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Revised orca shows, new virtual-reality swim with whales and new rides coming to SeaWorld San Diego

SeaWorld San Diego will debut a new “less theatrical, more natural” killer whale show this summer that may change orca shows at the marine theme park for decades to come.

Besides the Orca Encounter show, additions coming to SeaWorld this summer include a themed land with six attractions and a light show.

Controversy has surrounded SeaWorld’s Shamu show since a whale named Tilikum killed trainer Dawn Brancheau during a 2010 show in Florida.  “Blackfish,” a 2013 documentary, cited the treatment of Tilikum and other captive whales. (The 36-year-old killer whale died of bacterial pneumonia in January at SeaWorld Orlando in Florida.)

After demands by animal rights groups and the California Coastal Commission, Seaworld halted its orca breeding program and ended theatrical killer whale shows at all U.S. locations.

Orca Encounter will take a “live documentary” approach that emphasizes natural behaviors related to hunting, social interaction and communication, said Marilyn Hannes, president of SeaWorld San Diego.

“You won’t see the whales mimicking human behaviors, kissing each other or shaking their head yes and no,” Hannes said in a phone interview. “If you don’t see a front flip in the wild, then you won’t see it in Orca Encounter.”

The stage in San Diego’s 5,500-seat Shamu stadium will be 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.

Trainers will use hand signals and whistles to “ask” the whales to perform behaviors during the narrated 22-minute show.

“They will still be breaching because whales breach in the wild,” Hannes said. “Whales hunt in the wild, and they do movements where they flap their tail to stun their prey or they splash them or they come out of the water to grab a seal from the beach.”

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, describes the latest changes to the orca show as “smoke and mirrors.” The organization calls for SeaWorld to retire the killer whales to seaside sanctuaries.

“SeaWorld's above-water decorations are marketing ploys designed to impress visitors, but they do nothing for orcas,” Tracy Reiman, PETA executive vice president, said in an email. “A ‘less theatrical’ circus is still one in which animals will be forced to perform for a reward of dead fish.”

The San Diego park has 11 killer whales; 52-year-old Corky is the oldest, and 2-year-old Amaya the youngest. After more than 50 years of orca shows, the stadium shows will continue to evolve over the next half century, Hannes said.

“We’re going to have whales for decades to come,” Hannes said. “Society has changed and we have changed with it.”

Theatrical orca shows at SeaWorld parks in Orlando and San Antonio are expected to end in 2019.

But the whale shows aren’t the only things changing.

Submarine Quest, the marquee ride in the new Ocean Explorers land coming to the San Diego park, will take visitors on an interactive exploratory mission through various ocean depths while traveling through the new themed land.

Seaworld officials have been quick to point out that Submarine Quest is not a shoot-’em-up dark ride. Using digital touchscreens mounted in the ride vehicles, riders will play games and score points as they spot ocean creatures during the indoor and outdoor journey.

Other attractions in the new land will include the Tentacle Twirl wave swing, a kiddie drop tower, a spinning flat ride and a motorized swing set. Three aquariums will feature moray eels, Japanese spider crabs and giant Pacific octopus.

An up-charge virtual-reality experience in the new land will allow visitors to virtually swim with orcas and come nose to nose with killer whales. The five-minute “Orca One-on-One” short film uses real footage of SeaWorld killer whales without digital enhancements.

“You’re up so close you can see their eyes,” Brian Morrow, SeaWorld creative director, said in a phone interview.

If successful, the orca VR experience is expected to expand to SeaWorld parks in Orlando and San Antonio.

The new Electric Ocean nighttime spectacular will transform the San Diego park into a canvas painted with light as part of a “kiss goodnight” show.

Lasers and lights will create an underwater experience similar to the Northern Lights, with bioluminescent animals floating through the sky. While still in development, the plan is to use projection mapping technology on the Journey to Atlantis water coaster buildings to tell the story of the rise and fall of Atlantis.

“Electric Ocean is a reinvention of what a nighttime experience in a theme park can be,” Morrow said.

As part of the nighttime experience, the Cirque de la Mer acrobatic show on Mission Bay will transform nightly throughout the summer into Cirque Electrique.

In 2018, SeaWorld San Diego will add the Electric Eel triple-launch roller coaster to the new Ocean Explorers themed land.

Riders will pass through a queue with an aquarium filled with moray eels. The ride starts with a forward-backward-forward launch that whips through vertical twists and loops as well as a towering 154-foot-tall barrel roll that ranks as one of the world’s tallest inversions.

Identical versions of the Premier Rides SkyRocket II coaster can be found at Busch Gardens Williamsburg (Tempesto) and Six Flags Discovery Kingdom (Superman Ultimate Flight).

The top 60 feet of the coaster track will be painted sky blue to minimize the visual footprint of the ride. SeaWorld expects to seek approval to install the ride later this year from the California Coastal Commission.

“We’re still going to be focused on inspiring our guests to help save the planet that we all share with these animals,” Morrow said. “The world needs places like this, now and even more so in the future. And we’re poised to be that place for the world.”

SeaWorld remains focused on inspiring visitors to make a difference in the world, Morrow said.

“The core essence of the mission will never change: to inspire people to come into our park and leave a better person and make the planet a better place,” Morrow said.

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