Day three of our trip to Orlando included a visit to SeaWorld and despite reservations, we had an amazing and eye-opening visit. We got to experience everything the park has to offer and made the most of our 3 for 2 Tickets tickets from Attraction Tickets Direct which give you open access to SeaWorld, Busch Gardens and Aquatica for 2 full weeks.
We started our journey to SeaWorld with a quick uber ride as our hotel was only 15 minutes away so it was the fastest way to access the park. The weather was good, the sun was shining and I had some high expectations because you see, SeaWorld is a Certified Autism Centre and for us that offered something we’ve never seen before. It’s not just SeaWorld with this status, but also Aquatica and Discovery Cove carry the certification and it was eye-opening as a family. We’ve taken Josh to a select few amusement-type places in the past, but in all honesty we tend to steer clear of big parks as it’s too stressful for Josh who’s sensory disorder means he just struggles to function in the same way with everything that’s going on. So when we were planning our Orlando trip, hearing about the way SeaWorld and her sister parks have worked hard to earn their status as a welcoming place for guests with autism, meant we knew it was somewhere we had to try.
“SeaWorld Orlando has partnered with The International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES), a global leader in online training and certification programs, to become designated as a Certified Autism Center (CAC). It is our goal to provide every family with an enjoyable and memorable visit to SeaWorld Orlando, and we are proud to offer specialized services to guests with autism and other special needs.”SeaWorld website, 2019
When you book your tickets with Attraction Tickets Direct like we did, everything is sent to you in advance so you don’t have to queue for the tickets and can access the park as soon as you arrive. So upon our arrival we went straight to Guest Services (which is immediately behind the entrance turnstiles) as this was to enable us to get Joshua’s access to the Ride Accessibility Program (RAP.) This is the way the parks allow guests with autism to still fully participate in all they have to offer, without the difficulties that can be found in the practical side of things – like queuing for rides. The Rider Accessibility Program means you can visit an attraction or ride, and be given a specific return time. It’s usually the same as the normal queue time, but it just means you don’t have to physically queue there – which can be difficult to impossible for people with autism. We would get our return time, visit another area of the park and then return for our slots when needed. It made things a lot easier for Josh and shows just one of the practises that SeaWorld have in place to accommodate people on the spectrum.
When we had been given our Rider Accessibility Program sheet we were straight into the park and ready to go! Directly in-front of you you’ll notice the Manta rollercoaster which we stood watching in awe for quite some time because I don’t think any of us had seen a ride quite like it! It’s a flying rollercoaster you see, and it’s themed on stingray’s and how they bend and glide through the water – so you can imagine how it moved through the air! We booked our return time for it after much deliberation and persuasion for me (the boys were keen, whereas I was too scared!) and set off to find a very special and unique experience that we had planned…
When you visit SeaWorld you can take part in some amazing experiences that are bookable separately to your tickets. As our visit was once in a lifetime, we felt it was the perfect opportunity to do something we’d never before thought about. So we booked the Penguin Encounter for the whole family. However before we go through that, if Penguins aren’t your first choice (how could they not be, they’re adorable!) you can also book a Dolphin Encounter where you can participate in a training session and feed a dolphin. All of which offer slightly different interaction levels.
For us the Penguins were perfect and the fact that there wasn’t an age limit or restriction meant we could all take part. So at our booked time we headed to the Penguin House where we met the incredible team of people who spend their whole day taking care of the penguins. These people genuinely loved the animals, took pride in raising them, caring for them and loving them and it was so eye opening to see that true level of love. Our experience included a 30 minute talk with the keeper who explained everything they do for the penguins, the different types they have at the park and how they’re looked after and given care. It was so interesting to learn all kind of facts we never knew and Josh was really intrigued.
After the talk we got to get up close with some penguins! We were taken to the entrance of the Antarctica Habitat where they are kept and the keeper then brought out two different penguins, both different breeds and they were plodding around with us – so adorable! We got to touch them and see them up close – such fun little creatures! One took a huge shine to Hayden’s trouser cords and kept trying to pinch them and Hayden kept telling him off – it was absolutely adorable to watch. We absolutely loved every minute. The penguin encounter lasted about an hour in total and was a hugely warming experience that I’d highly recommend if you’re visiting.
I’d also say this – as SeaWorld is a Certified Autism Centre, all staff are given training on how to behave and relate to guests with autism, so we found everyone we met really accommodating. And the keepers at the Penguin Encounter especially were so friendly. I explained that Josh had special needs and they really took it in their stride, allowed him to ask a lot of questions to wrap his mind around things and they even offered him a job when he’s 18! We were so thankful for the natural understanding they showed and how at ease they made us all feel during the experience.
After making some amazing, lifelong memories at our Penguin Encounter we headed back to Manta for our allocated ride slot. I stayed with Hayden (I was way too chicken!) but the boys went on and loved it – despite saying it was terrifying and exhilarating all in one. Our first use of the Rider Accessibility Program was a success, we had no problems showing our pass and walking straight on the ride. And while the boys had their turn I stood chatting to a team member about how they are taught to treat guests with autism and it was really interesting to hear that all staff are trained to the same level but some them choose to take deeper level training and become ‘experts’ on site. Which was really helpful and encouraging to hear.
After riding Manta like a stingray, the boys and I headed for lunch and another add-on you can book is the Dining with Killer Whales experience which includes a sit down meal with buffet style options and you get to see the whales while they enjoy some splashing time! The area is outdoors and next to their tanks and it was fascinating again to get up close with these animals. The food included in the meals was really impressive – it was a buffet style lunch with lots of choice and then a whole platter of cakes and cookies for afterwards. All drinks were also included. We found this a really nice way of seeing something you always associate with SeaWorld and the whales were impressive and stunning up-close. It’s another add-on to your day that I’d highly recommend.
After lunch we decided it was high time for more rides! So we went over to Infinity Falls which is the parks massive and exciting rapids ride! Beware you’ll get VERY wet on this one but it’s a great way to cool down in the Florida sunshine! While other families had thought ahead and brought spare clothes with them, we didn’t and we all got drenched but we were full of smiles. As Hayden was too small for this one, we took it in turns and so Josh went twice – riding once with Bryn and once with me. He didn’t have any complaints and neither did we.
We then headed to another of the huge roller coasters, this time to Mako to book our return slot before carrying on through the park and making a visit at the Shark Aquarium which we found really fascinating and Hayden loved it, and constantly growled saying he was a shark (at two years old he’s not figured out that sharks don’t growl yet!) Josh is obsessed with animals and marine life, so he’ll quite happily spend hours in places like this and we really found that while the rides were epic at SeaWorld, the educational side of the park offered far more for him with a great mix of opportunities to learn and increase his knowledge base. It made the park different to the others we visited with an educational and learning side to the whole day.
We then headed to Journey to Atlantis, another clothes-soaking ride with a lot of fun. This ride is a typical log flume experience that takes you through the lost city of Atlantis and it’s quite exciting as some of it’s dark and then you burst outdoors on the flume! Again, with this one Hayden was too small so Josh rode twice with each of us.
Then it was time to head back for some more tummy-churning on rollercoaster Mako! With speeds of up to 73 mph, this one wasn’t for me but the boys went on and came back a little pale but full of smiles! I watched them ride and they zipped past faster than I could photograph BUT the boys were really pleased they can now say they’ve ridden Orlando’s tallest, fastest and longest roller coaster, which is a pretty cool badge of honour to wear, right?!
By now the heat was intense, we’d had a full on day and Josh was beginning to show signs of being frazzled. As a Certified Autism Centre, SeaWorld have Quiet Rooms in the park which are areas for guests with autism who need some time out. The rooms are dimly lit, so there’s no bright lights, there’s no music or noise and it’s just somewhere they can go for down-time. The sensory over stimulation that guests with autism can experience means the rooms are a welcome break and there are select items on the walls to help with the need to touch/fiddle with things that people experience (Josh constantly needs to have something in his hands.) We spent a short time inside just taking a breather and the fact that we could even do that at all was really something that meant a lot to us. Usually places like theme parks are something we’d avoid or have to deal with a potential abrupt ending to because sometimes Josh will just reach the end of his ability to cope – which is fine. But the Quiet Rooms offer an excellent and well thought out alternative. I only wish more places offered this!
By now we were all partied out and just wanted a leisurely stroll around the shops and the open-air parts of the park. We went inside some shops and got some souvenirs, the boys got to enjoy a lot of the Halloween decorations and we didn’t have to worry that the park was too busy that they couldn’t just run around and let off some steam. We really enjoyed strolling, visiting the different aquariums and animal houses along the way and before we knew it the day was drawing to a close.
As a take-away point, our visit was something that opened both of our eyes. Bryn and I both discussed how much we learned in our day and how genuinely loved and cared for all the animals were. SeaWorld are committed to helping animals and have so far they have come to the aid of over 36,000 sick, injured or orphaned animals and given then a second chance. In partnership with state and local agencies, the SeaWorld teams are constantly on call to help and their goal is rehabilitation and returning animals to the wild. But if the animals’ condition or situation means they’re non-releasable then they are given a home with lifelong care at one of SeaWorld’s acredited facilities.
With every rescue there’s a unique story and rehabilitation can quite often involve things like healing cracked shells, inventing specialised wet-suits and creating prosthetics that will allow the animal in question to lead a normal life back in the wild. It can also involve 24-hour nursing and non-stop care for babies and orphans who have no chance at life without it – because ultimately SeaWorld isn’t a park that just stops when it shuts. Their teams work through the night to care for the animals as well as being on call for urgent rescues when needed. One of our favourite release stories of the day was of a 725lb whale who was rescued and given 5 weeks rehabilitation before being taken 140 miles out to sea and released back into the wild and given a second chance at life.
For us our visit to SeaWorld was a unique day that we’ll never forget. The take away memories are from the Penguin experience which was something I’ll look back on forever. But also the way in which the whole park catered for guests with autism was something that’s stuck with me – and while I’m sure it wasn’t easy to roll out the factors needed to make it so accommodating, it did make all the difference to our visit. And as a Mum, seeing anything – no matter how small – make things easier for Josh means the world.
But not just that – the park as a whole was better than anything we hoped and the way it offered some thrilling rides along with countless opportunities to learn about different marine life gave it an edge over other parks. Josh loves information gathering so this park mixed rides and learning which was absolutely perfect for him – and Hayden’s at an age where he adores animals so it suited both of them perfectly. For us as the adults, we were blown away with the care and love the animals recieved and it meant we all left with full hearts and lots of smiles.
If you’re visiting Orlando then I recommend you visit SeaWorld without a doubt. Booking through Attraction Tickets Direct means you can get a 14 day pass that gives open access to SeaWorld, Busch Gardens and Aquatica so you can visit them as many times as you want to – even visiting multiple parks in the same day if you have time! And the tickets include free parking at all of the parks – which will save you nicely! You’ll also be able to get your tickets sent ahead of your visit, which saves a lot of time and book some of the add-ons mentioned too. So all that’s left to do is go along and prepare to be seriously impressed.
**This SeaWorld Review is a sponsored post in collaboration with Attraction Tickets Direct but as ever all opinions are entirely my own. Please refer to my Disclaimer page for more details.