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SeaWorld San Diego's new Explorer's Reef area allows guests to have a hands-on animal experience as soon as they enter this theme park

SeaWorld San Diego's new Explorer's Reef area allows guests to have a hands-on animal experience as soon as they enter this theme park

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It's been said that "You only get one chance to make to make a first impression."


Copyright SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment. All rights reserved

And given that visitors to SeaWorld San Diego have been entering that theme park by strolling past the same old, boring, blocky set of ticket booths since 1985 ... Well, the designers at SeaWorld decided to use this theme park's 50th anniversary as an excuse to reinvent its entry experience.


Copyright SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment. All rights reserved

Mind you, it took five years to come up with a design that everyone liked. And then an additional 16 months to tear out SeaWorld San Diego's original entrance plaza  and build this theme park's new entry portal (Before construction began, SeaWorld San Diego threw together a temporary gate to the right of this theme park's original entry way).


Photo by Shelly Valladolid

But this Thursday night, ahead of the official kick-off of SeaWorld's 18 month-long 50th anniversary celebration, the media was invited down to San Diego for a special preview of this new three acre area. And while it's not often that you get the chance to hang out with a sloth ...


Photo by Shelly Valladolid

... and to knock back cocktails as someone takes an African Crested Porcupine out for a stroll ...


Photo by Shelly Valladolid

... the real highlight of my trip to San Diego was to get the chance to check out this new entrance experience. You see, the conceit that SeaWorld's designers came up with is -- after you've parked the car -- you're now supposed to feel like you're arriving at the beach. Which explains the planters full of sand & swaying sea grass out front.


Photo by Shelly Valladolid

Then -- as you walk up to the actual entrance to this theme park-- you notice that, directly over the turnstiles, there's this stylized wave sculpture. This 30 foot-tall, 100 foot-long wave is supposed to give you the sense that -- as soon as you enter SeaWorld San Diego -- you're now diving right into the ocean and entering "The World Beneath the Waves."


Photo by Shelly Valladolid

And what re-enforces this design concept is that -- as soon as you come through those turnstiles --  you then immediately find yourself in SeaWorld San Diego's new Explorer's Reef area.


Copyright SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment. All rights reserved

Given that I've been following the Explorer's Reef project since SeaWorld first began design work on this San Diego enhancement back in 2011, I have to admit that it's kind of startling to see how close the finished product came to the original concept painting.


Photo by Shelly Valladolid

I especially liked how SeaWorld's designers used translucent materials & artfully carved pieces of steel to give you the sense that you really were underwater exploring some colorful, over-sized coral reef.


Photo by Shelly Valladolid

But the really ingenious part of Explorer's Reef is that it allows SeaWorld San Diego visitors -- just seconds after they've come through the turnstiles -- to have an immediate hands-on animal experience at this theme park.


Copyright SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment. All rights reserved

As part of this reimaging of SeaWorld San Diego's entrance, four 24,000-gallon touch pools were built & then stocked with brown-banded & white-spotted bamboo sharks as well as more than 4,000 smaller fish.


Photo by Shelly Valladolid

As I explored this 3 acre area on Thursday evening, the horseshoe crab pool was a real hit with this cutie.


Photo by Shelly Valladolid

After Explorer's Reef officially opened on Friday morning, following the kick-off of SeaWorld's 18 month-long 50th anniversary celebration, visitors crowded around all four of these new touch pools. As they each tried to get up-close with the sharks, skates, horseshoe crabs, rays and cleaner fish that were on display there.


Photo by Shelly Valladolid

People also made a point of checking out the nearby SeaWorld Store. Though this retail shop has actually been open since January, for many theme park visitors, yesterday was the first chance to experience this store for some. This store borrows a lot of Explorer's Reef's design conceits (i.e. the large coral formations) to create the feel of this open-air marketplace where you can then find all of SeaWorld San Diego's very best retail lines when it comes to gifts, souvenirs and collectibles.


Photo by Shelly Valladolid

And as part of yesterday's kick-off of SeaWorld's 50th anniversary celebration, we were treated to a performance by the Sea Street Band ...


Photo by Shelly Valladolid

... not to mention meeting a member of the SeaWorld "Surprise Squad." Who will wandering through all of the SeaWorld parks on a daily basis over the next 18 months giving away prizes and special gifts.


Photo by Shelly Valladolid

As I walked around the theme park itself on Friday, I noticed that there were all of these fun & informative signs that talked up SeaWorld San Diego history ...


Photo by Shelly Valladolid

... not to mention SeaWorld's animal rescue and conservation efforts.


Photo by Shelly Valladolid

On Thursday night, the media also got to see a performance of the Sea of Surprises Shamu Show. Which is this  brand-new nighttime killer whale show which will be rolled out at SeaWorld San Antonio next month and at SeaWorld Orlando in June. (I'll be discussing the Sea of Surprises Shamu Show in greater detail in a future JHM article).


Photo by Shelly Valladolid

And as much fun as I found those larger-than-life sea-themed sculptures that environmental art group Washed Ashore had created for SeaWorld's 50th anniversary celebration which were scattered throughout this theme park ...


Copyright SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment. All rights reserved

... in the end, what truly impressed me was SeaWorld San Diego's new Explorer's Reef area. Which does such a nice job of reinventing the arrival experience at this theme park that it really has to be sea-n ... sorry, seen to be believed.


Photo by Shelly Valladolid

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  • Kids love SeaWorld, for adults it's a nice distraction, but not like going to a Disney theme park.  Don't get me wrong, there are some nice shows, but the park is haphazardly arranged, and without any discernible lands.  Maybe every dozen years we do the Vacation Village (Paradise Point)/Sea World thing.

  • SeaWorld isn't like going to a Disney Park, because it's not a Disney Park. That said, Disney's Animal Kingdom did use the same concept of "wander and explore" that SeaWorld presently uses. SeaWorld is, actually, broken into named, themed sections like Shipwreck Reef and Calypso Bay, but they're not marked very well, which is a shame. I seem to have spent more time checking my map to see if I was *still* going in the right direction! We go about once a year, but might be going more often, because the food is light years better than years previous, the service has improved vastly, and the experiences are more entertaining and with a decidedly zoological/ichtheological bent that wasn't as obvious before. I'm glad to see it. I also learned that the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute came a year BEFORE the theme park (it was originally intended to be a tiki-style restaurant!) and that the park was opened by the four UCLA students responsible for the Institute as a way to raise money for the animal rescues they were doing on a regular basis. So, you're right...they totally came about "backwards".

  • I went last summer when the temporary entrance was up, so it probably wasn't as good an experience.  I do like the food at SeaWorld, I remember having an eggplant parmesan at the Italian restaurant that was good.  The polar bear exhibit is definitely the best I've ever seen.

    Mission Bay was dredged a while back with the express purpose of putting in a resort Paradise Point (Vacation Village), and a marine zoological park (SeaWorld), the land has to be used as a marine zoological type park, and is leased from the city, this explains why a marine zoological park.

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