If I could write a letter to Shamu, I’d first check in just to make sure he was doing okay. (Actually, first I’d make sure I was talking to the right Shamu. There seem to be, like, five of them.) I’d want to know how he was doing because he sure seemed happy, and he sure seemed to be making a lot of kids happy, including ours. I’d also thank him for his hard work, and compliment him on being able to jump out of the water even though he weighs about nine thousand pounds.
I was thinking about Shamu because I was thinking about the family vacation we took a couple of weeks ago. If you’re like me, you do a fair bit of calculating during these vacations.
Case in point: How much is it going to cost to take the family to sea world when we’re out in San Diego? Probably a bunch. Tickets are pretty expensive, after all. Food is prohibitively expensive, which is why we ate at a famous local diner that used to have some kind of terribly politically incorrect name (can’t remember what that was now, but when Liz and I were reading the famous history on the back of the menu I noticed that we both raised our eyebrows at the same time.) We filled up on breakfast burritos (or whatever they’re called in Spanish) and gave Finn and Lucy pancakes and went into Sea World on a Friday morning in February, when the crowd would be about 5000 instead of about 40000.
We saved Shamu until the end of the day, but don’t think he wasn’t on our mind before that. How could he not be? Even as you’re driving in, he’s all over the place. But the show wasn’t until 3 p.m., and before that Finn really wanted to see the turtles.
“It’s SeaWorld, buddy!” I told him, peering over at him in the back seat. We were packed in, with Liz’s mom and our wonderful nanny Pamela in the front, and Finn and Lucy in the back with Liz on my lap next to them. “There’s going to be dolphins and sharks and whales!”
“Whales, Finn!” Liz chimed in.
“You said there would be turtles,” Finn said. “You said there would be turtles for my birthday.”
Finn was turning three.
“And turtles, of course. Of course there will be turtles,” Liz assured him. “But wait until you see SHAMU!”
“Shamu! Shamu!” I chanted.
Finn’s eyes lit up. “Is Shamu a turtle?”
“…He’s not a turtle, no,” I said, stopping my chant. Finn’s shoulders sagged.
What can I say, the kid likes turtles. But that’s when I began to think – wasn’t there some kind of turtle petting zoo somewhere? In, like, a library or something? Or a pond? Somewhere that didn’t require four adult tickets and astronomical parking costs?
It gave me flashbacks to our last trip to San Diego, last summer, when we went to Legoland. I loved it, the ladies (Liz, her mom, and baby Lucy) were a bit lower on the enthusiasm scale, and Finn was kind of so-so until we got to an area where he could jump into a kind of Lego pit that was about the size of a large desk.
“Yay!” he shouted, tossing Lego pieces around and putting a couple in his mouth (oops!), completely oblivious to the three story tall, fully animatronic T-Rex made entirely of Legos just to his left.
The first performance we saw upon entering SeaWorld starred a bunch of sea lions and otters. (I think they’re called otters- maybe not – what else looks like otters? And can fetch cans of Pepsi when called upon? I don’t think they were otters, now that I think of it. Doesn’t sound like something otters are famous for.) There were assorted actors who I thought were pretty entertaining but who, let’s face it, probably thought they could do a lot better.
Finn didn’t really watch it, but that was mostly Liz’s fault for distracting him with a granola bar, which he apparently found terribly exciting.
“He’s not even watching,” I whispered. “He’s just eating that granola bar.”
“Maybe he’s just not that impressed,” Liz suggested.
I looked back to the stage, where a sea lion was balancing a ball on his nose. It seemed pretty impressive to me. These were wild animals, and they were balancing balls on their noses? How did humans ever even figure out that these animals could do that?
The nice thing was that with the smaller crowds, we weren’t waiting a long time to get into any of the exhibits, and soon we were out the door of the sea lion thing and on to the next thing. Finn really liked the dolphin performance, where they leapt around to a pretty elaborate (and surprisingly beautiful) stage production. But when he got to the turtles, well, forget about it. He loved those freakin’ turtles. Even though there were sharks swimming a few feet away in another tank, he was glued to the turtles.
Then, at last, came Shamu. I don’t think Finn knew what to expect. I’m not sure I did either. But when two big old killer whales leap out of the water on the command of a human, well, I don’t care who you are. That’s pretty insane.
I only caught about half the show (this time it was Liz’s mom’s fault – she’d handed me a giant funnel cake that I couldn’t take my eyes off), but Finn was mesmerized. When it finished, we took him to the gift shop for his birthday present. He grabbed a Shamu stuffed animal, held it tight while we paid for it, and then, once it was definitely his, he promptly passed out in Liz’s arms.
I don’t know what the day cost. It was pricey, of course, but I’ll tell you what – Liz and I are never going to forget it. Finn might, since he’s only just three, but he’ll have that whale for a while, and somewhere in his mind he’ll know that he had a wonderful, loving vacation with his whole family in California, at a magical place called SeaWorld, where giant turtles were only the beginning.