It’s the dawn of a new era at Sea World—at least according to news reports from earlier this week. Already, the theme parks have started to move away from their old orca shows—a change sparked by fallout from the 2013 Blackfish documentary about captive whales. The new shows will be less razzle-dazzle and more education oriented, with naturalists interpreting the creatures’ random behaviors in real time, rather than prompting tricks.
In 2017, the parks will add a boatload (pardon the pun) of new rides and attractions, too—$175 million worth. A recent article in USA Today outlined some of these plans for the future, including a new “land” in the San Diego park, set to open next summer. The land, dubbed Ocean Explorer, is all about interacting with the animals. The main attraction, Submarine Quest, will bring riders on a three-minute tour of the new section and encourage them to engage in an interactive scavenger hunt–like experience. As USA Today explained, the “subs” guests’ ride will actually be land-based, six-passenger vehicles, complete with interactive kid-friendly equipment that will glide along an elevated track similar to Disney’s Tomorrowland People Mover. Over the course of the ride, the system will also incorporate digital games.
San Diego isn’t the only Sea World to get new goodies; the San Antonio facility will also feature a new ride. This one, named Wave Breaker: The Rescue Coaster, will reach a top speed of 44 mph and a height of 61 feet. The train of cars will feature units that look like Jet Skis, and to ride, passengers will straddle the coaster’s seats, hang on to handlebars, and scream their heads off (naturally).
Finally, in Florida, Sea World Orlando will become the first theme park in the Sunshine State to have a virtual reality (VR) roller coaster when it adds VR to the existing floorless coaster, Kraken, next summer. This ride is serious business. It’s 149 feet tall and features seven inversions, all while passengers are staring into VR headsets and zipping around turns at up to 65 mph. In case you’re wondering what the VR will add, refer to the name of the attraction and remember your mythology.
Despite—or maybe because of—all of these changes, officials are optimistic about the future. Joel Manby, CEO, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, told USA Today he expects visitation to the flagship San Diego park to increase in 2017 for the first time in four years. He says officials expect visitors to start to return to the other parks, too.
For the travelers among us, these efforts are a whale of a development. New rides! Educational programs! Humane treatment of orcas! After four years’ of punishment, Sea World is making news in a good way again. Let’s keep it that way.
Matt Villano is a freelance writer and editor based in Healdsburg, California. In nearly 20 years as a full-time freelancer, he has covered travel for publications including TIME, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Sunset, Backpacker, Entrepreneur, and more. He contributes to the Expedia Viewfinder blog and writes a monthly food column for Islands magazine. Villano also serves on the board of the Family Travel Association and blogs about family travel at Wandering Pod. Learn more about him at Whalehead.com.