Gold Coast – September 2013

Day 7 – Seaworld and the dolphin encounter

Friday 20th September

With this our last full day of the holiday, we had decided to go back to Seaworld again but specifically for the purpose of doing the dolphin feeding for children with special needs. Sandy had arranged this yesterday and it would allow us to get the kids into the water with the dolphins and up close and personal with them. Since that was not scheduled to take place until around 1:35pm, we really didn’t have any reason to rush this morning. I ended up sleeping in, whilst Sandy and the kids enjoyed themselves parked in front of the TV for a lazy morning.

It wasn’t until 10:00am that we were finally out of the house and on our way over to Seaworld for a second visit this week. I’d have to say that I was less than impressed with Seaworld generally on our previous visit. This was mostly due to the all the in-park commercialism and all the various machinery breakdowns. This time around, however, we had a specific purpose and so I was keen to see whether I’d come away with the same bad taste in my mouth again. After all, I was now already psychologically prepared for all the sticker-shock and, it has to be said, it was most unlikely that the dolphins would experience a mechanical breakdown, right?

Perhaps it was just a reflection of us getting to the park slightly later in the morning but the car-park did seem to be bulging with more cars today compared to earlier in the week. We nevertheless found plenty of places towards the rear of the parking lot to place the car and duly set off towards the main entrance each with a hand full of backpacks and kids. Once again, our existing tickets granted us access to the one queue to get in that was nearly empty and we neatly, yet politely, side-shuffled the near mandatory photo shoot by the park photographers before getting in. We did this the last time also, since there’s really very little chance I’m going to agree to part with whatever ridiculous sum they would have placed on the cheesy photo they would try to sell us as we left the park at the end of the day, so the whole enterprise seemed a bit of a waste of time anyway. On occasion, we’ve let ‘them’ take the photo just because it’s less effort than trying to explain that we’re not going to buy the bloody photo, but there were plenty of other gullible saps in the queue for the photographers to latch onto so we managed to get away with it this time.

Our first port of call now that we had made it into the resort was to ‘check-in’ at guest services to confirm our slot with the dolphin encounter. The same high-pressure sales tactic woman that was looking to hook onto unsuspecting customers the last time was also there again today. Fortunately, we managed to avoid her and thus avoided a potential ‘scene’ in the progress. By now, the holiday has sapped much of the energy from us all and I was in no mood for this bitch today. The slightest hint of ‘tourist trappings’ would just about send me of the edge today.

The whole check-in business was, shall we say, tenuous? Firstly, they made us sign some waivers. I absolutely hate these things, which are usually quite toxic, and I always read them through thoroughly, slowly, twice, before signing them – if I do sign at all, that is. What’s particularly irksome is the fact that they just hand you a pen that’s already pointing to the spot where you are supposed to sign and then indicate that you just sign it and be done with it – like I should have no business actually understanding what I’m signing. They also often say something to the effect of ‘signing your life away’, as if the whole thing is comical and farcical. I actually find that quite insulting. As if it’s a foregone conclusion that you’ll just sign regardless of what’s written. When I read through these things, I’m looking for the part that states that they are not liable for any loss, damage, death, etc. and I look for the part where it confirms this to be the case EVEN if it’s by negligence on their part. Those types of waivers are the type that I simply refuse to sign – period! Fortunately, this waiver did include an exclusion for any negligence on their part and so, albeit somewhat reluctantly, I signed the damn sheet of paper. I don’t know what all the fuss is about anyway. It’s only feeding bloody dolphins for crying out loud – hardly life threatening! Did they want a vial of blood and my firstborn child as a sacrifice too? Sheesh!

As it turns out, we also had to be issued with some swim wear. I had originally assumed this to mean some sort of wet-suit to protect us from the cold water or some such thing but it actually turned out to simply be a pair of swimming shorts and a swimming vest each. Ok, so we already have our own swim wear with us and I queried why on earth was it necessary to be issued with theirs. I was told that ALL guests that swim with the dolphins MUST be wearing the Seaworld-issued swim wear. In my mind, I’m starting to assume that this is because any photos taken will then automatically be of people with Seaworld-branded clothing. That sort of commercial protectionism just drives me nuts and so I was starting to really get annoyed at this. The woman then said something about making sure that everyone that’s in the water with the dolphins has the same colours so that the dolphins are not distracted by various unfamiliar colours and wot-not. Now, this sounded to me like pure crap and a cover for my original assumption about commercial protectionism BUT there was just enough of a hint of plausibility to that explanation that I felt unsure about whether I should pursue the argument any further. They also made us remove, or obscure with bandaids, any jewellery and rings and so on – so as to avoid shiny objects to distract the dolphins with. This leant just a smidgen of credence to their ‘cover story’ and so I decided to just go with it after all.

To finish off the proceedings, we were each dressed in a wrist-band but Joey was not cooperating this morning and was choosing instead to hide behind things – just out of arm’s reach so as to make it awkward, if not impossible, to get him and his arm into position to get the write-band in place. At the very least, this, and his general regressive behaviour this morning, did confirm to the staff that this is most definitely a special needs child after all. Under their special needs offerings, we’re only charged $110 per child and adult pair, since the adult is really only there in the water to care for the special needs child. With both our children registered as mildly autistic, we were all 4 of us to have this experience for a grand total of just $220, which I thought was a pretty good deal. This was the first sign that Seaworld was to slightly redeem itself in my eyes today. There would be more to come.

So, with the check-in formalities now duly dealt with, we wandered into the park – once again aimlessly. There was but a single functional roller-coaster in the park today and it was one that we had not had a go on during our previous visit earlier in the week. As such, Jennifer and I were to head over to that part of the park whilst Sandy and Joey pottered around by the gentler kiddies rides area. We passed the Dora amphitheatre on the way and it seemed that the Dora show was literally just about to start so Jennifer and I made a slight detour into a spot on one of the empty bleachers to enjoy the ‘show’. As was the case with the Big Red Car Wiggles ‘attraction’ over at Dreamworld the other day, the Dora show is aimed at smaller children and Jennifer and I bailed part way through in a bid to try to rescue some of our IQ before it drained completely.

We got all the way over to the roller-coaster, which is situated such that it’s quite a walk to get to it from anywhere else in the park, only to find that it has an unusually strict height restriction. At all the rides and attractions in the theme parks up here on the Gold Coast, there is a box-frame metal pole that they use to ensure you meet the height requirements and Jennifer passed under this one with a good 8-10 centimetres to spare. I thought this to be quite unusual, given that Jennifer had done other attractions that were MUCH more intense than this seemed to be. However, the rules are the rules and we’d have to forego the ride with little cause for recourse. It was a particular shame given that there were no other functional roller-coasters anywhere else in the park. There’s a bigger one that’s still not fully built yet and a smaller one that was inoperable today.

So, back Jennifer and I trundled to the smaller rides area and we met up with Sandy and Joey who had been doing the rounds there. One particular kiddies attraction that we hadn’t been able to do the last time around, because there was a fault with one of the safety harnesses, was now operational and so I took Joey up for a go. It’s a contraption that seats 4 pairs of riders facing outwards around a central spire, each with a rope that you pull to hoist your self up the tower. There’s a mechanical assist with this so you don’t have to pull very hard to get yourself and fellow rider up into the sky – about 2 stories. Letting go of the rope sends you gently back down again and it’s a nice little attraction for smaller kids. Since I took Joey, I had to also take Jennifer up for a spin. Unfortunately, a dozen or so adults with various kids in tow decided that now was the time for them to join in on the fun with this attraction and so we had to wait for several cycles before it was our turn. Since Sandy and Joey had been in this part of the park for a while already, they decided to walk ahead to the Sealion feeding session that was about to start and we would meet them there. As we were waiting in the queue for our turn, another dozen or so kids emerged from nowhere and joined various other members of their clan that were ahead of us in the line – thus further increasing our wait time. Being small children, I didn’t seem right pointing out the unfairness of them doing this to the other waiting children in the line so I let that slide (at least on the outside). As if that wasn’t bad enough, however, the man operating the machine was stating to have problems with one of the harnesses on one of the seat pairs not registering on the control panel. This was the very same situation that shut this ride down earlier on in the week and I was starting to wonder whether Jennifer and I would get our turn or not. Fortunately, he decided it was sufficient to just close down that seat instead and to keep the ride going. Of course, this reduced the speed at which the queue shrunk by a further 25%. My initial estimate to Sandy that we would be here for about 5 minutes turned into closer to 35 minutes instead.

We did manage to get onto the ride and Jennifer did enjoy herself. However, by the time we had exited and meandered over to the Sealion feeding session, it was all but finished. Luckily, Sandy withheld a cup with a couple of small squid so that Jennifer could throw them to the waiting seals. In the event, Jennifer didn’t want to touch the squid so Daddy ended up throwing the food to the Sealions instead.

It was now just about lunchtime. We decided not to bring a packed lunch today but to grab a bite to eat in the park. Why or why we decided to do this I will never know and my wallet duly took a hefty beating as a result. Bloody, greedy, blood-sucking leeches they are these park operators! Anyway, the heat of the day, frustration at the roller-coaster not working out for Jennifer and the excessive time spent on a minor kiddies attraction all the while standing in the blistering mid-day heat was all starting to take its toll on me and my frustration levels. I had also not had any breakfast or eaten anything up to this point (apart from half a hot-dog from earlier in the day with Jennifer) so I had high hopes of some food really helping to restore some of my sanity levels. We managed, only just, to find a table with some chairs under at least some partial shade in the seating area near one of the food outlets. We had agreed that Sandy would go and get her and Joey some food and I would take Jennifer with me to get us some food … or at least that was my understanding of what we had just agreed we’d do. Me and Jennifer wandered inside and queued up patiently for the chance of spending half a mortgage payment’s hard earnings in exchange for some shoddy chicken (and I use that word quite loosely) nuggets and chips. We had a souvenir drinking cup from earlier and it was only about 8 times the cost of a can of supermarket soda to refill that, so that was relatively good value on top of everything else!

So, somewhat mildly seething to myself at having just mortgaged a good chunk of my personal estate for the benefit of a few morsels of truly awful food, that Jennifer would likely not eat anyway, we headed outside and found Sandy and Joey sitting at the same empty table. “Your food not arrived yet?” I asked, somewhat bemused. The deer-in-the-headlight stare with daggers emanating in my direction said it all. I had evidently misunderstood Sandy’s earlier instructions and it was supposed to be the intention that I order food for ALL of us. Ok, so now I’m not only mostly broke but my marriage is now on very tenuous ground too. Great! Thanks a lot, Seaworld! Why you’re at it, why don’t you give me a ruddy paper-cut and rub salt into the wound!

Well, the meal, it has to be said, was a strangely quiet one and not entirely as enjoyable as one could of hoped, given the festive nature of why we’re here. Still, we press on and hope for clearer skies. Perhaps the dolphin feeding would help cheer us all up, I thought to myself.

We left the joyous fun of the family meal behind us and wandered back to the main entrance to collect our mandatory Seaworld swim wear ahead of our encounter with the dolphins. This was half the length of the park that we had to walk (and back again) and so that was lovely, under the blistering heat of the mid-day sun.

We made it to our designated meeting spot only to find nobody there and we wondered whether we were actually in the right place or not. It was now exactly 1:35pm, the time we were supposed to be here, and so I asked a passing staff member if they could find out whether we were in the right place or not. He said he’ll make his way to somewhere that he could call through and ask and then walked off. Just as I was wondering what else could possibly go wrong for us, I turned around to see 2 staff members that were here just for us – indeed perfectly on time. I’d have to say that from this point on, our day at Seaworld completely turned around and was plain sailing for the rest of the day. The 2 staff members were just about as good and accommodating to us as could possibly have been asked for. They were both just brilliant – especially with Joey, who really did need some tentative care and handling given the new experience he was now starting to face. Joey loves routine and the familiar and is averse to over-stimulation. Here we are, in an unfamiliar place, in unfamiliar clothing, getting into very cold water and up close and personal with some large aquatic animals. I really thought that he would bail on us and not go through with it but credit to him – and in no small part to the staff – he stuck with it and really had the best time.

As a part of our dolphin experience package, Sandy had arranged for a video to be taken of the whole experience. At just $20 extra, I thought this was amazingly cheap compared to the expectations that Seaworld had set for us with just about every other aspect of their commercial operations. We would also be granted 2 photos as part of the overall deal and so there was not only a videographer but also a dedicated photographer there just for us too. I had assumed also that we were going to be joining a group of people and that we’d maybe be lucky enough to get close enough to touch one of the dolphins once. It turned out that we had these 4 staff members JUST to accommodate us 4 all by ourselves in our own private group with no other guests. The absolute icing on the cake was that the photographer was glad to not only take shots with the Seaworld camera (shots that we’d undoubtedly be able to ‘purchase’ for an additional charge at the end of the day) but to also alternate with our camera. Being a Nikon person (photographers are generally either a Nikon or a Canon person), she even know exactly how to operate my camera and merrily took loads of decent shots of us in the water with it. Today is starting to really look up at last 🙂

So, we were sat on a bench for about 5 minutes as one of the trainers went over exactly what would be happening. He was absolutely brilliant with Joey and not at all pushy. He seemed to instinctively understand Joey’s skittishness and played his part really well, I thought. We were all led to a partially submerged platform at the edge of the dolphin pond and asked to all kneel down. The platform is about 20 centimetres submerged and the water is not anywhere near as cold as I had feared. To our amazement, Joey cooperated throughout. He was clearly skittish and unsure but truly seemed to love the whole experience if his reactions and smiles were anything to go by. Essentially, we spent the next 20 minutes or so taking the dolphin (actually, there were 2 of them in the pond but we spent our time with just 1 of them) through various training exercises. The kids would throw a ball and the dolphin would bring it back; the kids would be shown to make certain hand & arm gestures and the dolphin would shake their hand or splash them or do some other trick. All the while, the dolphin would be steadily rewarded with fish for his efforts. As the dolphin would swim up and put his head on the kids’ hands, they’d be asked to look at the camera to get a good shot, and so on. All the while, the videographer is sitting on a sort of surf-board a couple of meters in front of us capturing all the action. We never actually got into the water per say but we got very much up close and personal with the dolphin and were able to stroke just about every inch of its body and the trainer took him through his paces. It was a phenomenal success and the kids had an absolute ball of a time. When the kids are happy, Mummy & Daddy are happy and so everyone was now in a thoroughly good mood. Somewhat single-handedly, the dolphin handlers turned the entire day around for us and largely redeemed Seaworld itself in my eyes.

We finished up with the dolphins with grins from ear to ear. Immediately adjacent to where we were was the section of the park that we had enjoyed so much the last time we were here, with the pirate ships, climbing structure, etc., and this was where we were going to spend the rest of our day enjoying ourselves. Since we were still very wet and in swim wear, we also decided we’d spend some time in the immediately adjacent mini water park. It’s part of Seaworld but there is a nominal entrance fee for those that are not staying at the Seaworld accommodation resort. As we were just about to pay to go in, I overheard the attendant saying to another guest that the one family-sized tube ride that this mini water park boasts had literally just stopped operating due to some technical issue. He confirmed the same to me when it was our turn to pay to go in. As it so happens, this exact same thing happened to us when we were here the last time and this was a disappointment. However, the guy actually remembered us from earlier in the week and decided to let us all in for just the cost of the kids ($5 each). For an hour’s fun, this seemed a very good compromise so we graciously thanked him and parted with our $10. The water was not too cold and the kids were really enjoying themselves – including Joey. For about an hour, we had an absolutely blast.

With now less than a couple of hours now left before the park closes at 5.00pm, we dried up and walked next door to the pirate ship play area and continued with a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon. Jennifer amazed me once again by freely navigating the various narrow steps, planks, ropes and other obstacles high up on the Sky Climb structure with me and I spent a little time with both kids climbing up, under and through various sections of other main play structure adjacent to the pirate ship lagoon. Eventually, the sun started to hover lower in the sky and this was our cue to get changed and make our way back towards the front of the park.

We made a final detour into the one remaining open shop and the kids bought, for the last time on this holiday I can only hope, yet another soft toy each. I only hope we’ll be able to squeeze everything into our luggage so that we can get it all home with us.

We dropped off our swim wear and collected the complementary bag and Seaworld towel that we had neglected to receive when we first checked in (this was apparently part of the package we bought), although it did take a bit of effort to convince the woman on duty that we hadn’t actually received these yet – especially in light of the fact that Sandy had apparently signed a form that supposedly confirmed that she did receive it. Don’t you just hate it when they hit you with “This is your signature, isn’t it?”

Our final interaction with Seaworld was to collect the DVD and the 2 free photos that we get as a part of our dolphin encounter experience and we finally left the building and made our way back to the car. On the cards for our evening meal tonight was another visit to the near-by Hog’s Breath Cafe for yet more ribs and prime rib – delicious, again!

Back home, we were finally able to unwind from the day. I walked Joey over to the main reception building to pick up some milk and bread for tomorrow morning and to exchange our DVD with another for the kids to watch tonight. Tomorrow, we will pack and leave the Ashmore Palms holiday village by 10:00am. Our flight doesn’t depart until 4:00pm and we’re not yet sure what we’ll do with ourselves for the several hours that we’ll need to burn after vacating the premises here. We may go to one of the local beaches or something and I’ll perhaps have some time to reflect on the week overall. For now, however, I’m tired and I need to finish off this blog entry before calling it a night one last time here on the Gold Coast.