By Kevin Yee
Like every other theme park in Central Florida, SeaWorld has to contend with excesses of heat and humidity in the summer. There’s no escaping the fact that sub-tropical Florida has tropical temperatures that could turn your trip into less of a vacation and more of a death march.
But that doesn’t mean there’s no escaping of the heat itself. You can, in fact, effectively hide from Florida’s sometimes-brutal environmental conditions, if you plan your day carefully enough. This is very much a park-specific plan, however.
At SeaWorld, you have three basic types of attractions: outdoor shows (plus a few exhibits), outdoor major attractions, and indoor exhibits/shows. The first two categories may claim the lion’s share of press (whale and dolphin shows, roller coasters) and accordingly reap the majority of visitor interest, but unfortunately they offer the least respite from the elements.
It’s that final category – indoor shows and exhibits – which provides the only opportunity from relief in summer. The most air-conditioned, and therefore the coldest, places are thusly ranked:
The last two on the list are shows. Pets Ahoy is a kids show revolving around animal exploits, while A’Lure is a variety show emphasizing athleticism, with aerial gymnasts, contortionists and trampoline artists, among others. While Pets Ahoy is short, A’Lure is longer than you’re expecting, and they do keep the fully enclosed theater quite frigid. Because of the length, A’Lure offers perhaps the best – and least “discovered” – of the escapes from the heat.
Closer to the surface for most visitors would be the indoor exhibits. The Arctic Encounter is the most visible of the three on our list, probably because it’s also home to the popular simulator ride (which gets even more popular in the winter season, when it’s rethemed and reprogrammed to the Polar Express movie). As a result, lines could be a consideration and perhaps even a reason to skip this chilly area.
But don’t let lines stop you. Did you know there’s a back way into the exhibit? I’m not talking about entering through the exit and going “upstream” through the traffic (though no one would know if you did). Rather, I’m referring to an authorized entrance to the animal exhibits that can be found right next to the exit, up a ramp labeled as the “annual passholder entrance.” Trust me, no one works here, and there is definitively never anyone asking to see an annual pass. This is just a shortcut from the shop to the start of the animal exhibits (you rejoin the crowd as they disembark the simulator).
Not to be missed is the incredible and awe-inspiring Sharks Encounter, which leads through a few minor aquaria before culminating in an impressive acrylic tube that runs right through the oversized shark tank. Essentially, we traverse through the shark habitat itself, and see the sharks from underneath. While the exhibit is both jaw-droppingly great and air-conditioned, its nature doesn’t lend itself well to loitering and cooling off for longer than it takes to simply walk through once.
Since it’s in a highly visible location, the Penguin Encounter has probably come into your sights before. This attraction underwent some operational changes in 2009, the most major of which is the switching of direction for traffic flow. Previously, the entrance was inside the covered exterior queue. But as they haven’t needed a queue here in years, the flow of traffic was essentially arbitrary, and it occurred to a manager that starting the exhibit with the penguins (rather than ending with them) was anticlimactic. So they simply switched the direction of traffic, and the moving sidewalk with the penguins is now the finale of the show rather than the appetizer. As before, you can step off the moving sidewalk and retire to the upper level of the exhibit gallery, spending as much time as you want in this air-conditioned paradise. If you can tolerate the very faint waft of penguin droppings that permeates the air, that is.
The final attraction on our list, the Manatee Encounter, seldom draws the crowds that the others do, partly because of its location off to one side of the park. But that is also part of its attractiveness as a haven from the elements. Once visitors descend into the underground portion of the exhibit, the overbearing summer air has been forgotten, and they feel more free to wallow in the chilled air available down here. You can catch slight echoes of this experience in the lesser underwater viewing areas for the dolphins and the orcas, but the manatees have most extensive underwater theaters.
Most visitors to SeaWorld will place a premium on the thrill rides and on the outdoor animal shows. If that’s true for you, too, all you really need to remember is that the air-conditioned venues can provide some needed temporary relief, and might serve you best if doled out slowly throughout the day. Make them a vital part of your planning and touring process, and you might never overheat at all!
• Kevin Yee is a theme park enthusiast and author. He’s written seven books about Disney theme parks, including his most recent work, an interactive children’s book called “Your Day at the Magic Kingdom“. He visits at least two Central Florida theme parks per week, and is now working on an upcoming book compiling all the best tips for a trip to Orlando. You can find out more about Kevin at his Web site, ultimateorlando.com.