The second mighty theme park chain to set up shop in town, after Disney, was SeaWorld Orlando (Central Florida Pkwy., at International Dr., or exit 71 and 72 east of I-4; 800/327-2424 or 407/351-3600; www.seaworldorlando.com; $99 for everyone discounts of $15–$30 and free meal plans available online for some days; parking $18; open 9am–7pm with extended hours in peak season), which began in San Diego in 1964 and opened in Orlando in 1973, scarcely 2 years after the Magic Kingdom. Although SeaWorld operates three American parks (the third is in San Antonio), its Orlando location has undoubtedly risen to become its most important. The Florida compound has an additional luxury theme park, Discovery Cove, and a new water slide park, Aquatica. SeaWorld is now the city’s third genuine multiday theme park destination, after Disney and Universal.
At SeaWorld, the focus isn’t on thrill rides or “magic”—it’s animals, and thousands of them. Just about everything to see or do involves watching marine creatures in imitated habitats or performing in shows. Many tourists, particularly those over a certain age, claim SeaWorld as their favorite Orlando park, because there’s a lot going for it: 200 acres of space for gardens, a compound that absorbs crowds well, an earnest educational component, and a refreshing lack of patronizing mythology.
The SeaWorld experience differs from other parks in that it’s show-based. Your day here will revolve around the scheduling of a half-dozen regular performances in which animals (mostly mammals, but some birds, too) do tricks—except here, they’re called “behaviors”—with their human trainers. Although there are rides, they’re not in the true spirit of the place. SeaWorld’s banner attraction is the Shamu show, and when you’re not watching killer whales do back-flips, you’re ambling through habitats stocked with other beautiful creatures. Whereas a day spent at Islands of Adventure or the Magic Kingdom might send you slumping home and reaching for the Calgon, it’s unusual to come away from SeaWorld stressed. Thoughtfully, schedules are posted online a few weeks ahead of time so that if you’re really anal, you can map out your day in advance; the various show schedules are under "Park Info."