Today we’ll explore a couple of SeaWorld Orlando’s remarkable behind-the-scenes tours: the Beluga Interaction Program and the Wild Arctic Tour. These are two of the many tours SeaWorld offers which include animal interactions.
It’s pretty obvious that meeting beluga whales, seals, and walruses up-close in the wild is nearly impossible, especially since they mostly live the north of the Arctic Circle. Even getting to their habitat is a remarkable journey.
SeaWorld Orlando’s Wild Arctic attraction will be celebrating its twentieth anniversary in 2015, but it remains an interesting and popular venue. It offers an exciting flight-simulator helicopter ride to the Arctic that drops guests off at Station Wild Arctic, designed to appear like a 19th century wooden sailing ship that was stranded and crushed by sea ice. Inside the ruins of the ship are places to view belugas and walruses both above and below the water line.
The two tours take place in Wild Arctic, and both are excellent for children, adults and families. Both are very different in nature, however.
The Beluga Interaction Program is about as immersive as you can get when it comes to a theme park tour. Often mistakenly called dolphins, belugas are from a different family in the sub order of toothed whales. They share their family with narwhals, another remarkable Arctic species.
As can be inferred by the name Beluga Interaction Program, the main part of this tour is the twenty minutes participants spend with a trainer and one or more belugas. SeaWorld Orlando currently has four of the magnificent animals, two females (Whisper and Maple) and two males (Nanuq and Aurek). Each has its own distinct personality and habits and during the interaction the participants witness that. The water they inhabit is cold, at least by Florida standards, so each participant is required to wear a wetsuit, provided by SeaWorld. There are two parts of the interaction, one where participants stand and kneel at the water’s edge and one where the participants sit in about six inches of water with their legs dangling over a ledge.
The trainers communicate with the belugas using hand signals and have them interact directly with the guests. There are multiple opportunities to touch and multiple opportunities to get splashed by whales that range in size from 1,500 to 3,500 lb (700 to 1,600 kg). The interaction takes place in the main public viewing area in Wild Arctic, so guests get to watch while the participants enjoy their experience. Frequently family members of the participants watch along with other park guests.
The Wild Arctic Tour is more of a sampler experience. While SeaWorld can’t promise which animals you’ll see on the tour, you’re likely to see and interact with belugas, walruses, and seals. Each Wild Arctic Tour is limited to 12 guests and lasts one hour. During that time, guests stand right next to highly trained and skilled animal trainers in the areas of the Wild Arctic not open to guests.
A knowledgeable tour leader guides participants between the animal habitats. The trainers will show guests in some detail how they teach and reinforce useful skills known as husbandry behaviors: things which the animals can do to help with their own healthcare, such as lie still to be examined, turn their head to accept eye drops or offer a flipper for a voluntary blood draw.
Meeting the beluga whales provides a pool-side view next to a trainer and a family interaction with one of SeaWorld’s friendly canaries of the sea. Guests get to help the trainers go through a training session similar to the one in the Beluga Interaction Program.
Most guests also come face to face with one of SeaWorld’s most remarkable animals – the Pacific walrus. There are two walruses in Wild Arctic, Garfield, a 31 year-old male who as rescued as an infant and Kaboodle, an 11 year-old female. One of the walrus trainers describes walruses as the most intelligent animals at SeaWorld. There are many interesting facts that participants learn about these huge animals: tusks, whiskers (vibrissae), vocalizations and more. While the trainers are teaching the guests about walruses, Garfield or Kaboodle sit eight feet away showing how smart they are and happily slurping up fresh fish. By the way, Kaboodle was born at SeaWorld San Diego; her mom’s name is Kit.
My favorite animals on the Wild Arctic Tour are the three seals that call the enclosure home. There are two harbor seals – Bumstead and Sturby and a harp seal named Wiley. Wiley is naturally shy, since he would consider anything larger than him in the wild a predator, so guests mostly just get to peek at him as he swims around. On the other hand, Bumstead and Sturby are experienced 17 year old seals who love interacting with the guests. Guests get to pose with and pet the seals as well as see a rundown of their husbandry skills.
Wild Arctic is a really fun tour that provides surprising memories for years. Guests regularly laugh and get choked up with emotion during the tour. It’s also a great way to inspire children to help protect and care for wildlife.
Because of the intimate interaction with animals, cameras and phones aren’t allowed on either tour so SeaWorld’s skilled photography team captures the participant’s experience. Photo prints and CDs are available for an additional charge.
The tours are offered year round; they’re currently not offered on Wednesdays. Tours can be affected by inclement weather, especially if there is lightning in the area, a common occurrence from June through August. The Wild Arctic tour is an outdoor tour so lightning or heavy rain can mean a postponement or cancellation of a tour. The Beluga Interaction Tour happens indoors, but SeaWorld’s large beluga pool is partly indoors and partly outdoors, so if there is lightning in the area the trainers and the guests will not be allowed to enter the water. If lightning were to strike the water, it would be attracted to something that is grounded, like a person sitting on the side of the pool with their feet in the water. The belugas would actually be quite safe.
Both tours are offered in the afternoon; ironically this can make the Wild Arctic Tour hot. Guests are provided with shade much of the time, but it still can be nearly 100°F (37°C) in the Florida summer.
The fine print:
SeaWorld Orlando prices and rules for the Beluga Interaction Program: $119 – 169 depending on the time of the year
- Participants must be at least 10 years of age. Participants under 14 must be accompanied by a paying adult.
- Participants must be able to comprehend safety-instructions in English.
- The area in the beluga whale habitat can be difficult to maneuver, if you have any physical limitations talk to someone before booking a tour.
- SeaWorld park admission is required and is not included in the Beluga Interaction Program price.
- Participants must bring swimsuit to wear under wetsuit.
- Wetsuit and full changing facility with showers are provided.
- You will be expected to sit and stand in shallow water which is at a temperature below 55 F (12C).
SeaWorld Orlando prices and rules for The Wild Arctic Tour: $59 – 79 depending on the time of the year
- Participants must be at least 8 years of age. Participants under 18 must be accompanied by a paying adult.
- Participants must be able to comprehend safety-instructions in English.
- The area in the beluga whale habitat can be wet and difficult to maneuver, if you have any physical limitations talk to someone before booking a tour.
- Shoes may get wet during portions of the tour.
- SeaWorld park admission is required and is not included in the Wild Arctic Tour price.
General tips for both tours (and really for all theme park tours):
- SeaWorld expects guests to check-in when they get to the park at the Information and Reservations counter at the entrance. Tour meet-up locations will be given out then. Tours do not always start at the entrance to the park. Information and Reservations is where you will be handed the actual tickets for tours.
- Arrive at your tour meet-up location on time. Guides will not wait for late arrivals. Once tours go behind-the-scenes, you might not be allowed to join the tour and you might not be able to re-book it later in the day due to availability.
- Tour times, prices and components are subject to change and availability.
- Cancellations with less than 24 hours notice are nonrefundable.
For more information check out SeaWorld Orlando’s website pages for the tours:
While I’ve given you a description and review of the tours offered at SeaWorld Orlando, to be complete, I want you to know that SeaWorld’s other parks in San Diego, California, and San Antonio, Texas, offer the tours, as well, and I’ve been told they are essentially the same. Here’s their pricing:
San Diego: Beluga Interaction – $215; Wild Arctic – $70 ($64 for kids)
San Antonio: Beluga Interaction – $140-170
Note that the rules for the tours at San Diego and San Antonio might be different than Orlando’s. Regardless it’s wise to check with the website and fully understand the rules and limitations before booking any theme park tour.
Prices and information are current as of August 22, 2014.
Let me know if you’ve ever taken either of these tours and what you thought of it.