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The parking lots are packed on weekends and in summer, proving this 1964 aquatic theme park is still wildly popular. But it wouldn't be my first choice if I could only pick one expensive outing. These days, 50 percent of the American public does not want to support orca and dolphin shows, and Sea World is feeling the backlash of those opinions (see "A Whale of a Problem" below for more on that). Birch Aquarium (see p. ###.) has lots of sea critters to admire (for a lower entrance fee); and young children, frankly, seem happier at LEGOLAND (See p. ###.). But SeaWorld has the only thrilling amusement park rides in San Diego, plus splashy animal and marine animal shows—just what some folks want for a fun day (see the Sea World website for a list of those).

In addition, SeaWorld offers up simulated marine environments, including an arctic enclosure featuring beluga whales and polar bears, sharks looming overhead in a wraparound tank, and four penguin species, including the tufted crowned macaroni penguin diving, swimming, and waddling about in an icy enclosure.  Colorful clown fish (think Nemo) and bizarre looking scorpion fish swim about in aquariums and tide pools offer hands-on experiences.

Visitors can sign up for various guided tours and interactive offerings. The Dolphin and Beluga Interaction Programs allow visitors to wade waist-deep with dolphins and beluga whales ($215 per person, not including park admission; participants must be age 10 or older). SeaWorld plays a large role in rescuing and rehabilitating beached animals found along the West Coast. Still, there is a troubling aspect to this kind of facility—for another point of view, check out the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society at www.wdcs.org.

SeaWorld also operates Aquatica by SeaWorld (2052 Entertainment Circle, http://aquaticabyseaworld.com. tel. 800/457-4268) eight miles south of downtown San Diego in Chula Vista. The park has water slides, a wave pool, lazy river, beach area, and more. It's open daily 10am-7:30 pm in summer, weekends only in winter. Hours and days open change, so check before going. Tickets are $40 adult and kids over 10, $29 children 2-9; a two-park pass is available.

A WHALE OF A PROBLEM

Animal activists have long opposed to the idea of keeping Orcas in tanks and training them to perform in shows. Their protests gained impetus and public support with the 2013 release of the film Blackfish, an impassioned documentary about the dangers and consequences of keeping killer whales in captivity. SeaWorld reacted, calling the film "inaccurate and misleading," but that didn't keep park attendance from dropping significantly in 2014. In August 2014, SeaWorld officials announced a plan to double the size of the orca tanks and pledged $10 million in matching funds for killer whale research. Since the park is one of San Diego's largest employers and contributes millions of dollars to the city's coffers, tourism officials and politicians praised the plan, hoping the controversy would dwindle into a bad memory over time.

-Maribeth Mellin