Cotton-Top Tamarins at Animal Connections at SEAGarden, SeaWorld

Meet the cotton-top tamarin. This adorable monkey is one of the amazing animals we met recently at “Animal Connection at SEAGarden” at SeaWorld.

Located in the park in the area in front of what used to be the Clydesdale barn, the SEAGarden has a couple of gazebos where guests can have an up-close-and-personal look at a variety of animals in scheduled “interactions.” Right next door is the Terrace Garden Buffet, too. (An all-you-can-eat pizza/pasta restaurant.)

On the critically endangered species list, the less-than-a-pound Tamarin is a spunky, friendly and (I found this especially interesting) is usually born as a twin like other callitrichids (small primates).

Check out the Cotton-top at SEAGarden next time you’re at SeaWorld. And be sure to support the SeaWorld and Busch Gardens Conservation Fund. This organization is instrumental in helping animals like the Tamarin around the globe.

Read more about their work and how you can help at: http://swbg-conservationfund.org/

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Hubbs-SeaWorld Research and Many Others Play Role in Winter’s Initial Rescue ¦ Dolphin Tale Article One

Four-year-old Daniel doesn’t quite know what to make of the dolphin
who is missing her tail fluke, but he’s eager to learn!

Winter the Dolphin is in the news quite a bit lately, with her movie debut scheduled for later this month. (Click here to go to the website.) Those of us who’ve read about her for years and have followed her amazing journey from rescued animal to global source of inspiration are not surprised one bit that Hollywood called. How can one NOT be inspired of her story of survival and adaptation despite staggering odds to the contrary?

Caught in a crab trap to the point where her body was bent into a horseshoe, the few-month-old baby Atlantic bottlenose dolphin’s body flailed in the water attracting Mosquito Lagoon fisherman Jim Savage in December, 2005. His call to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission put in motion an army of biologists, and other rescuers, who would work tirelessly for hours in an attempt to save the small dolphin’s life.

Although through movie magic Winter’s rescue seems rather quick it did, in fact, take many hours of a unusually cold Florida day, and into the night.

A research assistant at Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute, Teresa Mazza, was one of the first to respond to the cetacean stranding. When she got there just before 10 a.m., Winter was floating on the surface in the middle of the waterway. Together with the fisherman who found and disentangled her, Teresa and Claire Surrey, a manatee rescue expert from Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, gently guided her towards a sandbar. The women then took turns holding the dolphin in the frigid water across their laps, monitoring her vital signs, and doing their best to keep the frightened calf calm until about 4:30 when scientists from Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce arrived and the transportation team got there to take her to her new home.

It was just before sunset when Winter was loaded into the SeaWorld rescue vehicle for her 165-mile-long long journey across the state to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. The Animal Care team gladly accepted the “hand off” and each member crossed fingers and toes in hopes that the struggles of the day were not too much for the exhausted dolphin to bear. They worried, too, if her tail would ever heal from the injuries inflicted.

After hours on the road, more biologists, veterinarians, trainers, and volunteers met the SeaWorld Animal Care team and their very precious cargo. Though badly injured, the dolphin’s spirit showed the staff that they should, indeed, hold out hopes that she could survive.

And survive she did! Winter, named for the winter day she was rescued, is now the goodwill ambassador for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium whose team works day in and day out in her continuing recovery.

Despite workers’ best efforts, Winter did lose her tail. It wasn’t “movie magic” that helped her swim again… but some talented, caring prosthetic experts. But that is another dolphin tale to come!

Get the Sensation at One Ocean at SeaWorld Orlando

SeaWorld’s new killer whale show was unveiled recently with a splash! (Understatement of the year!) Crowds, as you can imagine for opening day, were heavy, but we managed to get a seat. (We joking referred to ourselves as “ceiling fans,” we were SO far up in the stadium.) In our subsequent visits we’ve made it a point to arrive 30 to 40 minutes early to get the up-close-and-personal seats. Why? Well, first because it’ breathtaking being close to the whales, and second because you “get the sensation.”

Young children are naturally curious. Talking about events like this by discussing the senses is a super introduction to not only science, but language arts. And they learning to be good observers and communicators, all while recounting a fun, FUN show.

We started with the five “primary” (or most-known) senses.

What did we hear? Uplifting and up-tempo music, of course, but we also heard the sound of water splashing as the whales jumped out of the water, then BOOM landed again. We heard the crowd giggling and screaming when they were hit with the splashes and the water crashing on the stadium seats.

What did we see? Majestic, huge!, shiny black-and-white beauties, caring trainers, TONS of water, huge screens that moved, lots and lots of people having the time of their lives. We pointed out some of the whale’s anatomy: rostrum, fluke, blow hole, dorsal fin and eyespot. And look, up in the sky… it’s a bird. But he’s not part of the show! It’s just a white feathered friend trying to sneak a snack.

How about feeling? Did we feel anything… unusual? Well, when we sat up in the upper balcony we felt the smoothness of the seat underneath us and the gritty concrete of the stadium walls. Normal stuff. On subsequent visits (when we sat in the Zone), however, we also felt wet… REALLY wet as we felt the splash from the pool!

One Ocean

Get the Sensation of Being SPLASHED

We smelled snacks, and the faint smell of fish when the wind caught it “just so,” but didn’t taste anything until the show was over and we re-filled our popcorn bucket (you certainly don’t want a full bucket getting soggy in the show, now do you?).

There are more than five senses. It’s actually closer to 20. One of the many “lesser-known” senses we described is thermoception which, to my young child, we called hot/cold. One minute we were “enjoying” (ahem) the Florida heat and then WHAM! a wall of extremely cold water made our skin shiver as goose bumps appeared.

Our balance helped us maneuver up and down the steps and kept us from toppling off our seats when we were hit with “the wave.” We could tell time was passing as we waited for the show to begin and were impatient for it to start. (And, curiously, time seemed to go quicker during all the fun!)

Describing what we sensed not only helped fix the memories in our minds, but helped my son use his exploding language skills.

One Ocean was fun. It was thrilling. It was (dare I say it?!) SENSEational! And it was, yet again, an educational experience for the whole family, cleverly disguised as a whale of a day.

On Their Own, Now… SeaWorld Releases Their 1000th Rescued Sea Turtle

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The other day my son fell asleep on my chest. This usually high-test, fast motion, ALL boy 4-year-old for a few, brief moments let me hold him and nurture him “up close and personal.” After a stretch here, a yawn … Continue reading

Training and Parenting Have Quite A Lot in Common!

I’ve watched the various whale and dolphin shows at SeaWorld more times than I can count. One of the things I find most intriguing is the outpouring of love they show the animals and the seemingly endless supply of patience they exhibit… even when the animals have no intention of performing on cue. As an audience member, I can tell the hope is that Shamu will swim “that” way. But once in a while he just doesn’t feel like it. I watch the ballet of trainers moving around the stage… encouraging… hoping…. But no. Not now. And you know what? They just go to the next thing. It’s what I aspire to as a parent.

Parenting takes a lot of hard work. (Insert pause where you say, “Well, no duh!”) Sometimes it seems to come effortlessly, while at others you may feel your child has literally been replaced by an other-worldly being who has, apparently, never, no never, been told certain rules, understood explained consequences, and hasn’t ever been allowed to get his/her way. What seems, to you the parent, like a simple request that will ensure a quicker chore completion so you can all get on to the fun is, to your darling, sweet-faced child, tantamount to a request to scrub the floor with a toothbrush. Wouldn’t it be great if there were ways to reinforce those positive behaviors we want from our children while having the ability to overlook ones that aren’t so great?

Enter Operant Conditioning.

The trainers at SeaWorld use operant conditioning to encourage the animals to perform certain behaviors. Basically they positively reinforce particular activities so much that the animals do them more often because good stuff happens when they do. (When you go to work and receive a paycheck, you are conditioned. You do the work, you get the reward.) Trainers also seem to ignore behaviors that are unwanted. No one gets mad. No one goes to time out. Hummmmm.

I enrolled in a free two-week training event at a website called “Positive Parenting Solutions.” Apparently the Alderian psychology they espouse is quite similar to operant  conditioning. It seems people (and animals) coexist better, and with fewer bad behaviors when love is freely given, faults are overlooked, and relationship-building actions are rewarded. Wow. What a concept. (Imagine the look of irony on my face, OK?)

I don’t purport to be an expert trainer, and heaven knows I’m a parent in training. (Um, universe, if you could throw me a “good girl” fish right now that would be swell.) I can say, though, that I have literal goosebumps watching the whales and dolphins majestically  leap through the air or twirl through the water. And yes, I have had tears in my eyes seeing the overwhelmingly apparent mutual affection the trainers have with those in their care.

My child does not (poor thing) have a team of people who spent years in training to learn how to care for him. It’s just me and his dad. And we’re learning as we go.  We don’t always respond with patience. And we have, from time to time, focused on the negative. Oh, and all right, I admit it!, we’ve been inconsistent when consistency is what he needs most. Sigh.

It is my hope more than anything that my child grow up to feel secure and loved… so much so that his behaviors exude both confidence and compassion although I won’t expect him to swirl through the water like a graceful dolphin and pose on the mark. OK, I might want him to smile for the camera if Grandma is taking a picture.

What! No judging! I’m still her child and certain behaviors are reinforced….

A Winter Wonderland at SeaWorld

I think a lot of people get depressed right after the holidays. No more presents to open. No more lights twinkling all around. No cheery holiday songs to mangle. (My favorites are a friend’s daughter, Rachel, singing “Giddy up jingle horse, look at your feet” and my son’s classic misunderstanding of a certain snowman’s anthem. He kept asking what kind of cakes he bakes. We were confused until we realized he thought the words were “Frosting the Snowman!”) Thankfully, SeaWorld keeps the holidays going just a little bit longer… until January 2 at least.

I’m pretty sure we’ve enjoyed the festivities at least 10 times this year, with another one or two on the horizon. Can you blame us?

A few weeks ago we sat front and center for the Winter Wonderland on Ice show. Before the skaters dazzled us with their fancy footwork, a quartet of Polar Express engineers serenaded us barber-shop style with all the favorites. You should have seen my son’s eyes get big and his mouth drop as they crooned away. You’re never too young for music appreciation, and my 3-year-old is certainly a fan! His eyes went from singer to singer. “It sounds just like a radio!”

Skates then sliced through the ice when a troupe of dancers performed effortlessly on the stage at Bayside Stadium. Parka-clad beauties in ice-blue dresses “shooshed” and swayed with their all-in-white partners appropriately to “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” followed by a high-energy solo for “Frosty the Snowman.” We especially enjoyed the graceful and elegant “Christmas Waltz” (just picture the flowing white gowns billowing in the breeze as the skaters glide past you!).  We then got jazzed up by a really top-notch soloist performing to “Cool Yule,” one of my favorite holiday songs. Big band Christmas music just does it for me and the skater nailed it! My son’s favorite number, though, was “Hot Chocolate!” And yes, we enjoyed the drink at the same time we were listening to the song! Dancing penguins?! Skating chefs with huge whisks?! AND singing about his favorite beverage. Well, as you can imagine… it was fabulous!Skaters performing to "Hot Chocolate" at SeaWorld's Winter Wonderland on Ice

Hot chocolate, the drink!, has been a fun treat this year. All through the Christmas Market, and throughout the park, there are drink stations! We purchased the insulated mugs that allow you to get inexpensive refills. I have at least a pound or two of holiday weight gain thanks to these little babies, but OH has it been fun! (My favorite photos are of my little guy with a chocolate mustache curled up his cheeks while he hugs Santa Shamu!)

Warm insides, chilly (chilly!) temperatures outside have made for a wintery wonderland this year. Sigh. It’ll be over in a few days. OK, now I’m getting depressed. Better go make some cocoa…

Firefly Moments at SeaWorld

Little boys are more like fireflies than kittens… lightening in a bottle, elusive to catch, a joy to behold, and radiating with a glow from within. Kittens are also a blur of motion, and tough to pin down, but sometimes, just sometimes they slow down enough to be held. I had that joy the other morning when my usually wiggly 3 1/2-year-old snuggled up with me in my bed and let me rub down his back, his arm draped over my neck.

Moments of pure unadulterated warmth and joy are ones to cherish. I’ve been thinking about special times like that a lot lately with the holidays fast approaching. We’ve had many of our special memories of the season at SeaWorld.

I think we’ve either spent Christmas day, or the day before or after, at SeaWorld my son’s entire life. (Not to mention at least two or three times during the month of December!) The crowds are not bad, and everyone is in a good mood. Holiday sounds and music echo through the air. And most importantly, I have beside me the most amazing little boy, holding my hand, curling up next to me as we watch the dolphins from the underwater viewing area, or giggling like mad at the cold, cold riders of Journey to Atlantis as they get soaking wet from the splash at the end. It’s especially magical to romp through the Polar Express.

At my son’s age trains, as you can imagine, are of paramount importance. (A certain little blue cheeky engine and his friends take center stage, um, I mean floor, at our house.) Christmas trains, however, hold a special fascination. Unlike the warm climate our mild winter offers trains and their passengers, the winter wonderland of the Polar Express Experience allows that train to chug chug through ice and snow in a place so cold you need hot chocolate to warm your insides. I smile watching my son’s chubby red cheeks try to grin and drink at the same time, his jacket now dribbled and dotted with cocoa.

Of course the train isn’t real, and you can’t actually ride on it except through either the visual and physical sensations of the simulator ride (this is, mind you, my son’s only complaint about SeaWorld: no “real” train), or by watching the movie in the non-motion version. It is, nonetheless, a place to imagine Chris Van Allsburg’s vision… followed by a chance to meet Santa Clause, adorned in the glorious costume depicted in the Caldecott  Award-winning book and Oscar-nominated film.

I look forward to the new wonders SeaWorld’s dreamed up this year. The Sea of Trees, 74 in all, will be lighted within and without, synchronized waters arcing over and through them as the seas around them come alive as they “dance” to the holiday music.

There will be an ice skating show, which I’m anxious to see, and fireworks to cap off the evening. My little guy will be, no doubt, snuggled up on my lap as we watch. I’ll rub his back and as he drapes his little arms around me and his dad. We’ll drink in the magic and enjoy every blessed minute. I’ll bet the sparkles and flashes above our heads look like fireflies in the sky….

Not Spooky at All: SeaWorld’s Spooktacular

Halloween is, for some, a time to get scared, to play “tricks,” and to dwell on the… shall we say… creepy things of this world… and things other-worldy. (Insert Vincent Price maniacal laugh here.) For me it’s none of those things. It’s about playing dress up, making new friends as you “forage” for candy and other tasty treats, and having an excuse to be just plain silly.

Last year my then 2-year-old really enjoyed Halloween Spooktacular at SeaWorld. He wore a pumpkin T-shirt since it was a bit hot for his “real” costume, but there were kids fully decked out as well as wearing street clothes. All were welcomed and treated as if they were the most adorable child there.  (In case you were wondering, his “real” costume was Smarticus the gladiator. His mom (yours truly) was “Mother of Boy” instead of Helen of Troy. Dad was… wait for it… Dadius Gladius–pronounced: Dad he is, glad he is. Yes, we’re that nerdy. And yes, he was adorable!)

Walking down the entrance to the “Spooktaclar walkway” (as we call it), we were greeted by bubbles, bubbles, and more bubbles. For a toddler, this is one spectacular way to be welcomed to the festivities! Whoa. A fish on roller skates just whizzed by us. Or was that sea weed? And a butterfly catcher?!

Down a ways we came to the first candy stop. Big inflatable barrels shaped in an anemone-type shape are practically overflowing with tiny, tasty treats. Mister Shy-when-he-wants-to-be is hesitant to go up at first. “Hey there, little guy,” the SeaWorld worker says. Smiles are exchanged, and my young man is loosening up. He gets a bit more comfortable as he continues on and even gets “brave” enough to have his picture with a beautiful mermaid. (Usually mommy is the only girl lucky enough for this.) Fully acclimated to the sights and sounds, we were off to fill our goody bags. (Yes, parents are allowed to sample, too. Score!)

On the way to Abby Cadabby’s maze we pass by dog fish. And catfish. And other assorted creatures of the deep (and some from someone’s fabulous imagination!). Photo opportunities abound, and I took them up on every one!

Older kids were not as impressed with the maze as my toddler was, but for his age-group it was perfect. At different way points, Abby’s friends posted signs about which way to go. Parents read aloud and kids answered silly/cute questions. Eventually they reached the finish line and they all, including mine, seemed pleased with themselves.

Along the shore you can find the hysterical Longshoremen at SeaWorld

One of the highlights, however, was watching the Longshoremen perform their pumpkin routine. You won’t find their schedule posted on the daily map (rats!), but you can find them “along the shore” most afternoons making people laugh. I think we sat down for their show every weekend of the event. FYI: “pumpkin guts” can be made using rope, shaving cream, and a tiny bit of orange tempera paint. Who knew?

Next stop: Shamu’s Happy Harbor where Penny Penguin, Opie Otter, and other strolling characters show us their costumes. Shamu (the character version!) can also be seen donning a fanciful getup. (Say, I wonder what he’ll be for Halloween this year!) After a few photos, and rides!, we made our way to the Pets Ahoy theater.

Seasonally, the fun is changed for a couple of shows a day and the Sesame Street gang, not the pets, are the stars. The Count takes over for the “Countdown to Halloween” and delighted fans sing along. OK. Their parents sing along, too.

While no frightening laugh track is piped in over loudspeakers and the only things jumping out at you are the dolphins and whales out of the water, SeaWorld’s Halloween Spooktacular is our kind of fall festival. Good, clean fun. Adorable children. Smiles. And pop! More bubbles.

SeaWorld Birthday Party and Cake

There’s so much to celebrate at SeaWorld… conservation, beauty, marine life, family. We enjoy it so much that when my son suggested a SeaWorld theme for his birthday party we were all for it! And the icing on the cake was, well, the cake!

I started out by baking two half sheet cakes in one flavor, and three 8-inch rounds in another (so chocolate lovers could have their favorite, and non-chocoholics were good to go, too). Not sure how a person does not like chocolate, but who’s to say?!

I made a strawberry filling for the yellow cake filling and a chocolate ganash for in between the chocolate layers.

The fondant was store-bought and I added blue food coloring until I got the just-right ocean-y feel! Meanwhile, a friend of mine helped by whipping up a batch of buttercream frosting. (Thanks MW for everything!) We had two bowls: one was for the blue color, and one was for white.

I rolled it out and covered the 8″ rounds that were now filled and stacked. Once the two large rectangles were similarly filled and layered, I covered that part of the cake with the blue buttercream icing. Then I placed the fondant-clad round off to one side, touching both a long and short side of the base cake.

The sides of both the round and base cakes were given a fresh garnish of additional white icing, just piped on really thick at the base. Then I put a fork into the blue gel food coloring I’d used to color the fondant. I pressed it into the white and made a wave-type of motion and… voila! The dark blue mixed with the white to create a pretty realistic wave, if I do say so myself.

Since I’m not a professional cake maker, I couldn’t sculpt the whale, penguin, and dolphin out of sugar or gumpaste or chocolate or any other edible product for that matter, I simply used three of my son’s “Little People” characters and made waves around them.

What was awesome and edible were the sharks, “baby” penguins, fish and rocks that completed the look. (Thanks again MW!) Purchased at a candy store, these little jimmies added dimension and were absolutely delicious. (I could eat a bag of the chocolate rocks right now!)

After pushing the gummy sharks into the sides of the “wave area,” covering the “ocean floor” with rocks, and placing the bright-colored fish into the “foam” of the water, all that was left was to write happy birthday. I used some more of the fondant and cut the letters with plastic alphabet shape cutters.

We had a “baby pool” filled with stuffed dolphins and whales. We even created a “Penguin Encounter” (as per my toddler) where all his penguins and puffins could line up and the people at the party had to walk by “real slow” so they could pretend they were on the conveyor belt.

“Daniel is Three. Celebrate with the Sea,” stated our invitation. Everyone had a “whale of a day” and ate lots sea-themed foods and ocean-blue punch. We then had our cake and ate it, too.

Penguins Just Dive On In at SeaWorld

Escalators, elevators, moving sidewalks… they all hold fascination for little kids. But a moving sidewalk with a live penguin show…. Now that’s entertainment!

My toddler son enjoyed his first visit to the Penguin Encounter at SeaWorld when he was 3 months old. Now, 3 years later he’s obsessed with the little black-and-whites. The rockhopper, he’ll inform you, has funny orange “hair” at the sides of his head and he hop, hop, hops from rock to rock. The gentoo has a gentle touch of white by her eyes. And the Adélie (emphasis on the eeeeeeeeee when we say it!) has a long white belly–again with the long E sound. (We’re big on mnemonics in our house: You hit, you sit… in time out. You throw, it will go–the toy–to time out. You get the idea!)

In addition to learning about the cold-climate penguins, we’ve also come to know a new little South American friend… the Magellanic penguin. On our behind-the-scenes tour we met the little fellow face to face. While the grown-ups bent down to stroke its back, our toddler stood eye to eye. Carefully he lifted his two-inch hand, trying hard to put his fingers together as instructed. (Since my son’s still working on fine motor coordination, the trainer/caregiver was allowed him to use his full hand to gently stroke the penguin’s feathers.)

From the time his size 10 1/2 feet step on to the “mover” (as he calls it), he’s looking up at his snowbound friends (although once in a while he’s checking out his reflection in the glass!). Sometimes I think his neck will get whiplash watching a penguin as it swims by at surprising speeds. At others I think he’ll go horse telling one of the kings to “jump, jump, JUMP” in the water before he gets to the end of the exhibit viewing area.

Ready or not, here he comes again… off the moving sidewalk, around the back (at the non-rider viewing area), poised at the beginning again… for another trip to see his feathered friends.