Let's face it: When it comes to Orlando, most people think Disney or Universal Studios. But don't make the mistake of overlooking SeaWorld. It's an aquarium disguised as an amusement park, so it's set up to teach kids all about marine life while they're having fun. Check out why we love this awesome attraction.
#1: You can get close to the animals
Your family can get up close and personal with the animals, from walking next to flamingos on parade to feeding dolphins, sea lions, and stingrays. But what's really neat about the park is that it offers a variety of Animal Connections programs, where kids can dive with the sharks (in a cage, of course!), interact with white beluga whales, or become a marine-mammal keeper for the day and help care for manatees, dolphins, and other sea life. These programs are a bit pricey (they start at $150), but your kids will be talking about the experience for years. Just make sure you sign up in advance.
#2: There's a new water park
You'll be the first on your block to check out the new park. Aquatica will take water parks to a whole new level when the 59-acre, South Seas-themed attraction opens this month. With wave pools, lagoons full of fish, and 36 water slides, there will be something for everyone. Don't miss the tube slide that shoots riders underwater and through a tank of playful dolphins. If you're looking for a more relaxing experience, float around the lazy river that's surrounded by lush scenery and exotic birds. And top it all off with a picnic or sand-castle-building on the park's 80,000-square-foot white-sand beach ($39 for adults, $33 for kids ages 3 to 9).
#3: It's educational
Lots of people throw around the term "edu-tainment," but SeaWorld lives up to the label. The park goes out of its way to teach visitors about the inhabitants -- everything from where they live in the wild to what they eat -- all the while making sure your kids have fun. Throughout many of the exhibits, you'll find interactive stations that provide hands-on learning, such as testing your lung power against a walrus's or seeing how a manatee grinds its food. Plus, you can go to regularly scheduled special seminars or one of the many Adventure Camps, which include half-day programs for preschoolers ($50) and sleepovers for groups and families ($78).
#4: There are rides too!
While many people think of SeaWorld solely as an aquarium, it also offers a true theme-park experience, thanks to fun rides like the thrilling Kraken roller coaster and the popular Journey to Atlantis. You'll find a boatload of great shows as well, where the leaping whales and flipping dolphins will wow your kids. And on top of that, it's slower-paced and more manageable than a typical amusement park. Plus, you don't have to wait in insanely long lines.
#5: You can get VIP access
SeaWorld has put together several super-cool behind-the-scenes tours for families looking for a more customized experience (800-327-2424). The big one is the seven-hour Adventure Express Tour, which moves your family to the front of the line at the rides, puts you in reserved seats at two shows, gives you a backstage meet-and-greet with a penguin, and more (prices range from an extra $95 for adults and $80 for kids on top of admission). For a smaller-and cheaper-sneak peek, you can visit the Dolphin Nursery to see the new calves or you can pet a small shark in a touch tank on the Predators Tour. If that's too scary for your child, he can hold a penguin on the Polar Expedition Tour or take a trip to see endangered manatees and sea turtles on the Saving a Species Tour (from $10 to $40). Make sure you reserve your spot before you go.
#6: Discovery Cove is right next door
SeaWorld's sister park brings a beach escape to landlocked Orlando. At this man-made tropical paradise, only 1,000 guests are allowed in each day to keep the low-key, relaxed vibe intact (so book ahead: discoverycove.com; 877-557-7404). Passes start at $269 per person, but it's an all-inclusive package with meals, snacks, drinks, equipment (snorkel gear, vests, and wet suits), and amazing activities, like the 30-minute swim with the dolphins. But if that's too steep, you can pay about $100 less by dropping the dolphin swim -- and you'll still enjoy all the other perks, like complimentary passes to SeaWorld, snorkeling with thousands of tropical fish and stinger-free rays, and feeding birds in the aviary.
#7: You'll dine in style
Treat your kids to a private buffet with SeaWorld's star, Shamu, backstage at the killer-whale habitat (reservations required: 800-327-2424; $37 for adults, $19 for children ages 3 to 9, free for kids under 3). Or check out the park's hot spot, Sharks Underwater Grill. This popular restaurant is submerged in a shark exhibit, which means you can eat while watching these powerful creatures swim by. You can only make reservations in person the day of your visit -- and it fills up fast! -- so get there before 10 a.m. to book your table. If you want to try the park's other restaurants, plan on eating during showtimes -- it's considerably less crowded then.
#8: The deals are great
Tickets for SeaWorld Orlando usually run around $68 for adults and $58 for kids. But if you order tickets online at seaworld.com/orlando at least seven days in advance, you can get big savings, like adult passes at kid prices, unlimited access on multi-park tickets, and a free round-trip shuttle to its other sister park, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay. You can also find discounts on package deals to multiple parks.