Shamu's Happy Harbor

by Brian Bennett, contributing writer

Recently, my family and I visited Sea World to see the new Believe killer whale show. The evening when we did so was a special Passholder event. Since I was the only actual "annual passholder" in the family (I have a "Silver Pass," which is considered a regular annual pass with free parking and other privileges. In contrast, the rest of the family have Florida Resident special passes that also provide park admission for one year, but no other special perks), The concern I had was whether or not the others in the family would be able to attend the Passholder event with me or if they would be banned without the proper admission media.

To find out, my 6-year-old son Michael and I went over to Sea World on the day of the event. We planned to arrive just around 1:00 p.m. when distribution of the Passholder credentials for the evening would begin. As it turned out, my fears were unjustified and we were easily able to get official credentials for me (with a beautifully printed and laminated pass) and admission passes for the rest of the family.

My last piece (link) told more about the Believe show in case you want to go back and read about it. Today's photo tour focuses (pardon the pun) on where Michael and I went after picking up our Believe passes. Right across from Shamu Stadium is a little kid's play area called "Shamu's Happy Harbor." For years it has been a great place to allow children to burn off whatever extra energy they have.

The steel climbing structure is absolutely immense!

Four stories of climbing nets and slides beckon the young children to Shamu's Happy Harbor. Photo by Brian Bennett.

Covering the same amount of area as about 15 of the typical McDonald's Playland playgrounds, this structure soars four stories up and boasts the best collection of slides, climbing nets, and other young children's play things as any Orlando park has to offer.

Frankly, all of the other children's play areas at the other Orlando parks—every one, bar none—are much better at theming. That list includes Tom Sawyer Island at the Magic Kingdom's Frontierland, the town square playground and Donald's boat in the Magic Kingdom's Toontown Fair, Honey I Shrunk the Kids Playset at the Disney-MGM Studios, The Boneyard at Disney's Animal Kingdom, and even the small play area at Epcot's Mission Space, as well as Universal Studios' Curious George, Fivel, and Barney playgrounds and Island's of Adventure's Jurassic Park Play Area, Popeye's Boat, and water play area at Seuss Landing.

The sheer size of the four-story structure makes this playground worth a visit. Photo by Brian Bennett.

But Shamu's Happy Harbor has had them all whipped in terms of sheer size. It's the size of the place that keeps Happy Harbor from ever feeling crowded. It's just so big that it can absorb many, many, many children with plenty of room left over.

A slight turn of the head to the right shows how big this structure really is. Photo by Brian Bennett.

On the ground level, the Sea World folks have provided some play areas specifically designed for the youngest children (and that limited access is enforced).

A climbing pyramid is available on the ground level of the structure. Photo by Brian Bennett.

The very smallest children have this shaded sand play area. Bigger children are not permitted here. Photo by Brian Bennett.

For the bigger children, the massive overhead structure provides a huge climbing net and some slides to get back to the ground.

What goes up can certainly come down through this trio of slides. Photo by Brian Bennett.

Between the climbing structure and Shamu Stadium Promenade lie several other things including an inflatable "moonwalk." Obviously, I'm showing my age when I call it that. I think the more frequently used term for these inflatable things is called a "bounce house."

The Happy Harbor bounce house. Photo by Brian Bennett.

The bounce house operates on a flip-flop schedule. First the very young children (defined by height) are allowed in to play for approximately five minutes or so. Second, some older, bigger children get their turn. Finally, the oldest kids get to play. This routine has the advantage of allowing all children to enjoy the bounce house while keeping the smaller children safe from being trounced upon by the older ones.

Michael runs away from the camera to join a couple of friends in the bounce house. Photo by Brian Bennett.

The Wahoo Two is a very large boat located just across the walk from the huge climbing structure. It replaced the Wahoo, a somewhat dated "boat" several months ago.

The Wahoo is a rather imposing "vessel." Photo by Brian Bennett.

A rope climb entrance makes the entry fun. Photo by Brian Bennett.

With sails unfurled, the Wahoo appears to slice through the water. Photo by Brian Bennett.

The Wahoo Two does have some water cannon mounted in the bow. However, they lack enough punch to reach the pedestrians on the walkway around the boat. Instead, a few painted metal targets provide something to shoot at.

In general, the children aboard the Wahoo get bored rather quickly and head on down the gangway for the other attractions in Happy Harbor. Bottom line, the Wahoo Two needs a little more content.

The vessel's water canon is operated by a salty mate. Photo by Brian Bennett.

Swishy Fishies is a new teacups-like attraction just recently added to Happy Harbor. It's a very low-capacity attraction and is really designed for the younger children. Even so, Sea World's legal staff made sure that the ride information sign states, "Guests with a double leg amputation above the knee shall not ride unless a well-secured prosthetic device is in place." Of course, the usual ride restrictions apply as well.

Swishy Fishies is a newer attraction at Shamu Harbor. Photo by Brian Bennett.

Jazzy Jellies is a little more adventureous. It spins, like Swishy Fishies, but it also moves up about 30 feet into the air.

Jazzy Jellies spin against the clouds. Photo by Brian Bennett.

The Jazzy Jellies vehicles are very much like Alice's Teacups over at that other park. Photo by Brian Bennett.

The spinning shells are quite a view from below. Photo by Brian Bennett.

But the biggest and best addition to Shamu's Happy Harbor has got to be the new Shamu Express roller coaster. The ride is very similar to Goofy's Barnstormer, but each and every car in the train has its own "whale tail" sticking up into the air.

The Shamu Express moves up the lift hill. Photo by Brian Bennett.

The train swoops around the track much like a young killer whale likely performs gyrations in the water. Photo by Brian Bennett.

The front of the train has a familiar motif. Photo by Brian Bennett.

Potential double-amputee riders of Shamu Express need to make sure those prosthetics are secured, too.

The train heads up the lift hill as viewed from the loading area. Photo by Brian Bennett.

The addition of these new midway rides (Swishy Fishies, Jazzy Jellies, and Shamu Express) this spring makes Happy Harbor more than just a play area. It's now grown into a full-fledged "area" within Sea World. Happy Harbor has enough to see and do to keep a family with young children busy for two to three hours or more. It's a great place to allow children to blow off some extra energy even while mom and dad enjoy a cool beverage under the shade.

Sea World could have done a better job of theming the entire area, but that just isn't really Sea World's style. Instead, the Sea World folks have provided a well-designed, fun play area for children.

My only real complaint is the location of Happy Harbor. Instead of being centrally located Happy Harbor is located in one of the most far-flung locations in the park. Even so, with a full year's worth of admissions in front of our family, I'm sure our boys will be back.