River, and then each was carried to the shore on a stretcher manned by eight people. After some last measurements were taken, it was time for the final farewell. All four manatees were carried to the water simultaneously and allowed to swim out into the river. A couple stayed in the area for the next hour, surfacing occasionally, presumably reacquainting themselves with their former home.

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Ramos-Navarrette said the release was bittersweet. "You've gotten this animal that was at death's doorstep " healthy again and you send him back out. " This is the good part of the job when we get to put them back out."

For my 8-year-old daughter, who plans to one day be a marine biologist (and dolphin trainer!) this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness a release up close. She said, "I loved seeing the manatees up close, and I really wanted to pet one. It looked a lot like the 'Sea Rescue' show when they used the stretchers to take them to the water. I was surprised they didn't use their boat named Moose."

She wants other kids to know they can help protect marine animals by taking simple steps. "People shouldn't litter on the beaches and the ocean because the manatees and dolphins can get hurt. Manatees are friendly and fat. They need our help."

June 27, 2013

SeaWorld's Summer Nights offers old favorites, plus a few surprises

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Summer officially began last weekend, and with it, SeaWorld's Summer Nights festivities. Through August 11, the theme park stays open later hours and offers two popular nighttime shows and a character dance party.

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A perennial favorite, Sea Lions Tonite has returned, and my family and I think it's one of the best shows at SeaWorld. Talented sea lions, otters and a walrus parody favorite SeaWorld shows and attractions with a little help from their trainers. The popular show is laugh-out-loud funny, and even includes an Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin joke and a gentle poke at The Mouse, too. Be sure to arrive at least 30 minutes before show time to get a decent seat. The wait passes quickly, though, because a mime hilariously interacts with the audience, keeping everyone entertained.

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Shamu Rocks, SeaWorld's unique combination of a rock concert and a killer whale show, has been updated for the 2013 season. The audience still will experience a high-energy show with catchy, classic-rock music and colorful lighting. The hair-band rocker with the Shamu guitar returns, too, and the animal trainers do more dancing than at the One Ocean daytime event.

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The change, though, comes at the end of the park's signature show, when fireworks have been added behind the stadium and in view of the spectators. The pyrotechnics certainly blend in with the concert feel of the show and are beautiful behind Shamu Stadium. Unfortunately, this addition is at the expense of the Reflections: Fireworks and Fountains Show Finale at Bayside Stadium. That water, lights and fireworks show is not being offered this summer, which is a disappointment in some ways because it was an enduring crowd-pleaser and one that my kids enjoyed seeing every chance they could.

Shamu Stadium typically opens 45 minutes before the show, and lines will form on the ramps, so get there early. The splash sections seemed to fill up first. Pre-show entertainment consists of live, camera-captured scenes of audience members, which never fails to amuse.

With SeaWorld open until 10 p.m. during the summer, guests have the opportunity to ride the new Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin at night. That section of the park is beautifully lit up after dark and the queue did seem shorter when we were there. Guests can cap off their evening with a dance party with the SeaWorld characters from 9 to 10:30 p.m. in the Village Square (adjacent to Guest Services).

On July 4, there will be special additions to the Summer Nights lineup. Fans of the retired fireworks show will be excited to know that a patriotic Reflections show is scheduled for that night only. Beforehand, the SeaWorld Celebration Singers, an ensemble group of singers and a nine-piece band, will perform a variety of popular music, including traditional marches and patriotic tunes. The concert starts at 9:30 p.m. and the fireworks are at 10 p.m.

Also, in celebration of the national holiday, SeaWorld will be hosting a Bayside Cookout from July 3 through 6. Along the Bayside pathway, guests can purchase a one-third-pound bacon cheeseburger, footlong hot dogs, BBQ pulled pork sandwiches, kids' meals and five flavors of Dippin Dots. Bayside Cookout will be open 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., with the end time extended until 8 p.m. on July 4.

SeaWorld is open an extra hour -- until 11 p.m. -- the Fourth of July.

DISCLAIMER: I was a guest of SeaWorld Orlando during its Summer Nights kickoff. My opinions are my own, and this did not influence my review.

June 8, 2013

Disney's Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon vs. SeaWorld's Aquatica: Who has the better after-2 p.m. pass?

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As Orlando residents, my family and I have had various combinations of theme-park passes since our kids were toddlers. For several years, those included the popular water parks: either Disney's Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon or SeaWorld's Aquatica.

With school out for summer, now we are considering an option we haven't yet tried: The after-2 p.m. water-park pass that is available to Florida residents. For a reduced price, guests can purchase an annual pass that allows entry into the water parks only after 2 p.m. with no blackout dates.

The water parks offer this option, of course, because that's when the crowds start to thin out. Guests who have been in the water since 9 a.m. often are ready to head back to their hotels by mid-afternoon. Plus, in Florida, it's a given that many summer days include afternoon rain, which also clears a water park pretty quickly. Added to this is the fact that the afternoons often are the hottest parts of the days.

So, purchasing an after-2 p.m. pass is a gamble with the weather. But at about half the cost of a regular annual pass to the water parks, we think it just might be worth a try. The water parks stay open later in the summer, often until 8 p.m., so we potentially still could spend six hours on the slides and in the pools.

Now, the difficult decision: Which water park do we choose? Our family has happy memories at all three water parks. But on paper, Disney's Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon are the better deal.

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At Disney, the after-2 p.m. pass is $66.03 for adults and $53.25 for kids (including tax) ages 3 to 9. It allows the passholder entry into two separate Disney water parks for one year from the date of purchase. Plus, there is no charge for parking. In addition, Walt Disney World allows guests to bring coolers of all sizes, including large rolling ice chests, so it is possible to bring a meal and drinks for the day and save money. The only restrictions involve glass containers and alcohol.

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At SeaWorld's Aquatica, Florida residents can purchase an after-2 p.m. pass for $58.58 for adults and $53.25 for kids (including tax) ages 3 to 9. It is good only for the one park and only through the end of 2013. There is a $12 charge to park each time you visit. SeaWorld restricts coolers to a 16-quart size, and food is limited to snacks, bottled water, baby food and whatever is needed for those with dietary restrictions. Of course, alcohol and glass containers are not permitted. SeaWorld does have a small picnic area outside its gates and guests are allowed to use the tables for meals stored in their vehicles and then re-enter the water park.

But how do you measure value when your children prefer one water park over another? How would you decide? Please tell us in the comments.

June 6, 2013

SeaWorld's new Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin - Mixed Reactions

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My family was crazy enough to brave the crowds at SeaWorld on Memorial Day -- and we even got in the two-and-half-hour line to experience the new Empire of the Penguin attraction in the new Antarctica section. Unfortunately, I was overly optimistic about what we would experience and what my kids would enjoy.

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A two-hour-plus queue winds back around Pacific Point Preserve, where the sea lions live. SeaWorld was prepared for the interest in its new attraction with lines roped off, large umbrellas offering ample shade from the Florida sun, and free cold water stations. Still, asking my 10-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter to stand in line that long was asking for trouble. So, I stayed in line and my husband took the kids to burn off some energy in Shamu's Happy Harbor.

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With a bit of good timing, they rejoined me as we entered the ride building. Unfortunately, that's where things fell apart during our experience. The ride had "technical difficulties" no fewer than five times, adding more than 30 minutes to our wait. And unlike at Walt Disney World, where cast members are efficient about informing and directing guests when something goes wrong, the SeaWorld team members that day didn't do much of either.

Although the lack of information during an extended theme-park wait certainly is frustrating for anyone, it really put a damper on the experience for our family. My husband had another afternoon commitment, so he left before riding, and my cautious son was so leery of the ride after all its stops and starts that he refused to go on it at all. A team member did offer everyone in our ride vehicle a one-time front-of-the-line pass so we could experience Empire of the Penguin again without the frustrations.

Still, I can't help but wonder why SeaWorld chose not to perform soft openings of the ride -- as many theme parks do -- to work out any bugs in the attraction. This would have been especially important before holiday weekend crowds converged there.

My daughter, who did ride Empire of the Penguin with me, enjoyed the tale of Puck the penguin and was mesmerized by the multi-colored icicles. She was not intimidated by the scene when the leopard seal chases Puck, and she seemed wowed by the reveal of the penguins in their habitat. She certainly would go again.

When we stepped off the ride, we met my son in front of the swimming penguins. A cast member led him to the habitat and even offered to stay to with my son, though I felt comfortable with him walking the short distance from the ride queue by himself. We all took a quick peek at the penguins -- neither of my children were willing to stay in the 30-degree Fahrenheit temperature for more than a few minutes in their summer outfits!

My daughter mentioned she thinks SeaWorld should offer the use of heavy coats, as they do at Gaylord Palm's ICE! each year. Visitors could bring their own hoodies or fleece jackets, but I think that's a bit unrealistic at a Florida theme park in the nine hot months of the year. Of course, there is the underwater viewing area of the penguins in an adjacent room that is warmer.

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One interesting aspect of the penguin habitat was that the lighting was different from when I saw the exhibit at the media preview three days beforehand. A publicist explained that's because SeaWorld simulates the levels of sunlight at Antarctica at various times of the day.


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After we exited Empire of the Penguin, we opted for an early dinner at Expedition Cafe, the new quick-service restaurant in the Antarctica area. My son and I sampled the Orange Chicken and brown rice from the Asian counter, and we both liked it. At the media event, Executive Chef and Director of Culinary Operations Hector Colon had explained that orange chicken is the top pick for kids at Asian restaurants, and we could understand why. My daughter tried the Shamu Kid's Meal of a chicken wing and French fries at the Stateside counter and ate it all, though it wasn't her favorite meal experienced in the park.

Afterward, we sampled the new drink from Coca-Cola, South Pole Chill, which is a SeaWorld exclusive. My children don't drink much soda and weren't sold on the flavor, which tastes like a light cream soda. However, as a Diet Coke addict, I really liked it! The nearby Glacial Collections store sells refillable cups that are like the penguin version of Mr. Potato Head, and these certainly appeal to kids, my own included.

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Children also might enjoy meeting the character Puck, who appears throughout the day across from Empire of the Penguin. And beginning this month, SeaWorld is offering a new Penguins Up Close tour, which allows guests to pet real penguins and have their photos taken with the birds. The price is $59 for adults and $39 for kids ages 3 to 9.

Maybe I was expecting too much from an untested attraction on one of the busiest theme-park days of the year. I hope that, once the mechanical issues are resolved, we can return again and perhaps both my kids will have a more engaging experience at this attraction like they've had repeatedly at the dolphin and Orca sites at SeaWorld. Until then, though, I imagine they will choose to chill at some of their other favorite attractions and shows in the park.

May 24, 2013

SeaWorld's Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin opens

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Just as it did with Turtle Trek, SeaWorld Orlando is again educating and entertaining its visitors about a particular species by telling a story through the point of view of one animal. This time, though, the experience is more immersive, including a restaurant and other themed areas.

The new Antarctica section of the park opens today (May 24) and its centerpiece ride, Empire of the Penguin, takes visitors on a journey with Puck, a baby penguin. Much like last summer's new TurtleTrek, Empire of the Penguin appeals to its audience by showcasing one animal's battle against nature and then allowing guests to observe the animals in their habitat.

This formula seems to work well, combining cutting-edge technology with the thrill of seeing rare animals up close. TurtleTrek introduced guests to Orlando's first 3D 360-degree dome theater in 2012. Empire of the Penguin offers guests another industry first: wireless, trackless navigation for cars in the attraction.

Each simulator ride car allows guests to choose one of two levels of exploration - Wild Expedition or Mild Expedition - for various degrees of ride intensity. Designers say each version also has multiple variations for a feeling of unpredictability.

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"When our little hero penguin learns to waddle and slide, we'll feel what it's like as the car moves and reacts to the storyline. When he takes his first swim or barely escapes danger, our guests will feel as if they're right there with him," said Brian Morrow, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment creative director.

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I rode the mild version of Empire of the Penguin at the media preview of Antarctica and was enchanted by it. The smooth ride offers plenty of surprises and moments to "ooh" and "ahh" during Puck's journey. Morrow said kids are drawn to the brilliant colors and playing hide-and-seek with Puck. My 8- and 10-year-old are eager to experience it for themselves. (Can't get enough Puck? The character meets guests outside the ride.)

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Deb Wills rode the Wild Expedition and compared the motion of the ride vehicle to that of The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. She said the movements are mostly gentle, but there is a bit more spinning, so those sensitive to motion sickness may want to stick with the mild ride.

Empire of the Penguin is being touted as an adventure that the whole family can experience together, regardless of ride preference. As the mother of a child who does not like thrill rides, I certainly appreciate this planning. There is only one ride queue, so families remain together until it splits just before guests listen to the pre-show and board their simulators. Of course, the vehicles dock at the same location in the penguin habitat and families can see the amazing little birds together. Child swap also is available for Empire of the Penguin.

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In addition, the content of the ride is appropriate for all ages. In one scene, Puck is chased by a leopard seal and the music is bit ominous. It's not nightmare material, however. "This is not a scary ride, though there are real animals that behave in real ways," Morrow said.

Any guest who is able to sit unaided can ride Empire of the Penguin. Children who are shorter than 48 inches must be accompanied by another guest. To ride the Wild Expedition, children must be 42 inches tall.

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The penguin habitat at the end of the ride really does give guests a bird's eye view of these rare flightless wonders. You'll see about 250 Adelie, gentoo, king and rockhopper penguins swimming, preening and possibly nesting. And you will feel like a penguin, too, with temperatures that hover around 30 degrees Fahrenheit in the enclosure.

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SeaWorld educators, such as Senior Aviculturalist Michelle Hartman, line the path in front of the penguins to answer guests' questions. She explained that a new Penguin Up-Close tour will begin in June. The one-hour experience allows smaller groups of guests to interact with the penguins, even petting them and posing for photos, for an additional charge. (Currently, penguin interactions are only available with the Behind The Scenes Tour.)

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Finally, visitors can warm up in an adjacent underwater viewing room. The three levels allow for multiple vantage points. This room also will host groups of children, typically Scout or school groups, who book sleepovers.

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The Antarctica section also includes a new counter-service restaurant, Expedition Cafe. Visitors here have a choice of three different cuisines: American, Italian and Asian. Adults will find salads, sandwiches and hot entrees in each restaurant that start at about $9 each. Kids' meals were selected with crowd-pleasers in mind -- fried or baked chicken, hot dogs, spaghetti, lasagna, orange chicken, teriyaki chicken, or pepper steak -- and cost about $6 each.

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Hector Colon, executive chef and director of culinary operations, explained that Expedition Cafe also will offer to-go options because "you never want to be without food in Antarctica." These will include snacks such as beefy jerk and trail mix, plus a make-your-own peanut-butter-and-jelly-sandwich kit for kids.

The nearby South Pole Beverage station has three Coca-Cola Freestyle machines that feature SeaWorld's exclusive flavor, South Pole Chill. It's been compared to a cream soda, and I have to agree with that assessment. Delicious! Guests have the option of purchasing a Cup That Cares for $9.95 or they can create a Cup That Cares -- much like a Mr. Potato Head for penguins -- for $15.95. Both versions contain RFID chips that allow the beverage stations to recognize the user's name and keep track of the number of refills, which it records as a measure of reducing the guest's carbon footprint. In addition, $1 of the purchase price is donated to the SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund.

Antarctica offers both indoor and outdoor seating areas. Those who opt for air conditioning in the Sub-Zero Recreation Center will see a location themed to the scientists who live and work at "the bottom of the world," as SeaWorld bills Antarctica.

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Of course, there is a penguin gift shop in this area, Glacial Collections. Surprisingly, Empire of the Penguin does not exit through the shop. At Glacial Collections, guests will find penguin-themed merchandise of all sorts, including plush versions of Puck. At the time of the official opening, though, there weren't many items with Antarctica logos, save for some T-shirts.


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After almost three years in the making, Antarctica is poised to be another cool attraction at the park in more ways than one. Antarctica is included with regular admission to SeaWorld Orlando.

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January 31, 2013

SeaWorld's Aquatica offers families water park fun with marine life

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Walt Disney World may have revolutionized themed water parks here in Orlando, but SeaWorld has created its own unique and kid-friendly version, too, that is equally as fun.

Over the last several months, my family and I have explored Aquatica, and we have been impressed with what it has to offer. Until recently, my experience with Orlando water parks primarily was limited to Disney World's Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon.

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Dolphin Plunge

The wow-factor is similar at SeaWorld's park, but perhaps the most obvious difference is that Aquatica is themed to feature sea animals, of course, rather than a freak snowstorm in Florida or a tropical paradise left in the wake of a ravaging hurricane. A popular ride in the park is Dolphin Plunge, which is a steep tube slide through a tank where Commerson's dolphins swim and play. A tip for younger (and shorter) guests from team members: If you sit up when the slide goes through the tank, you will slow down and have a longer time to view the dolphins. My husband and I zoomed through the tank segment so quickly we got little more than a passing glance at the dolphins each time we experienced the ride.

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A Commerson's dolphin

Visitors who are not brave enough to take the plunge can see the dolphins from many other angles: at the water's surface, where daily training sessions are performed; an underwater viewing tank where guests can stand; and another view of the tank from the lazy river attraction. But note that if you choose the opposite path on the lazy river, Loggerhead Lane, you'll see a tank full of colorful fish instead.

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Loggerhead Lane

Want to see other wildlife? No problem here, because SeaWorld team members introduce guests to other exotic animals throughout the park, as well.

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Roa's Rapids

And while lazy rivers are a staple at water parks because of their widespread appeal for slow-moving relaxation, Aquatica offers a different take on a winding river with its fast-moving Roa's Rapids. In this attraction, visitors do not ride in tubes. Instead the experience can be almost like body surfing. The strong current propels guests forward whether they float or swim, bypassing islands and gushing geysers. Because of this, children shorter than 51 inches are required to wear a life vest. Roa's Rapids is one of our family's favorite attractions at Aquatica, and with multiple entry points, there is never a wait. The same is true of the park's side-by-side wave pools.

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Walkabout Waters

Like Disney's water parks, Aquatica has carved out play areas just for kids. At Kata's Kookaburra Cove, only those 48 inches and shorter may play. The miniature versions of popular rides give youngsters a thrill without parents having to worry about them being overrun by the older children. Kids of all ages, though, can play at Walkabout Waters, a 60-foot-tall play area where "rain" from buckets, fountains and blasters is continual.

Located next to Walkabout Waters are two family raft rides, Walhalla Wave and HooRoo Run. We found these rides to be quite a bit rougher than the family rides at Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon. In addition to steeper banks and drops, these rides include dark tunnels. If your child is a daredevil, Walhalla Wave and HooRoo Run could be fun for the whole family. They're not gentle rides for timid parkgoers, though.

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Taumata Racer

There also are many different types of water slides for those with varying degrees of bravery. On Taumata Racer, guests lie on mats and fly through dark tunnels and then down a very steep hill. My 8-year-old daughter and I love this one. It's much faster than the Tobaggan Racers at Blizzard Beach, and I definitely had the sensation of my stomach dropping when my mat did. My 10-year-old son is a big fan of Omaka Rocka, which sends inner tube riders up half-pipe funnels backward and forward.

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Omaka Rocka

The food at Aquatica is similar to what is served in SeaWorld restaurants. Waterstone Grill serves burgers, sandwiches and salads; Mango Market offers favorites such as pizza, chicken tenders and French fries, plus so grab-and-go selections; and Banana Beach is an all-day buffet. Family picnics are available seasonally. Alcohol and Coca-Cola products are sold at Aquatica.

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Waterstone Grill

Of course, lockers and beach towels are available for rental. And sunblock and souvenirs are well-stocked, too.

Mickey and Co. certainly know a lot about making waves of magic at Disney World's two water parks, but the park that is home to Shamu also knows how to make a fun splash, as well.


January 17, 2013

Tips for families attending SeaWorld's Just For Kids festival

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SeaWorld Orlando's Just For Kids festival returns again this year on four Saturdays -- Jan. 12, 19, 26 and Feb. 2. I recently spoke with Muffett Baker, the theme park's entertainment production manager, to get her thoughts on the what not to miss at Just For Kids. Here are her recommendations for making the most of the festival and my tips for families.

This is the second year for the Just For Kids festival. What do you think made it a success the first year?

Muffett: This is a great time of year, and families wanted to get out and do something different after Christmas and the holidays were over. And, also, because it is geared toward the little kids and is something new. The artists we've brought in are part of their lives as something they see on TV.

Kristin: As a local parent, I'd have to say we were tempted by all the great discounts on the festival days. Kids are free for the Up-Close animal tours, which meant our family of four could have more one-on-one time with the dolphins and their trainers for $120 instead of $200.

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What are the most popular parts of the Just For Kids festival?

Muffett: The concerts have been great. They are really popular, and they're so much fun. Most of the artists are geared toward children and they know how to do all the things that kids want to see and hear and do. And then we have other interactive things throughout the park that children just really like to be a part of.

Kristin: That certainly was the case with Imagination Movers, the first concert on Jan. 12. My eight-year-old daughter and I attended the concert, even though the target audience was really the preschool or kindergarden set. But because the musicians were so good about interacting with the audience -- jumping into the crowd, high-fiving as many kids as possible, directing them to stomp and clap -- she could participate without knowing the songs and have a fun experience. We both enjoyed the final song, when the Imagination Movers covered One Direction's "What Makes You Beautiful."

Speaking of concerts, if visitors do not get in line for tickets when the distribution begins at 9 a.m. on Saturdays, what are their chances of still getting to see the shows?

Muffett: I'd say pretty good.

Kristin: Last Saturday, tickets for Imagination Movers were still available at noon for the 2 and 4 p.m. shows.

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What tips do you have for first-time visitors for the Just For Kids festival?

Muffett: Plan out your day for everything you want to do, but make sure you make time to either come and get your concert tickets or purchase one of the breakfasts for a guaranteed spot. (See my previous blog post for details on the special character breakfasts.)

Kristin: If you have more than one day to spend at SeaWorld Orlando, focus on the Just For Kids events on Saturdays because they only occur then. If your chid is older, like mine, and is unsure about the concerts, he or she probably still will like Shamu's Party Zone, located near the concert venue. This area features a live DJ, games, crafts and character appearances. Plus, there's a face painting station and snacks available for purchase.

For returning guests, what is new this year?

Muffett: We've changed the footprint of it just a little bit, and we've expanded a little. We've got a little more of everything we had last year, and we also have the addition of the Elmo Rocks! show.

Kristin: My daughter liked that the reward for visiting the Ocean Adventure education stations was more substantial this year. Kids who visit all four locations and collect the corresponding stamps each receive a Shamu backpack clip.

When you are creating special events like this for SeaWorld, what goes into the process?

Muffett: Last year when we started talking about this, we thought about what kids like to do and how they like to interact. Then we thought about what areas of the park would accommodate that. Happy Harbor is great for kids, but there is not a lot of other footprint to build on. So, if we wanted to do the concerts, we needed to come over here [Nautilus Theater] and support them in this area of the park so it can be easy for everyone to see what we've got.

As soon as Just For Kids wrapped up last year, we started planning for this year and looked at how it worked, what we could do bigger, what we could do better, what we could change, and what we could try new. I think right now we just want to expand [the festival] a little at a time.

DISCLAIMER: I was a guest of SeaWorld Orlando during its Just For Kids festival. My opinions are my own, and this did not influence my article.

November 27, 2012

Polar Express, Shamu and Clyde & Seamore at SeaWorld's Christmas Celebration

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Today, I'm going to pick up where Deb left off in our coverage of SeaWorld's Christmas Celebration. As she mentioned, at the media event, we had to choose among the holiday attractions and shows because of the timing, so we decided to divide and conquer!

The Polar Express Experience

When we arrived at the park, my family and I headed immediately to The Polar Express Experience. (This is a holiday overlay at the Wild Arctic attraction.) I think I may have been more excited than my children, remembering how quickly my family fell in love with the movie when it was released in 2004.

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In front of the attraction, guests will find a replica of the steam engine, where they can pose for photos and a conductors quartet performs Christmas carols periodically. Visitors can choose between two queues -- one to walk straight into the arctic animal exhibit and one to board the Polar Express. While they wait, guests can watch clips from "The Polar Express."

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If you choose to board the train, your experience begins in Billy's bedroom, just like in the movie. You'll watch that scene on a screen before moving to lines for the ride. The inside of the simulator really does feel like a seating compartment on the Polar Express with its re-imagined decor. Despite the images of steep hills and cracking ice, the simulator feels smoother than when it operates as Wild Arctic. (That ride makes me a little queasy.)

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Once you arrive at the North Pole, you'll be able to meet Santa Claus; he's waiting just around the bend from a giant decorated Christmas tree. Don't delay if you want to meet Santa, though, because that line grows quickly when passengers debark the train. Elves will be happy to take photos, and there also is a professional photographer on hand.

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Then it's off to see all the amazing animals of the arctic -- polar bears, beluga whales and walruses. Along the way, you'll find a hot chocolate stand, where the sweet treat is sold for $1.99 a cup, and a place to purchase Santa photos.

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"Clyde and Seamore's Countdown to Christmas"

Clyde and Seamore's Countdown to Christmas is, like all their other themed shows, filled with plenty of laugh-out-loud theatrics as the loveable sea lions, their human friends, otters and even a walrus get ready for Santa's visit. The jokes are corny, and the pratfalls and physical humor are really just a variation of what the characters do in other shows -- yet the audiences love it as always, and for good reason. It's a show that doesn't take itself -- or, in this case, any holiday tradition -- too seriously.

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Of course, the show's mime gets the laughs started even before the show, and he carries it through to the big finale. My 8-year-old daughter was doubled over in laughter for most of the show. And, when she wasn't laughing, she was admiring the cute stage antics of the animals. This show is a great antidote for any holiday stress.

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"Shamu Christmas -- Miracles"

My 10-year-old son is a big fan of all the variations of the Shamu performances, so he could hardly wait to see the Christmas show. This one begins with a live saxophone player who meanders through the audience, drawing viewers into the show. As with summer's Shamu Rocks!, music is a driving force for Shamu Christmas -- Miracles. The show blends solemn songs with joyful tunes and finishes with a Gospel-style soloist. At the same time, trainers take the killer whales through their paces, amazing the audience with their feats.

The theme of "Shamu Christmas -- Miracles" is family -- within the Shamu family and with human families. The performance strives to show how precious children are to today's parents who desperately want them. It also explores everyday miracles, delivering an upbeat message of hope and appreciation. The show concludes with a rousing number that is designed to get the audience moving in their seats.

This is my first year experiencing SeaWorld's Christmas Celebration, and I have been impressed. My only complaint is that there are too many holiday shows to see in one night!

You can read Deb's blogs about "O Wondrous Night" HERE and "Winter Wonderland on Ice" and "Holiday Reflections: Fireworks and Fountains!" HERE. I described our experience at Santa's Fireside Feast at Seaworld HERE.

DISCLAIMER: I was a guest of SeaWorld Orlando to experience its Christmas Celebration. This did not influence my story, and my opinions are my own.

October 9, 2012

SeaWorld's Halloween Spooktacular brings gentle underwater fantasy to life

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For our family, the thrills and chills of Halloween still are on the tame side, especially for our elementary school-age kids. Rather than the blood and gore nightmare imagery of Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Orlando, we instead enjoy the gentler fun of Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party.

This year, we decided to check out SeaWorld's Halloween Spooktacular, which is included in regular admission to the theme park or Fun Cards and annual passes. Spooktacular takes place on weekends in October and is designed with young children in mind. Although all children are welcome to participate, the event features characters from Sesame Street and activities for preschoolers.

The centerpiece of SeaWorld's Spooktacular is the Underwater Fantasea Path that runs along Bayside Pathway, past the stadium and Wild Arctic, and through Shamu's Happy Harbor. It hosts 15 trick-or-treat stations, games of skill, characters, face painting, snacks, Penelope's Party Zone and Penelope's Photacular. (Penelope Pumpkin is SeaWorld's signature Halloween character.)

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The trick-or-treat stations at SeaWorld are run similarly to those at Magic Kingdom, with an employee tossing name-brand candy in each guest's complimentary bag. What is different, though, is that the trick-or-treating is only open to families. When I asked, a SeaWorld customer service representative said that adults typically will not be given candy, unless they are accompanied by children. At Disney World, all paying guests are encouraged to don costumes and trick-or-treat. Come to think of it, on the day we attended, we didn't see any adults dressed up at SeaWorld -- just young children were seen in costumes.

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Along the path, there are ample opportunities for Halloween fun, but most of it comes at an additional price. Games typically are $3 per person, face painting is $12 to $15, and snack prices vary.

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Penelope's Party Zone, which is housed on the Bayside Stadium stage, however, offers young guests a selection of complimentary activities. There are character interactions, such as a meet-and-greet with Penelope Pumpkin and stories acted out by other sea creatures. Children can make themed crafts, sit at easels to decorate coloring pages or dance to a DJ's spooky music.

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Two activities on the stage have additional fees: Create Your Own Spooktacular Treat and Sand Art. At the treat counter, guests decorate caramel apples or chocolate Rice Krispie treats with sprinkles, marshmallows, Reese's Pieces, candy corns and gummies for $5 apiece. There's a slight discount for passholders, too. At the sand art booth, kids use pieces of rounded sea glass and sand to decorate preformed shapes of sea life, including dolphins and starfish. These pieces of art take two hours to dry, so plan accordingly.

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Perhaps the best thing about the Underwater Fantasea Path is the sheer number of characters who roam among guests and pose for photos. Unlike at Disney World, face characters and furry characters are not a common occurrence at SeaWorld. But they were out in full force on the first day of Spooktacular. We saw princesses, mermaids, stilt walkers, fish and more. We also stood in line to meet Dolly the Dolphin, Shamu, and Pete and Penny Penguin. (A number of photos taken at Penelope's Photacular, where Shamu and Dolly hang out, each day are chosen to be displayed before that evening's Shamu Rocks! show.)

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Despite much cajoling, I could not persuade my elementary-school-age children to watch the Sesame Street's Countdown to Halloween musical at the SeaPort Theatre. They did not want to be reminded that they, too, once loved Elmo as much as most children do. Sesame Street fans also can start off each Spooktacular day with Count von Count's Spooktacular Breakfast, which includes a buffet and plenty of time with the popular characters. Prices are $24.99 for adults and $14.99 for children ages 2 to 9.

Throughout October, children with creative costumes may be chosen as "Super Starfish of the Day." They and their families will be given VIP treatment, including limited wait times on rides, reserved seats at shows, lunch vouchers and souvenir photos with the Shamu.

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SeaWorld's Halloween Spooktacular is open from noon to 8 p.m. on October 13,14, 19, 20, 21, 26, 27 and 28.


October 2, 2012

Dine With Shamu gives SeaWorld Orlando guests up-close and behind-the-scenes look at killer whales

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My family and I recently dined with some really big eaters. And I mean really big.

We enjoyed a theme-park meal with a different kind of entertainment than we had previously experienced. Dine with Shamu reopened in July after a hiatus of more than two years, and we decided to surprise the kids with the dinner as part of their birthday weekend at SeaWorld Orlando.

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The experience begins by checking in before the 5:30 p.m. meal at the underwater viewing area for one of the behind-the-scenes pools for the killer whales. The Dine With Shamu pool is connected to the other tanks in Shamu Stadium, home to the daily One Ocean show and summer's Shamu Rocks! When the gates are open, the whales swim between the pool and come right up to the viewing glass, amazing guests with their sheer size.

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After check-in, a photographer will take a complimentary photo of your party before sending you up the ramp to the entrance to wait for the restaurant to open. When it does, a dozen or so waiters come out to greet guests and escort each group to their assigned table. The restaurant basically curves around the length of the whale pool, with a glass partition for separation. It's covered, but is an open-air atmosphere. Tables for four are arranged two deep, so there really are no bad seats. But if you make your reservation in advance you can request to be in the front row.

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Once you are shown to your table, you will be invited to visit the buffet, which is designed to be mainly sustainable and natural foods. Main dishes include all-natural grain-fed beef sirloin, open-flame grilled free range chicken, pork loin with no preservatives or additives and certified sustainable seafood. Fresh fruits, salads and sides are seasonal offerings. There also is a bread table and a dessert bar that features such favorites as chocolate cake, red velvet cake, strawberry shortcake and chocolate chip cookies. The kids' buffet includes hot dogs, sea shell pasta with tomato marinara and meatballs and macaroni and cheese. (The menu is subject to change seasonally.) Beverages are Coca-Cola products, hot tea, coffee and unlimited beer and wine for the adults.

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We found the food to be better than your typical counter-service meals at Orlando theme parks. I especially liked the salads and the pork loin, which was served with a chutney. My husband said the fish was good. My children were happy with all the usual kid favorites, and they always love getting to choose their meals at a buffet. When we told the server they both were celebrating birthdays, my son and daughter each received a specially decorated piece of chocolate cake with sprinkles and gummies.

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Make no mistake, though. You are not at Dine With Shamu so much for the food as for the stars of the show -- the Shamu namesakes. The trainers and mammals began their presentation about 6:15. Trainers move around the pool, talking about the whales in the wild and their care at SeaWorld, while the whales play. It mostly is an educational presentation, with a few tricks thrown in for good measure. Don't expect to see a choreographed show like you would if you are sitting in Shamu Stadium. This is a behind-the-scenes experience and each evening can vary, depending on which whales are available and cooperating. The show might be short, but the experience remains original.

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Along with the other safety features that are new to the Dine With Shamu pool, an additional "slide-out" was added as well. Slide-outs are the shallow areas along the edge of the pool that whales learn to slide out of the deep water and up onto so guests can better see them. During the day, the whales can be found sunning themselves in the slide-outs, we were told.

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Once the whale presentation is finished, guests begin to leave. So, the whole experience lasts about an hour or so.

SeaWorld is offering a great deal right now: For each paying adult, one child ages 3 to 9 can eat free for reservations made before Dec. 25, 2012. The adult price is $29 for the remainder of 2012. (It was $49 when the Dine With Shamu reopened in July.) Park admission is required for this experience.

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August 4, 2012

What to know before you go to SeaWorld Orlando

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If you're heading to SeaWorld Orlando with kids in tow, there are a few things you might want to consider before you reach the turnstiles. Here are some tips for newcomers to help you enjoy your day to the fullest.

** Food: Everyone likes to eat, right? This can be an expensive part of your day at any theme park when you're feeding a family, but there are ways to minimize the expense. First, know that SeaWorld's policy is to restrict outside food and beverages from the park. The only published exceptions are for special diets or baby food.

SeaWorld does offer an All-Day Dining Deal, which allows guests to choose unlimited food from six restaurants, with a few exceptions. Adults pay $32.99, and kids ages 3 to 9 cost $17.99. This can be a good value if you're going to be in the park for more than one meal. My favorite deal, though, is the refillable soda cups, which can be used on the day of purchase and any subsequent days. The price of the cup is based on the style, but all refills are $1. And SeaWorld Orlando now features Coca-Cola products.

** Shows: There are so many amazing animal shows at SeaWorld Orlando that you could spend the entire day moving from stadium to stadium just to see them all. (Extra shows have been added, too, for Summer Nights, which runs through Aug. 12.) Most families don't take that approach, however, so you'll need to prioritize the shows and then work the rest of your day's plans around that schedule. The two Shamu shows -- One Ocean and Shamu Rocks! -- and the Blue Horizons dolphin show are among the most popular, so plan to get to them at least 30 minutes early. (For more on the summer shows, please see my previous blog post.)

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** Roller coasters: If your children like roller coasters, make sure you check the height requirements to avoid any disappointment in the park. For the two biggest thrill rides, Kraken and Manta, kids must be at least 54 inches tall. Journey to Atlantis has a height requirement of 42 inches.

** Additional costs: Some experiences at SeaWorld Orlando are not included in your admission. For animal feedings, such as dolphins and stingrays, you'll have to buy the food. (More details about the dolphin feedings in another post.) There is a $5 charge per 20 minutes in the paddle boats, and up-close tours also are a separate price. If you would like to skip the long lines for popular attractions, you can purchase Quick Queue for one visit per major attraction or get the unlimited version for the day. Prices for Quick Queue vary, based on the option you choose and date of your visit. Currently, Quick Queue one-time is $14.99 per person and Quick Queue Unlimited is $24.99.

** Photos: If you're used to relying on Disney's PhotoPass photographers who are dispersed throughout the parks, you may be surprised to find only a handful of professional photographers at SeaWorld. They usually are concentrated near the entrance to the park and by the Dolphin Cove pool. So, if you want a lot of photos from your day, be sure to bring your own camera.

** Extra clothing: SeaWorld has more opportunities for guests to get wet than other theme parks -- from water rides to animal feedings to splash zones at the performances. There is even a water play area in the Happy Harbor kids section. If you are concerned about your kids walking around in wet clothes, you'll want to bring extra outfits or maybe rain ponchos.

Forgot something? Don't fret; it happens to all of us. SeaWorld is more than likely to have what you need for sale. Even this theme-park veteran had to buy sunscreen on her last visit.

July 28, 2012

Meet SeaWorld Orlando's amazing dolphins

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Dolphins, dolphins and more dolphins! If you or someone in your family just cannot get enough of these adorable mammals, SeaWorld Orlando has a number of dolphin experiences to fill your entire day.

My almost-8-year-old daughter's love of dolphins prompted our family to purchase SeaWorld passes this year, and we have been exploring all the ways in which she can get close to her favorite animals. Here is a little bit of what we have learned from our visits.

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Blue Horizons

Blue Horizons, the show where you see dolphins and their trainers perform amazing feats together and individually, is a fun show for all ages. The performance, which happens multiple times each day, also features tropical birds and ariel acrobats that fly toward the audience. There really are no bad seats in Whale & Dolphin Theater, but if you want a center spot, be sure to line up at least 30 minutes early, especially with the summer crowds. Also, know that employees will be walking through the stands selling snacks and drinks, so there's little need to stand in a line elsewhere -- unless you want to refill your soda mug.

Finally, if your child is a little starstruck by the human performers and would like to meet them, you're in luck. They usually line both sides of the walkways leading out of the stadium and are happy to pose for photos and talk with guests.

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Dolphin Cove

To meet some of the park's dolphins, guests can head to adjacent Dolphin Cove, where they can choose from three experiences. There's an underwater viewing area for this large dolphin pool, plus two interactive areas on the surface. On the far side of Dolphin Cove, guests can see the dolphins as they swim by and possibly pet them if they stop. In our experience, this doesn't happen often because these smart animals know they will be fed on the other side of the pool.

Dolphin feedings that are open to guests usually take place five times per day on the gated side of Dolphin Cove. Because of the limited space and popularity of these interactions, queues can form as much as an hour before the event, so plan accordingly. (Unfortunately, most of this line is in the sun, so at least grab a drink to keep hydrated.) Each guest entering the feeding area MUST purchase a tray of fish for $7 ($6 for annual passholders). There are no exceptions to this rule -- even if you just want to take photos of your kids petting the dolphins. Our solution is to purchase four trays and give each child two so their experience lasts longer and we have more opportunities to videotape and capture images.

Even with double the fish, the feeding goes by quickly. The dolphins will swim right up to the edge of the pool and open their mouths, waiting for the fish, not unlike dogs begging for food. Guests are instructed to pet them under the chin as they drop the food in. My daughter never gets tired of doing this, even though she finds the dead fish gross. Sometimes when she's feeding I manage to sneak in a friendly pat -- no fish for me, thanks!

During the dolphin feedings, SeaWorld photographers will stand on the opposite side of the pool and take photos, which you can view immediately afterward. We haven't had much luck with the professional photos but we have managed to take quite a few memorable shots on our own. When the group feeding is finished, guests are directed to the hand-washing station to clean up.

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Dolphin Nursery

A short walk from Dolphin Cove, guests will find the Dolphin Nursery, an area for pregnant dolphins, mothers and babies to bond without interference from the males of their species. This is a smaller dolphin pool, but the view from the sides is quite good. SeaWorld Orlando recently announced that mom dolphin Starkey gave birth to a baby on June 30, and both can be seen in the nursery.

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Dolphins Up Close Tour

If you want to interact with the moms and babies, it's time to sign up for the Dolphins Up Close Tour. This experience begins at the nursery where guests learn how SeaWorld cares for dolphins and then they participate in a scatter feed. The technique of dropping fish all over an area of the pool at the same time mimics feeding in the wild and helps teach baby dolphins to hunt for food. Trainers then guide the older dolphins through a few tricks for the viewers.

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Next, the group walks to the gated area of Dolphin Cove for the most exciting part of the tour -- some one-on-one time with a dolphin and a trainer who will teach participating guests basic hand signals. My kids were thrilled when our dolphin responded to their motions. They also had plenty of time to pet the dolphin and we got some great photos.

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My family participated in the Dolphins Up Close Tour at the beginning of the year during the Just For Kids festival, when children were free with a paid adult. Normally tickets for the tour are $50 for an adult and $30 for a child ages 3 to 9.

Other dolphin experiences

We are planning to go to two other SeaWorld Orlando properties this year for dolphin experiences, and I'll be bringing you the details on what to expect if you are planning similar trips. We're heading to Discovery Cove, where both kids will swim with the dolphins for their birthdays, and Aquatica, where we plan to slide right by all those smiling creatures when we're playing at the water park.

If you're going to be visiting Walt Disney World, there are a couple of dolphin programs there, as well.

July 21, 2012

SeaWorld Orlando features fun summer-only entertainment

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SeaWorld Orlando celebrates summer the way some theme parks celebrate the holidays -- with new shows and experiences, plus longer hours. Through Aug. 14, the park stays open until 10 p.m. as part of Summer Nights, and guests can take in performances planned just for the season.

The park's iconic killer whales perform in a nighttime high-energy show, Shamu Rocks!, that is set to music and colorful lights. Water fountains from the daytime show, One Ocean, have been added to Shamu Rocks! Perhaps the best way to describe this experience is that it's a blend of a concert of classic rock hits with marine animal performances. There's even a performer pretending to play a Shamu guitar, and the animal trainers do more dancing than their usual shuffling to the beat.

Shamu Rocks! is only performed once each night in the summer, so if you want good seats, be sure to get there early. Shamu Stadium typically opens 45 minutes before the show, and lines will form on the ramps. Surprisingly, to us anyway, the splash sections filled up first.

My elementary-school age kids really enjoyed this show. Even the wait was entertaining thanks to the big-screen entertainment, showing live scenes of audience members in Shamu Stadium.

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When the show ends, it's an easy walk over to Atlantis Bayside Stadium to see Reflections: Fireworks and Fountains Show Finale. On the night my family attended, we arrived and were pleased to find the stadium sparsely filled and we had our choice of seats. Once again, there was pre-show entertainment, this time in the form of an energetic drum corp and acrobats on stilts. This show encouraged the kids to dance in the aisles, so they weren't preoccupied with when the show would begin. Reflections is a water, lights and fireworks show and its new soundtrack includes segments from the killer whale show, "One Ocean." The pyrotechnics are contained to the space over the bay, no doubt for the safety of guests and to not disturb all the animals.

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The third summer show is Sea Lions Tonite, in which the park's talented sea lions, otters and walrus parody favorite SeaWorld shows and attractions. This year, a new spoof based on the latest killer whale show, One Ocean, has been added.

In addition to shows, SeaWorld hosts Summer Nights Central, a party on Bayside pathway. The fun begins at 6 p.m. each night with family friendly music from a DJ during the week and live music from bands on the weekends. Adults can purchase beer, wine and frozen drinks at the party, and the young and the young-at-heart might enjoy seasonal treats of cotton candy and Blue Bunny ice cream.

Looking for a thrill? Head over to Manta roller coaster for a moonlit ride that's only possible seasonally. My daughter is still at least an inch shy of the height requirement, so I haven't been forced to confront my Manta fears yet.

SeaWorld also offers guests a summer guided tour of the park at an additional charge that includes front-of-line access to the most popular rides, an opportunity to feed dolphins and reserved seating at Shamu Rocks! and Reflections. This Summer Nights VIP Tour also takes guests to the Makahiki Luau dinner show.

Even with the summer crowds, SeaWorld Orlando is easy to navigate. From my perspective as a frequent Disney World visitor, this is largely because the park and number of visitors are so much smaller than what I usually expect when I go to an Orlando theme park. It's a welcome change of pace.

July 14, 2012

SeaWorld Orlando's TurtleTrek takes visitors on amazing journey

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Thanks to a new Orlando attraction, we now have a better understanding of some Florida wildlife that we got to see in a completely new way. TurtleTrek opened at SeaWorld Orlando just in time for the summer crowds, and we recently joined the tourists to check it out.

TurtleTrek is the first 3D domed 360-degree attraction in the world, and that's certainly the best part of the experience. Inside the theater, about 200 audience members are immersed in the story of Nyah, following the green sea turtle from hatchling to adult. The computer-generated movie is even from her perspective, which adds to the larger-than-life feeling.

Nyah's journey from the sand to the water is not without struggle, portraying the real-life dangers hatchlings face. Only about ten of the dozens of eggs laid in each turtle nest will grow into adulthood. Nyah goes up against a shark, a crab and a swooping bird and still comes out alive and moving forward. The special effects during these segments make the audience jump and then laugh at how real they seem. However, it's not too scary for kids to enjoy.

The seven-minute movie is fast-paced and the turtle's environment is breathtakingly beautiful. In fact, the audience stands during the presentation, and there definitely are parts where guests will want to hold on to the handrails.

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Before the movie, visitors will see real turtles in their SeaWorld tanks. If you'e familiar with The Seas With Nemo & Friends at Walt Disney World, you'll recognize the vantage point of seeing into the aquariums from below the surface. It's fun to watch the turtles swim and glide, though I have to confess to thinking they move just as Crush does in Disney's "Finding Nemo."

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Guests also will see four manatees in a separate tank. (TurtleTrek has taken over the building where the Manatee Rescue attraction was previously based.) These huge gentle sea cows are amazing to watch. The SeaWorld employee who was giving the informative talk in this section of the attraction said they really don't carry a lot of excess weight. They're just big-boned. Ha!

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The TurtleTrek theater exits onto a deck, where guests get yet another view of the turtles -- this time from above. Guests are welcome to stay out here as long as they like, unlike the inside viewing rooms, which are designed to entertain before the movie.

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On the day we visited TurtleTrek, the posted wait time was 40 minutes. Although the queue isn't really themed or interactive, as guests have come to expect at DIsney World, it is in the shade, which is a welcome relief from the hot Florida sun. The time seemed to pass fairly quickly and before we knew it we were entering into Nyah's world.

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About SeaWorld Orlando

This page contains an archive of all entries posted to A Mom and The Magic in the SeaWorld Orlando category. They are listed from oldest to newest.

Satu'li Canteen is the previous category.

SeaWorld Summer Camps is the next category.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.