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Just as you wouldn't expect to arrive at Disney and see nothing but Mickey Mouse, don't expect to arrive at SeaWorld and see only Shamu. Only a few steps into the park you'll find baby dolphins and their mothers, a pool filled with stingrays, colorful flamingos, rescued sea turtles, rescued pelicans, and even rescued manatees.

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 choose to visit, you'll see how lumbering manatees live and what they look like up close; watch otters and seals perform slapstick routines based on their natural behaviors; learn about the lives of giant tortoises and sea turtles; and be absolutely amazed at the scope of marine life celebrated throughout the park.

Then there are the attractions, each and every one designed not only to showcase the marine world but also to demonstrate ways in which humans can protect the Earth's waters and wildlife. And, because there are more exhibits and shows than rides, the difference between SeaWorld and other theme parks is that you can go at your own pace, without that hurry-up-and-wait feeling. It’s also worth noting that because shows, attractions, and exhibits are based primarily on nature and animals, designers have created a natural layout as well, with winding lanes and plenty of places to relax by the waterfront or beside bouquets of flowers.

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