It's like standing inside a sawed-off golf ball and watching a 3-D movie projected onto its interior walls. Or something like that.
That's one of my clunky ways to describe TurtleTrek, a domed, 3-D film that opens at SeaWorld Orlando on Friday. It will be the first attraction of its kind in the world, featuring a computer-generated production that puts guests in an underwater environment that moves all around and over their heads.
The technology behind the attraction — which includes 34 projectors that must be synched, a soaring soundtrack and hundreds of computer-generated sea creatures — was daunting, but it's also been difficult explaining TurtleTrek.
"When you do something for the first time ever, it's very difficult to convey what they will feel or will look like — until they see it," says Brian Morrow, creative director on the project.
But from the outside, you won't even see the dome. TurtleTrek's screens and theater are enclosed in the boxy building that once housed the Manatee Rescue attraction near the Journey to Atlantis ride and the Whale & Dolphin Theater.
Traffic flow has been flopped from the old days. Guests now will enter down through the former attraction's exit. First stop inside will be giant aquariums that were there already. The first one holds four rescued manatees plus black pacu and longnose garfish. In the second tank are two species of rescued turtles plus an array of fish, including rock beauty, french grunt, Atlantic blue tang and others.
Inside the theater, nearly 200 guests will stand on a round platform to watch the film unfold from the highest point of the dome, down to floor level and in every direction all around. It's like a planetarium without seats, but aimed below the surface of the sea.
The story is presented from the perspective of Nyah, a green sea turtle hatchling, so the animals appear way-larger than life.
That makes things harrowing when Nyah encounters a crabby crab and a manically flapping bird. In a preview I saw this week, the 3-D effect was full throttle there, making me dodge virtual wings and feathers. It freaked out my inner child.
SeaWorld has been toning down some of that intensity, but they want to keep it real, Morrow says.
"The reality is, it's scary because it's from the view of a baby sea turtle," he says. "Because we're able to place you in such a hyper-realistic environment, it's overwhelming. But it is truly what that baby sea turtle experiences."
Nyah also encounters a shark, a plastic bag masquerading as a jellyfish and TED — a turtle excluder device, which may sound like a hateful device, but it actually helps Nyah escape a fishing net.
But early in the film, she makes a turtle friend named Scoop. They meet cute: He's from a nest farther down the beach. Soon, he signals Nyah to safety, away from the lights of civilization and, later, away from predators. Scoop — watch for a distinctive pattern around his eye — pops up sporadically, including during a memorable swirling school of fish sequence that Morrow refers to as "the love dance."
"Every good story has to have a love interest, you know," he says.
The show compresses 25 years of Nyah's life into 7 minutes. And it ends true-to-life and not so scarily.
"We want guests to say, 'Wow, it's amazing that this little turtle can survive all this,'" Morrow says.
•TurtleTrek will be the only show at SeaWorld Orlando that refills the audience immediately after every presentation. Other shows, such as "One Ocean" and "Clyde and Seamore" have set — and less frequent — showtimes. This required SeaWorld to establish an aquarium queue that also helps with crowd flow.
•"Journey On," a song created for TurtleTrek, will be available for download on iTunes.
•Along the attraction's exit, guests can play a turtle-themed interactive video game called "Race for the Beach" and look down into the same aquariums they saw on the lower-level entrance.
•The former Turtle Point at the park still will be the home for pelicans (and it will get a new name).
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Where: SeaWorld Orlando, off BeachLine Expressway at Interstate 4, southwest of Orlando
When: Debuts Friday, open daily during park hours
Cost: Included in SeaWorld admission, which is $81.99 general, $73.99 ages 3-9.