SeaWorld San Diego's controversial new Orca Encounter offers a direct response to its critics with a less theatrical and more natural show that bills itself as the "world's first live documentary."
The marine theme park has struggled with how to present its marquee killer whale show ever since the 2013 release of the "Blackfish" documentary that was critical of SeaWorld's treatment of the captive whales.
The main changes to the new show are mostly thematic and cosmetic.
The scientific edutainment show presents the "wildlife experience" of the whales with an emphasis on the park's efforts at marine animal rescue, research and conservation.
The Shamu stadium stage has been transformed with a Pacific Northwest theme featuring natural rock work, faux trees and man-made waterfalls surrounding a 138-foot-wide high-definition infinity screen.
The 1.7-million gallon tank and the 5,500-seat Shamu stadium remain unchanged. Animal behaviorists continue to stand in the shallow water and touch the whales but don't swim with the orcas. The kids in the splash zone still get soaked.
The park's 11 whales demonstrate many of the same behaviors as they have in past seasons, performing a choreographed show to soaring musical cues. Each one of the demonstrated behaviors — from hunting to communicating to playing — is accompanied by video of real-world orcas doing the same maneuvers in the wild.
During a media preview on Wednesday, I found Orca Encounter to be boring, joyless and bogged down by scientific artifice. The show started slow and continued at a leisurely pace, with a heavy dependence on the giant video screen punctuated by all too infrequent appearances by actual orcas. Though there were moments of levity, all too often I felt like I was watching a somber yet beautifully filmed documentary on an impressive video screen rather than a live orca show. Orca Encounter treats the killer whales as a sideshow rather than the main attraction.
SeaWorld San Diego also launched the new Ocean Explorer themed land that looks nice from a thematic standpoint but is filled with an unimaginative collection of off-the-shelf kiddie rides.
Geared toward 4- to 8-year-olds, Ocean Explorer is located next to the Sesame Street Bay of Play kiddie land that caters to the same demographic.
The new land is filled with atmospheric volcanic rock and coral reef that adds to the ocean depths theme. Unfortunately, many of the new plants were trampled by toddlers on opening day in part because SeaWorld didn't put up any fencing around the planters.
SeaWorld intended Ocean Explorer as a family-friendly area, but three of the rides can't be ridden as a family. I tried them all, but I wish I hadn't. My hips barely fit in the "adult" seat on the Sea Dragon drop tower. I wedged myself into the Octarock powered-playground swing, which has a 73-inch maximum height requirement. And I felt and looked foolish on the Aqua Scout bouncing spinner ride. These uninteresting and underwhelming rides were designed by the manufacturer for little kids to enjoy while their parents stand on the sidelines and watch. That's not a family attraction, that's a kiddie ride.
But none of those rides compared with the woeful Submarine Quest, which embodies everything that's wrong with today's newest cutting-edge theme park attractions. Submarine Quest combines a people-mover-style ride vehicle with a video game console and animated video screens. The new land's centerpiece ride is basically a slow-moving transportation system that doesn't take you anywhere and encourages you to ignore your surroundings. The lone dark-ride moment features a 25-foot-wide digital octopus that appears on a series of video screens.
The only ride in the new themed land worth waiting in line for was the Tentacle Twirl wave swing, which was fun and well themed.
Fortunately, there's still hope for SeaWorld San Diego's latest round of additions. The park is to introduce the Electric Ocean nighttime spectacular on June 17. And next year, the Electric Eel triple-launch looping roller coaster will be added to Ocean Explorer.