Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Turtle Trek at SeaWorld - A Belated Review

Turtle Trek is SeaWorld's newest attraction, and it's been open for several weeks now, but I was simply late in making it out there (apologies!) What is it? Short answer: it's a 3D movie. But wow, what a movie. Two big thumbs up!

The attraction replaces the manatee exhibit in the back corner of the park. Previously, you'd descend down a curved slope, passing by manatee pools on the side as you do. From here you can see the manatees from above. Then, we entered a small movie theater for the preshow video, and we were released to the main attraction: the manatees, this time seen from a side angle, since their whole tank was visible due to giant windows. The animals were the main star of the show.

Increasingly, SeaWorld has turned that formula on its head. The animals are now the frosting on the cake rather than the whole point of the exhibit. The rays welcome you to Manta, but you're most likely there for the coaster. Ditto the smaller aquatic denizens at Atlantis and Kraken, seen only briefly in the exit areas.

Turtle Trek does it by reversing the order of things. You pass by the very same tanks and side-angle exhibits on the way in--the animals are now preshow--and the film is the star. The sloped ramp that was once the entrance is now the exit ramp.

One of the exhibit rooms in the preshow is still home to manatees, but the second is for sea turtles. And seeming millions of colorful reef fish--it's a great display. There's a cheesy spiel here with a sea turtle stuffed animal, but the message about not throwing plastic bags into the ocean is a pretty appropriate one.

Finally we are ushered into the theater, but it's changed. Gone is the standard theater concept--this is a dome. It's like a smaller version of the "overhead IMAX" they use at Kennedy Space Center, where the screen curves over you more than a standard IMAX. Here it's a complete dome. A worker welcomes us, tells us we'll experience the journey of a turtle from hatching until returning to the same beach years later to lay new eggs, and then we put on 3D glasses.

The movie shines, sparkles, and scintillates. I'm a jaded 3D viewer, and this one impressed me. The film really does go all over the dome, so it's not just a Circle-Vision 360, it's also the ceiling portion. The result is way more immersive than a typical Circle-Vision experience. The theater is smaller too, and the effect is to make the show more intimate (in a good way).

On screen, the action is just right. It's close to you--closer than you'd think, and seemingly larger than life, but we are just young baby turtles, after all. It moves around the dome fluidly and naturally, so you'll be swiveling and rotating. There is no "front" view.

It took me a second to realize the projectors were actually BEHIND the screens, and obviously there were many of them to make the experience go all around. That was a gutsy move from an art-direction point of view, but it didn't really distract or detract from the immersiveness.

The movie is snappy in plot, featuring ups and downs, and a few danger points. It ends on a happy, up note, with an exhortation for all of us to be heroes now (this is their new slogan) and for us to "journey on" (which is also the name of the song playing at this point. All the music was custom-written for this attraction, and it's all pretty good!

There's a family-sized game on the exit ramp to enjoy, and the turtles and manatees can also be seen from the top up here.

Overall it was a very well-done addition to SeaWorld. Like Universal, they have really stepped up their game lately, and it makes me all the more happy to be a theme park fan living in Orlando. This is the dream, and we're living it!

Kevin Yee is the author of numerous independent Disney books, including the popular Walt Disney World Earbook series and Walt Disney World Hidden History.