The Other Side of SeaWorld Orlando

Filed under: SeaWorld |

Yesterday I was lucky enough to be part of the newest Tourism Orlando group to tour SeaWorld Orlando. For those not familiar, “Tourism Orlando” is a group that has been going for some thirteen years now and in all, over 600 people have been through its programs that educate the leaders in Florida business about the role that tourism plays in Orlando.

County Commissioners, CEO’s and other top executives from the leading companies in Orlando all participate in the program that is designed to give a behind the scenes look at how many of the different components of the tourism industry work. During the year monthly trips are made to the theme parks, the convention center, the sports facilities, the emergency service providers and it all ends with a graduation ceremony with Mickey Mouse at Walt Disney World. It’s a fabulous program and not only does it provide some great education but it’s also a lot of fun.

The latest program saw attendees meet at Ports of Call at SeaWorld Orlando at the bright and early start time of 7.30am ready for a full day of activities. Breakfast was at Discovery Cove so everyone boarded the bus and headed the short distance to one of the most popular and exclusive parks in Orlando. If you’ve not been to Discovery Cove yet, you really must pay a visit. At first glance it may look expensive but the SeaWorld team have been extremely clever in offering a great value package that includes all food and drink during the day (including wine and beer). Dynamic pricing is a theme at Discovery Cove and the prices do tend to reflect the season you want to visit and the actual guest demand. Only 1,000 guests are allowed to enjoy this luxurious experience each day and there can be wait lists at certain times of year. Admission packages also include admission to SeaWorld Orlando and Aquatica and a small upgrade also sees Busch Gardens included. Well worth the money in my book!

Discovery Cove is a place where you and your family can touch and swim with dolphins, wade with mysterious rays, snorkel among thousands of exotic fish, hand-feed tropical birds in a free-flight aviary and relax on pristine beaches.

After an hour or so at Discovery Cove, we then headed over to SeaWorld’s water park… Aquatica. The park is themed to the southern Pacific, and features a wide array of attractions for all ages and swimming abilities, some of which pass by or through animal habitats. The park has two wave pools off the man made white-sand beach area equipped with deck chairs, sun beds and umbrellas. It also has a wide variety of other fun stuff for old and young alike including body, mat and raft slides. It’s the perfect place to cool off in the warm Florida heat.

45 minutes at Aquatica flew by and then we boarded the bus and headed to SeaWorld Orlando and a chance to go behind the scenes at the animal care facility. Sometimes SeaWorld attracts some negative publicity from those who claim they are cruel to animals but very often those people don’t get to see what really goes on behind the guest areas. To that point, it’s relatively unknown that SeaWorld Orlando collectively maintains one of the largest animal collections on the North American continent as they care for approximately 67,000 animals, including 7,000 marine and terrestrial animals and 60,000 fish.Now that’s a huge undertaking!

When you couple that with their animal rescue program that has a legacy spanning over four decades that has benefited more than 22,000 animals you start to understand the cruelty argument holds little water. The animal rescue teams work in partnership with state, local, and federal agencies and are on call 24/7 assisting animals that are orphaned, ill, injured or in need of expert care.

The sole goal is to successfully rehabilitate animals for return to the wild but the small percentage of animals whose injuries are too debilitating to permit release are given lifelong care.

Make no mistake the team is extremely professional and passionate about their work and they are constantly devising new ways to rescue, treat, and return to nature these extraordinary animals. No rescue and no case is ever the same and we got to see some of the methods employed and the treatment give to manatees, dolphins, turtles and a variety of birds on our visit. The animal health care plan for each animal calls for experts to create nutritional formulas and custom nursing bottles to hand-feed orphaned animals; imaginative ways to save sea turtles with cracked shells; prosthetic beaks for injured birds; and even an “animal wetsuit” to help an injured manatee stay afloat and warm. It’s simply an amazing facility and when you learn that just one manatee can eat 40 cases of romaine lettuce per day, then you also begin to understand it’s a costly exercise! Oh! By the way, it also costs more to keep a manatee than it does a killer whale!

We spent a good hour behind the scenes examining the vehicles, tanks and rescue facilities before heading to a behind the scenes look at the shark tank that surrounds the Sharks Underwater Grill restaurant. The view above the tank is quite extraordinary as you gaze down at a variety of sharks and other fish swimming below your feet all the time knowing one false move would make you into shark food!

By now it was lunch time and we were treated to a wonderful lunch at the grill and a chance to sample some fine dining while taking in the simply fascinating view from another angle… this time from the relative safety of some very thick glass separating us!  Make no mistake, this is a very memorable experience as you dine just inches away from some of the oceans deadliest predators.

So, with lunch behind us, the SeaWorld team thought it would be fun to offer a ride on Manta, the flying roller coaster that opened in 2011. And some folks took that offer up while the more sane of our group settled for a tour of the Manta aquarium. I’ll leave you to decide what I opted for but they did give us a little break en route as we took in a dolphin training session at Dolphin Cove beforehand!

We then jumped on the bus again that quickly took us to the other side of the park where we then got to see a wonderful training session with the amazing white beluga whales. We learned about the behaviors and personalities of the approximately 2000 lb whales as they leaped from the training pool to try and catch a buoy.

A quick walk then took us to Wild Artic and a chance for some of the group to ride a helicopter simulator before exiting to see the polar bear, walrus and the beluga whales again. If you’ve not been, Wild Artic is designed to resemble a research station in the Artic Ocean. During the Christmas season, the ride then gets transformed into The Polar Express.

After 30 mins at Wild Artic we then made our way to Shamu Stadium where SeaWorld’s whale trainers gave us a great talk and showed us a demonstration of whale behaviors. It was a great insight into how the trainers do things and how they get the magnificent killer whales to do their tricks in a superb entertaining family show. We learned that the water is 55 degrees Fahrenheit in the 40 foot deep tank and that the trainers actually wear a 3mm wet suit and not a 5mm one that normal divers might use. In the Summer this might not make too much difference but in the colder months like January, it certainly can make the human body shiver a little! Rather them than me!

We also got to learn what it took to become a Killer Whale trainer at SeaWorld and to sum it up; you need to be able to swim a long way under water, be able to swan dive, dive to 40 feet, have a lot of animal experience by rotating to different animals and their behaviors throughout the park, have lots of formal schooling (college) and then be able to learn the shows!

Once we’d completed our killer whale training we then headed to SeaWorld’s brand new attraction… Antarctica – Empire of the Penguin. It was a chance to grab a refreshment while SeaWorld President Terry Prather gave a quick overview of SeaWorld Orlando’s operations. In all some 7,000 team members work at SeaWorld Orlando in A-Z roles (“accounting to zoological operations”) making dreams come alive for park guests. “We are dream-makers,” said Prather, “we celebrate dreams, we fulfill dreams and we inspire other dreams.”

He then talked about Antarctica and how the SeaWorld Orlando team persuaded the Board of Directors to invest more money than ever before in one single attraction. “We want to take our guests somewhere they wouldn’t normally go,” he said, “so that’s why the South Pole, the bottom of the world… a place most people will never go to.”

We were then given some information on the style of food that is now available in Antarctica and how it was designed to replicate some of the experiences of some of the explorers who have visited the area. We were told that greens in Antarctica were known as “freshies” and that the food now reflects the 50 countries in the world that have signed up to research Antarctica. We’ll let you explore that for yourself when you next visit the park.

After that, we were introduced to Corey Oxman – Senior Animal Trainer at SeaWorld (pictured above with me) and her incredible tale of her voyage to Antarctica in 2011 that turned out to be part of the inspiration for what we now see at SeaWorld. Corey told us how she made a trip with her friend Jason who had cancer and had previously visited six of the seven continents in the world. Jason was determined to see the last continent and Corey said she agreed to tag along regardless of cost. Corey related that the trip took 18 months to plan and that it was quite an adventure to reach the southern most part of planet earth. A trip involving a flight to the southern most point of Argentina before a two day boat journey in twelve foot waves to finally see the tip of an iceberg that grew bigger and bigger as they approached.

Corey relayed her and Jason’s adventure and the regular journey’s in inflatable Zodiak boats to the Antarctic Peninsula where welcoming committee’s of penguins met them each and every-time. Corey relayed how the penguins created “Penguin Highways” and how they would shuffle along allowing each other to move rather like a four way stop. Naturally, Corey took lots of photographs and plenty of video footage on her trip and that would soon pay dividends as not too long after returning, the higher echelon at SeaWorld summoned her to talk about her trip and how she could help in the planning of the most expensive new attraction in SeaWorld Orlando’s history. It was a wonderful story of how human beings can take their experiences and turn them into something that others can enjoy. Oh… and by the way, Jason is OK and he’s currently working at Discovery Cove… wish I’d known that earlier in the day.

I did ask Corey if there were any plans to video her little talk about her trip and I’m delighted to say that there are… and when it’s done, I’ll be posting a link here as it’s a story well worth listening to!

So, to round the day off, what could be better than a visit to the attraction itself and a chance to see the South Pole in Orlando? A fine way to end a fabulous day.

In closing, I just want to extend my thanks to Maria at Tourism Orlando and to all the great folks at SeaWorld Orlando – Terry, Tim, Steve, Kym, Corey and many others I have missed who all made the day so memorable. Thanks guys… you’re the best!

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