Florida – September 2011

Day 13 – Seaworld

Saturday 1st October

Yesterday evening, just before we went to bed, finished with a bit of ambiguity as to what we were going to do today. I was all prepared for a nice, relaxing, rest day but Sandy was keen to make sure that we did Seaworld before the weekend, which she supposed would be a much busier day at the park. Guess which one of us won that debate!

The primary reason for me wanting to have a rest day today was due to the ever escalating levels of exhaustion that are setting in. Perhaps this explains the fact that we were late getting out of the house this morning – only by half an hour or so but when you factor in that the overall pace of things has slowed slightly, it means that we wouldn’t get a completely full day at the theme park today.

As we were packing and getting ready for the day, I had several e-mail exchanges with my very good friend and ex-colleague, Marc, in Tampa. It seems quite likely now that we may get to see them at some point this weekend. This is what we were e-mailing back and forth about. If all goes well, we’ll catch up with Marc & Anna this Sunday evening for dinner, as they may be driving over from Tampa for that occasion. It’s been a completely whirlwind tour this time around and we’ve had precious little time to get to see all the friends that we would have liked to. There’s little more frustrating in life than travelling half way around the world (literally) and getting so very close to so many people that you’d like to see again but don’t have the opportunity to do so.

For a change this morning, we thought we’d eat at the Waffle House. We had a different server today and although the food was just as delicious, there were a few cracks in the service. Nothing major by itself. It’s just that when the service we’ve been getting has been so consistently excellent, the smallest mishaps tend to stand out as a result. We still tipped well all the same.

Out of the Waffle House car park, we made our way to I-4 and headed Southbound towards Seaworld, which is not far from the Universal resort area. I have to admit to some degree of trepidation about Seaworld. Although I still felt it should be on our agenda for this trip, I remember it being ‘overly’ commercial the last time around. I haven’t mentioned my misgivings to Sandy, as I want to give the benefit of the doubt and don’t want to taint her expectations. We’ll see how the day pans out in the end.

We did manage to get a parking spot in the disabled area and the nice thing about the Seaworld car park is that this resulted in a very short walk to the turnstiles. We still had to pay $14 for the privilege of parking, and given that their car park is little more than a ‘normal’ outdoor car park with no shuttle trams or anything else elaborate, I do think this to be a bit of a rip-off. Was this an omen of the commerciality of what was to come? We’ll see.

Our first port of call once in the park itself was the guest services building, where we declared to be in our possession a child of somewhat special needs. As was the case with the Disney & Universal theme parks, doing this earned us a special note that could be used to identify ourselves at the various attractions such that it wouldn’t be necessary for us to join the regular park visitors in the normal queues. With this note, we would be granted access through the shortcuts. On balance, I feel somewhat guilty about doing this now, as we’ve seen a steady but marked decrease in Joey’s autistic tendencies since we arrived here. His really intense ‘flare-ups’ have all but disappeared and he’s even becoming more tolerant to some of the more intense experiences that the Orlando theme parks have to offer. Is it because we’re just getting better at recognising the warning signs and so are able to better ‘manage’ him? Perhaps it’s because we’re spending so much time together as a family? Maybe it’s because there’s little need for him to socially interact with groups of people (such as in the classroom or playground environments)? I really don’t know. What I do know is that his overall behaviour seems more or less on par with neurotypical children at the moment. It’ll be very interesting to see if this lasts when we’re back in Australia and he’s back to school. Something tells me we’ll have to keep a more vigilant and watchful eye on him over the initial days and weeks after we return.

Our tour around the Seaworld park today was done somewhat in reverse compared to yesterday’s visit to Universal Studios. We kept telling the kids that we would be taking them to the kids play areas but we ended up doing much of the grown-ups stuff first and didn’t make it around to that area of the park until well into the afternoon. I actually started to feel guilty at one point about the continued promise of a play area to the kids that continued to be just around the next corner.

Our first encounter with anything live was the stingray pool, where several dozen rays swim continuously around the pool looking for food. The food they were looking for was of the kind than the park visitors were offered the opportunity to purchase and feed them. For $9, I got 2 trays of food – each of which consisted of 4 slightly frozen small prawns. The idea was to hold the prawn (they were small fish the last time we were here) between your fingers and place you hand palm down into the pool with the prawn standing upright above your hand. One of the rays would then swim over the top of your hand and siphon up the food. The kids seemed to enjoy themselves but never really got the hang of how to correctly feed the rays. Invariably, when one of the animals got close, the kids would end up just nervously throwing the food into the water so as to get their hands out of the way as quickly as possible. Actually, I can’t say I really blame them. Despite never having had problems with this in the past, I did manage to get a slight nick on one finger from one particular over-eager ray.

Feeding the animals (and I mean those that are resident at Seaworld) would be something of a feature of the day, as Sandy decided to purchase a ‘feed the animals’ ticket. This did end up being cheaper overall than purchasing small trays of whatever it was at the various animal encounters and so it wasn’t a bad idea in the end.

The dolphins were next up to be ‘fed’ by us eager paying tourists. I do get that the animals’ food intake needs to be closely monitored and whatnot but I can’t help but feel ever so slightly nauseated at having to spend ten times the going rate for a bit of fish to throw into a given animal’s mouth. Here, it was $7 per person for 4 small fish to be your allotment of food for the dolphins. After a brief set of instructions from one of the animal handlers, we all lined up along the edge of the dolphin enclosure, where we were issued with our small trays of 4 fish each. Sandy and me managed to stage ourselves each with a child such that we would be able to cross photograph the other. There was also a resident photographer snapping away and we were handed a ticket with a bar-code on it that we could use to go and collect our souvenir photograph. After the feeding was over (all of 4-5 minutes – we had to make way for more paying customers), I went to check on the photo and I can’t say that it was any better than the several dozen that were taken jointly with our own cameras. I begrudge paying upwards of $20 for a single 5×7 photo without frame and I was also less than impressed with the offer to purchase a DVD of several original digital photo files for $40. For an additional $10, this DVD would then include all the photos that were taken of you by all the photographers throughout the entire park (I think we spotted one other photographer during the entire day). Maybe there are people that would think this good value but as photographers ourselves, we both come home each day with several hundred shots on the cameras each and so I really can’t see the value in paying $40 for a handful of someone else’s photos.

Seaworld boast several roller-coaster and water rides and the first such ride that we came across was the Atlantis ride, which is a boat ride with a few exhilarating drops. We gave this a try and a couple of the drops were quite ‘invigorating’. Joey got off the ride and proclaimed that he didn’t like it. However, when Jennifer jumped up and down and insisted that we do it again, Joey was the first to agree. As such, we immediately went around again. Once again, park visitor numbers at this time of the year are very low and we pretty much went straight on again without having to wait. Indeed, at no time today did we have any use for the guest services note that we had earlier collected. The Atlantis ride is designed to get you wet and that’s OK, but on the second run through, Sandy and Joey sat in the last of the boat’s five rows. When the boat climbed the initial ramp, all the water collected in a puddle at the back and completely submerged Joey’s feet – and shoes. For the vast majority of the remainder of the day, he walked around in just his socks, as we tried to get his shoes dry. He didn’t seem to be too concerned about this.

As we were over this side of the park, we next wandered into the Kracken roller-coaster. As roller-coasters go, this is a big one and clearly not suited to kids. It would be a shame to come all this way and for nobody in our group to experience it. Well, what’s a guy to do? I offered myself up as the sacrificial lamb, whilst Sandy and the kids mulled around outside enjoying ice-cream, popcorn and some shopping stalls. This is indeed a brilliant roller-coaster with quite a few G-inducing spins, drops and turns. I went in with my hair still wet from the Atlantis ride but came out near enough completely dry.

Another completely new roller-coaster here is the Manta, which suspends you horizontally and face down as it sends you whizzing around the track. It’s a pretty neat ride but you do end up suspended for around 20 seconds before launch and about the same again before disembarkation and this was a little uncomfortable. What was nice about this attraction was the indoor walk-through leading up to the start of the ride, which took you past various aquarium tanks in which different rays were on display. The colourings of some of these creatures is quite stunning but, again, I do prefer to see these animals in the wild and can in fact claim to have seen some of them in the open water myself.

I came out of the Manta roller-coaster half exhilarated but also half glad and met Sandy and the kids over by the penguin encounter attraction. They had already gone through once but Joey and I went through again. There were some midway games of chance in this section of the park and Sandy did her best to ‘teach Joey a lesson’ here, as she did in Universal Studios. As it happened, he played one of the games that guaranteed a small stuffed toy and the lesson was that this would have to be his toy from the park for today – as opposed to him picking something out towards the end of the day. Jennifer also got her hair braided here – a first for her. She’ll keep the braid for a few weeks and seems to be quite thrilled with the result.

Our animal feeding pass was next put to use at the sea-lions enclosure. We split our four trays of fish into two and alternatively took turns photographing the kids tossing the fish over the barrier to the sea-lions. With all the wild birds that congregate at this section of the park, it was often a challenge getting the fish into the sea-lions and not into the birds.

We exhausted our feeding tickets finally at the next enclosure, the shark tank. Several dozen smallish sharks of varying denominations, along with a few fish and rays reside in this tank and you got to toss a few slices of fish in to see which animals would scoop them up. The experience was over quite quickly but the kids got a thrill out of seeing real sharks. Immediately adjacent to the shark pool was the Shark Encounter attraction, which is basically a walk-through aquarium of the type that you might expect to see at EPCOT or indeed most major cities nowadays. There were a few mock ups of large sharks with their teeth menacingly exposed, which I wasn’t overly impressed by. It isn’t that the depictions weren’t realistic enough, it’s just that I question as to whether depicting sharks in a menacing ‘grab your attention’ fashion is really the correct way to portray what is actually a majestic and wonderful creature that deserves respect rather than fear. I think it sends the wrong signal – particular to the young, who I certainly wouldn’t want to see grow up with an unhealthy fear of sharks.

After repeated promises, we did eventually make it over the the kiddies area of the park and we had a thoroughly good time whilst there too. The central feature here is a huge climbing structure that stands several stories tall and allows for young and old (although mostly the young) the opportunity to explore in 3D space. As I was following Jennifer through some of the narrower tunnels some 3 stories off the ground, and winging from the pain in my knees as a result, I caught myself muttering things like ‘I’m too old for this shit!’

A number of funfair-style carnival rides adorn this section of the park and we allowed the kids a good degree of freedom to roam around and explore – although it did take Sandy some time before she resigned herself to not being completely able to keep watch on both of them running off in different directions at the time. Despite all the excitement, or perhaps because of it, Sandy insisted on taking the kids to the restroom at one point, at which point Jennifer proclaimed that it wasn’t necessary as she’d already done wee-wees in her knickers. Lovely!

A particular favourite with the kids here was the little roller-coaster. The train is about 15 two-person carriages long and makes a 20 second or so loop around the track. We did it with the kids twice but they they went on to do it again themselves several more times and absolutely loved it each time. Like all the other roller-coasters here, photos are snapped of each row at a certain point and a photo purchase booth stands between you and the exit from the ride. We haven’t bought any such photos here in Orlando despite numerous opportunities to do so – of perhaps because of that. We were able to take plenty of snaps ourselves from a couple of good vantage points and so it wasn’t really necessary anyway.

Another favourite of the kids in this section of the park was the vertical drop attraction. Two back-to-back rows of 8 people at a time are hoisted vertically about 2 stories into the sky and gently bounced up and down several times before eventually reaching the floor again. The kids really enjoyed this. You aren’t totally weightless at any point but get close and the sensation was one the kids really took to.

We planned on seeing the Wild Arctic attraction and then the final Shamu Stadium show before leaving the park today and thus we had to eventually tear ourselves away to make this possible. The Wild Arctic attraction commences with a simulated ‘helicopter ride over to the Arctic base station’. We had the option of the ‘land route’ but with Joey seeming to tolerate these things more and more, we thought we’d give it a go. As it happened, he did enjoy it – or at least didn’t dislike it.

After ‘arriving’ at the Arctic Research Centre and disembarking from the ‘helicopter’, there are enclosures with a couple of Beluga Whales, a Polar Bear and a Walrus. The whole place was themed to resemble an Arctic research centre and it served to keep the kids entertained for half an hour or so. In observing the animals in these enclosures, I was once again reminded of how much better it would be to see them in their natural habitats.

Once out of the Wild Arctic attraction, we wandered over to the nearby Shamu Stadium in preparation for Seaworld’s grand finale show, featuring a number of Orcas. It’s said that Dolphins and Orcas are amongst the most intelligent creatures on the planet. This show bore that out. After just a short period of captivity, these animals have taught Americans to stand on the side of the pool and feed them fish. Some of the tricks these beautiful animals used to entice more fish from the humans included jumping out of the water and splashing the crowd with swift swishes from their tails. Need I say more? Despite the amphitheatre being only 30% filled, we sat at the very back, with the highest vantage point for photography, and all enjoyed some popcorn during the half hour show.

Along with what looked like the rest of the park visitors today, we all filed out and across the bridge towards the park exit following the completion of the half-hour show. It seems that my trusty Nikon D700 must have fallen at some point today. A very slight dent has appeared in the corner of the casing and this has lodged the preview button stuck and unusable. It isn’t a major problem but annoying enough that I’ll have to take a closer look when we get back home. My neoprene camera strap has also seen better days and has practically all but disintegrated through excessive use now. We’ll have to pick up a replacement at the next opportunity.

We couldn’t make it all the way out of the park before being ensnared by one of the shopping opportunities on the way. Since Joey had already exhausted his daily toy allowance at the midway games, we managed to come out relatively unscathed with a simple Manta Ray stuffed toy for Jennifer at less than $10. Bonus!

On reflection, I still think that Seaworld is too commercial. They don’t do any form of park ticket discount and there are just too many things inside the park that require that you pay extra – and royally for it too. It’s a pity that an otherwise enjoyable day is tainted slightly by the sense that you’ve been taken for a ride. It also has to be said that I still feel a little uneasy about animals being held in captivity generally anyway. The fact that a trainer was killed by one of the Orcas in February of this year also sits uneasily in the back of my mind.

Despite my unspoken misgivings of today’s visit to Seaworld, the rest of the family came away having had a good time and we found our car (blissfully close to the exit turnstiles) and set off in the direction of the Florida Mall. We are running low on ready cash and there is a foreign currency exchange booth there that we called earlier this morning to arrange a rate of exchange for some of our Australian Dollars that we brought with us. There’s also a Disney Store there that Sandy was keen to explore.

The Australian Dollar has tanked against the US Dollar in recent days (I confirmed the same over the Internet) and so we lost out ever so slightly compared to the great deal we got at the front end of this trip. Still, we were able to replenish our stock of greenback and should be set for the remainder of the holiday – now only five full days away.

We picked up a few things at the Disney Store – kids pyjamas mostly – and made our way over the the mall’s food-court to grab some dinner. The food was surprisingly good and it made a change to come away from dinner only around $15 lighter, as opposed to the usual $50-$70or more.

The kids were sound asleep long before we reached the house and I had a good crack at writing up the this blog after we offloaded and reviewed the camera’s daily takings. Alas, fatigue had finally caught up with me and I gave up after just a few paragraphs. It’s around noon of the following day and I’ve only just finished this entry.