What is better than stepping on a plane on a 30-degree morning in Indiana and stepping off on a 75-degree afternoon in Orlando? Absolutely nothing.

Over Veteran’s Day weekend, I had the privilege of spending some time at beautiful Sea World Orlando. Ever since the Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin exhibit opened up, I had been checking my calendar for an open weekend.  A friend of mine from Virginia asked me if I’d like to go on a girls’ weekend. We tossed around some ideas, but when I mentioned penguins, she was sold.

Sea World is very accessible from I-4 and is located only a minute from the exit. Parking was very organized, but take careful note of where you park because we got lost for at least 20 minutes and could not find our rental car!clientuploads/RachelSeaworld.jpg

I anticipated that the park would be decorated for Christmas, as most parks begin decorating for the holidays in early November. My expectations were blown away as we made our way through the parks. Every light post, store, awning, bridge and bush was decorated with lights, bulbs, garland or greenery. Just admiring the holiday decorations was one of my favorite parts of my visit. As an avid enthusiast of theme parks, I’ve seen quite a few and Sea World comes in #1 as the most decked-out park for the holidays.

We started off our day with the Sea Lion show, called Clyde and Seamore Take Pirate Island. This pirate-themed comic show featured some playful sea lions and a walrus, along with three land-lubber humans. Then, we made our way to the One Ocean show with Shamu. When you see these glorious sea creatures on television, the TV cannot fully capture how huge a walrus is or how enormous an orca is in the water. The theme song of One Ocean, “One Song”, still remains in my mind as the tune was so catchy. The song was even featured on the Sea World float on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade! The stadium seating really allows for great viewing wherever you are in the grandstands, and even on a holiday weekend there were plenty of seats to spare.

We had a 1:00pm reservation for a Behind the Scenes Tour, where we had the privilege of experiencing Sea World from a different vantage point. We literally went behind the walls into the outskirts of the park. We saw rescued manatees, sea turtles and dolphins. Some of these animals were injured and were in the process of being cared for and rehabilitated. Several of the rescued animals would be released into the wild again, but some were not able to survive and remained under Sea World’s care to be “good will ambassadors” for schools and educational programs. Still others, like a small pod of dolphins who lived in a separate pool behind the gates, preferred a quiet environment as opposed to constant social interaction. Our guide explained that some animals, like people, are introverted and prefer to be alone. I found this fascinating!

clientuploads/RachelPenguin.jpgThe highlight of our tour was when we were able to have some interaction with the penguins. Ross, the trainer, spent a few moments with the group of penguins (appropriately called a waddle) and selected one for us to touch. He called several penguins by name who especially liked to spend time with him, and while other members of the waddle batted some tennis balls in the water, a few penguins lingered around him to socialize. We got to interact with Kai, a young male penguin and each of us pet him for a  few seconds. It was so interesting that the penguin feathers felt much more like fur. What a unique experience!

We headed to Blue Horizons next, the dolphin and bird show. This show featured aerialists who performed while suspended above the dolphin pool. What impressed me in this show were the colors. Vibrant yellows, deep blues, and bright reds of the costumes and the birds were captivating.

Packing for Orlando means capris and flip flops almost year-round, except when you are preparing to enter the penguin’s domain. As you are in the queue for Antarctica, you are ushered into several rooms which gradually drop in temperature so your body can be prepared for the 32-degree environment when you get to see the penguins.

The Antarctica attraction is half ride and half experience. You hear the story of Puck, a young penguin who experiences the wonder, danger and excitement of the frozen continent.  The ride is a hovercraft-like vehicle that mimics the movements of Puck, and you can choose a “Mild” or “Wild” experience. We chose the Wild, but it wasn’t too rough at all.

clientuploads/RachelPenguinSite.jpgThe highlight of Antarctica is the finale, when you can view the penguins in their frigid play land. Real ice and snow covers the ground, and only a half-pane of glass separates you from these tubby little friends. We had a wonderful time watching them shoot across the snow like torpedoes, or hop from one rock to the next. If it wasn’t so cold, we would have stayed much longer. Even at home, I log onto the Sea World website and watch the penguins on the Live Cam!

I ended the day with a ride on the on the Manta, a roller coaster that inverts you so that you are looking straight at the ground!  I am a huge roller coaster fan, and very little intimidates me, but I was a little nervous about riding this Big Daddy of a coaster. Would I fall out? Would I be sick to my stomach? I wasn’t sure what to expect, but oh was it fun! It was the smoothest ride and I felt no motion sickness at all. It was a perfect way to end my time at Sea World.

Sea World is a well-themed, immaculately-maintained, gorgeously decorated park that is a must-do when you are coming to the Orlando area. The large-capacity stadiums are a welcome change from long wait times for attractions, and the trainers and performers were top-notch. The park does a great job of sharing their commitment to conservation and protection of wildlife. I really appreciated the addition of conservation tips and practical ways that we can preserve natural resources in exhibits like Turtle Trek. It’s a great reminder to us that the ocean really is our largest and most important natural resource.