Just as Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando are much more than just a single park, the same is true of SeaWorld. The original park—which includes the Shamu shows as well as presentations featuring dolphins and seals—has expanded to include Discovery Cove (an immersive tropical retreat), and Aquatica (a water park loaded with aquatic excitement). So, as you plan your vacation, consider that SeaWorld can easily fill a single day or, if you’re really eager to take to the waters, perhaps a day or two more.
SeaWorld has received intense public criticism for its treatment of killer whales, also known as orcas, which was largely brought to light by the 2013 documentary Blackfish. The award-winning film follows the life of Tilikum, an orca at SeaWorld Orlando that was involved in the deaths of three people, including one of its trainers during a live show. Since the release of Blackfish, numerous animal welfare groups have come out in support of the film, arguing that it is cruel and stressful to keep such complex creatures inside enclosed tanks. A bill authored by Assemblyman Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica) in 2014 proposed to outlaw orca shows in the California state legislature but was sent back for further study. In response to the outcry, SeaWorld announced that it would build larger environments for the captive whales, a measure which was approved for SeaWorld San Diego by the California Coastal Commission (CCC) in October 2015. However, while the CCC approved tripling the size of the enclosures SeaWorld San Diego uses to hold orcas, it simultaneously banned the breeding of the whales that would live in them. This move has been applauded by animal welfare groups who believe this will ensure that no more orcas will be condemned to live their lives in captivity, at least at SeaWorld San Diego. What’s more, the government of Ontario, Canada introduced legislation in March, 2015 which makes it illegal to allow orcas to be put in tanks for show, a move seen as a symbolic victory for captive orcas everywhere. Despite cutting ticket prices, SeaWorld has been hit by plummeting visitor numbers and is struggling to convince the public that it treats its whales well. What the future holds for the aquatic theme park is anybody’s guess.
Should you choose to visit, there's a whole lot more to SeaWorld and Discovery Cove than being splashed by Shamu. You can see manatees face-to-snout, learn to love a shark, swim with dolphins, and be spat at by a walrus. These two parks celebrate all the mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles that live in and near the ocean.
Then there's Aquatica, a wild water park that takes its cues from SeaWorld and Discovery Cove in design and mood—marine-life motifs are everywhere. It also gives competitor water parks a run for their money with thrilling slides, broad beaches, calming rivers, and an area for small kids.
The park also takes some tips from the tropics. Right after you clear the parking lot, you see a tropical pastiche of buildings. Yup. That's definitely an island vibe you're detecting. Upon entering Aquatica, you feel as if you've left Central Florida for the Caribbean or Polynesia, even.
You might be drawn to the series of superfast waterslides (some of which conclude by sending you into serene streams), or you might feel the pull of the white-sand beaches beside the twin wave pools, where you can laze in the sun, venturing out every so often to try a ride or climb into an inner tube and float down a river. Whether you’re spending the day at SeaWorld, Discovery Cove, or Aquatica, just go with it.