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 Sometimes it seems to come effortlessly, while at others you may feel your child has literally been replaced by an other-worldly being who has, apparently, never, no never, been told certain rules, understood explained consequences, and hasn’t ever been allowed to get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.

Sharks, Sea Dragons and our Pup at SeaWorld

As SeaWorld super fans, we were fortunate enough to have received the coolest costume from a friend… a shark. Our then 9-month-old looked adorable as we carried him through the theme park. (What? Were you expecting me to say we just had him wear it on Halloween?!)

First we went through the aquarium at Shark Encounter. Our little ferocious beastie pointed at all the creatures in the outer aquarium, and sat on the wall to gaze at the barracudas, daddy protectively holding him in his high vantage point. “See me? I’m a shark!” he seemed to tell the barracudas. “I scare YOU.”

Next we checked out the leafy sea dragons. It’s hard to believe they are alive, the blend in so well with the seaweed around them. Their camouflage is quite effective as they float through the water. My little guy wasn’t really that interested in them, they blended in so well. Eyes widened, however, as we entered the 60-foot glass tunnel. Directly overhead a huge shark swam. One tiny boy’s neck craned up. “OK. Now it’s your turn to scare me!” I’m pretty sure I heard him think.


Shhh. I'm hiding.

At the gift shop across the way it was our son’s turn to exhibit camouflage. Yes, we looked like dorks putting our child in a box of stuffed animals, but by gosh he was the cutest shark pup there! It kind of reminded me of that scene in E.T: The Extra Terrestrial when the alien blended in among the toys. That’s our little guy! The creature amidst the chondrichthyes.

SeaWorld’s Spooktacular is coming up. I’m sad we don’t have another shark costume for him to wear now that he’s a toddler. Maybe he’ll be some other sea creature this year. Maybe he’ll be a Longshoreman! Whatever costume we come up with, he’ll have fun collecting goodies and sweets. He’ll walk through the walls of bubbles and marvel at the seaweed-costumed characters on roller skates as they whiz past us. Hummmm. Maybe they’re actually leafy sea dragons. I wonder….

Peek-a-Boo with the Dolphins at SeaWorld

My toddler loves to play “peek-a-boo.” For humans, the game teaches object permanence. Just because Mommy is hidden by her hands, she’s still there behind them. It makes me wonder if that’s what the dolphins are doing in the Dolphin Nursery at SeaWorld.

As a frequent visitor to the park, I make it a habit to drop in on the bottlenose babies. Which ones are still nursing? Who’s growing up fastest? How tired is that mother of her child? Whenever I visit I usually go to the same spot on the wall… then wait. It may sound absurd, but I swear some of them recognize me. I’ve found that a lot of the time two particular dolphins would make their way to my spot by the wall and begin bobbing up and down out of the water.

The behavior is called “spyhopping” and scientists believe it is done for obvious reasons… to view the world above the water (after all, echolocation is not useful in air). They seem, though, to be interested enough in the motions to continue as I “play” back. One bobs down and up. I crouch down below the wall and up. Dolphin. Human. Dolphin. Human. One day we took turns for at least 4 minutes. Back and forth. I see you. I see you!

I may be anthropomorphising by thinking they enjoy our little game of peek-a-boo. Maybe they just want to see if that lady is still there. Maybe I look like a trainer or, more likely, someone with food. I think that what I spy with my little eye is a beautiful creature who, whether or not she intends, allows me to feel connected with the sea and with the world in a soul-inspiring way.

Dolphin Bubble Rings at SeaWorld

Walking around the Dolphin Cove at SeaWorld I’m constantly amused at the cute Cetaceas. They swim, jump, and playfully receive the fish visitors line up to feed them. Around the back side of the exhibit, though, is my favorite place to watch these magnificent sea animals… the Underwater Viewing Room.

It’s almost like entering a different world. The air is cool and peaceful music soothes your senses as you walk into the horseshoe-shaped area. Huge, curved walls of Plexiglas give unbroken views into the dolphin’s play pond. And play they do.

“Whoa!,” someone shouts, as a pod darts by swimming faster than you’d think possible. My little guy stares, grinning and wide-eyed as they zig and zag past him. One dolphin positions itself vertically to scratch a hard-to-reach spot on its rostrum (the protruding snout) by bobbing up and down, up and down. Every time you visit it’s exciting to see what curious things they’ll do next.

Very fortunate visitors can witness the ultimate playtime: dolphins creating, and playing with, bubble rings. If you’ve ever seen video footage of cars or aircraft being tested for aerodynamics with smoke showing the vortices swirling around areas of resistance and pressure change, then you’re at least familiar with the Bernoulli effect. Dolphins can generate a water vortex that works on the same principle. It’s a “tornado,” if you will, created by the flicking of their fin. They are able to manipulate the cylinder of water to curl in on itself making a ring. Next they blow air from their blowhole to fill the vortex with air. It’s a “hollow core doughnut” with a water vortex “dough” outside and an air ring (imagine a clear bracelet) nested inside the core.

As kids we used to throw plastic rings onto pegs for points. The dolphins use their snouts as the pegs and skewer the bubble rings they’ve made. Sometimes they toss them around a bit first like a soccer player showing off fancy footwork, only they’ve got a “quick snout” instead of quick feet!

It’s breathtaking to watch the rings appear as if by magic. Silvery heads swim through the rings or chase them like balls. “Whoa,” we hear again as the ring is shattered, tiny bubbles rising to the pool’s surface above us. You hear that a lot when you’re viewing their world, visitors peeking in on all the fun.

Stingray Splash at SeaWorld

Even though I’m a Florida native, I’ve only visited the “real” Key West once. Key West at Sea World? Oh gosh! Too many to count. It’s one of the key (Get it? KEY?) stops for our family because of the Stingray Lagoon.

Walking up to the 40,000-gallon habitat you may think a roller coaster is nearby. Actually the occasional little-girl like screams are from grown men and women getting their first splash from one of the inhabitants or perhaps an unexpected brush from a fin. (And, OK, sometimes the screams really are from little girls and boys, too!) They need not be frightened, though. These gentle creatures are just looking for a hand-out… literally.

“Say, that hand may have a delicious fish, squid, or other treat for me. Yum! Please, human, put my seafood where I can see it… between your fingers, longest piece up, and then lay your hand flat on the bottom. I’ll swim by and suck it right up! And I don’t bite.” Or perhaps he or she wonders if the hand will offer a nice fin rub. (Just don’t grab their tail. You wouldn’t want someone grabbing yours!)

Since my son was old enough to stand he’s loved dipping his tiny hand over into the cool water. And bonus! The water is teeming with splash-inducing slimy things, just perfect for a snips-and-snails kind of little boy who wouldn’t mind in the least getting soaking wet in the process!

Being the photo-obsessed mother I am, I often camp out anywhere except right next to whichever family member or loved one is holding Daniel. Sometimes I go directly across the lagoon, or occasionally I take up a position catty-corner to where they’re leaning over the low wall. Getting a bit farther away from the action helps get that perfect shot. I’m smiling at the memory of a couple of those photos. One shows a chubby 18-month-old face… eyes closed, face wet, grin as wide as his fat little cheeks will allow as a single black fin can be seen poking out of the water with JAWS-like determination. In another my “full-blown” toddler bravely thrusts his hand into the swirl of velvety ray bodies as they jockey for position in hopes that this little hand will give a back rub. Or some food. His face beams with “big boy” pride. “Those guys are so silly, Mommy! Did you see them splash me?”

We easily spend an hour or more in Key West, Sea World nearly every visit. Yes, it’s a perpetual splash zone, and yes we spend a lot of time at the nearby clean-up sinks (only to walk away still half-baptized by our slimy sea friends). The joy of connecting with marine life in such a personal and meaningful way, however, far outweighs the minor inconvenience of a soggy son. He’s soaking up not only water, but knowledge… about his world, and his place in it. Experience with caring for and loving our fellow Earth-inhabitants is key to helping young minds develop the habit of conservation and kindness. And to think, I have some of those fun, teachable moments on film.