SeaWorld Orlando has come under a lot of fire from "Blackfish" for keeping orcas in small, unnatural enclosures. While it's very true that man-made habitats are never going to measure up to the ocean in size, does that mean that the orcas are unhappy? Come and see how they live for yourself in "Shamu Up Close."
Shamu Stadium, the main show stadium at SeaWorld Orlando, is currently closed for renovation, but guests are being allowed into the Dine With Shamu area to see the orcas up close. There are no formal shows, but the trainers hold sessions throughout the day so you can see how these magnificent creatures learn to perform on command and do the behaviors you see in shows (hint: they're not starved or abused in any way; it's all about positive reinforcement and lots of treats, just like you use to train the family dog).
But perhaps even better, you can see what the orcas do on their own in between the training session. Do they float around and act bored or exhibit neurotic behaviors? Not at all! They play and frolic and enjoy toys, as you can see in the slideshow accompanying this article.
Training sessions are amazing to watch, but I like to just head over to "Shamu Up Close" and watch the orca pod in between their interactions with the trainers. It gives you a very real sense of what their life is like at SeaWorld Orlando. When I visited, they were playing with Frisbees and enjoying a spirited game of "keep away" with each other. It was so much fun to watch them interact and to see them chase their toys around. It's very apparent that they're comfortable in their environment and that they enjoy the enrichment.
When you're done watching them above the water, you can head down to underwater viewing and see how things look from inside the pool. That gave an even better view of the Frisbee frolicking.
You can always see the orcas in underwater viewing, but "Shamu Up Close" is only going to be available until Shamu Stadium reopens this spring. Then it gets converted back to Dine With Shamu, and you'll only be able to see the formal "One Ocean" show. I highly recommend getting out to the park to see "Shamu Up Close" before it goes away.
If you're coming on the weekend between now and January 25/26, you can also enjoy Wild Days. This weekend (January 11/12) features Jungle Jack Hanna, and then it's Sea Rescue Weekend, followed by Penguin Lovers Weekend. Jump to this article for scenes from Jack Hanna's show and photos of the amazing animals he brings on stage.