SeaWorld looks to next generation with new orca show and children's land

May 31, 2017, 7:26 PM · SAN DIEGO — SeaWorld San Diego today officially opened a pair of new attractions, including a new children's land and a reboot of the park's iconic killer whale show.

SeaWorld is calling its new Orca Encounter show a "live documentary," and that's an apt description of a show that eschews SeaWorld's traditional high-energy music and stunts for a more low-key, informative look at the world of killer whales.

Okay, using the term "low-key" to describe anything involving the baddest beasts in the ocean seems a bit ridiculous. But Orca Encounter wants to engage your head first, before making a gentle tug at your heart — flipping the script on previous SeaWorld orca shows, which sought to entertain before throwing in a brief attempt at a lesson near their end.

One name you won't hear in this new show? Shamu. SeaWorld long ago adopted the name of its original orca as the stage name for all of its killer whales, but in this show, the whales are referenced by the their actual names. (To which I say, thank you!) That reinforces the authenticity of the presentation, which illustrates its information via a massive infinity screen behind the performance pool in the park's orca compound.

The trainers remain out of the water, and fade into the background of this show, save for a single narrator. There's still a child volunteer from the audience, but in this show she remained on the audience side of the pool's glass, to be soaked by an orca's splashing.

Orca Encounter further reveals that all those "tricks" that SeaWorld's orcas have been doing over the years aren't random trained choreography, rather just the same behaviors that orcas perform in the wild, which are illustrated on the screen. In all, it feels a little like a "Behind the Scenes" reveal to the old Shamu shows. But will it connect with new visitors, many of whom won't remember the days when trainers launched off a breaching orca's nose, dozens of feet into the air?

My inner optimist hopes so. The world needs people to understand threatened species as real beings, not hypothetical concepts. It's easy to ignore the news. You won't ignore a blast of orca-splashed seawater hitting you in the face. Yet the pessimist in me fears that without those flying trainers in the water — and without a steady supply of free beer to lure mom and dad into the park — the next generation of would-be environmental activists will end up spending their weekends and vacations elsewhere. As much as I enjoyed the learning all the stuff in Orca Encounter, there's no classic narrative here to engage the audiences' hearts and souls, along with their brains.

Except that... there is. But SeaWorld, ever polite to its audience — like a good theme park host — won't come out to say it. The threat to orcas — and the global ecosystem upon which the killer whale depends — is not some fictional villain or alien species. It's us.

We didn't intend to screw up the planet, but dumping a few centuries of pollution into its water and air is doing just that. (Despite what some people in position to do maybe something about it would have you believe.) Maybe accusing your audience after taking away their beer and circuses is a step too far. But one of the most impressive lessons in Orca Encounter is its illustration of how orcas can topple even the biggest threats in the ocean by working together. Would that we could learn something from that.

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SeaWorld's other attraction debuting today is a new children's land, Ocean Explorer.

It's a whimsically decorated land, on the site of the old Court of Flags, to the right of the main entrance. But its most notable element might be as SeaWorld's first move toward implementing more gaming features in its attractions, in an effort to remain relevant to a generation raised on video games. SeaWorld's VP for Theme Park Experience Design, Brian Morrow, talked with me about that effort.

The main attraction in the new land is Submarine Quest, a family track ride above the land that includes a game element on screens within the ride vehicles.

While I love the concept, the execution didn't work for me, as I didn't know whether to look at the screen in the ride vehicle or at the practical and video elements along the ride's path. Daytime glare also made seeing the on-ride screen difficult at times, too. And I missed not seeing any actual animals on the ride itself. But the children I saw riding seemed to enjoy the game, and they all loved the chance to ride around up in the air, above all those adults who are always blocking their view. So there's that.

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Replies (4)

May 31, 2017 at 8:18 PM · The Orca show was a step back. Wish it was more high energy. This children area is the second kiddie area. Nothing for adults except beer.
May 31, 2017 at 10:52 PM · Don't know what to think about the sub ride, which is not a good thing. It seems half baked, like it should either be all outside without the video screens, or all inside.
May 31, 2017 at 11:53 PM · We had a great time at Sea World San Diego on our last two Cali vacations. But this new Orca show seems pretty boring and preachy compared to the old one. Bottom line: we go to a theme park for entertainment; we didn't buy a ticket to get lectured. The old Orca show was a lot of fun and easily conveyed the majesty of these great mammals without preachiness. Too bad the animal rights nuts (and I say that as an animal lover) ruined it for everyone.
June 1, 2017 at 6:53 AM · Personally, Robert, I love this article and love what SeaWorld is trying to do. As one of those very kids you mentioned who was inspired by SeaWorld, I want them to keep sharing their message. Since they no longer can (for many reasons) do the orca shows like they used to, but since they also have to continue to find ways to support and interact with these animals as long as they have them (release is not a viable option), they have to find the best way forward. This seems like a good start.

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