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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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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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