My son’s been obsessed with walruses for as long as I can remember. The look of them, the sounds they make, the things they do — he loves it all. He has many walrus-themed items in his room and he even drinks hot cocoa out of a walrus mug. A dream of his for a long time is to see a walrus perform up close. He just never knew he’d get to see it this close. Here’s our story of how Sea World made my son’s dream come true.
First, let me back up the story a little bit. Little Dude — and no matter the fact that he’s now 15, he’s still going to be my Little Dude since he’s the youngest — talks about walruses a lot. Along with the obsession with walruses, he loves seals and sea lions. He’s considered a career in marine biology and watches television shows about sea life. When we go to the beach or the coast, he watches for sea life activity. It’s a natural interest and one we want to encourage.
Living in Southern California, we’re only about two hours away from Sea World San Diego. We’ve taken Little Dude before, but it’s been a while. He doesn’t remember it well and we wanted to take him again. He’s less worried about crowds and lines and it was time for another visit. The Public Relations department of Sea World was very generous and gave us this entire day at Sea World, a day of amazing memories for my son, and for us.
We arrived at the park just before opening at 10am. We parked right in front and the lines were minimal. Little Dude had no idea of what was going to happen, other than it was going to be a very special day for him. We stopped to stick our hands into the Explorer’s Reef touch tank right inside the gates and headed to Otter Outlook just in time to watch a demonstration by an animal expert.
Little Dude was hooked, and we had to pull him away to make it to Dolphin Stadium in time for the first show of the day. We made it in plenty of time to get front row, center, fully in splash zone.
And let me just say…when they say ‘you will get wet,’ they mean it. You WILL get wet. But there’s no better reason to get soaked than by the antics of dolphins and pilot whales, right? I’ve been a dolphin lover for years, so this was such a treat for me. Dolphins are so sleek, so smart, and clearly so full of personality that came through with their tricks. Sea World does an amazing job of providing animal education throughout all the shows, so you are learning about marine biology while you are enjoying the show.
Up next was the Killer Whales: Up Close show, which is going away in its current form at the end of this year. This made me sad, as seeing Shamu and the other whales has always been a highlight of every Sea World visit since I was a child. I watched the show, hearing about the animal rescue that Sea World leads. All four of my kids have been visiting Sea World since they were small as well, and we credit the park with giving them a good foundation of interest in sea life. This type of education just doesn’t happen anywhere. The new shows are going to educate as well, but just with a different type of whale focus.
Did you know Sea World San Diego alone has had over 420 rescues this year? You can read more about their rescue program here.
We chose not to sit in splash zone for the whale show — we were getting dried off and our special interaction was scheduled for 1pm. LD still had no idea. We watched him laughing and smiling and he was sad to see the orca show over, but up next was Sea Lions LIVE. LIVE is staged as though you’re at a live television show, but with Clyde and Seymour the Sea Lions as the main stars. Hosting along with them are several Sea World animal experts, one named Biff, who had us laughing during pre-show as he performed dances along with Seymour’s DVD collection. Those animals are so smart and this is a must-see show!
1pm came quickly. Personally, I was watching the clock the whole time. I knew I was going to get tear-y. We met J, the publicist who was taking us behind-the-scenes to the walrus team, over at Wild Arctic. LD still was unaware of what was about to occur, and the look on his face when he learned he was being taken to see and touch the walruses was something we will never forget.
Teenagers can be funny. They won’t always smile on command and sometimes don’t stop talking. When the team asked him what his favorite animal was and they told him he was about to meet them up close, his jaw dropped. He stopped talking. He smiled. BIG. He followed along, and I don’t think he realized yet exactly how close he was going to get. When they explained that he was going to touch the walruses, give them commands and feed them, he turned around in almost disbelief. What a moment!
Two walruses were led in to the elephant cage area; by elephant cage, it’s a similar set up where the trainers can get in and out but the walruses are unable to escape. The cages are big and interconnected. We weren’t able to take photos in the walrus area, in order to not frighten or startle the animals but we forever will remember it. Mitik and Chouchou were led out separately while the team explained the extraordinary stories of their rescues and ultimate arrivals at Sea World San Diego. The dedication of the team to fly wherever necessary to begin the process and care for the animals is evident in every step. The love for the animals is on their faces throughout it all.
We soon found out how easy it is to love the animals, too. Put out your fist gently in front of their faces and they’ll give you a kiss. Hold out a fish and they suck it in like a vacuum. Tell them to relax and they flop down on their tummies, and say ‘tuck’ and in go the arms! Mitik did push-ups for us and LD danced with him. And what a dance! Arms at his sides, hands parallel to the ground and one leg up at a time, much like you’ve seen Dick Van Dyke do in Mary Poppins for the penguin dance. He and the walrus, dancing together.
Oh, sniff….what a moment.
He went back and forth between both walruses, asking questions. We learned that Mitik, as big as he is now at 1200 pounds, is only about 1/3 of full-growth weight. He wears “walrus braces” to help protect his tusks, which can grow up to about 1.5 feet long. The husband and I were able to join in. Kissed by walruses! Their whiskers are actually made up of the same thing as our fingernails, yet they aren’t hard or rough. The animals are clearly intelligent and happy. I could have watched them play forever, yet they have schedules to keep. Once they went back in their regular enclosures, we took some photos through the glass with our new friends.
Turn around and smile for the camera, son. Mom, Chouchou is right here!
Then we got one more treat: an invitation to go hang out with the beluga whales!
This was a surprise, and we were all a little giggly. How often will we get to sit alongside a pool full of beluga whales? These sweet-looking creatures are deceptively gentle and playful. Each of the five in the pool was a distinct personality. The oldest was 46 years old, Ferdinand, and he would cruise by now and then, checking us out from a distance. He came up for the trainer and let her pet him, peeked at us and happily went back under water. One of the babies of the bunch, a six-year-old girl named Atla, was having extra fun with the newbies around the pool. She would peek up and down, let us pet her, give kisses and then swim away fast. You could almost see her laughing.
All of the belugas were a blast to watch, but Atla has a special place in my heart. LD was able to pet her and see whale teeth up close, his face full of awe. As we went to leave the pool, Atla flopped back in the water and seemed to intentionally splash us — what a way to end a remarkable experience!
LD even got a lesson on animal training. We could see his wheels turning as he was asking questions, and as we walked away, still amazed and on cloud nine, he said he was seriously reconsidering career options. Marine biology is back up there on the top!
After our behind-the-scenes interactions, we wandered up front, met our daughter (who had gotten stuck in traffic on her way down from the Inland Empire) and headed over for lunch, also courtesy of Sea World. Calypso Bay Smokehouse has a huge array of barbecued meats, salads and desserts, which we ate in the shade while Little Dude talked non-stop about the walruses and whales and all that he had learned.
“I got kissed by a walrus!”
The rest of the day was full of other fun, though seeing the walruses and belugas were the cherries on top. We rode Manta, the fun coaster over water and then Atlantis, a water drop kind of ride that surprises you with a second drop, just when you think you’re done. Then we took rides on the Bayside Skyride over the bay.
We took a ride on Shipwreck Rapids, where we got wet and laughed while spinning down the rapids. Then, we headed back to the Wild Arctic to see the belugas and walruses a little longer. We also found the polar bears were out lounging. What amazing creatures they are, too!
By the end of the day, we’d ridden everything except for the Sky Tower (Little Dude wasn’t a fan, and I’m okay with that) and saw every exhibit available. The shark tunnel is something you have got to experience yourself, and Pacific Point will have you throwing your money to buy food for the sea lions. Just watch out for the birds! They swoop in so fast and grab your fish container in the blink of an eye, trust me.
Sea World’s got so much to see and do, you’ll need a whole day to fit in the shows and exhibits. Food options are everywhere, and there are also packages you can buy that are basically all-you-can-eat within certain categories. Front of the Line Passes available for purchase (at Guest Services to the left of the front gate before you go in) and there is a pass that guarantees seating for shows; you can also get a combo of the two. Prices vary depending on season. Souvenir shopping is available throughout the park, along with touch tanks and Pokemon Go signs for those who want to avail themselves of the many lures around.
Throughout the year, Sea World offers holiday and seasonal shows and dining options, like Dining with Shamu or Santa. They have a Halloween event coming up that I may just drive down to! If you have accessibility issues or require special needs help, Guest Services is available for you.
Sea World San Diego, thank you again for the incredible day. Our son has memories of a lifetime due to your extreme generosity. Your interest in helping our son to realize his dream goes above and beyond what words can say. His obsession with walruses is no longer from a distance; now LD can say he’s met walruses and hung out with them far closer than he ever thought possible. We’ve always been fans of Sea World and this day just solidified it even further. Sea World has made my son’s dream come true.
(For further information on autism, please check out my post here. It’s just a drop in the bucket towards awareness.)
And my apologies if I spelled any animal’s name wrong! I didn’t realize until later I didn’t verify them, rookie mistake…