There's no question that the attractions are crucial pistons in Orlando's sputtering economic engine. The two biggest, Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando, are squeaky and loud and tend to get more coverage than SeaWorld, the third power in our theme-park triumvirate. Now, with parent company Anheuser-Busch's recent absorption by European brewing conglomerate InBev and the park's future ownership the subject of rampant speculation, it's time to catch up on what's new with Shamu. During a recent visit, I rediscovered that SeaWorld does things differently than its bigger brethren. Sometimes different is better.

The first difference that I noticed was the parking situation: no monorail to ferry you to a far-away entrance; no gauntlet of semimoving walkways; not even a tram is required. Instead, I parked an easy stroll away from the main entrance. The second thing I noticed was the construction for Manta, the massive coaster by Bolliger & Mabillard currently under construction in the heart of the park's front section. The track looks largely complete; seeing the twists and turns overhead made a coaster junkie like me salivate. When open next spring, Manta will send riders flying facedown above a stingray-stocked lagoon, an ecologically educational way to lose your lunch.

Speaking of lunch, I started with a bite at SeaWorld's premier dining establishment, Sharks Underwater Grill. Real aquariums inlaid beneath the bar created a fantastic atmosphere, as we virtually dined among the always-in-action ichthyologic inhabitants of the popular Shark Encounter. (Think Epcot's Coral Reef Restaurant, but cozier.) My rare ahi tuna was excellent, though the scallops were overcooked and the service underdone; still, by theme-park standards, Sharks is a home run.

SeaWorld hosts a handful of rides, including the "floorless" Kraken coaster, but live entertainment is the real draw. Since the show schedule seemed to be devilishly designed to prevent taking everything in on a single day, I focused on the holiday happenings and productions that had debuted since my last visit. First up was A'Lure, the Call of the Ocean, the park's latest offering without live animals. The pantomimed plot is standard: Fisher-boy meets mer-girl, boy loses girl to wicked sea witch (who resembles Miseria from Universal's Sinbad stunt show), boy commits coup and installs his fishy friend on the undersea throne. I'm sorry to say that the pseudo-Atlantean story is as insubstantial as the soap bubbles that drop from the ceiling and serves mainly as an excuse to shove as many Cirque-style acrobatic acts on stage as possible. Pole-climbers and diabolo-tossers, tissu and trampoline artists, German wheels and tumbling rings fly by in an incoherent flood that frustrates one's attempts to focus. These are talented athletes performing interesting stunts (I liked the guy who spins inside a steel hula hoop); too bad the entire cast is saddled with clichéd choreography and costumes that look salvaged from Siegfried & Roy. As underwhelming as this tough critic found Odyssea, the former occupant of the Nautilus Theater, the new A'Lure rates as a downgrade. For those more forgiving, consider A'Lure to be colorful and kinetic enough to keep the kiddies occupied if you're looking for a 20-minute break in the AC.

Next stop was the seasonal Polar Express Experience, a redressing of the Wild Arctic exhibit themed around Chris Van Allsburg's best-selling storybook. The CGI film adaptation of The Polar Express, which starred the quintuply cast Tom Hanks, was director Robert Zemeckis' first attempt at CGI motion capture (later improved for Monster House and Beowulf) and resulted in a slog through an uncanny valley of dead-eyed children and annoying elves. In IMAX 3D, however, the action scenes are made for a great ride. SeaWorld thought the same and enlisted Iwerks Entertainment to turn it into a simulator attraction.

Unfortunately, instead of creating original footage, Iwerks simply culled clips from the film and edited them together without a consistent point of view, violating the continuity of perspective necessary for an effective motion simulation. Adding insult to injury, the motion peters out altogether before the film is three-fourths over. I advise bypassing the ride and heading straight for the excellent walk-through exhibit. The convincingly detailed Arctic outpost is dressed up with a shiny tree and a Santa meet-and-greet, but the beautiful beluga whales and polar bears add the magic.

I'm sorry that I never stopped to see the Pets Ahoy! show on earlier visits, because it was the most fun I've had in a theme-park theater in years. A stylized surfside scene — currently decked out with Christmas décor — is the setting for a series of Rube Goldberg—like scenarios, showing off a dexterous cast of canines and felines with the odd duck thrown in for good measure. These amazing animals are mostly rescued from shelters, making the production even more awww-inspiring. Even the best-trained pet is inherently unpredictable, which greatly ups the adorability. Best of all, visible and verbal contributions by the human hosts are kept to a minimum, letting the critters do their cute thing without needless yakking. My only criticism is that it's over too soon.

The day's finale came courtesy of Shamu, star of the Christmas Miracles stadium show, a semisecular tribute to the season achieved through the miracle of giant marine mammals. Trainers surf on dorsal fins and are catapulted skyward via killer whales, all set to a soundtrack stolen, ironically, from the Jewish Pesach cartoon The Prince of Egypt. From the singalong carols to the saccharine video segments (displayed on the same slick revolving screens used for the mawkish Believe show), Christmas Miracles is kitschy corn, but also undeniably enjoyable as an entry in the genre of "splashtainment." There's something irresistible about watching a whale water ballet under propane flames and purple lights, though I could do without the faux-funk chorus line of trainers doing the awkward white-boy dance.

As I exited the park under a flurry of fake snow, I thought about what it is that makes SeaWorld so much more than the sum of its parts. It lacks Disney's insistent cheerfulness or Universal's aggressive hipness; even the jazzy instrumental Christmas music speaks of refined relaxation. The park's organic evolution made for a sprawling, haphazard layout that helps to preserve some appealing late-'70s vintage styling (like EPCOT before it became Epcot). Whatever it is, you don't end a day at SeaWorld feeling exhausted. Plus, there's free beer.



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