By Susan and Simon Veness
Orlando is the ‘trip of a lifetime’ for many U.K. visitors. Or so they think. But if you’re one of the majority who book their return visit as soon as they get home or start saving loose change in a Mickey Mouse bank, you may be looking for some ‘extras’ during your next theme park days.
We recently attended a 3-day media event highlighting SeaWorld’s, Busch Gardens’, and Discovery Cove’s animal encounter tours, along with the opportunity to meet several of the park residents up close. They make a wonderful addition to your park day, between all the fun and excitement of the shows and attractions, so let’s take a look at what’s on offer.
Penguins Up Close Tour
Who doesn’t love penguins? They’re fluffy, they waddle, and they’re always dressed for dinner. When we had the chance to go backstage and meet some of them, we’ll admit to being a little bit giddy with excitement.
The tour starts with a visit backstage, where the employee entry to Antarctica: Empire
of the Penguin leads to care-takers’ offices and the nutrition center. Here you meet your handler, who gives a short talk about the various breeds of penguins, what the little armbands they wear at the SeaWorld exhibit represent, and how to correctly approach the penguin or penguins you will meet, for their safety and for yours.
Then you’re off to the frozen north (at least, the frozen environment inside Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin)! Our first acquaintance was with a King penguin, and it was obvious he was a penguin with a personality, determined he was going to open the door we had just entered through and explore the wilds of Florida. Smart and somewhat cunning, he slyly maneuvered around the trainers and members of our group and worked relentlessly at opening the door with his beak. Defeated (but only for now!) he turned his full attention to us, happy to cuddle and be stroked to our hearts’ content. Being a youngster, he was moulting, but even in his rather mottled state he was clearly the darling of the colony.
Next we were introduced to a Gentoo penguin who, because we never did learn his real name, we’ll call Nibbler. Nibbler loved to nibble. Shoes, hands, leg hair; he wasn’t particular. But his nibbles were gentle, and he was a darling little bird so we forgave him his nibbling ways. Plus, his cousins were stars in the wonderful documentary, March of the Penguins.
Along with meeting the penguins, the novelty of being inside the habitat, seeing the colony up close, and waving to riders on the other side of the glass was a real thrill. A chilly thrill, but a thrill nonetheless!
Our next stop was One Ocean, where we met one of SeaWorld’s senior trainers and learned all about their jobs working with the stars of the show. As a long-time Senior Trainer, she had a lot of interesting insights to share, telling us, “Our job is to stimulate the whales mentally and socially; it has opened up a whole new way of behaving with them. We are going to create and learn and explore new ways to provide and care for them, and just show them off for our guests.”
There are times when the trainers come out for an organised talk with guests (notably during SeaWorld’s Wild Days), but since it isn’t a daily occurrence we’ll feature her in a future blog, so watch this space!
We then had a modified version of SeaWorld’s Behind the Scenes Tour, with a visit to the backstage area that houses rescued dolphins, manatees, and sea turtles. We are huge fans of the work SeaWorld does with the rescue and rehabilitation of sick or injured animals and the research their work provides that benefits conservation organisations around the world, so it’s always a thrill to see the animals that are under their care, and hear their success stories.
We spent the next day in Paradise (otherwise known as Discovery Cove) and our highlight adventure was the signature experience SeaVenture, which takes guests to the bottom of the Grand Reef wearing a diving helmet and a snazzy ScubaPro wetsuit. Straight away, many of you are wondering about the diving helmet and whether or not it would freak you out completely. Susan, the coward in our two-person team, says, “It only took a moment to adjust to the feeling of breathing naturally underwater, and the sound of the air rushing in and the bubbles rushing out is very reassuring, sort of like the rhythmic focus on your breathing you get when you’re in labour, but without any of the pain or 18 years of responsibility! There is no sense of claustrophobia and you’re quickly distracted by the beautiful fish that surround you. It’s also reassuring to have a handrail to hold on to if you’re a little bit nervous.”
Our guides shared information (and some cute jokes) about what we were seeing, and at one point they brought over a lobster, a crab, and a hermit crab for us to hold for photo ops. When we reached a certain point they had us fold out hands against our chests, then they opened up containers to feed the reef fish. That experience alone was worth the cost of the tour, as seemingly millions of colourful fish swirled and darted around us. Simon’s thoughtful comment when we reached the surface? “That was so freaking cool!” Would we do it again? In a heartbeat.
Our final day of the event brought us to Busch Gardens Tampa, and began with a rather exclusive journey to the top of SheiKra via the maintenance car that runs alongside the track, giving us a view of Falcon’s Fury (and by ‘us’ I mean Simon. Remember that whole “Susan is a coward” thing?). Then we were off to Pantopia to try Twisted Tail’s signature beer and a bacon pretzel (No, really. You must try it!)
We toured Pantopia, had a look behind the hoardings for Falcon’s Fury, then headed to the Serengeti Safari for an up-close view of the animals and the chance to feed giraffes from the back of an open-air truck. A picture is worth a thousand words, and we think you’ll agree the tour is a Must-Do experience of the highest order:
Finally, we visited Jambo Junction where we fed flamingos, patted an aardvark taking its afternoon walk, and toured the care centre for the full low-down on how the park’s animals are kept healthy, and sometimes go on to become Animal Ambassadors. We met a few of these ambassadors, some of them famous, some just well-loved characters who silently speak to the devotion of their handlers and the joy guests have in meeting them.
If you’ve Been There/Done That, perhaps adding one or two of these very special tours to your itinerary will answer the question of What’s Next?!
Don't miss out on your chance to experience all the educational and thrilling experiences Simon and Susan have in this article. Take a look at the Attraction Tickets Direct selection of SeaWorld tickets to visit SeaWorld and Busch Gardens.
Read more about SeaWorld's conservation efforts here.