Twenty-five years ago this year, I interned in the Aviculture department at SeaWorld San Diego.  For those not in the know – it means I took care of birds.  And that includes penguins.  Now back in that day, the park was owned by book publisher Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.  It had just undergone a major expansion, doubling its size with a new entrance, the world’s largest captive orca tank, and a huge larger-than-life map of the United States.  But for me, the best attraction was the Commerson’s dolpins, freshly arrived from the Strait of Magellan.

To see these beautiful four-foot long creatures, you would enter the old mermaid show building and watch a slideshow about the dolphins, their capture, and how all cetaceans descended from land-bound cows.  Then the screen and would rise and you would watch them swim.  Fast.  In circles.  Over and over again.  Until you got bored.  Or you could go in a different auditorium just to view them if you wanted to avoid the slide show altogether.

SeaWorld at that time followed traditional zoo and aquarium principles, with the central attraction being the animal exhibits with audio-visual presentations providing optional background information.  Once SeaWorld was purchased by Busch Entertainment, things began to change.

First, there was a thematic integration with animals and thrill rides.  At SeaWorld Orlando, Commerson’s dolphins were integrated into the Journey to Atlantis attraction and later into the Dolphin’s Plunge waterslide complex at the Aquatica waterpark.  Likewise, rays were integrated into the queue for the Manta coasters and the Stingray Falls attraction at Aquatica’s San Antonio location, opening this Summer.

At the same time, animal attractions began taking on the theme of a human expedition to remote regions.  This includes such projects as Wild Arctic, with its helicopter flight motion simulator followed by a walkthrough of animal enclosures disguised as an Arctic research base, and Busch Gardens Tampa Bay’s Rhino Rally, a cross-country rally/safari experience containing both encounters with live animals and thrill ride components.

Starting last year, the parks began taking a different approach with animal interpretation.  Instead of human exploration to where the animals live, the new adventures places humans into the lives of animals themselves.  It began with Cheetah Hunt at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay.  A combination animal exhibit and ride, the rollercoaster portion of the attraction, designed by Intamin, takes its cue from the cheetah itself.  Although it contains a number of traditional coaster elements, such as scaling a tower and an inversion, the ride features 3 LSM launches and tight curves that mimic the way a cheetah hunts in the wild.  Sea World San Diego’s Manta, a Mack ride, will take a similar approach with multiple launches and twists, attempting to mimic the motion of the wild manta ray.

At Sea World Orlando, a pavilion dedicated to manatee rescue has been redesigned into TurtleTrek.  Inside, a 360 degree dome will envelope audience members in the life story of a sea turtle in a wraparound 3D experience.  34 Christie 4K projectors will be combined to create a seamless image in this latest project from Kraftwerk, a followup to their Bubble Theatre at Macau’s City of Dreams (showing Dragon’s Treasure).

When I was young and interning at Sea World, guests would take a moving walkway past a recreated Antarctic environment and see penguins swimming and rooking and moving about.  After, they could backtrack to a viewing platform and watch videos about the birds’ exciting lives.  Occasionally, we keepers would come onto the ice and kids would be happy to see the birds run around us begging for food.  There were always two rules – never look at the glass and make eye contact with the guests, and always wear a jacket to give the illusion of a freezing environment (even if it was actually 59 degrees inside).

SeaWorld Orlando is demolishing their Penguin Encounter.  In its place will rise Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin.  It’s central feature will be a ride where guests will “experience the mystery and wonder of life on the ice through the eyes of a penguin, sensing the beauty and drama of their sometimes-dangerous habitat. Antarctica – Empire of the Penguin combines closer-then-ever animal connections with state-of-the-art interactive ride technologies for adventures that are different each time.”

A human in a jacket replaced by an animal spirit guide.

To learn more about SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, visit www.seaworldparks.com

ORIGINALLY POSTED 2/28/12 AT THEMEDREALITY.COM

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