This year, SeaWorld celebrates its 50th anniversary. Looking back over the past five decades, SeaWorld has always been all about the animals. In the 1950s, its sister company Busch Gardens started in Tampa with just a bird sanctuary and a garden. In the ’60s SeaWorld San Diego opened with a few dolphins, sea lions and two saltwater aquariums. Today, animals are still the main focus at SeaWorld Parks, with shows, entertainment and roller coasters rounding out the experience. The park is like a zoo, aquarium and amusement park all rolled into one. Visitors to SeaWorld Orlando can experience many different kinds of animal encounters, whether chilling out on a ride with penguins, soaring through the air like a giant manta ray or getting splashed by the famous Shamu.
1. Interact With the Animals
SeaWorld Orlando presents many ways for visitors to interact with animals. Visitors can casually stroll the park to observe flamingos, alligators, manatees and seaturtles. The Dolphin Nursery is a designated area for mothers and their newborn calves, who are especially playful for the audience. At Shark Encounter, guests can glide through a glass tunnel completely surrounded by sharks. Outside is a tank filled with beautiful and exotic rays, like the leopard whipray.
Animal shows, offered throughout the day, also remain hugely popular among guests at SeaWorld who are awe-struck by the sheer intelligence and extraordinary abilities of water mammals. SeaWorld's signature show, "One Ocean," features killer whales; dolphins take the stage in "Blue Horizons;" and in "Clyde and Seamore's Sea Lion High," sea lions, an otter and a walrus all perform. For a closer look, guests can pay a small fee to feed the animals, like stingrays, dolphins, sea lions and seals, and they can even participate in special behind-the-scenes tours customized to a personal interest, whether it's dolphins, penguins or killer whales. SeaWorld even incorporates animal encounters into the rides. Before boarding the roller coaster Manta, guests are led through an aquarium of manta rays. The ride Antarctica takes passengers into a below-freezing room filled with penguins.
Animal rescue is also a significant focus of SeaWorld. Over the last 50 years, SeaWorld has helped rescue more than 26,000 animals, including sea turtles, dolphins and manatees from right here in Central Florida.
2. Experience the Rides
SeaWorld Orlando is home to some of the most-thrilling roller coasters in town as well as fun rides for the entire family. Coming next year will be Mako, the fastest, highest and longest roller coaster in Orlando. Manta and Kraken are two roller coasters already at the park, both of which have been named among the best coasters in the country by roller-coaster fanatics as well as The Travel Channel. Kraken packs a G-Force rating of 3.9 with seven inversions and two vertical loops. Manta comes in a close second with a G-Force rating of 3.7 with four inversions and two inline twists, not to mention passengers are riding face-first.
Journey to the Atlantis is similar to Disney's Splash Mountain with water elements and dramatic drops that get you soaked. (For all three rides, you must store your items with a friend or in a locker. Lockers are $1 per hour and the two kiosks at each ride get crowded.)
In the center of the park is Sky Tower, a 400-foot observation tower that visitors at least four-feet tall can ride to the top for views. Smaller children can easily spend a half day in Shamu's Happy Harbor, with a huge ropes course, kid-friendly roller coaster, splash pad, carousel, miniature train and other amusement rides. To avoid the lines for the most-popular rides, guests may want to consider a Quick Queue pass, which allows you to skip to the front of the line at seven attractions. Quick Queues are sold online or at the park for $19.
3. Attend the Special Events
Throughout the year, SeaWorld hosts special events, concerts and food festivals, from the Halloween Spooktacular and SeaWorld's Christmas Celebration to Summer Nights along with Viva La Musica and Brews and BBQ in the spring. During the spring and summer events, artists like Alan Jackson, The Village People, Lee Greenwood and Sara Evans take the stage. All special events are included with theme-park admission.
Halloween Spooktacular is especially fun for children as the park dresses up in a carnival-like theme complete with games, costumes and trick-or-treating. During the Christmas Celebration, the park comes alive with thousands of lights—especially lovely in the Sea of Trees—and special attractions for kids like The Polar Express, visits with Santa and a Sesame Street "Countdown to Christmas" stage show.
4. Visit the Other SeaWorld Parks
SeaWorld is owned by the same parent company as Busch Gardens, which is located in Tampa, just an hour's drive from Orlando on Interstate 4. In town, SeaWorld has two other parks: Aquatica water park and Discovery Cove. Aquatica is a tropical-themed water park with double wave pools, thrilling water slides and even a beach. Discovery Cove provides guests with a resort-like experience with special animal encounters. Here, guests can actually swim with dolphins, snorkel among colorful fish and manta rays, and hand-feed tropical birds.
5. Where to Buy Tickets and Packages
Regular admission to SeaWorld is $97 for ages 3 and up, however many specials, packages and discounts are offered. Visitors can save $10 right off the bat by purchasing their ticket online. Weekday tickets are just $70 per person, and a combination ticket for SeaWorld and Aquatica is $99. Adding a third day at Busch Gardens in Tampa only bumps up the ticket price to $119 for all three attractions. In addition, prices to SeaWorld's premium park, Discovery Cove, can range from the $200s to the $400 range, but admission to SeaWorld and Aquatica are included. In other words, guests are encouraged to visit as many SeaWorld parks as possible, and in doing so, they'll be rewarded by the price. Note: parking charges do apply.
6. Where to Eat
SeaWorld Orlando offers many dining options, most of which are clustered around the waterfront and offer the typical theme-park fare like hot dogs, hamburgers and barbecue. For $35.99 adults can purchase an all-you-can-eat-and-drink dining package that's good at six of SeaWorld's restaurants, which is definitely a savings if you're planning to be there all day.
Two premium-dining options are also offered, including Dine With Shamu and Shark's Underwater Grill. Shark's is a cool, sit-down restaurant with table-to-ceiling aquarium views and the park's only full-service bar. Entrees range from $29 grilled mahi mahi to $36, 14-ounce ribeye or ahi tuna with loaded mashed potatoes and seasonal vegetables. If you're planning to save money, small coolers are allowed inside the park, but only with snacks, bottled water and baby food.
7. Where to Stay
Unlike Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort, SeaWorld does not have any hotels right on property. However, SeaWorld does partner with seven nearby hotels, several of which are within walking distance, and all provide special perks like a free Quick Queue pass, free shuttle and a free Behind-the-Scenes Tour included with the stay. Official hotel partners are the DoubleTree, Renaissance Orlando, Hilton Garden Inn, Residence Inn, Hilton Grand Vacations, Fairfield Inn and Springhill Suites. SeaWorld Orlando is located in the heart of the tourism corridor nearby restaurants, nightlife, shopping and entertainment on International Drive.