Inside the Wet and Wild World of Aquatica
By Natalie Hope McDonald
It took more than 500,000 gallons of water to create the Big Surf Shore, one of Southern California’s largest wave pools. It’s just one of the popular attractions at SeaWorld’s newest Aquatica waterpark in San Diego.
Aquatica San Diego, like its sister parks in San Antonio and Orlando, Fla., feature guest experiences for both the adventurer and escapist. Home to water attractions for all ages, the park features a variety of exotic animals, and more than enough room to simply kick back. Despite controversy in recent years from several animal activist groups over the treatment and containment of these animals – including the Orcas – SeaWorld has said that the experience is designed to educate visitors about ocean life and the importance of environmental conservation. According to the company leaders, the company has been working with its critics to find a solution to many concerns, as thousands of children have the opportunity to learn about sea life.
Most recently, the park decided to end its use of polystyrene products in its restaurants and employee cafeterias. This comes two years after eliminating single-use plastic bags from its gift shops too. With millions of meals served in the park each year, the removal of polystyrene foam products is considered an important conservation and environmental protection initiative in the region, one that other attractions may also ideally adopt.
“SeaWorld is proud to be a responsible steward of the environment, not just here in our park, but in the oceans and the world we share,” said SeaWorld San Diego Park President John Reilly, in a press statement. “We hope our actions will inspire others to take similar steps that, combined, can make a huge difference.”
Discarded polystyrene foam, which is not biodegradable, ends up in local landfills, on beaches and in the ocean ecosystem. This pollution can be extremely detrimental to marine animals. That’s why the park’s culinary team began phasing out polystyrene foam products at restaurants and food carts in 2012, a process that took several months. Reilly said the employee cafeterias were the final dining facilities to implement the use of more environmentally friendly products, which have been very successful both environmentally and financially.
In all, more than eight million individual pieces of tableware and cutlery – plates, bowls, hot cups, forks, spoons and knives – were shifted to compostable material. Bowls and plates are now made from molded fibers, flatware is now made from cornstarch and hot cups are made from recycled paper.
Pauline Martinson, executive director of I Love a Clean San Diego, has been working with SeaWorld to become more eco-friendly. “By eliminating the use of these containers,” she said, “SeaWorld’s efforts may help in the reduction in marine debris locally.”
At the end of the summer, the park also hosted its 10th electronic recycling event for the community. Every year, SeaWorld recycles millions of pounds of paper and plastic products, metals, greenery, food scraps, wet suits, pallets, cooking oil, construction demolition debris and batteries, in addition to more traditional recyclable materials. Since 1996, the park has received a San Diego Recycler of the Year award 15 times.
In addition to recycling practices and eliminating plastic bags, the park has been implementing other new and innovative ways to maintain nutritious diets for the park’s animal population while being mindful of effective re-use practices. Examples include re-purposing items from the culinary operations department, such as feeding bread, fruits and lettuce, to the domestic animals at the “Pets Rule!” attraction. It not only says money, but it eliminates waste.
Inside New Attractions
What goes on behind the scenes at the park also helps to shape the attractions themselves, with Aquatica being the newest way for guests to have fun and explore marine life.
“Although it’s about a 20-minute drive from one park to the other, Aquatica is a complementary experience to SeaWorld,” said David Koontz, a spokesperson for the company. “Both are marine-themed, and we also have amazing animal exhibits, although few in number, at Aquatica. With the opening of Aquatica in 2013, we continue to bring value to our guests and enhance the San Diego destination.”
The waterpark itself, with its lush landscapes and high-speed thrills (like HooHoo Run, an 80-foot water slide) also offers many amenities akin to a beach resort designed for adults and kids alike. There are even Caribbean flamingoes and freshwater turtles roaming around to create an atmosphere that feels more like a tropical island than Southern California.
“Aquatica provides our guests with experiences from serene to extreme,” said Koontz. “With one of the largest wave pools in Southern California, it reminds our guests of a getaway beach vacation. The park opened with six thrilling water slides in 2013. This year, we debut our new Taumata Racer, a high-speed racing water slide that zooms riders head first down a 375-foot slide, around a 180-degree swooping turn, and in and out of tunnels before racing them across the finish line. The response to Taumata Racer has been outstanding.”
After 16 months of construction, SeaWorld San Diego also unveiled another of its newer attractions in March, Explorer’s Reef, a multi-million dollar renovation effort that immerses visitors in an undersea realm.
“Explorer’s Reef reinvents our guests’ arrival experience,” said Brian Morrow, SeaWorld’s creative director. “Guests now have a new way of approaching, entering and exploring the park.”
The new concept replaces the existing ticket booths with a beach-themed, concierge-style ticketing area that provides guests with a single location to purchase admission as well as sign up for tours, animal interactions and dining experiences. Morrow said that they decided to eliminate the glass window between the guests and park’s ticketing service representatives, creating a more open and personal experience.
“Explorer’s Reef transforms our guests’ arrival by providing them with unparalleled welcoming services and then transporting them into the world of the sea as they pass under an iconic and stunning wave,” said Reilly in a press statement. “The promise of SeaWorld is delivered immediately, giving our guests opportunities to connect with amazing animals as soon as they enter the park.”
Guests now enter the park beneath an immense wave sculpture that is nearly 30 feet tall and 100 feet long. “The wave portal came to us as a very simple idea of going to the beach, wading into the shallows and diving into the water,” said Morrow. “We’ve all wondered what that would look like, and that’s what we’ve created with this new arrival experience.”
Inside the park, it is all about a tropical experience with coral-themed designs that mimic an undersea oasis. Visitors also have the opportunity to interact with a variety of fish in four different touch pools.
Both saltwater and freshwater, the touch pools (with a total of more than 26,000 gallons of water) allow guests to connect with sea life in an intimate way, getting up close and personal with 450 white-spotted bamboo sharks, 150 brown-banded bamboo sharks, 10 epaulette sharks, 25 round rays, 15 horseshoe crabs, five guitarfish and nearly 7,000 cleaner fish.
“The animal experiences are fantastic at Explorer’s Reef,” explained Morrow. “Guests are able to interact with incredible sea creatures, including sharks, rays, skates and even horseshoe crabs, and the delicate little cleaner fish nibble at your hands when you put them in the water.”
Coming on the heels of a series of new attractions, shows and rides over the past three years, Explorer’s Reef is one of the ways the creative team has refreshed the park experience to attract new visitors and give repeat visitors new reasons to return.
“This marks the highpoint of an unprecedented expansion of capital attraction investments at SeaWorld that transforms the park experience for our guests,” said Reilly. “With Turtle Reef, Manta, new shows and events, and now, a transforming arrival experience and animal attraction, SeaWorld is well-positioned for its next 50 years.”
The Gift Shop Experience
The gift shop at Aquatica also plays an important role in the overall guest experience thanks to its myriad of gifts, personal care items and keepsakes. The main retail store, Kiwi Traders, has become a one-stop-shop for gifts, apparel, accessories, toys and sundries. Sea World also operates a small kiosk in the park that has a more limited number of items.
“Waterpark merchandise differs from a traditional theme park in that merchandise is selected to help enhance or complement the guest’s experience during their visit,” explained Koontz. “This includes swimsuits, rash guards, sun care, cover ups, towels and unique apparel. In some cases a guest may have left something behind or just want to update their swimming attire. In either case, the merchandise assortment is designed to ensure they get the most out of their day at the park.”
Koontz said the shop also carries items that guests may not necessarily expect, like a new line of flamingo plush that coincides with a flamingo exhibit in the park. “It has a natural tie back to this gift item,” he said.
Since Aquatica is also a tropical South Seas-themed waterpark with the amenities of a beachside resort, the merchandise presents both the unique beach-themed brand of the park, as well as highlights the turtles and flamingos that are on exhibit there.
“By far the biggest hit of the summer has been water-resistant wallets and pouches that help keep electronics dry and protected from sand,” Koontz said.
The Dining Experience
Aquatica SeaWorld’s Waterpark has several different dining options, including healthy alternatives that have become a mainstay for guests in recent months. Guests looking for a gourmet meal or even a light bite have a range of options throughout the waterpark.
Explorer’s Reef, which encompasses more than three acres at the front of the park, includes new and innovative retail and culinary opportunities for guests.
Elsewhere in the park, guests who reserve one of Aquatica’s cabanas can have the luxury of food being delivered to them. Menu choices (which are exclusive to cabana guests) include the “Salty Sampler” (chicken tenders, battered fish, jalapeño cheese poppers, tater tots and assorted dipping sauces); the “Pasta Tower” (baked chicken alfredo, three-cheese penne-roni marinara and tomato basil baked pasta); and family-friendly meals like the “Taco Fiesta” (pulled pork carnitas, fish tacos, cilantro slaw; and the “Asian Fare” (mandarin orange chicken with scallions and lo main noodles and edamame mixed greens salad wrap). Cabanas also come with a complimentary basket of fruit and salted nuts.
Meanwhile at the Waterstone Grill, southwest-style dishes are served up with a California twist, including the chicken Caesar salad wrap, fish tacos and chili verde pulled pork. There are also a few Asian-inspired dishes on the menu, like the Mandarin orange chicken, mixed green salad wrap with miso dressing and Teriyaki chicken stir fry.
Hungry diners will also find all the usual favorites – everything from burgers and fries to sandwiches, salads and finger foods. There are ultimately a variety of dining options at the waterpark.
At Big Surf Snacks, the menu ranges from salty (jumbo shrimp, battered fish and tater tots) to sweet (fried chicken and funnel cake, fresh strawberries with hot fudge and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches).
There are also two market-style eateries, the Mango Market and Island Market, where prepared foods are at the ready, dishes like baked chicken alfredo pasta and California pizza. Guests can also chomp down on a turkey leg and hot dogs.
For adults who are 21 and older, the Rockwater Oasis is a bar that specializes in beer, wine and margaritas as well as salty snacks, while Banana Beach is the ultimate cookout destination with grilled burgers and picnic-style food options for the whole family.
Overall, Koontz said the second summer since it first opened its doors has been a success. “The response from our guests about their experience” he said, “has been very positive.”