One of the world's largest marine-life amusement parks, SeaWorld is spread over 189 tropically landscaped bay-front acres—and it seems to be expanding into every available square inch of space, with new exhibits, shows, and activities. The park offers a variety of amusement rides, some on dry land and others that will leave riders soaking wet.
SeaWorld has received intense public criticism for its treatment of killer whales, also known as orcas, which was largely brought to light by the 2013 documentary Blackfish. The award-winning film follows the life of Tilikum, an orca at SeaWorld Orlando that was involved in the deaths of three people, including one of its trainers during a live show. Since the release of Blackfish, numerous animal welfare groups have come out in support of the film, arguing that it is cruel and stressful to keep such complex creatures inside enclosed tanks. A bill authored by Assemblyman Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica) in 2014 proposed to outlaw
orca shows in the California state legislature but was sent back for further study. In response to the outcry, SeaWorld announced that it would build larger environments for the captive whales, a measure which was approved for SeaWorld San Diego by the California Coastal Commission (CCC) in October 2015. However, while the CCC approved tripling the size of the enclosures SeaWorld San Diego uses to hold orcas, it simultaneously banned the breeding of the whales that would live in them. This move has been applauded by animal welfare groups who believe this will ensure that no more orcas will be condemned to live their lives in captivity, at least at SeaWorld San Diego. What’s more, the government of Ontario, Canada introduced legislation in March, 2015 which makes it illegal to allow orcas to be put in tanks for show, a move seen as a symbolic victory for captive orcas everywhere. Despite cutting ticket prices, SeaWorld has been hit by plummeting visitor numbers and is struggling to convince the public that it treats its whales well. What the future holds for the aquatic theme park is anybody’s guess.
Should you visit, you’ll find the majority of SeaWorld's exhibits are walk-through marine environments. Kids get a particular kick out of the Shark Encounter, where they come face to face with sand, tiger, nurse, bonnethead, black-tipped, and white-tipped reef sharks by walking through a 57-foot clear acrylic tube that passes through the 280,000-gallon shark habitat. Turtle Reef offers an incredible up-close encounter with the green sea turtle, while the moving sidewalk at Penguin Encounter whisks you through a colony of nearly 300 macaroni, gentoo, Adelie, and emperor penguins. Various freshwater and saltwater aquariums hold underwater creatures from around the world.
SeaWorld's highlights are its large-arena entertainments. You can get front-row seats if you arrive 30 minutes in advance, and the stadiums are large enough for everyone to get a seat in the off-season. The show Blue Horizons combines dolphins, pilot whales, tropical birds, and aerialists in a spectacular performance.
The Dolphin Interaction Program gives guests the chance to interact with SeaWorld's bottlenose dolphins in the water. The hour-long program (20 minutes in the water), during which visitors can feed, touch, and give behavior signals, costs $215.
The San Diego 3-for-1 Pass ($149 for adults, $119 for children ages 3 to 9) offers seven consecutive days of unlimited admission to SeaWorld, the San Diego Zoo, and the San Diego Zoo's Safari Park. This is a good idea, because if you try to get your money's worth by fitting everything in on a single day, you're likely to end up tired and cranky. Many hotels, especially those in the Mission Bay area, also offer SeaWorld specials that may include rate reductions or two-day entry for the price of one.
There is no shortage of dining options inside SeaWorld, from burgers at Café 64, to Italian fare at Mama Stella's Pizza Kitchen, BBQ at the Calypso Bay Smokehouse, or baked goods at Seaside Coffee and Bakery.