Day 36 – Sea World

Tuesday 18th September 2018

Today marked the first day of our Sea World all access pass usage. From the date of first entry, we are allowed to visit any Sea World theme park as often as we would like for ten days. This includes Sea World, Bush Gardens and Aquatica, their water theme park. In fact, we will make scarce use of these tickets. We’ll visit Sea World today and perhaps again once more before we leave the Orlando area. We’re not going back to Tampa to visit Bush Gardens and we don’t plan on going in to Aquatica either. We were in Tampa a couple of weeks ago but that was Labour Day. The parks would have been nightmarishly busy given it was a national holiday. Besides, we were there to spend time with our good friends, Marc and Anna anyway. Sandy and I visited Aquatica many years ago, very soon after it was first built. We don’t have especially fond memories of it, like we do for the Disney water theme parks.

Expecting a full-on theme park day (as opposed to only a half-day visit), we were all up and about relatively early this morning. Everyone was a little tired. This holiday is fun but visiting theme parks can be very tiresome and we’ve done quite of lot of theme park visits in the past four or five weeks.

Somewhat on auto-pilot, we all piled into the car and I drove over to one of the nearby Waffle House restaurants for the ritual family breakfast. Joey was somewhat a happy camper but not entirely his usual bubbly self. He did perk up a bit after his tummy was full.

In a bid to demonstrate just how ludicrously dependant I have become on the modern aid that is satellite navigation, I insisted on following the satnav’s directions instead of my nose when we got close to Sea World. Big error. After a while, I was being subjected to complaints from all directions in the car about heading away from the Sea World observation tower. It’s visible for miles around. Since it’s right in the centre of the park, it’s sort of a beacon for finding the park. My antagonists were all pointing out we were driving farther away from it. We were travelling deeper into backroad territory before I eventually stopped the car to figure out what went wrong. The penny did eventually drop. I had done a search for ‘seaworld’. This through up a number of results and I clicked on the one that looked like it had the right icon. The search results screen on the phone are too narrow to display all the text in the search results. It chops everything off after so many characters and displays an ellipsis instead. This is true even when you hold the phone sideways to get the portrait display. It’s a serious design flaw if ever there were one, although I can hear Sandy and the kids in my ear now telling me to stop blaming the technology when the problem is between the phone screen and the floor. Anyway, it turns out the correct name for the theme park is ‘Sea World’, with a space between the two words. We were heading to something called ‘Seaworld…’ Wherever this was, it was not the theme park we were looking for. Once I figure this out and rectified the problem, we rolled into the Sea World car park about five minutes later. With tiredness and irritability setting in, the fifteen-minute detour caused by my incorrect satnav usage didn’t go down very well with the rest of the family. I would need to work hard to recover from this today.

So, by around noon, we parked the car, having been duly relieved of $22 for the privilege. After explaining we may need a fast getaway in the event we had a full-blown meltdown (perhaps from me this time), we were told to put on our hazard warning lights. The car park staff see this as an indication to send us into the disabled parking section, which affords us a brief walk to the turnstiles, as opposed to up to a half a kilometre walk. At the end of the day, when we’re barely able to shift one leg in front of the other, this is actually quite the God-send.

As we walked towards the turnstiles, I braced myself. In fact, I had been bracing myself ever since it became clear we were heading to Sea World today. From past visits, I know we are going to be subject to quite the fleecing today. From memory, everything Sea World does revolves around squeezing as much money from you as possible. The other theme park operators do this also but in more subtle ways. Sea World are a bit more in-your-face about extracting money from you. I knew this was going to hurt us financially today. This is why I’ve been mentally preparing myself for the financial onslaught for the past couple of days.

As this was our first visit to Sea World, we stopped at Guest Services right after we cleared the security and ticket checks. We explained we were travelling with autistic children (in truth, it’s only really Joey that we have any difficulties with) that were unable to tolerate crowds. Without any hesitation, we were duly issued with Sea World’s version of an express pass. Theirs takes the form of an A4 printout. Along with the mandatory information like children’s names, validity date, etc., there’s also a list of those attractions where this special pass could be used. The piece of paper was inspected a few times throughout the day by staff checking that the ride/attraction we wanted to experience was one that was on this list. In fact, we found no rides or attractions that weren’t on the list, so it was essentially a blank cheque for the entire park.

We had last night explored the Sea World website briefly to check to see whether we would be permitted to take our own photos during the dolphin encounter experience. Alas, just as was posted on the website, they were insistent that you couldn’t take your own phone or camera anywhere near the dolphins. It’s stated that this is for the protection of the dolphins. That’s complete and utter bollocks. It’s done expressly to encourage and cajole you into spending money on their photo pass product. For $70 for a single day, you get to have photos of you interacting with the dolphins for you by a professional. You also get any photos taken of you during the rides added to the account. All the photos are then downloadable from the Sea World website for up to a couple of weeks after you visit. This is one of the examples of how Sea World is actively trying to fleece you to within an inch of your wallet’s life. Once it was made clear we weren’t able to take any of our own photos, my interest in the dolphin encounter started evaporating. Sandy’s was still going strong. After we left the Guest Services counter, Sandy made me go back and buy the dolphin encounter for all four of us – at $30 per person plus tax. I mustered all my powers of restraint to nod and smile politely.

Once again, the weather was a scorcher today. In fact, we’ve had 32+ degrees Celsius (90+ degrees Fahrenheit) pretty much every day since we’ve been here. The heat is already bad enough but factor in the high humidity and it can be quite an effort to move about. Once again, we ended up darting from one air-conditioned environment to the next as we made our way around the park.

Although Sea World is all about the wildlife at sea, such as dolphins, sharks, penguins, etc., the Sea World theme park is just as much about the rollercoasters. They have several very good ones – perhaps the best in the entire Orlando theme park area. The most visually obvious thing you see when you enter the park is the Manta rollercoaster. It’s like a normal rollercoaster but with a couple of twists. First, the car hangs from the rails, as opposed to sitting atop them. Second, you are rotated backwards so that you end up horizontal to the ground before the rollercoaster gets moving. It’s sort of like flying. The idea is that you are mimicking how a Manta Ray moves through the water. The first inversion loop means you are traveling headfirst backwards and upside down. It’s a very nice ride and well worth the effort.

After Jennifer and I came off Manta, we made our way through the exit shop. I found our photo from one of the several photo booths there and tried to link it to our photo pass. For whatever reason, that wasn’t possible to do manually so I had to ask for assistance at the counter. We did this several more times throughout the day at the various rollercoaster rides.

Right from the get-go today in Sea World, Joey was accumulating more soft toys. There are a number of carnival medley games of chance here which Joey really likes. Many of them are a prize every time, so he was in his element. Each time we add a new toy to one of the kids’ already quite substantials collection, I keep thinking we’re just not going to be able to get it all home again. The weight and bulk are continually adding up.

Our dolphin encounter time arrived. We opted for one that was fairly soon after we entered the park, just in case we had to leave due to a meltdown. Sandy was still trying to haggle with the staff about being allowed to take photos. She suggested that she stand on the one side of the dolphin enclosure to take a few photos and then go into the closed off section to where the dolphin trainers were directing the dolphin encounter experience. Try as she might, they weren’t budging. I don’t really think there was ever any danger of Sandy winning this battle. Allowing people to take their own photos pretty much removes the incentive for them to buy the photo package. Sea World know this and have thus designed everything so that it’s just not possible. Eventually, Sandy caved and bought the $70 one day photo package. This round goes to Sea World…the blood sucking leeches! Still, it would at least allow all four of us to concentrate on the dolphin encounter while one of the park photographers snaps a few shots from afar.

The actual encounter with the dolphins, although brief, was a success in the end. As an added bonus, everyone got a thorough dowsing by one of the dolphins in the enclosure on command from our dolphin trainer. The kids got to stroke the dolphin a couple of times, wave a few commands at it, and so on. It wasn’t nearly as good as the experience we had with the kids at Sea World in Queensland a few years ago, however. There, we all got into wetsuits and got into the water with the dolphins. There was a lot more interaction. They do have a similar dolphin encounter option here at Sea World in Orlando, but we just didn’t buy that option today.

A little farther into the park was the shark and ray pool. For a few dollars, you could feed the animals. Sandy was insistent we get the full experience today, taking advantage of all the feeding opportunities we could. Naturally, the opportunity to spend $10 for three small carboard trays of cut-up fish was never going to be passed by. As it happened, none of the sharks or fish in the pool were interested in eating any of the fish the kids through in. The rays ate everything in the end, but even that wasn’t until one of them accidentally swam right on top of the pieces after they had fallen to the bottom of the tank.

Having ‘fed the sharks’, we walked around to the next major rollercoaster in the park, called Mako. For a traditional rollercoaster that had no inversions or loops, this one surprised me. It was probably one of the more thrilling rollercoasters I’ve ever been on. When I went on, there was no shoulder harness. Already I’m thinking this isn’t going to be that good. How can it? There’s barely anything restraining you. There’s a lap restraint, which you pull towards yourself. It just about prevents you from standing up but that’s about it. Holy shit was I in for a surprise. The thrill component to this rollercoaster is going over the crest of the hill, which the ride did four or five times. Your entire body is thrown upwards out of yours seat as you crest over the hill. I had to physically grab the lap restraint each time for fear of being flung out of my seat and clear of the damn thing. I was scared shitless each time I’d be launched into oblivion. The thrill is thus not the g-forces you experience as you’re thrown around, it’s the sheer terror of believing you’re going to not stay in your bloody seat. Jennifer and I both agreed the Mako was a really good ride. In retrospect, I’m really glad Joey didn’t do it.

Our next thrill was the Atlantis water drop ride, after a brief stop at the lockers. The blood-sucking leeches at Sea World insist on charging $2 for the use of all lockers throughout the park – bastards. To add insult to injury, our particular locker rental terminal took our money but didn’t give us a locker. When I hit the cancel button, it displayed a message that it had re-paid the dollar bills I inserted but no dollar bills actually came out of the machine. I had to wait there, preventing others from using the terminal, until Sandy returned after going off to find someone to assist. She had been given a couple of dollar bills, so I could try again to rent a locker. The second time, it worked.

The Atlantis ride is a pretty standard type of thrill for what it is, and you do of course get very wet, as per the ride designer’s intentions. There’s a bit of a twist to this one in that there’s another drop and twist after the main one, which sort of takes you by surprise. When we went into the Atlantis ride, we went up through the express lane entrance, as we had been doing for everything else today, but there were no staff there managing the pre-loading of people from both the normal and express lanes. After a few minutes of watching people from the normal lane take their positions for the boarding process, I wondered whether we might ever get a chance to slip in. Fortunately, someone – not a staff member as it turned out – called for four people to complete their boat. I raised my hand and ushered the four of us through. True to expectations, we did all get very wet on the Atlantis ride.

After Atlantis, Jennifer and I went into the adjacent Kraken rollercoaster. This is a true classic style rollercoaster with inversion loops, corkscrews, fast turns, etc. It’s a great ride to boot. Jennifer and I came out and pretty much went straight back in again for a second go. The exit serves as the express entrance, so we doubled back almost immediately and caught the very next car. Oddly enough, there was no staff manning the photo booths at the end of this ride. I photographed the screen that depicted the ride number and row number our photo was in. I would have the attendant at one of the other manned photo booths link the photo to our pass at the next available opportunity. This turned out to be back at the Atlantis ride just across the way.

All day, I had been asking when Sandy and the kids wanted to go and see the penguins. As it was inside, it would at least be air-conditioned, so it would be a welcome relief for us all. Much to my irritation, there seemed to be little interest from the others about doing this each time I hinted. There always seemed to be something else we could or should be doing. Fortunately, the time had come, and we were now close to the Antarctic ride building.

The last time Sandy and I were here, we visited the penguins but it’s all different now. Instead of just walking into the penguin enclosure and looking at them from behind glass, there’s an actual ride attraction that takes you into where the penguins are. There’s no glass that separates you from the waddling birds, although it’s designed so you can’t actually get to them physically. Now, penguins live in the Antarctic, by and large, so it’s very cold. This means you are now entering an environment that’s by design equally very cold. The ride that gets you from the sweltering heat outside to the sub-zero temperatures of the penguin enclosure does so by taking you first through a couple of areas, each of which is ten or fifteen degrees lower than the last. The ride itself is really quite bizarre. There are eight seats (two rows of four) in circular pods. Each pod is a robot that moves on a smooth floor. The pod can jiggle about, move in all directions, tilt in various directions, etc. You are made to feel like Puck, a newly hatched penguin that is growing up and going on an adventure through ice caves to the feeding ground at the sea. The pod moves around inside an ice cave, mimicking the movements of the little penguin as it slides around on the ice. Eventually, the pod parks itself at one of several parking bays where we can get out and visit the penguins in their enclosure and at their temperature. I thought it was done really rather nicely.

Because of the extreme cold, people don’t stay inside the penguin enclosure for very long. There’s an adjacent room where you can see the penguins from behind glass before you’re allowed to make your way out. By now your body has chilled and the warmth outside is a much welcome relief – for about a minute, after which time you’re back to sweating and overheating again. Once outside, we all had something to drink. Each day we leave the house, we add two frozen bottles of water to the back pack. This slowly melts throughout the day, providing us all with a much-needed gulp of icy cold water as needed. We’ve done very well on this trip in making sure we’re all hydrated well in the oppressive heat.

Our last activity of the day was to be a visit to the Shamu Stadium, to see the end-of-the-day orca show. As the stadium was over the opposite end of the park, we had to shift ourselves over there quickly. It turns out that’s really hard to do when you’re trying to drink from a soda fountain cup full of soft drink. None of the theme parks here in Orlando have plastic lids or plastic straws anymore, so we’re drinking from the cups the old-fashioned way. A good deal of my cola made it into my mouth but probably more of it made its way down my chin and onto my chest.

We found our way into the stadium, taking seats at the very back where there were no other people next to us. One of Joey’s more recent aversions is being around strangers. He’s becoming increasingly anxious whenever we are in a ride or attraction and are seated next to strangers. This is becoming ever more of a challenge for us.

The kids both enjoyed seeing the orcas in action in the Shamu Stadium. In the back of my mind, however, I’m pondering just how much I should be supporting Sea World with regard to their use of animals to entertain the public. It’s a bit of a contentious issue with many people.

Once the animals had been fed and the crowd dispersed (we were the last to leave the stadium), we meandered aimlessly about the park a bit. Both kids spent some more money on some more of the carnival medley games, each adding more soft toys to their ever-building pile already accumulated. Thanks to Sandy, Joey also added to his collection of transformer toys. We find these give him something to focus on.  It helps keep him calm. For her part, Jennifer picked up a nice mermaid shaped towel, which she eyed at the start of the day. Jenifer is much more easy-going with buying toys and things. She’s perfectly happy to agree to withhold judgement until the end of the day just in case there’s something better at the next shop. No such luck with Joey. Jennifer’s mermaid towel was a more expensive purchase but we’re both conscious of the fact she tends to not get as much as Joey does. Consequently, whenever there is something she likes, we tend to give her a bit more leeway regarding cost.

Between the dolphin encounter, photo pass, kids’ toys, snacks, etc., my wallet did indeed take quite the beating as I originally predicted. We left the park with well over $400 less than we came in with. Gulp.

Fortunately, it was but a short walk for Joey and me back to the car. That’s a good thing, as it meant I had less time to mull over the money I spent today. Sandy and Jennifer didn’t make it back for at least another ten minutes, however, which sadly gave me plenty of opportunity to pine over my lost dollars.

The heavens opened up as we were on our way back along I-4 and the 192. We did contemplate stopping at a Golden Coral for dinner, but we must have missed it in the rain, so we continued on home instead.

In one final insult for me at the end of the day, I was emptying the car of the plethora of to-go soda cups we tend to accumulate each day. We almost always come out of a restaurant with three or four of them. I spotted one in the side of one of the sliding doors. That particular cup-holder isn’t accessible with the door open. I had to close the automatic door, reach for the cup before the door completed its close cycle, then open the door again so as to not get caught. In doing this little dance, I didn’t quite manage to get the cup out before the door opened again. In my haste to not get my arm caught, I tugged on the cup, which was apparently still full of some sort of liquid. The cup broke. I spent the next five minutes wiping the car door and surrounding area clean.

Sandy cooked us all a wonderful meal tonight. I tended to a couple of Dragon Realm Press gigs while Sandy went back out again with Jennifer to do some birthday shopping for her. Jennifer will be twelve tomorrow.