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SeaWorld Family Vacations

By Jeff and Stephanie Sylva

Family theme park vacations have been very popular recently. Family travelers to Orlando will find a great alternative to the usual Disney family vacation by taking in SeaWorld's exciting theme parks. With the wide variety of attractions at the SeaWorld Parks, family vacations here will be packed with loads of fun.

During our recent visit to Orlando we enjoyed two fun-filled, entertaining days at SeaWorld and Aquatica - SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment's wonderful mix of up-close animal encounters, exciting attractions and rides, and wonderful performances. Everyone in the family will find something to enjoy, whether it be high-flying roller coasters and water slides, entertaining animal shows, or simply relaxing on a tropical beach.

Thrilling Rides and Exotic Fish

For those seeking the thrills of roller coasters, SeaWorld has two terrific ones. The newer ride, Manta, incorporates all the best of SeaWorld amusements - fascinating aquarium exhibits and an exhilarating "flying" roller coaster. Unlike most rides where waiting on line can be very tedious, guests standing in line for Manta are treated to viewing more than 3,000 marine animals in 10 state-of-the-art aquatic habitats. A number of the aquariums have unique configurations like the pop-up aquarium where smaller guests can "pop up" in the middle of the aquarium, or the huge all-around-you aquarium where hundreds of rays float by. Waiting on line for a ride has never been more fun, as viewers are treated to a wide array of exotic fish. Once aboard Manta, which is inspired by the biggest ray of all, riders' seats rotate horizontally, putting them in a soaring, face-down position. Those who have never ridden a "flying" coaster such as Manta are in for one thrilling ride.

SeaWorld's other coaster, Kraken - themed after a mythological underwater beast - is Orlando's only floorless roller coaster. Riders' feet dangle as they travel in open-sided seats. Other rides include Journey to Atlantis, a water-coaster that includes two steep, and often wet, drops as the boat takes riders through a clash for the lost city of Atlantis; and Wild Artic, a motion-based flight over the frozen North. The best part of this attraction was the exhibit after the "ride", which featured beluga whales, walruses, harbor seals, and polar bears.

Entertaining Shows

As much as we may like thrilling rides, what we liked most of all about SeaWorld were its shows. The schedule includes five shows, four of which feature animals. The all-new Shamu show, "One Ocean" is the park's signature show featuring SeaWorld's family of killer whales in a beautifully choreographed, multi-sensory celebration of life under the sea. However, our favorite show proved to be "Blue Horizons", a spectacular showcase of dolphins, false killer whales, exotic birds, with a cast of world-class divers and aerialists. Some of the stunts that the trainers perform with the dolphins are nothing short of spellbinding. Families will love the other shows as well, particularly the comedy of "Clyde and Seamore Take Pirate Island," a swashbuckling adventure with sea lions, otters and a walrus; and "Pets Ahoy!", where a menagerie of cats, dogs, birds, rats, skunks, pot-belly pigs, and other animals keep the audience laughing and amazed. Interesting is the fact that nearly all of the four-legged performers were rescued from animal shelters.

Other animal attractions that families will enjoy include "Key West at SeaWorld," where guests may feed and touch dolphins and stingrays; "Shark Encounter," a walk-through aquarium featuring a vast collection of sharks, eels, barracuda, and venomous fish; and "Pacific Point Preserve," home to a group of cavorting California sea lions and harbor seals. "Dolphin Nursery" is home to dolphin mothers and their newborn calves; "Penguin Encounter" houses over 200 playful penguins and puffins; and "Manatee Rescue," an American Zoological Association award-winning exhibit features manatees rescued by SeaWorld's animal rescue team. The manatees that become healthy enough will be returned to their natural habitat.

More Family Fun

Shamu's Happy Harbor, a children's play area, will keep kids entertained with a variety of attractions including Shamus Express, a family-oriented roller coaster. A number of other rides and attractions in this area are designed specifically for younger children.

Some family members may be intrigued by one of the unique opportunities offered in SeaWorld's interactive programs. Participants in the Beluga Interactive Program suit up and enter the chilly 55 degree water for a shallow-water encounter with the majestic white Beluga whales.
Another unique interactive experience is the Marine Mammal Keeper Experience. Live the dream of caring for dolphins, beluga whales and sea lions. Work side-by-side with marine mammal experts and understand what it's like to care for these amazing animals. Get an intimate look at feeding and behavior patterns and work with the animals just like the pros do.

A Little Bit of the South Seas in Orlando

We spent our second day in Orlando at SeaWorld's water park, Aquatica, and enjoyed a day of exciting water slides, raucous river rides, and relaxing beaches amid the park's South Seas-inspired flora. With 36 slides in a variety of shapes and sizes, six rivers and lagoons, and more than 80,000 square feet of sandy beaches, Aquatica is a park that will give the family a full day of watery fun.

After picking out our spot on the beach, we spent pretty much the entire day - stopping just for lunch at one of the park's three restaurants, Waterstone Grill - riding the many water slides and river rapids even though the temperature was just a cool 78 degrees. The water in all of the pools and slides is kept at a comfortable 84 degrees. One thing in particular that we liked about the water rides at Aquatica is that most of the rides use a raft, tube or other flotation device; and we never had to wait for one, as plenty were available.

A large supply of life vests is also available in a number of locations throughout the park. Even though we are quite competent swimmers, we found that the vests were great to wear in Roa's Rapids, which is designed like a lazy river ride but much faster and more exciting. Rafts and tubes are not allowed in the rapids, so the vests were quite useful. Those looking for a slower paced river ride will find one in Loggerhead Lane, which offers some wonderful underwater viewing of the beautiful black and white Commerson's dolphins and a 10,000 gallon habitat of thousands of exotic fish.

The vests were also great for hanging out in the park's two wave pools. The side-by-side pools (Aquatica is the only water park to have side-by-side wave pools), Big Surf Shores and Cutback Cove, each produce a different wave experience. Cutback Cove produces crashing waves with 5-foot swells while Big Surf Shores creates a more gently rolling surf.

New Ride a Favorite

While our favorite water ride was the exciting river rapids of Roa's Rapids (we probably spent well over an hour racing along in the rushing waters), we think many will find Aquatica's thrilling new water ride, Omaka Rocka, to be their favorite. Using tubes, riders speed down flumes into massive funnels, sliding high up one side and then the other, creating a sensation much like one gets in a half-pipe - only this is on a water tube.

Another popular ride is the Dolphin Plunge, which takes riders down 250 feet of clear tubes, underwater, and through the Commerson's dolphin habitat. If the timing is right, a rider can feel the experience of racing side-by-side with a dolphin.

A variety of other exciting rides will keep the whole family busy all day. For smaller family members, Kata's Kookaburra Cove is filled with fountains, rides, and slides designed for those under 48 inches tall. Even children too young to walk can enjoy sliding with Mom and Dad in specially designed rafts.

In addition to the use of life vests, other amenities in the park include all-day lockers with unlimited access for a nominal fee, towel rentals, and clean showers and changing areas. Private cabanas are available for rental. Each cabana offers privacy, shaded seating, a cooling fan, and a mini-refrigerator stocked with a variety of sodas, juices, and water, as well as complimentary use of towels and lockers.

If You Go:

  • Other SeaWorld interactive offerings include a "Dolphins Up-Close Tour," a "Sea Lions Up-Close Tour," a "Penguins Up-Close Tour," "Sea World's Family Fun Tour," and a "Behind-the-Scenes Tour." For more information on these programs as well as information about ticket deals, hotel packages and park information, call 1-888-800-5447 or visit www.SeaWorldParks.com.

  • Get information about Aquatica's pricing, park hours, and general information such as parking fees, ride requirements, cabana rentals, weather forecasts and the outside food policy by calling 1-888-800-5447 or visit www.AquaticabySeaWorld.com.

Jeff and Stephanie are retired English and Social Studies high school teachers who have been freelance travel writers for over 22 years.


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