Day 2: Sea World
The second day of our trip to San Diego was dominated by a visit to Sea World. Our son has been very into sharks and other marine animals for quite a while, so Sea World seemed an obvious destination. I admit that the Sea World parks have never been my absolute favorite theme parks. The parks are good showcases for marine life and I certainly admire their conservation efforts, but for me a little tends to go a long way when it comes to animal exhibits. I do enjoy occasional visits, just not all that frequently. This was only my second visit (as an adult) to the San Diego park, with the last visit being around 5 years ago. I have been to the Orlando park a couple times as well, although it has been close to a decade since my last visit there.
The park was scheduled to be opened until 11pm and we knew that we wanted to stay late enough to see the fireworks show. Visiting a theme park from opening to closing can be a bit too much with a toddler, so we decided to have breakfast at the hotel and aim for arriving at the park around noon. For breakfast, there was a buffet available at Harbor’s Edge, the main hotel dining room where we had dinner on Friday night. The buffet offered an excellent selection of traditional breakfast foods, including eggs, bacon, sausage, potatoes, various fruit and berries, pastries and breads, etc. They also had a station where you could get an omelet or waffles cooked to order. The food was all very fresh and hot and quite good. It was really pretty impressive food quality for a hotel buffet of this kind.
After eating, we headed over to Sea World and did manage to time our arrival at the park for right around noon, just as planned. Upon arrival, we immediately found a pretty large traffic back-up into the parking lot. The parking is pretty confusingly arranged, with a division between standard and "premium" parking. Another small section at the very front is further designated for guests with annual passes. The "premium" section is closer to the gate with a higher parking rate. The disabled parking section is also up in the front with the "premium" parking, but guests with a valid placard or plates are charged the standard parking rate. The varied parking tiers resulted in a pretty confusing arrangement, where drivers all have to figure out the right lane to get into for the type of parking desired. This did slow down the process quite a bit. Even after getting through the toll booths and proceeding to the proper parking section, they did not have any staff directing parking, which meant that we had to drive around for quite a while before we finally found an area where there were spaces available. All this confusion certainly didn’t make for the best first impression upon arrival and I really think they should consider dropping the differing parking tiers as well as better staffing the parking lot in order to make the parking process a more trouble-free and efficient experience.
We had purchased our tickets online and printed them at home, so we were able to proceed straight to the turnstiles upon parking. After a quick bag check (standard at all theme parks now), we made it into the park very quickly and without trouble. Although our son rarely rides in a stroller any longer, we did decide to go ahead and rent one so we would have it if we needed it. Since he isn’t yet potty trained, we also have to lug around quite a bit of clothing for a full day at a theme park, so the stroller was also helpful as a makeshift luggage cart. The Sea World strollers are pretty sturdy with a good sized storage area underneath. The rental process was also easy and trouble-free and I appreciated that they do not require a deposit, which would make the return at the end of the day fast and easy.
As this was Saturday of the last weekend prior to Labor Day weekend, it was not too surprising that the park was very crowded. The nature of the attractions at Sea World does make crowded days much more manageable there than at most other theme parks, but it would still require some planning and organization. Visiting with a toddler who doesn’t have an exceptionally long attention span, our focus was probably a bit different than the typical Sea World guest. We only attended one of the animal shows (the Shamu show), instead focusing on the walk-through exhibits. We also didn’t even try to go on any of the rides.
Once we were ready to start visiting attractions, our first stop pretty much had to be Shark Encounter. As mentioned earlier, our son is very interested in sharks and he had long been looking forward to seeing them. The exhibit is pretty nicely designed. The first room includes several tanks where guests can spend as much time as they want watching sharks swimming around. The only slight problem with this area is that it is a little light on spots where smaller children can actually see into the tanks, but I was pretty easily able to overcome this by lifting my son up.
The highlight of this attraction, though, is a moving sidewalk that takes guests through a large clear tube that goes right down the middle of the main shark habitat. During that ride-through, sharks are swimming all around and above you. One funny part of this was that, in typical toddler fashion, our son was initially so interested in the moving sidewalk itself that it took a little effort to get him to look around and notice the sharks. I ended up lifting him up and essentially held him so that he was face-to-face with one of the sharks overhead, which finally got him to notice them. After that, he pretty much couldn’t get enough of looking at the sharks.
My only real complaint about this part of the exhibit was that the lay-out is such that you have to exit the attraction completely and then walk through the whole thing if you want to repeat the ride on the moving sidewalk. Our son would have loved to go through there several times, but it just wasn’t practical with the lay-out. On the plus side, they do have an area at the end where you can stand and watch the main tank through a window for pretty much as long as you want.
After visiting the sharks, we stopped at the shark-centered gift shop that Sea World conveniently placed at the exit to the exhibit (imagine that!) This store would end up as the primary source of souvenirs for our son, including a plush shark, a t-shirt, a book, and a pair of socks. They did have a pretty nice selection of items in there, although some of their current merchandise is a bit strange. In addition to the more traditional looking plush (like the one we bought), pretty much all the Sea World gift shops have plush of the various animals in pink or green colors with sequins. These designs looked odd with pretty much any animal, but the sharks seemed particularly out of place.
In preparation for the trip, we had been regularly going over with our son the list of animals that he would see at Sea World, so after leaving the Shark Encounter, he quickly started rattling off his various choices for what animals he wanted to see. It was at this point that we realized that Sea World doesn’t really make it particularly easy to see some of its signature animals if you aren’t particularly wanting to attend the shows. The worst example of this is the dolphins. After the sharks, they were next on his "to see" list, so we spent the next half hour or so trying to find a spot where we could view them. While there are some viewing areas available, they tend to be very small and extremely crowded. Although we did see them, I had to hold our son up the whole time for him to even have a chance to see the animals at all. I realize that the majority of the park’s guests likely do go to see the dolphin show and I’m sure we would make an effort to do so as well on future visits, but I do think it would be beneficial if they would improve the facilities for those that wish to view the dolphins in a more informal, more leisurely manner.
While looking for a good spot to view the dolphins, we did find the "Pacific Point" exhibit, which provides up close viewing of sea lions and harbor seals. This exhibit is a fairly simple design, but with a lot of viewing space making it very easy to see the animals and even stick around and watch them for a while. It is pretty centrally located and we actually stopped by to rest for a few minutes while watching the animals a couple times during our visit. Each of the times we were there, they had a trainer present who was giving information about the animals, which was a nice touch.
As you can probably guess by looking at this site’s logo (and name), my wife and I each had one animal that was a major priority for us during our visit to Sea World. She is very fond of flamingos while I am very fond of penguins. Flamingo Cove would, of course, be a priority for later in the day, but our next stop was the Penguin Encounter attraction. I definitely think that this is by far the best designed animal exhibit at the park. In fact, it really should become their reference design as it provides the park’s best opportunity for guests to view the animals at pretty much any pace that they choose.
Upon entering the attraction, there are two pathways into the main habitat. If you keep to your right, there is a moving sidewalk that runs pretty close to the windows into the habitat, providing a fairly lengthy, up-close view. The path to the left takes you up to a good-sized, raised observation deck with plenty of benches to allow guests to sit and watch the penguins for as long as they wish. Of course, the climate-controlled habitat is nice and cool, making it an ideal place to take a bit of a break on a hot day. My only small complaint about this area is the monitors in front of the benches that repeatedly show a video presentation. These are pretty bright and can be a bit of a distraction, particularly when the night-time lighting is active in the habitat. I think that a smart design improvement to this area would be to change these monitors to play on demand (via a push button) instead of having them run continuously.
At the end of the moving sidewalk, guests have several options. Off to the right, there is an additional exhibit of alcids and puffins. The viewing area for this sub-exhibit is pretty large and they don’t tend to attract as big a crowd as the penguins, thus making it pretty easy to view even on a crowded day. The other available options in this area are to either exit (through a gift shop, of course…) or to enter back into the main habitat observation deck. One very nice aspect of this design is that it is very easy to cut through the viewing area to repeat the ride on the moving sidewalk, if desired. My son wanted to go through several times, which we did while my wife relaxed for a bit on the observation deck.
Outside of the exhibit there is an outdoor habitat for Magellanic penguins, a warm-weather species. This provides a nice exterior landscaping for the exhibit while adding the welcome addition of another type of penguin. It is another good-sized, fairly uncrowded exhibit providing for pretty easy viewing.
Directly across from the Penguin Encounter is Wild Arctic, a combination of attraction/exhibit that features polar bears, beluga whales, walruses, arctic foxes and seals. The attraction also includes an optional simulator ride, which we skipped due to fairly long waits as well as a height-restriction that excluded our son from riding. When bypassing the simulator, the only wait was a brief one as they were admitting guests to the simulators through the single attraction entrance. The non-simulator route initially takes guests into a small theater where you have the option to sit and watch the simulator film without the motion elements. We decided to skip that as well and go right into the exhibit area.
I had somewhat mixed feelings about Wild Arctic, but with a general conclusion that the overall emphasis of the attraction is really misplaced and needs to be reworked. On the positive side, the entire attraction is very well-themed. Along with the area surrounding the Shipwreck Rapids water ride, Wild Arctic easily has the most extensive and well-done theming in the park. Throughout the attraction, a great deal of effort is put into maintaining the illusion that you are at a remote arctic research station. Without having seen it directly, the impression that I had was that the simulator ride involved the eventful journey to that station. The extensive use of props and decorative ornamentation creates an immersive experience that is on a par with what is more frequently found in Disney or Universal parks.
This is all nice, but the big problem with Wild Arctic is that it is incredibly difficult to actually see the animals. The viewing areas for the animals are generally small and tightly packed. This is especially true for the polar bears, which are likely the main draw of the exhibit for a large percentage of guests. Part of the problem is that many guests wish to watch the animals (sometimes taking a lot of photos and video) for a fairly long time, which isn’t really an unreasonable expectation. With very little space in front of the viewing windows and few controls in place to limit the crowd size or durations spent, the areas simply keep getting packed tighter and tighter until it is very difficult for anyone to get much of a view. We visited the exhibit twice during our time there, once around 1pm and again around 9pm. Both times, the crowds were so thick that we never got more than a glimpse of the polar bears and really only fared a little bit better viewing the other animals there.
As I said, the theming in Wild Arctic is great, but it really strikes me as representing a misunderstanding of the main reasons for visiting Sea World. I really think that they should seriously consider re-working the arctic exhibit to lose some of the theming in favor of a design more akin to what they have for the Penguins. It strikes me that fancy theming and simulator rides aren’t really necessary when you have polar bears, beluga whales, walruses, etc.
After our (relatively short) visit to Wild Arctic, we decided we were ready to get some lunch. We agreed that pizza sounded like a good choice and headed over to Mama Stella’s Pizza Kitchen. Like the rest of the park, the restaurant was pretty crowded and the wait for food was probably the longest line we waited in all day (it took about 30 minutes or so). While I waited, my wife and son went to find a table, which actually didn’t turn out to be overly difficult as the restaurant has a very large seating area.
We all three had pepperoni pizza. My son had a kid’s meal portion, which included half of one of the pizzas and a breadstick served in a souvenir plastic lunch box. The menu only showed cheese pizza as a kid’s meal option, but they had no problems substituting pepperoni pizza on request. As as typical at animal-oriented parks, Sea World does not offer lids or straws for drinks, but the kid’s drinks do come in plastic souvenir cups which do also have plastic lids and straws. The pizza was a pretty typical theme park quality; not bad, but not particularly exceptional. I did notice that Sea World’s food prices tend to generally be high, even by theme park standards. Two adult-sized pizzas, a kid’s meal, 2 adult soft drinks, and a kid’s drink cost around $35. We spent a day at Disneyland the following weekend and I noted that an equivalent meal there was about $5 or so less expensive.
After lunch, we had about an hour before we needed to head to the theater to see the next Shamu show and our son was needing to work off some energy. We decided to head over to the Shamu’s Happy Harbor playground and let him run around for a while. The playground featured a mix of rope bridges, climbing tubes, slides, and other similar play equipment. There was also a large section that was intended for water play, but they did not have the water turned on the day we were there.
While this area had a nice mix of different types of play areas for kids, it also had some very serious flaws. The area is not fully enclosed, resulting in quite a few different exits. The rope bridges and tubs structures that make up the main play area also have a variety of entrances and exits and, to make matters worse, there are quite a few areas (mainly the tubes), where normal-sized adults simply can’t go. Upon discovering this layout, I was tempted not to allow our son to play there, but that would have been an exceptional disappointment for him and we know his personality is such that he wouldn’t stray from the play area. We did stay there for a shorter time than we typically do at theme park play areas and during that time my wife and I struggled to try and keep track of him while working together to cover the various possible exits. During one short time when we did briefly lose track of him, my wife commented to one of the employees working in the area about the rather poor design and was greeted with a semi-annoyed response of "do you want help looking for your kid or something?"
The play area actually closed on September 10th, just a couple weeks after our visit. Reportedly, Sea World plans to refurbish and re-theme the play area to feature the Sesame Street characters. Anheuser-Busch Parks also owns Sesame Place in Pennsylvania, so they already have experience working with those characters. During that refurbishment, I hope that they will take a serious look at the current layout and make an effort to revise it with single points of entry/exit and an overall design that makes it easier for parents to allow their children some freedom while still ensuring their safety. I actually hope that Sesame Workshop will involve themselves heavily with this re-design and apply their extensive experience and expertise on all aspects of child development in order to help convert this area into truly word-class children’s area.
After visiting the playground, our next destination was the Shamu Stadium to see the day’s last performance of "Believe", the recently re-designed whale show. Trying to get to the show on time was the most serious example of a recurring problem that we had throughout our visit. For someone that doesn’t know it well, it is difficult, and at times frustrating, navigating around the park. The park’s layout is essentially three parallel circles, but so many of the park’s main features are so large (with multiple entrances) that it is often difficult to tell exactly where you are. That makes it hard to navigate around with the park maps. The directional signs in the park weren’t a lot of help either, as they frequently are positioned in spots where it isn’t completely clear which of multiple paths to take. They also often left you in the lurch, essentially getting you part way to a destination and then not having follow-up signs to get you the rest of the way there. By mid-day, it actually became a running joke that we might be better off going the opposite direction from wherever the signs told us to.
The end result of this was that we had a pretty hard time finding the Shamu Stadium and ended up getting there with only about 5 minutes or so to spare before the start of the show. Fortunately, the stadium has an enormous capacity, meaning that there really wasn’t any difficulty getting seats. We were up towards the top of the stadium, but our intent had been to sit pretty far back anyway as we wanted to avoid the splash zones.
We also wanted to ensure that our son would have a clear view, with the hope that we would be far enough back that he wouldn’t be too startled by the jumping whales. Unfortunately, even at that pretty far distance he did go into a panic fairly early into the show and I had to hold him pretty tightly through the rest. We knew that was a possible reaction and, as noted earlier, that was the main reason why we mostly avoided the shows during this visit. Before this, we had been thinking about trying to go to see the dolphin show as well, but we decided at this point not to attend any of the other shows.
My son’s reaction probably did color my reaction to the show a bit, but I can’t say that I was overly impressed with "Believe". I will acknowledge that the show is technologically pretty impressive, with four large, moving video screens providing close-up views of some portions of the show as well as some video presentations. Through the use of video, music, and small amounts of dialog, a bit of a storyline is added onto the show. The high-level idea is that we supposedly see the trainer as a child as he was first inspired by the sight of a whale. It then transitions into the real-life trainer working with the whales as an example of dreams coming true. While it is a fairly ambitious show, it is also rather schmaltzy and I ultimately think the multimedia effects and the attempt at a story actually detracts somewhat from the whales.
Along the same lines as my earlier comments about Wild Arctic, I really feel like this version of the Shamu show represents Sea World having lost their focus somewhat. In my view, the animals are the major attraction to that park and shows like this one do not need to be dressed up with visual effects and multimedia, nor does it need to be sentimentalized with a tacked on storyline. The whale show was always a highlight of past visits to Sea World and I never felt that the shows needed anything more than the interaction between the whales and the trainers. It really feels like they tried to fix something that just wasn’t broken.
I also think this show opens them up a bit more to the accusations of exploitation that the park has always had to deal with from time to time. This version of the show has minimized the trainer’s dialog in favor of a semi-inspirational music soundtrack and the various multimedia elements. The result is a show that has less of an educational message, with anything about Sea World’s conservation efforts pretty much completely absent. Without an educational component, the whales’ tricks feel somewhat more circus-like.
After the show was over, we decided to go find Flamingo Cove. Because of the type of animal, this is really the most natural exhibit in the park. The railings separating the guests from the animals really look more like the typical railings that you find on a pedestrian bridge than the type of railings that usually surround an animal exhibit. The result is a very pleasant, park-like atmosphere. In fact, I think this is the most relaxing outdoor area of the park. We enjoyed just hanging around watching the birds for a while and catching our breath a bit.
By this point, we were getting pretty tired and a bit overheated and we had already seen a pretty large percentage of what we were interested in seeing. For this reason, we started to slow down our pace quite a bit. After spending a bit of time watching the flamingos, we decided to find somewhere that we could sit down in the shade for a while and get some ice cream. Right next to Flamingo Cove is a restaurant called Mango Joe’s, which has a good-sized, shaded seating area. Just around the corner from there was a pretty good sized snack station that offered a pretty large selection of items, including several varieties of pre-packaged ice-cream treats. We found that they sold whale-shaped chocolate covered ice cream bars (pretty similar to the Mickey Mouse shaped ones offered at the Disney parks), so we bought three of those and found a table at Mango Joe’s to enjoy our snacks, cool down a bit, and rest for a while.
Next, we decided to go visit one of the park’s traditional aquariums. With all of Sea World’s emphasis on whales, dolphins, and other large sea creatures, it is easily overlooked that they have three good-sized traditional fish-tank type aquariums as well. The one we went to visit was the Freshwater Aquarium. This exhibit has a lot of the same types of fish that you might find in a home fish tank, as well as a few more exotic species like electric eels, piranhas, and freshwater stingrays. Our son tends to get a kick out of simply standing and watching the fish swim around for a bit (we already knew this as we are members at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach), so this was an exhibit he enjoyed quite a bit. It is a bit of a tight space and it was pretty crowded and warm in there, so we did end up limiting our time there a bit more than we might have otherwise. It was fun to visit, though, and I’m actually sorry we didn’t find time to visit the other two aquariums.
During our last visit to the park, we had a good meal at the deli in the Hospitality Center located at the front of the park. Remembering that, we decided to go there for dinner. I think this is one of the best theme park quick-service dining locations that I have ever tried. This fairly small counter-service location primarily features turkey and roast beef sandwiches. Both are freshly carved to order and served on fresh-baked bread. The food quality is great and the prices aren’t really that out-of-line for what you get, at least by theme park standards. For the kid’s meal, they do offer some fairly common kid foods (hot dogs, chicken nuggets), but they also wisely offer a half-sized version of either sandwich. Our son loves turkey, so he was quite happy with the fresh turkey sandwich for dinner. This little restaurant is something of a hidden gem in the park and I really recommend it.
After dinner, we mainly were looking to kill some time before the start of the evening fireworks show. We did this by making return visits to the shark and penguin exhibits. We also made another stop at Wild Arctic hoping that the crowds would have thinned out, but it was still too busy to see much. I also took the opportunity to do a little souvenir shopping at the penguin exhibit gift shop, where I bought a plush macaroni penguin to add to my collection.
For the fireworks, we found a viewing area along the shoreline right behind the theater where they show the "Haunted Lighthouse" 3D movie. The park map and show guide don’t really give any useful suggestions about where to go to see the fireworks, but we remembered from our previous visit that they shot them off from a barge on the bay and we had a general idea of where to go to view them. The spot we found was a bit off-center, but not a bad view.
Our family has definitely become pretty spoiled by our frequent visits to Disney’s parks, where we have had a lot of opportunities to see their increasingly complex, story-driven fireworks presentation. That has left us a bit biased against more traditional, straightforward fireworks shows like the one at Sea World. There really wasn’t anything overly wrong with Sea World’s show (although it is extremely short at only 5-minutes), but we all couldn’t really help feeling underwhelmed. Even our 3-year-old was asking "More?" once the show had ended.
After the fireworks, we were ready to call it a night and head back to the hotel. Even though the park was opened for another hour, we found that a rather large percentage of the crowds also had the same idea. With some of the big shows (including the Shamu show) timed to allow guests to watch the fireworks from the stadiums and then exit afterwards, all the paths leading to the main gates were badly clogged. To make matters even worse, they had scheduled some sort of a band to play in the main courtyard just inside the main entrance, adding another large, non-moving bottleneck.
Once we made our way through that crowd, we found a little out of the way spot where my son and I could sit down for a few minutes while my wife went to do some shopping at the main gift shop at the front of the park. She had hoped to find a flamingo-related souvenir of some sort, but was disappointed to find that they didn’t have anything.
After exiting the park and returning to our car, we found that the parking lot wasn’t any better designed for end-of-the-day exiting than it was for arrival. We pretty quickly got stuck in traffic that was crawling along, largely due to mostly one-way routing and numerous, uncontrolled merge points. Nowhere did we see any employees directing traffic at all. From the time we got in the car, it took about 1/2 hour or so to get to the exit. As with the issues we encountered on arrival, it seems likely that they could improve this situation greatly by eliminating the unnecessary barriers created by the "priority" parking deals as well as by engaging more staff to do traffic control.
While my overall comments about Sea World in this report clearly tend towards the negative side, we did have a good time on our trip. I recognize that many of the issues we had with Sea World were mainly a result of our own circumstances. Had we been able to spend more of our time attending shows, we probably would have had a more positive experience. I do think that Sea World needs to work to better accommodate guests who wish to view the animal exhibits at their own pace, though. I also would very much like to see them regain more of a focus on the animals rather than on trying to do more traditional theme-park fare.
Before the trip, we had seriously considered whether or not we would likely want to make multiple trips to Sea World over the next year and, if so, whether annual passes would be a good value for us. For one thing, we had an expectation that a trip to the Orlando park would be a likely part of a planned trip to Walt Disney World next June and the annual passes in San Diego gave discounts on admission to the other parks. Our decision was to purchase 1-day tickets and then considering upgrading them in the park if we felt that it made sense. By mid-day, we were pretty certain that return visits within the next year were not something we were interested in. Even during our Florida trip, we are probably going to look closely at other options such as the Kennedy Space Center or Busch Gardens.
I do certainly think we will visit Sea World again at some point. I just don’t think it will be until our son is a bit older and more open to spending much of a day seeing shows. Until then, I think there are better options both for theme park days and for engaging his interest in sea life.