Fodor's Walt Disney World with Kids (2015)
SeaWorld has taken a bit of a beating in the PR arena, but the parks are still popular with families, who love the chance to see aquatic animals of all kinds up close. The park is primarily known for its big shows, such as those that feature Shamu, the park icon. But there are a lot of things to do at SeaWorld
There are three levels of experience at SeaWorld. The first is the high-profile dolphin, sea lion, and killer whale shows. The second is the high-profile thrill rides such as Manta and Kraken. Most of the attention goes to these, so few people talk about the third level, which is the walk-through and interactive exhibits, where you can see animals like penguins, stingrays, manatees, and even sharks up close. SeaWorld is a relatively small park and easy to tour in a day, but don’t blow through it so quickly, checking off the big items, that you miss these lovely small experiences. Sometimes up close and personal is better. Children may remember hand-feeding a fish to a dolphin far longer than they remember watching a dolphin show from the 38th row.
SeaWorld is a low-stress experience, much less frenzied than the other Orlando parks. Easily toured in six or seven hours, it’s laid out so that the crowds pretty much flow from one scheduled animal show to another, working in the smaller attractions along the way. SeaWorld is so beautifully landscaped that you often can’t see one stadium from another, and the sense of space is a welcome change after a week spent at Disney. But the openness also means that children up to age five will benefit from a stroller. Strollers are $15, $24 for a double. You can also rent wheelchairs for $12 and Electric Convenience Vehicles (ECVs) for $50.
SeaWorld Touring Tips
SeaWorld admission is $92 for adults and $84 for children ages three to nine, excluding tax, but if you buy your tickets online the price drops about $10. SeaWorld is also known for some great military discounts, but you must call in advance to arrange those tickets. Parking is $15, with preferred parking (rarely necessary) at $20. Call 888/800-5447 or visit www.seaworldorlando.com for more information.
SeaWorld’s own version of the FastPass+, called the Quick Queue, ranges in price from $20 to $25. The pass works like the Universal Express Pass, meaning you can ride Manta, Kraken, and Journey to Atlantis as many times as you’d like with little wait. These lines are rarely long, however, so a Quick Queue only makes sense if you’re visiting during the most crowded times of the year and are focused on the thrill rides.
Big eaters in the party? SeaWorld offers an all-day dining plan, which offers participants a full meal at most quick-service restaurants. Prices are relatively steep: $32.99 for adults and $17.99 for kids three to nine. Even considering that it includes a soft drink, it’s not worth buying unless you are eating inside the park at least three times. You’re unlikely to do that at any time other than summer, when SeaWorld runs longer hours.
Appropriately, the crowd at SeaWorld moves in waves. The shows are timed so that you can move around the park in a circular fashion, taking in one show after another.
If you’re headed to the other SeaWorld parks, combo tickets are available. Two-park tickets for SeaWorld and the Aquatica water park are $119 for adults and $111 for kids, a fairly significant savings. Once again, if you buy online expect a $10 price break. Prices for Discovery Cove vary seasonally but begin at $169 if you’re willing to forgo the dolphin swim. If you want to swim with the dolphins, prices range from $256 to $319. For updated info on all ticket combinations and prices, visit www.seaworld.com.
Tips for Preschoolers and Toddlers
Small children at SeaWorld welcome the numerous chances to get close to the animals, so save plenty of time for the standing exhibits, where you can feed a sea lion or reach over to touch a dolphin or stingray. At theme parks it’s easy to get caught up in dashing from show to show but, especially with preschoolers, it’s essential to slow down and savor the small moments of animal interaction.
If you want to visit standing exhibits, feed the animals, or play in Shamu’s Happy Harbor, be aware that some periods are far more crowded than others. For example, Shamu’s Happy Harbor is virtually empty while the nearby Shamu show is going on, but the minute the show is over a flood of people head for the playground.
The solution? If you have young kids and would like to be able to play in the Harbor or interact with the animals in a calm, unrushed manner, make note of when the shows are in session and visit the play area or standing exhibits then.
Shamu’s Happy Harbor is a kick for kids, with a play area that’s not only happy but huge, including an elaborate web of climbing nets, a ship with water-firing muskets, a splashy climb-through fountain area, ball pits to sink into, and padded pyramids to climb. After a few hours spent in shows or exhibits, drop by and let the kids just play for a while. You can usually hop right onto any of the six kiddie rides. “Shamu’s Happy Harbor is just that—happy,” said one dad from Pennsylvania. “We have three kids under 6, and we just parked the strollers and let them play for awhile. They loved getting wet and splashing around, and there was absolutely no wait for the kiddie rides.”
A separate play area for smaller kids ensures that they don’t get tangled up in the webs, whacked by an older kid on a tire swing, or, worst of all, lost. Because several of the play areas involve water, some parents let kids wear their bathing suits under their shorts and totally cool off. There’s a midway and arcade next door where older kids can hang out while the younger ones play.
The Baby Care and Lost Child Center, which has a shady porch and rockers, is also in Shamu’s Happy Harbor—convenient, as this is the part of the park where you’re most likely to lose track of your child.
SeaWorld Adventure Camps
SeaWorld hosts educational camps for all age groups. Preschoolers (with a parent along) can participate in morning camps that explore how the animals are fed or how they play hide-and-seek in their environments. Grade-school-level children have lots of choices; there are weeklong camps that study dolphins, manatees, sharks, and other SeaWorld residents. Teenagers can participate in weeklong resident camps where they go behind the scenes of the park and assist the trainers in caring for the animals. Most of the day camps take place in summer, although some programs are offered periodically throughout the year. Prices begin at $250 per child-adult pair for preschool camps, $325 per child for grade-school offerings.
For information on all your options, call 800/406-2244 or visit www.seaworld.org.
It’s easy to get an insider’s look at SeaWorld thanks to tours where you see the animals up close and observe how trainers care for them.
The most elaborate is the Dolphins Up-Close tour ($60 adults, $40 children), which allows you to meet a trainer during your backstage visit and interact with a dolphin family. The Penguin tour ($60 adults, $40 children), Sea Lions Up-Close tour ($40 adults, $20 children), and Behind the Scenes tour ($30 adults, $10 children) are also family-friendly and offer chances to interact with the animals. For younger kids, consider the Family Fun tour ($79 adults, $59 children). There’s less information, but you do get to feed the sea lions and dolphins, pat a penguin, get reserved seating for the Shamu show, have a light lunch, and hobnob with the Shamu character.
These tours make great fodder for school projects. You can reserve the tours in advance at www.seaworldorlando.com, but if you haven’t made reservations, it’s often possible to book a tour on the same day you’re visiting. The tour booth, on the left as you enter the park, is easy to spot. Also, the tours’ times and format regularly change slightly, so be sure to confirm the information above, including prices, when you book.
For years SeaWorld’s claim to fame has been its animal shows, especially those that feature the dolphins, the sea lions, and the park icon, Shamu. These three classics are periodically updated to feature new technological advances, but most of it is window-dressing. It’s hard to improve upon the grandeur and charm of the animals themselves. See them if you do nothing else.
The dolphin, sea lion, and Shamu shows all take place in enormous open-air theaters, so touring SeaWorld is as simple as consulting your map for showtimes and being at the theater about 15 minutes ahead of time in the off-season and 30 minutes ahead in the on-season. SeaWorld does a good job of keeping tabs on crowd size and providing accurate estimates on how early you need to be there.
Kids also love the acrobatic show, which plays several times a day in its own theater, and Pets Ahoy, a show starring a talented cast of dogs, cats, and other animals rescued by animal-welfare leagues. You can come up front and meet the animal stars after the show.
A new attraction, TurtleTrek, is devoted to increasing awareness of environmentally vulnerable sea turtles. It takes place in a 360-degree domed theater, where a 3-D animated film will make you feel as if you’re completely submerged in the underwater world of the turtles.
Be forewarned that if you opt to sit in the “splash zone”—the first 10 rows of the stadium—Shamu’s good-bye wave will leave you drenched straight through to your underwear. Kids enjoy the blast of saltwater, at least on a summer day, but if you’re touring off-season or catching a nighttime show, it’s wiser to sit farther back and laugh at the unwary tourists down by the tank.
Money-Saving Tip SeaWorld often runs promotions, especially during the off-season. Be on the lookout for deals, such as a reduced rate for Aquatica or the Dine with Shamu experience.
There are only three big-deal rides, but they pack quite a punch. Since the shows are the main attraction at SeaWorld, the lines for the rides are shorter than at Disney and Universal. A mother of three from Michigan visited SeaWorld in the off-season and reported, “After all the time we spent waiting in line for rides at Disney and Universal, we were stunned to find that the rides at SeaWorld had practically no waits at all. The kids loved Kraken and were able to ride it several times with no wait.”
Journey to Atlantis
SeaWorld’s version of Splash Mountain, Journey to Atlantis takes you on a sometimes-gentle, sometimes-not water-flume ride through the lost city of Atlantis, then drops you down a steep incline to a great big splash below. If you have a rain poncho, bring it. This one’s a soaker.
You start by boarding Greek fishing boats and are promptly lured by sirens into the depths of the lost city. The tiny boats twist, dodge, and dive through the water. For the first drop, the tracks come out of the front of the building, but the sirens pull you back for the second, unseen, 60-foot, S-shaped drop. The story line is weak and somewhat confusing compared with Splash Mountain, but the two drops near the end of the ride are totally thrilling. Scare Factor The Journey to Atlantis height requirement is 42 inches. Kids seven and up should be okay.
Kiddie Rides at Shamu’s Happy Harbor
SeaWorld has some very simple kiddie rides inside Shamu’s Happy Harbor, a play area across from Shamu Stadium. They include:
Flying Fiddler, a chair ride that rises and gently drops, a kiddie version of Doctor Doom at Islands of Adventure
Jazzy Jellies, swirling jellyfish that rise into the air
Ocean Commotion, a spinning boat ride
Sea Carousel, a fish-and-dolphin-theme merry-go-round
Shamu Express, a small coaster in much the same spirit as the Barnstormer at Disney
Swishy Fishies, a gentle teacup ride
Kraken reaches speeds of 65 mph, with seven loops and three different points where it plunges underground into misty tunnels. We’re talking major intensity. When I first read about Kraken, I suspected the name referred to the sounds your back and neck made as you rode. Not so. The motion of the ride is surprisingly smooth, and the name actually comes from the great underwater dragon-monster of ancient Norse mythology. Scare Factor The height requirement for Kraken is 54 inches. Kids under eight should not ride.
Manta is both beautiful and powerful, much like the creature it’s named for. Riders fly face down in a horizontal “superman” position, hanging beneath the wingspan of the manta. With a track that’s more than 3,000 feet, a variety of swooping dips and turns, and speeds of up to 60 mph, this one’s a squealer. Scare Factor Manta’s height requirement is 54 inches. It’s definitely too much for kids under eight.
The California sea lions live at Pacific Point Preserve, and in the Key West section you can find the endangered manatee, as well as dolphins, stingrays, sea turtles, and other species indigenous to the Florida Keys. There are underwater viewing tanks where you can observe many of the animals from a different perspective.
Wild Arctic is dedicated to polar bears. You can opt to ascend to the top of the exhibit either via a simulated helicopter ride or by walking. Kids must be 42 inches tall to take the ride, but it’s a total snooze in comparison to the Disney and Universal simulator rides, so you may as well save yourself the time and walk. The fun part is seeing the bears, especially watching them from the underwater tanks.
At the Terrors of the Deep exhibit you’ll encounter sharks, moray eels, and barracuda. No petting here.
SeaWorld is also known for its fascinating standing exhibits, where you can get up close to the animals and touch or feed them in some cases. Kids love these exhibits, which are scattered throughout the park. Since they do not have particular showtimes, you can pretty much visit them in any order you choose.
At the dolphin, stingray, and sea-lion exhibits you can buy fish and feed the animals at set times of day. During these periods, a trainer is often on hand to tell you more about the animals’ natural behaviors and how SeaWorld cares for them. These sessions are educational, sure, but the information is delivered in small, child-friendly bites, making this a good alternative to longer tours for kids too young to handle them.
Recently SeaWorld began the lengthy process of revamping its standing exhibits, turning them from zoolike attractions where you simply look at the animals, into more immersive experiences. TurtleTrek and Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin are the first in this “new wave” of standing exhibits
Expedition Café is an attached dining area that replicates a trek to Antarctica, complete with national flags, climbing gear on the wall, and hydroponically grown crops.
Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin
The newest attraction at SeaWorld, Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin is billed as “the coldest in SeaWorld history.” In fact, it’s 32°F inside the penguin’s habitat, which can feel pretty good on a Florida afternoon.
In the preshow you meet Puck, a baby gentoo penguin. Before you ride, choose from either a “wild” or “mild” ride. Then follow Puck on a few hair-raising adventures, including an encounter with a leopard seal, before traveling past the live-penguin habitat. After disembarking, feel free to walk around the open-air section of the habitat for as long as you like. The penguins are real charmers. Scare Factor Neither the “wild” nor the “mild” version of the ride is too intense, but for those with kids under six, pick “mild” the first go-round and return for a wilder trip if you are up to it.
This 30-minute experience begins with your group being brought into the manatee-viewing area, where a knowledgeable SeaWorld attendant shares stories of the endangered mammals’ struggle in the wild. The crowd then moves on to another area to view the sea turtles, where another attendant sets up the 3-D movie that follows.
Although the movie might be confusing to kids if this preliminary explanation weren’t given, the first two parts of TurtleTrek can be a bit of a mess: The rooms are large, and when it’s crowded, it’s almost impossible to hear the guide, who’s often standing in the middle of the room practically screaming facts about animal endangerment into a microphone.
TurtleTrek ends in a large 360-degree theater, where the stunning 3-D show tells the story of one sea turtle from her hatching to adulthood, when she returns to the same beach to lay her own eggs. It’s cool to see all the action from a “turtle’s-eye” view, and the effects are super, if a bit frightening, especially when our heroine narrowly misses being eaten by a crab.
Two words of warning: Like all shows in 360-degree theaters, this can be tough to see with young kids. The audience stands, so you have to hold them up through the entire show or they won’t see anything. And, the 3-D effects are so convincing that some viewers report vertigo or even nausea during the show. If this becomes a problem, just close your eyes and look down at your feet. You’re not actually moving at any point in TurtleTrek, no matter how much it feels like you are. Scare Factor TurtleTrek is loud and has some 3-D effects that may frighten young children, but the scary parts are brief, and the story ends happily.
Discovery Cove offers you a chance to have up-close encounters with dolphins and other sea life. You get to swim and play with bottlenose dolphins and snorkel through clouds of fish in a coral-reef lagoon. Or you can just enjoy the tropical-island ambience of beach chairs, hammocks, swaying palm trees, cooing birds—and hardly any people.
That’s right, the most unusual thing about Discovery Cove is what it doesn’t have: crowds. This is a reservations-only park that admits a mere 1,000 people per day. With such a low number of guests, you truly have the personal attention of the staff, which includes expert trainers (many of them drafted from SeaWorld, Discovery Cove’s sister park).
So what do you pay for all this bliss? Depending upon the season, prices range from $256 to $319 per person if you opt for the dolphin swim. (Special rates for Florida and Georgia residents can drop the price to $199.) The price starts at $169 without the dolphin swim. Since kids under six aren’t allowed to participate in the dolphin program, the price is $199 for children three to five, and children under three are free. For details and reservations (remember, they’re a must), call 877/434-7268 (877/4-DISCOVERY) or visit www.discoverycove.com.
Visiting Discovery Cove
You check in at a concierge desk (!), and from there a guide takes you on a walking tour of the park, explaining all the activities. A swim in the dolphin lagoon is the undeniable highlight of the day, but it’s only for those age six or older. The trainers teach you about dolphin behaviors and then lead you out into the water, where you play with the dolphin and learn how to communicate basic commands. Once you and the animal get used to each other, you can end the session by grasping its dorsal fin and going on a wild ride across the bay.
Want to walk under the water instead of merely wading? The SeaVenture is an underwater walking tour that allows guests ages 10 and older to get up close and personal with schools of fish and velvety rays. Because each guest wears a diving helmet, certain medical requirements apply. SeaVenture costs $60 extra. Check www.discoverycove.com for details.
Your day at Discovery Cove is blissfully unscheduled except for the dolphin swim, which is reserved for a set time in the day. But when’s the best time to schedule it? Go in the morning, when the dolphins are “fresher,” and younger kids are likewise energetic and more likely to enjoy the experience. The afternoon, however, is warmer, and since the dolphin pool is always kept at 72°F, this could make a big difference in the winter. You wear a wet suit, so it isn’t freezing either way, just nippy. Most families reported they preferred doing the dolphin swim in the afternoon.
TIP Bring beach shoes. Discovery Cove’s pools are quite rocky.
“Expensive, yes,” said a father from Baltimore. “But not out of line when you consider the price of similar dolphin swims in the Caribbean. And at Discovery Cove the trainers spend a lot of time with the guests talking about the animals. I’m very glad my sons had the chance to experience this.”
The saltwater coral lagoon offers a variety of experiences, including the chance to snorkel among tropical fish. The water is calm, clear, and warm, and there are thousands of fish, making this a great first snorkeling experience for young kids. In the ray lagoon, you can play with gentle stingrays, some as big as 4 feet in diameter, whose barbs have been removed, or you can swim alongside barracuda and sharks kept behind Plexiglas.
The Grand Reef offers multiple areas for exploration. You can swim or wade among exotic fish and rays or cross a bridge to walk over a shark lagoon.
A freshwater tropical river meanders its way through the park. As you float along you pass through several different settings, including a tropical fishing village, an underwater cave, and an immense aviary that houses 300 birds from all over the world.
The Freshwater Oasis is shallower, almost a watery walking trail, and takes you through habitats of marmoset monkeys and Asian otters, two of the most playful animal species on Earth. Adirondack chairs are available along the way if you’d like to wade out of the stream and relax with a drink beneath the shady rain-forest canopy.
When you’ve explored to your heart’s content, there’s no better way to end the day than by snoozing in your hammock on a white-sand beach. Discovery Cove is all-inclusive, meaning breakfast and lunch are provided, as well as wine and beer for the adults throughout the day. Swim vests, wet suits, snorkels, sunscreen, beach umbrellas, lounge chairs, lockers, and beach towels are also included in the price.
Aquatica, SeaWorld’s 60-acre water park, is positioned as a competitor to Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach. It’s outfitted with all the slides and wave pools you’d expect from an Orlando water park and plenty of special SeaWorld touches as well.
Aquatica draws large crowds, and after a certain capacity is reached, the park closes to ensure the safety of its guests. To avoid being shut out, come first thing in the morning or—if you’re visiting in the summer, with its extended evening hours—arrive in late afternoon, when people are beginning to drift out.
Aquatica admission is $55 for adults and $50 for children three to nine, excluding tax. The price drops to $45 for adults and $40 for children if you buy in advance online. The two-park combo tickets ($119 adult, $111 child) are a good deal if you’re also planning to visit SeaWorld. Visit www.aquaticabyseaworld.com for more details.
Big Surf Shores and Cutback Cove
Twin side-by-side lagoons provide different waves for different tastes. The pools are independent: One may generate crashing waves with 5-foot swells while the other might provide gently rolling surf that laps the shore. A plus for parents is that it’s easy to move from one pool to the other, and the park’s white-sand beach faces the pools, providing a good base of operations if you’re spending a lot of time in this area. Scare Factor It’s not scary.
From an animal standpoint, the Dolphin Plunge, prominently featured in Aquatica ads, is a bit of a letdown. “The website plays it up like you swim with dolphins,” wrote one mother from Georgia. “The reality is that the clear tube that runs through the dolphin tank is only for a couple of seconds at the end of the ride—blink, and you miss it totally. Fortunately, the rest of the park was great.”
In the park’s signature ride you zip 300 feet down a narrow tube into a lagoon holding two Commerson’s dolphins. The plunge lives up to the hype—the dolphins, not so much. The bottom part of the tube is see-through, which means, theoretically, you can see the dolphins as you pass, but you move through in seconds, and there’s water splashing your eyes the whole time. In other words, most people are zipping by so fast that they see zip. There are only two slides on this ride, so expect to wait at peak times. Riders must be 48 inches tall. Scare Factor Riders don’t have a tube, and ride-alone kids seven and up should be fine.
Kata’s Kookaburra Cove
This play area has fountains and an array of small slides. Tucked away behind the cabanas that surround Big Surf Shores, Kata’s never seems to be quite as crowded as Walkabout Waters. Note: Kids must be no taller than 48 inches to play. Scare Factor It’s not scary.
In contrast to Roa’s Rapids, this is indeed a lazy river. A high point is that the lane leads to a 10,000-gallon grotto filled with thousands of colorful fish and a view of the Commerson’s dolphins. There’s next to no pull, so you might have to paddle a bit, especially if you want to choose the turn with the fish grotto. Scare Factor It’s not scary.
Picture a waterslide with both high-speed tubes and half-pipe funnels that are designed to emulate the movements of skateboards and snowboards. The flumes help you pick up speed so that by the time you enter the funnels and begin the side-to-side action, the sensation is close to sheer weightlessness. The splashdown is massive. Older kids and teens love this one, which has a height requirement of 48 inches and a weight limit of 250 pounds. Scare Factor This is the most intense ride in the park; let kids build up to the plunge.
A flowing current is the highlight of this attraction that takes you along rapids and occasional waterfalls. Roa’s is a lot of bang for the buck: There’s no line (though the waters can get crowded with visitors at times), and after strapping on your life jacket you’ll wade into the rapids via a wide entrance lane (you exit the same way). You can hold on to your child as you bob around, and you’re free to circle the rapids as many times as you wish. “Soooo much fun,” wrote a teen from Ohio. “The current really challenges you, and we were pooped by the time we got out.” Scare Factor This is a bit of a “lazy river” on steroids. Kids should wear life jackets and be somewhat confident swimmers.
This zippy little tube ride empties you into a large circular bowl, where you make a few wild revolutions before slipping down another tube, which leads you back into the Loggerhead Lane lazy river. (The ride’s resemblance to a toilet is impossible to overlook.) Scare Factor Fun and wild without being too scary, this is a good test to see if kids are up to handling the bigger flumes.
In the aquatic equivalent of a bobsled run, you climb into one of eight lanes and start your descent down 300 feet of slides, which includes a 360-degree turn at the top. The eight lanes mean that the line for this slide moves more quickly than Dolphin Plunge’s. Riders must be 42 inches tall, and kids below 48 inches must wear a life vest. Scare Factor The thrill as you crest the top of the slide is palpable (be sure to hold on tight to your blue mat).
Here, in one of the world’s largest interactive water-play areas, a colorful 60-foot fortress provides 15,000 square feet of family slides, pools, water cannons, and two large buckets that periodically dump water on frolickers below. “A great option for families with preschoolers,” said one mother. “Nothing scary at all and once my kids warmed up on the family slides, which let us all go together, they felt brave enough to do a few things in the general park.” Scare Factor It’s not scary.
Wahalla Wave and HooRoo Run
These family raft rides are side by side. Wahalla Wave is a winding descent from a six-story-high mountain, while HooRoo Run is more of a straight shot down with a couple of bumps along the way. Both are a lot of fun, and since riding together dilutes the intensity, they’re another chance to break in nervous kids. “My twin 8-year-old sons weren’t so keen at first,” said a mom from London. “But all riding together made it a family adventure, and they got off with the giggles. Only trouble was, they liked it so well we had to do both slides again, and I almost didn’t get them to move on and see more of the park.” Riders must be 42 inches tall, and kids under 48 inches must wear a life vest. Scare Factor Younger kids and nervous swimmers will do well here.
You climb into tubes and have a choice of four descents, each winding with periods of darkness and a couple of steep drops along the way. You can also choose between one- and two-person tubes. Whanau Way is one of the most popular attractions in the park, but because there are four points of descent, the line moves fairly rapidly. Scare Factor Watch a few descents before deciding to ride together or solo.