Believe at Sea World Orlando

by Brian Bennett, contributing writer

Last Thursday, my family and I attended a special showing of Believe, a new Shamu killer whale show at Seaworld.

Since this event was a first-come, first-served and Seaworld would not promise late-comers entry to view the show, I made sure we got our show credentials as early as we could during their 1:00-to-5:30 p.m. window.

Unfortunately for the Bennett family, I am the only member with a Silver passport that provides the special perks like free parking and so on. Barb and I choose to buy Bronze passports for the rest of the family to save money. Wouldn't you know, the special event was open only to Gold and Silver passport holders. Nonetheless, Michael—my second oldest son, who just graduated from kindergarten—and I made the trip hoping to beg and plead our way into getting four show passes.

As it turns out, we needn't have worried at all. Apparently the demand for the preview isn't as great as it could have been. On Wednesday night, I was told by a Seaworld employee that only about 2,000 of 5,000+ seats the newly redecorated Shamu Stadium were filled. When I explained the situation of our family having mixed passports, the Seaworld folks were very kind. They provided me with one lanyard-mounted access pass for the show for myself, and three orange-paper tickets that granted access as well. It worked out just fine.

After getting our show passes, Michael and I visited Shamu's Happy Harbor, the children's play area located right across from Shamu Stadium. Happy Harbor has really grown up in the last few weeks. What used to be just an fabulous kid's play area has been expanded to include a couple of midway rides and a children's roller coaster! I'll take you on a photo tour of Shamu's Happy Harbor in a future piece.

After we finished playing, Michael and I left the park and drove all the way home where we met Barbara and Allan. Allan had his last day of school on the following day, but we knew that nothing academic was planned, so the idea of a late evening at Seaworld followed by a late dinner on a school night wouldn't turn out to be a big deal.

We arrived at the park at about 4:30 p.m. and found a good parking space in front of the main entrance. After a certain time in the mid- to late-afternoon, Seaworld stops staffing its parking lot. The result is that late arrivals can have free parking, and you can park just about anywhere there's a hole. We avoided the handicapped parking area, as that just didn't seem right, but I didn't hesitate to park in the "preferred" parking area with so many open spaces and the parking lot attendants off the job.

The walk to the main gate was short, but we had a lengthy delay getting beyond the turnstiles—the scanning machines at Seaworld's turnstiles are among Orlando's worst. I don't recall ever having a clean scan and just walking into the park. Add to that the several dozen people in line in front of us and then the four Bennetts, and we could have counted a bunch of bad scans... each one patiently repeated until the turnstile beeps acceptance.

Believe is performed in Shamu Stadium. Photo by Brian Bennett.

Once inside, we made our way around and down to the long boardwalk that crosses Seaworld's lagoon, and over to Shamu Stadium. We waited in a line down at the lower level (right across from Wild Arctic) until, after 20 minutes or so, the line started to move. We passed through the show checkpoint with our mix of credentials and orange passes, and then queued up in the stadium promenade to enter the show.

Passholders wait for the stadium to open for the preview show. Photo by Brian Bennett.

After waiting another 20 to 30 minutes, we were finally allowed into the stadium. The structure itself doesn't look any different than it used to, but the stage area across the front tank is quite different.

The Believe stage is quite different from that of the old show. Jack Hanna is no longer featured during the preshow. Photo by Brian Bennett.

The four LED panel screens, shown here in a relatively usual orientation, are actually the stars of the show. The images they show are not spectacular, but to see those screens moving around, reconfiguring themselves, and changing their relative orientations is quite unique. I've never seen anything quite like it.

The Believe logo is displayed on a pair of the LED screens. Photo by Brian Bennett.

To be fair, when it's time to watch the killer whales, the screens do change to a more bland scenery view. That's good, because the screens end up doing what the show designers intended... they move the story along at times, highlight important story elements, yet can also fade into the background as the orcas and trainers take center stage.

I hope the technical people figure out how to repair these screens, though. On the night we saw the show, there were hundreds of burned out LEDs that provided a significant distraction throughout the show.

Just before the show, some of the trainers had a little warm-up session off to the side.

Trainers warm up prior to the show. None of the killer whales are in the front tank yet. Photo by Brian Bennett.

While the killer whales were obviously looking forward to starting the show, too.

One of the killer whales can be seen in the outer pen... or is that the Lock Ness Monster at Seaworld, Inverness? Photo by Brian Bennett.

Starting at 5:50 p.m. or so, Dave Goodman, the Vice President of Entertainment introduced the evening. First, he said, they would play a video about the making of Believe. That would be followed by the all-new "normal" pre-show video (the one that is replacing the old Jack Hanna questionaire with the adults against the kids... in which the kids always won... of course). Finally, at the end of the session, they would perform Seaworld of Florida's version of Believe.

Seaworld's Vice President of Entertainment formally introduced the new show. Photo by Brian Bennett.

"The Making of Believe" gave a pretty good idea of what it took to put together the new show. From the re-constructed stadiums (as I understand it, both the Orlando and the San Diego stadium's were given similar treatment), to the writing of an original score and songs, to the training of about thirty (30) new animal behaviors (the training effort was split up between the three parks and successful techniques were shared), the four-year project made Believethe most expensive show project in Seaworld's history.

His little speech was broadcast on the big screens as well. Photo by Brian Bennett.

The show, Believe, is intended to focus attention on "that one moment when something happens that changes your life completely." For the Seaworld Believecontingent, that apparently means the point in time when the trainers either decided that training killer whales was what they wanted to do for their life's work, the first time they had an opportunity to work with the orcas, or perhaps some special moment when their relationships to the giant Shamus grew or developed. The show's creative team hopes that the audience will connect that storyline to some point in their own lives and think about their children, other family members, and friends—and ultimately, their own past, present, and future.

After "The Making of Believe," the new pre-show (absent Jack Hanna) was run. This new show features a couple of CGI-animated penguins, one of whom is bitter that this entire show (Believe) revolves around the killer whales while the penguins are forgotten and ignored. It is his intention to show the world that Believeis really about penguins and that the orcas really don't deserve the limelight. During the course of the show, the penguins learn a lot about the killer whales and come to realize that they really are a special animal worthy of the top billing they've been given.

And then the show begins.

The giant LED screens are slid together at the opening of the show. Photo by Brian Bennett.

Believe opens by telling the story of a boy who is drawn to the Alaskan killer whales. He carves a killer whale tail fluke out of a small piece of driftwood. Ultimately, that carving becomes a pendent that the boy proudly wears as he grows up to become a Seaworld killer whale trainer.

A boy believes that his destiny lies with the killer whales. Photo by Brian Bennett.

Then, Believe, is splashed along the screens just as a live killer whale jumps out of the water.

The Believelogo on screen at the beginning of the show. Photo by Brian Bennett.

The next few minutes of showtime are used showing very classic Shamu-show behaviors. First, the boy (from the Believe story) watch a killer whale jump out of the water.

Boy, on screen, watches the live killer whale jump. Photo by Brian Bennett.

Next, we see a killer whale jumping out of the water.

Get the picture? A lot of what you'll see in Believeis much like what you've enjoyed in previous Shamu shows over the years. The foreground story is what makes Believe different.

A decent view of another jumping killer whale. Photo by Brian Bennett.

The screens make the point... but boy grew up to become a killer whale trainer. Photo by Brian Bennett.

The screen rotate into a new position as the trainers and whales come out in force. Photo by Brian Bennett.

A killer whale deposits her trainer onto the front slideout. Photo by Brian Bennett.

A pair of whales jump simultaneously. Photo by Brian Bennett.

A trainer cuddles with her whale in the middle of the tank. Photo by Brian Bennett.

Another trainer is launched by her whale. Photo by Brian Bennett.

A trainer cuddles with her whale on the front slideout. Photo by Brian Bennett.

Trainer and whale pirouette in the water. Photo by Brian Bennett.

The screens, now horizontal, show a long portion of Alaskan shoreline. Photo by Brian Bennett.

At this point, one of the trainers gives his own testimonial about what it was like to start working with the killer whales. I don't know this for certain, but I suspect that the trainers take turns telling their stories from show to show.

A trainer shares his story about working with the killer whales. Photo by Brian Bennett.

Back to the live action, an orca jumps as the screens are rotated into their next position. Photo by Brian Bennett.

A whale comes to the front slideout. Photo by Brian Bennett.

At this point in the show, a volunteer from the audience is allowed to touch and feed the killer whale. The child, in today's case a girl of about 7 or 8 becomes an important part of the story in a few minutes.

An orca launches a trainer. Photo by Brian Bennett.

At the end of the show, the boy-turned-trainer and the testimonial-trainer, and finally the trainer-of-the-future (the volunteer from the audience) are shown as being part of a great circle of people that are working dilligently to learn the mysteries of the killer whales.

Trainers past, present, and future are shown on the giant screens. Photo by Brian Bennett.

Believe was pretty good. In fact, I would say that it was significantly better than the old show in two major respects:

First, the new LED video system is just too cool. It is made up of four movable screens and throughout the show, they are displaying video that is appropriate to what is going on in the stadium... but they move into various positions and configurations thoughout.

Second, I really am of the opinion that the new show has better animal behaviors. In addition to what everyone is expecting to see, there are several very cool new things. During the "Making Of" video they claimed that there were 30 new behaviors incorporated into the new show. I can't vouch for that because a lot of what I saw I think I've seen in previous Shamu shows, but there were several very obviously new behaviors. Plus, the synchronization of the animals with the show score is something that greatly adds to the story, but it's a series of behaviors that you won't think of as an "animal trick." It just happens to turn out that way... although I'm sure the trainers spent many, many hours into making that be the case.

Seaworld's expectation that Believewill be a deeply sensitive and touching show fell short for me, though. Although the show features—and highlights—the relationship between the trainers and the orcas, I just don't get as emotionally attached to a three-ton killer whale like I do when a small mouse is being attacked by evil beings from all over the world in Fantasmic.

Maybe that's just me.