It's barely 6 a.m., overcast and chilly. We're too busy scrubbing the large stingray tank to notice. In the last 24 hours, the adults and kids in the group have helped build flamingo rookeries, prepared the manatees' lettuce meal and rescued an injured "whale" (an inflatable one). The bravest among us have taken the rigorous swimming test required for animal-trainer wannabes. It poured during the day, and our jeans got soaked. We spent the night in sleeping bags on the ground beside the dolphin tank.
Welcome to Camp SeaWorld.
SeaWorld Orlando in Florida recently invited me and my 10-year-old daughter, Melanie, to join a group of schoolkids from Tallahassee, Fla., on an overnight adventure at Camp SeaWorld.
"The point is to see what it takes to keep a big zoo in operation," our leader, Tim Gettel, explained when we arrived. "Everyone thinks they want to work here to swim with the dolphins. But 90% of the day is spent cleaning."
Every year, the SeaWorlds in Orlando, San Diego and San Antonio host thousands of kids and growing numbers of their parents in an ever-broadening array of programs accredited by the American Camping Assn. Busch Gardens in Tampa, Fla., also has launched a new weekend-long family adventure camp.
"We see this as one of the biggest growth areas of our parks," said Bob Zucker of SeaWorld San Diego. "People want more immersive experiences with their children, and they're willing to pay for it."
SeaWorld San Diego is planning a multimillion-dollar dormitory to be used exclusively for education programs.
"I know of no other theme park that has taken the educational approach the way SeaWorld has," said Tim O'Brien, who tracks the theme park industry for Amusement Business magazine. The camp has one-and two-day programs as well as weeklong day camps for children as young as 3 and overnight camps for children in the fourth grade or higher. Prices range from about $40 for a one-day "Let's Get Wet" class in Orlando, to less than $200 for a week of day camp, to $1,100 for a 10-day residence program. There also are special teacher camps that explore ways to incorporate wildlife and the environment into the classroom.
That peek behind the scenes is Camp SeaWorld's biggest draw, kids and parents agree. We checked out the manatee ambulance, stepped into the icy-cold penguin habitat, reached out and touched a baby shark and inspected the spotless kitchen where 5,000 pounds of fish are handled every day.
For information, see http://www.seaworld.org, or call the education offices at SeaWorld San Diego, (800) 380-3202; SeaWorld Orlando, (800) 406-2244; or SeaWorld San Antonio, (800) 700-7786.
Busch Gardens education office is at (800) 372-1797, or visit http://www.buschgardens.org.
"You learn so much better by doing," said Sandy Thompson, the science teacher who accompanied the Tallahassee kids to Camp SeaWorld.
That's why U.S. Space Camp, part of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center and affiliated with NASA, has been successful. The camps offer parent-child and just-for-kids programs in Huntsville, Ala.; Titusville, Fla.; and Mountain View, Calif., drawing more than 25,000 youngsters a year. Kids as young as 7 can join their moms or dads for a weekend of building rockets, training on a simulator or taking off on a simulated space mission. Another program is designed for pilot wannabes.
"Parents tell us they've been looking for something different than a typical vacation," said Space Camp spokesman Ed Davis.
Parent-child weekends start at less than $675 for two, including room, board and activities. Five-day camps start at $699 and are more for middle-schoolers and high-schoolers. Call (800) 63-SPACE (637-7223) or visit http://www.spacecamp.com.)
Taking the Kids appears twice a month.