The stingray glides past my 12-year-old daughter’s outstretched hand where she holds a tiny piece of shrimp between her index and middle finger in the shallow pool. “Ooh,” she squeals in delight. “That was cool. It’s kind of slimy, but it’s cool. It just felt weird. I’ve never felt anything like it before.”
She is—fantastically—in full-on science mode as we stand at Stingray Lagoon not far from the entrance to SeaWorld Orlando , where we’ve entered not half an hour before. I can already see the wonder bloom on the faces of my children.
“You put your hand in the bottom of the pool. They swim right over it and eat it up. They have no teeth,” she explains to my delight. Unbridled enthusiasm in a pre-teen always makes my heart sing.
And she’s right. Despite their name, stingrays are one of the most docile species in the ocean, we learn from one of SeaWorld’s animal experts, now on a microphone explaining all about these marine creatures.
“At SeaWorld, you see the world from a different perspective,” says the educator.
Over the course of this day, exploring the watery wonder of SeaWorld and its neighboring sister park Aquatica, many aspects of our visit had moments like this, moments when we were reminded that SeaWorld’s mandate is to educate as well as to entertain.
Through exhibits and shows, behind-the-scenes tours, and chats with onsite educators, visitors can see how animal experts care for rescued animals, marvel at the touch of a stingray or the majesty of manatees, and learn how we can all help the marine world.
Our three girls, aged eight to 12, are clearly enamored and we’ve barely stepped foot in the park, celebrating its 50th anniversary. After admiring colourful flamingos, we ping-pong over to the underwater dolphin area to watch playful bottlenose dolphins, then drift over to Turtle Trek, curious to see these amazing sea creatures swim and play.
We stand, unhurried, and awed, by the glass separating us and the marine world we’re witnessing. Moments later we’ll step into a domed theatre for a 3D experience that will place us ‘inside’ a turtle egg with NYAH, the sea turtle who hatches on the beach, and we join her life’s journey.
When I ask how long the experience takes, not wanting to miss our 10:45 a.m. pre-scheduled behind-the-scenes tour, the on-site educator becomes an impromptu tour guide, telling us not only can we catch TurtleTrek, but we’ll be in good time and proximity to then watch the Blue Horizons show in the Dolphin Theatre – where acrobats and dolphins fly into the air, divers spring from platforms and tropical birds join the chorography – then be well placed for the start of our tour.
It’s a perfect plan. We catch both shows (even snag a seat in the Dolphin Theatre’s splash zone) and are queuing with about 10 others when Amanda, our enthusiastic, friendly guide, shakes our hands to start a 70-minute small group behind-the-scenes tour to see rescue animals, facilities, vehicles, and ends with meeting fascinating and funny rockhopper penguins from South America.
SeaWorld has been running for nearly 50 years, and so has the rescue program, Amanda explains as we go behind the scenes into a little city of sorts with a commissary, which dispenses food, surgical units, veterinary offices, pharmacy, and animals like Grandma, a sea turtle missing part of her jaw after becoming tangled in fishing gear.
Birds, Amanda says, are the biggest rescue they have, and the animals they help are from all over the world, from Alaska to Africa. They’ve rescued over 24,000 animals, she says.
This ticket for the behind-the-scenes tour (it’s purchased separately from park admission) contributes 10 per cent of its cost back to conservation, she says.
Along the way, we meet a shark, and a roomful of penguins who stand like statues or silently strut by their igloos. With an educator holding Skippy, a rockhopper penguin, we’re allowed to stroke two fingers down his back.
As our tour ends, Amanda thanks us and asks us to think of ways we already help the planet. She challenges us to think of what more we can do.
GETTING WET AT AQUATICA
With the Florida sunshine soaring to 32C and spirits starting to sag, we opt just after 1 p.m. to take advantage of our passes – 14 days unlimited admission to sister parks SeaWorld, Aquatica and Busch Gardens in Tampa – to skip five minutes across International Drive to cool off at the tiki-themed, 60-acre waterpark, Aquatica.
It’s a good move. While Aquatica has a full crowd, it never feels busy. Lines are never long for a ride or river
Roa’s Rapids is a great hit. Those who want don a life jacket (not needed, but most everyone wears one) and let the current pull them swiftly down a swirling river (so fun).
We’re big waterpark fans and Aquatica is a wonderful place to cool off under the Florida sun. You can tube lazily down the river at Loggerhead Lane, shoot down Dolphin plunge, the park’s premier attraction where riders zip through a tube as Commerson’s Dolphins swim by, or get wet in popular, side-by-side wave pools, Cutback Cove and Big Surf Shores.
Walkabout Waters and Kata’s Kookaburra Cove are great spots for the wee ones. My tweens loved Whanau Way, the quadruple slide tower they powered down on double inner tubes.
We spend hours sliding, tubing, and laughing in the warm waters.
We only exit when the park closes at 5 p.m., and it’s back across to SeaWorld to catch the One Ocean show at 6 p.m. in Shamu Stadium. The energy is high as we take our seats – not in the splash zone this time – to see dancing trainers and giant orcas in a 25-minute program filled with music, jumbo screens, and the killer whales jumping and using their massive tails to wave goodbye and my children waving right back.