SeaWorld Orlando has sailed stormy seas in the last few years, what with ownership changes (leading to the loss of traditions like free beer and Clydesdales), the tragic death of trainer Dawn Brancheau and complaints from animal-rights activists. At the end of April, the past was put aside to celebrate the opening of TurtleTrek, the next step in the evolution of SeaWorld's environmentally themed attractions.
Much like the magnificent Manta roller coaster that debuted in 2009, TurtleTrek takes an elaborate aquarium and uses it as the prologue to an intense, high-tech experience. Unlike its G-force-generating neighbor, TurtleTrek's cutting-edge sensory stimulation is entirely artificial and fully family-friendly. As an individual attraction, it's an invigorating addition to SeaWorld's somewhat sedate lineup. But as a sign of the park's future direction, it makes me anxious and a little sad.
The TurtleTrek experience begins when guests pass under an ocean-colored archway over what used to be the exit of the Manatees: The Last Generation? exhibit. Aside from the reversed traffic flow and some fresh paint, the building is essentially unchanged, though the centerpiece freshwater aquarium has been divided in half. The first chamber features a wall-sized window to the tank that still houses the original inhabitants, a handful of galumphing-yet-graceful sea cows that were rescued after injury in the wild.
All too quickly, queue-ers are swept into a second chamber, with a view of the tank section that was converted to saltwater. Inside, sea turtles sail through clouds of colorful fish, tantalizingly appearing just out of reach. A young employee with a microphone tries to compete with the underwater wonders with an earnest spiel aimed at educating preteens on the environmental importance of the sea turtle and its delicate life cycle. The dangers of plastic bags and the benefits of turtle-excluding devices for fishing nets are brought up – better pay attention, because they'll be back in the feature presentation that's about to begin.
The circular theater that once showed a simple but affecting film about the plight of manatees has been turned into a silver-screened dome. Viewers don yellow 3-D glasses that wrap around to provide peripheral vision; 34 digital projectors arrayed around the room create a seamless 360-degree computer-generated image above and around the audience. In the course of the seven-minute show, a single female sea turtle's 20-year life cycle is seen from a first-person perspective, beginning with her emergence from a sand-covered shell and ending with her return to the beach where she will breed. In between, there are some gorgeous (and occasionally scary) encounters with underwater creatures like dolphins, rays and even an angry shark.
TurtleTrek's surround cinema is technologically innovative, and the 3-D is remarkably effective with near-field objects. A moment when a manatee passes close by is magical. But I didn't get a good sense of distance or depth, perhaps due to the underwater murkiness. I also found the piercing light from the projectors pockmarking the dome distracting; I wish they could have rigged a rear-projection system. And it's disappointing that no 4-D elements were used to intensify the immersion – a brief spritz of mist or gust of wind would have added to the experience. Worst of all, though the CGI underwater imagery is aesthetically astounding, the rough rendering of onshore objects (including horrifying humans and plastic pigeons) would get laughed out of an Xbox game.
Ultimately, these flaws don't prevent TurtleTrek from being a first-class example of what's digitally possible. Unfortunately, in the end, it just didn't engage me emotionally with the same depth as its predecessor. I met fellow audience members who found TurtleTrek an evocative, even tear-inducing experience. To me, though, something essential has been lost by making the actual animals a mere prelude to an encounter with their artificial avatars. SeaWorld attractions formerly leveraged theme park trappings to frame nature's majesty, but this addition literally reverses the emphasis.
The disconnect continues in the post-show, where many kids appeared too engrossed by the Wii-like Be a Turtle video games to take a gander at the real things swimming steps away. I understand the need to evolve technologically along with an increasingly ADD audience, but until it gets the budgets to beat Disney and Universal at their own game, SeaWorld is better off putting their namesake strong suit at center stage. Next year, SeaWorld's elaborate Antarctica project will remake the old-school penguin habitat with an innovative indoor dark ride. I just hope guests won't be pushed past the authentic frigid fowl in the rush to see their virtual versions.