Kiss a dolphin, ride a coaster

SeaWorld Orlando offers more than just a whale of a show

Destination Florida

July 30, 2006|By TONI SALAMA

ORLANDO, FLA. -- I was in deep water, over-my-head deep, my left hand grasping Yoshi's dorsal fin and my right hand on her right flipper. Her skin was an iridescent gray, smooth and rubbery like an inner tube, but not cold to the touch. Not cold at all.

The dolphin trainer asked, "Are you ready?" And I nodded. Then, on signal, Yoshi and I were off in a splash, taking an Orlando thrill ride of a different sort. Being a bit on the young side, Yoshi wasn't as long as the older dolphins, so I took care to keep my feet clear of her tail as we sped toward another trainer and the shallow end of the man-made lagoon - the ride of a lifetime finished in less than a minute.

The one-on-one dolphin swim is the crowning experience at Discovery Cove, the high-dollar-and-worth-every-penny sister property to SeaWorld Orlando.

When it comes to shows, it's hard to upstage a 10,000-pound whale. To see killer whales at all is show enough. But to watch the photogenic black-and-white creatures interact with trainers and exhibit natural behaviors on cue transcends entertainment and enters the realm of ooooh.

SeaWorld Orlando is also offering a new spectacle called "Believe," which opened in May in the renovated 5,000-seat Shamu Stadium. The cast of 24 killer whales and their trainers have worked for almost two years on the choreography for the show, which has its own original music.

At the opposite end of the park from Shamu, the 2,600-seat Whale and Dolphin Theatre offers "Blue Horizons" - the kind of show Cirque du Soleil might attempt if it could put dolphins and false whales under contract. Acrobats dressed as birds bungee jump 40 feet above the 900,000-gallon tank, or somersault into it against a set staged by a Broadway designer and decorated with enormous bubbles. Blue and gold macaws and an Andean condor fly through the open-air theater as acrobats shoot up from the water, balanced on the noses of false whales.

On a smaller scale, the endearing "Pets Ahoy!" takes the stage in the air-conditioned confines of the 850-seat Seaport Theatre. Cats and dogs, most rescued from animal shelters, are the headliners here in routines that hide their human trainers behind the scenes for most of the show.

There's a real temptation to concentrate on the shows at the expense of other SeaWorld experiences, but giving in to that impulse would be a mistake. This place is home to more than 17,000 animals, which can be viewed:

Along tropical walkways - flamingos, alligators, turtles, sea lions, otters and manatees.

Through underwater windows - dolphins, sharks and killer whales.

In specialized habitats - stingrays, penguins, polar bears and Clydesdale horses.

During a meal - sharks and killer whales.

You may want to consider reservations for Sharks Underwater Grill, a table-service restaurant where you can watch through vast picture windows as more than 50 sharks patrol their 660,000-gallon tank. You'll definitely need to book ahead to Dine With Shamu, an all-you-can-eat buffet ($37 adults, $19 ages 3-9) at the killer-whale habitat.

For an extra fee ($16 adults, $12 ages 3-9), you can take one of three, hour-long behind-the-scenes tours. The Saving a Species tour leads you inside an exotic-bird aviary and shows you the facilities where SeaWorld brings rescued sea turtles and manatees for rehab. Or, you can pet a baby shark and go backstage at Shamu Stadium on the Predators tour.

I took the Polar Expedition and saw veterinarians examining beluga whales, was dwarfed by the filtration system for the killer-whale pools and stopped petting a penguin just seconds before it would have relieved itself on me.

Or try the Dolphin Nursery Close-Up ($40) for poolside interaction with Atlantic bottlenose dolphin mothers and, nature permitting, their babies. For $150, you can don a wet suit and diving helmet and enter a shark-proof cage to get as close as safely possible to the toothy predators on the Sharks Deep Dive; $179 gets you a session in the Beluga Interaction Program. And the Marine Mammal Keeper Experience, at $399, puts participants alongside an animal keeper for a day.

Orlando being Orlando, you can't forget the rides. Serious coaster buffs can take on Kraken, billed as Orlando's only floor-less roller coaster. The thing leaves feet - and very likely more than a few stomachs - dangling as it speeds, spirals and makes seven upside-down loops.

Then there's Discovery Cove. Everything about the place, across the road from SeaWorld, feels like a five-star Caribbean resort. Continental breakfast and counter-service lunch are on the house.

Only about 1,000 guests are allowed into the intimate, 30-acre park each day. The reason to come is the dolphin swim, an hour in which you change into your park-provided wet suit, stash your belongings in a locker, attend a brief orientation session and enter the saltwater lagoon in small groups called pods, led by two animal trainers.

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