Sea World San Diego-Touring and Tips

Before Walt Disney World became a realistic travel destination for our family, we were frequent visitors to Sea World. At the time I was growing up in Detroit, there was still a Sea World location in Cincinnati, Ohio; so with just a few hour drive we could have a theme park experience for the day that felt like the vacation of a lifetime.

I’ve always loved animals and wanted to be a trapeze artist in the circus when I was a child. Mind you, I’ve never actually been to a circus…but something about flying through the air on a bar in a sparkly outfit appealed to me.

The four Disney Parks in Orlando haven’t left us with the time to go, *gasp*, “off property” and trek over to Sea World; so when the Disney Wonder was bound for San Diego, Sea World was on the top of my list of adventures.

I was a bit nervous that Sea World wouldn’t have the same luster through my adult eyes as it did in my bright childhood memories but I found it oddly comforting that not much had changed in the overall appearance and experience of Sea World.

I don’t think it’s entirely fair to compare any of the Disney parks to other theme parks as there clearly no contest but in the grand scheme of things I was able to compile some general thoughts and tips for touring Sea World.

  • The Map: This over-sized monstrosity of mumbo-jumbo they call a map is as disastrous as it sounds. The proportions make the park seem enormous and unconquerable when in reality everything is quite quaint and near each other. The proportions and dimensions on the map are misleading and make it nearly impossible to navigate. You’d be better off using that as a general point of reference for individual exhibits then for a park map. There is signage throughout the park but don’t expect that to help you pin point your location, it’s more of a general direction thing than a GPS locator. The back side of the map has show and feeding schedules so read that carefully to make your plans for the day. Keep in mind the shows feature live animals so there are usually only two showings each day and you can work the exhibits around the show schedule.

Note: While there are employees occasionally wandering about you will quickly realize they are employees and not “cast members”. If you can get their attention for a brief moment you can ask them to point you in the general direction of what you’re looking for but a smile or a conversation would be taking it too far.

  • The App: The app is surprisingly informative and user friendly and you can choose your park location (San Diego, Orlando or San Antonio). The home menu offers a sonar style wheel where you can select a variety of options including show schedules, ride and wait times, restroom locations, food locations, animal encounters and more. A camera option utilizes your smart phone camera and allows you to add fun frames to your pictures. The map option is unfortunately no better than the actual park map, but at least you can hold the digital version in one hand. There is even a weather app and car finder included in the app.
  • The Shops: While I wasn’t really searching for souvenirs (no room in the suitcase!) I noticed it was all pretty much the same across the board. Plush animals designed for that exhibit (Shamu, turtles, penguins, etc.), some kids backpacks and toys, environmentally friendly bags, PJ’s, T-shirts, etc. I didn’t see anything outstandingly unique that I couldn’t live without but for the average park go-er with kids I can see how you could easily leave with a car full of cute and fluffy stuffed animals.
  • The Food: While the non-user friendly paper map shows various locations for food options many of them are seasonal or no longer in operation so don’t have your heart set on a choice from the map until you’ve confirmed that it is indeed open. The app will show you what food locations are near you and what they are serving and there is a “food package” option, much like Universal Studios where you purchase a package at one set price and eat from it all day. I believe we ate at the shipwreck cafe and while the buffet style line was a little confusing the food was good and the prices were typical for theme park food (in my opinion).
  • The overall ambiance: Yes, there were times when I noticed a peach stucco storefront and it was an immediate flashback to the Sea World of my childhood. The color schemes and decor in certain parts of the parks haven’t changed but the park was relatively clean, the bathrooms were well stocked and well kept so I can’t complain. They certainly weren’t themed immaculately like Disney’s bathrooms but I can overlook a theme in exchange for cleanliness.
  • The Exhibits: Think of the Sea World exhibits as a maze. While I personally think that every theme park should share Walt’s vision for the hub and spoke method, they don’t. This will leave you wandering aimlessly at times but for Sea World this works. It’s not really a “rush to get there” kind of place and the exhibits are laid out more like a zoo. So enjoy wandering through and take comfort in the open walk through style of many of the exhibits as it makes it easy to go re-visit your favorite animals before you call it a day.
  • The Shows: 

One Ocean”- Who else represents the Sea World park more than Shamu? Every child knows Shamu and every adult remembers the shows as we once saw them…the fearless trainer getting in the water and doing tricks with the killer whale. Those days of daring are behind us now and for the safety of the trainers the shows have been re-vamped. The current show “One Ocean” is a tribute to environmental awareness for our ocean friends. The show is set to beautiful music and four killer wales (there are four “Shamu’s” now) put on a beautiful display of showmanship and a lot of soaking fun. It’s not the show I have fond memories of but I understand that as times change circumstances illicit changes and the show is very nice.

“Sea Lions LIVE”-This was the first show we saw in the parks and I was honestly blown away with how good it was. The tricks are amazing but instead of just doing a “sit up pretty and balance this ball on your nose” kind of shtick it’s set to more modern TV programming. A Sea Lion assists in a Crime Scene Investigation of the death of a shark, who is outlined in “chalk” at the crime scene. There is also a “Survivor” type segment in which the immunity challenge takes place and an Otter declares who’s going home after “the tribe has spoken”. There are hilarious skits where the human characteristics of the Sea Lions come through and it’s truly amazing. Perhaps one of the best parts was the pre-show warm up. I think it’s important to give credit where credit is due and the character of “Buff” the Janitor is the most hysterical pre-show skit i’ve ever seen. A “janitor” is cleaning the outside of the glass tanks, then starts squirting people in the audience and causing a bit of a ruckus. The real fun starts when he finds a CD player and a wardrobe full of comical costumes. This one man show portrays both parts of the classic song “You’re the One That I Want” from the musical Grease. There is also a FlashDance moment that will have you in tears. The function of the opening act (getting props in place, making sure there is enough water on the stage for the Sea Lions, etc.) is very well hidden in this hilarious skit.
“Blue Horizons”: To me, this show is the closest to what I remember of the Sea World from my childhood. Dolphins slicing through the water to perfectly timed music doing synchronized tricks, acrobats, dolphin trainers doing amazing tricks in the water with the dolphins…I thought it was really beautiful and amazing. The acrobats were astounding and it was amazing to see them perform in and out of the water (see the reference early on in this post to read about my affinity of acrobats). The costuming (on the acrobats, not the dolphins…the dolphins don’t wear clothes…even though it would be unfathomably cute!) was gorgeous and I think the acrobatics added to the show. The random birds flying over in one fell swoop I could actually live without. They don’t really do anything besides literally fly through so it wasn’t until about the 3rd set of them I realized they were supposed to be part of the show. This was a great show and one I would see again and again.

I’d like to talk a moment to put in a disclaimer about The Wet Zone: Those old school bleachers in the show stadiums are metal for a reason. They can tolerate water. If you see a sign that says “Wet Zone” it doesn’t mean you might get a sprinkle of water here or there, it means you are going to leave drenched as if you were just soaked by the tail of a killer whale or a dolphin, because that is what happens. If you don’t want to be soaked move at least 16 rows back. Remember, if the sign says “wet zone” YOU ARE GOING TO GET SOAKED!

Pet’s Rule!: This show had me screeching like a 4 year old and tapping my husband going, “look, look it’s a pig! Look it’s a bird! Look at that cat! Are those Kangaroos?!” which I’m sure he was really thrilled with by the end of the show but I couldn’t help myself. I mean it’s just not every day when you see a pig run an obstacle course. This show is so funny and you’ll be amazed, excited and in awe the whole time. I really can’t say anything more about without boring you with the details of which you can’t understand my excitement or ruining the show for those of you who want to experience it for yourselves.

Overall the experience was great. I enjoyed reliving my child hood memories and being with my husband as he experienced Sea World for the first time. I would say it’s more of an aquatic zoo experience than a theme park but that is what I had in mind, so I had no complaints.

Practical Planner Tip: Don’t forget to check around on the web before you buy your tickets online. There are usually multiple savings codes so be sure to dig around before you commit. I found $20 off each ticket on

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