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SeaWorld makes a big splash

| Thursday, June 28, 2007

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Families looking for a fun -- and relaxing -- trip to sunny Florida this summer will find the perfect vacation at SeaWorld Adventure Park and Discovery Cove.

From getting splashed by the world famous killer whale, "Shamu" at SeaWorld, to swimming with the dolphins and stingrays at Discovery Cove, these two parks provide a stress-free, fun, and (dare I say it), educational, vacation for all ages.

During the recent "Peanut Butter and Jellyfish" press trip hosted by SeaWorld Orlando and the Renaissance Orlando Resort at SeaWorld for media representatives and a child under the age of 11, my son Jacob, 9, and I got to get up close with creatures of the sea. At 13, my oldest son Jordan gave us his blessing to make the trip without him.

Day 1: Check-in

Our trip began by checking into the Renaissance Orlando Resort, conveniently located across the street from the entrance to SeaWorld. With its lavish lobby, that is currently undergoing a $24 million renovation, the resort was a marvel to stay at. We spent our first afternoon relaxing at the large pool, featuring a Boardwalk sports bar.

Our room was larger than the standard, two-bed hotel rooms, and Jacob enjoyed watching his shows on the flat-screen television.

We knew we were in for a special trip when Renaissance Director of Sales and Marketing Dave Duncan greeted the journalists and their children in the Coral Sea Ballroom with champagne and wine for the adults and goodies for the kids.

After a scrumptious dinner of filet mignon and kid-friendly pizza for Jacob, we wanted to get to sleep early as we had a busy day ahead of us at SeaWorld.

Day 2: SeaWorld

Adventure Park

When I looked at our itinerary that the great folks in the media department at SeaWorld arranged for us, I thought for sure my feet would give out on me before our return to the Renaissance late that night.

But we had so much fun, I didn't have time to get tired!

After a delicious buffet breakfast at the Renaissance in the Wedgewood Ballroom, Jacob donned his VIP (Very Important Peanut) T-shirt and we embarked on our day at SeaWorld.

We spent our first few hours in Shamu's Happy Harbor, where Jacob and his new friend, Ben, whose mother is a writer in Kingsport, Tenn., got to hold exotic birds and were treated to "fanta-sea" treats such as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cotton candy and popcorn.

As part of the grand opening celebration, Executive Vice President and General Manager Jim Atchison and Vice President of Entertainment Dave Goodman greeted the crowd and introduced special guest, Elmo from "Sesame Street."

While many of the younger children took in the special preview of SeaWorld's new live show, "Elmo and the Bookaneers," we decided to venture further into the park to take in the polar bear exhibit and the penguins.

We made sure we got back in time for our lunch behind the scenes at Shamu Stadium. Featuring a massive buffet, we got to eat along side the pool where Shamu and the other whales frolic behind the stadium. I couldn't get Jacob to budge from his seat as he watched the whales in amazement.

As another special treat, we got a special session with Shamu trainer Laura Surovik and SeaWorld Director of Education Judy Jenkins, who shared techniques used with the whales that can be applied to parenting. They just recently launched a new campaign to reach out to parents of young children via the Web site, www. LearnwithShamu.com

After the training session, we took our seats in the front row for the "Believe" show starring Shamu and the entire family of killer whales. The heart-warming show thrilled us as we had the best view in the huge stadium, but amazingly, we never got splashed!

Although Jacob was disappointed he didn't get splashed by Shamu, he quickly got over it as we ventured into the park for some free time. We made our way to the thrill rides at the park: "Kraken," Orlando's tallest and only floorless roller coaster, "Journey to Atlantis," a water-coaster, and "Wild Arctic," a motion-based flight over the North where you feel like you are flying in the Arctic.

After a busy day exploring, we were ready for dinner at Shark's Underwater Grill. The restaurant is set around the Shark Encounter, the world's largest underwater tunnel featuring eels, barracuda, fish and toothy sharks.

As we dined, Jacob was once again mesmerized as he came face-to-face with the denizens of the deep.

As we ate dinner, the park closed for the day, and we got to stay and feed the sea lions before our grand finale, watching the first run of SeaWorld's new night time spectacular, "Shamu Rocks."

The stadium came to life in an explosion of lights and music as the killer whales and trainers performed.

The whales shimmered and glowed as the lights changed, keeping everyone on the edge of their seats.

Finally, bleary-eyed from all of the day's excitement, Jacob dragged his huge stuffed Shamu and souvenirs for his brother onto our shuttle.

Day 3: Discovery Cove

We woke bright and early for another exciting day in Orlando. During breakfast, we were introduced to a preview of SeaWorld's newest adventure park, Aquatica. Scheduled to open in March, the water park will feature 36 water slides, six rivers and lagoons and more than 80,000 square feet of beach area.

As we entered Discovery Cove, Jacob could hardly contain his excitement. As we walked into the park, we didn't feel as if we were still in Orlando, but rather a tropical oasis with lush trees and flowers.

Discovery Cove is an all-inclusive park where guests can swim with the dolphins, sting rays and thousands of fish.

The cove is set on rocky lagoons surrounded by lush land- scaping, coral reefs, tropical rivers and a resort-style pool complete with waterfalls and clean beaches.

One of the best features of Discovery Cove is that reservations must be made in advance and daily attendance is limited to 1,000, ensuring that there are no crowds and no fighting over lounge chairs.

Admission also includes lunch at Laguna Grill and unlimited snacks and drinks throughout the day.

The admission price (through Nov. 11) is $279 per person (includes the dolphin interaction), or $179 per person without the dolphin interaction.

After Jacob was fitted in his wetsuit we ventured into the "river," swam under waterfalls and watched the exotic birds as they sat on the reefs.

The highlight for Jacob was wading in the ray lagoon, featuring southern and cownose rays.

As the rays swam by, we shrieked with delight as they felt smooth and silky. Our timing was perfect as we arrived just in time for feeding. The trainer handed us bait and the ray's sucked the fish out of our hands, just like a vacuum.

The highlight of the day for me was the dolphin lagoon, where we participated in a 30-minute interaction with a bottlenose dolphin.

After doing the traditional rubdown, kisses and hugs with the dolphin, we got to go on a dolphin ride. We each took turns swimming to the deep side of the lagoon and holding on to the dolphin's dorsal fin for a "tow ride" across the water.

The experience was amazing, and my favorite photo from our day in Discovery Cove was that of Jacob giving the dolphin a big smooch.

Our day ended with more swimming, relaxing on the lounge chair and a trip through the bird aviary.

We were among the very last to leave when Discovery Cove closed for the day, and we missed our shuttle.

After rushing back to our room, we made a mad dash to get ready for a night at the Arabian Nights dinner show.

Thankfully, we arrived on time, and were greeted by Denise Spiegel, media manager for Orlando/Orange County Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Billy Seay from Arabian Nights.

Touted as Orlando's top dinner attraction, we were treated to a special "VIP" experience at Arabian Nights, which is staged in a 140,000 square-foot equestrian arena.

Before the show, Seay took our drink orders, which were waiting for us when we arrived. Jacob and the other children in our group painted one of the horses before the show started. Using water-based paint, Jacob put his hand print on the side of the horse.

We then got to go into the arena, where Jacob was thrilled to get the autographs of the actors in the show. He was especially impressed with the two actors his own age that performed daredevil tricks in the show.

After our long day in the sun, we devoured our dinner.

Before we departed, they treated us with souvenir photos and toys for Jacob.

It was the perfect ending to a fabulous trip.

Day 4: Going Home

The only dilemma we faced as we prepared for our flight home was how we were going to fit the huge plush Shamu onto the plane without checking it as luggage.

After stuffing the Shamu into a garbage bag, we all made it home safe and sound and Jacob had many fun stories to share.

For more information about SeaWorld Adventure Parks, go to www.4adventure.com or call 1-800-4-ADVENTURE; for more about Discovery Cove, go to discoverycove.com, or call 1-877-4-DISCOVERY; for more about the Renaissance Orlando Resort at SeaWorld, go to www.renaissanceseaworld.com, or call 1-800-327-6677.

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