FL or Bust: Keep an Eye on the Sea
Sea Life Aquarium & Orlando Eye
Text/Photos by Kelsey Walters // Featured Image by Scott Walters
This fall has been a very exciting time for my husband, Scott, and I! We recently announced the expected arrival of our first child in March of 2018 and are (not so) patiently awaiting to find out the gender of our precious little pumpkin.
Sensing this soon-to-be mom was going a little stir-crazy, Scott surprised me with a weekend getaway in nearby Orlando as a much-needed distraction. While we wait to find out who is swimming around in my belly, we visited the Sea Life Aquarium, part of the I-Drive 360 complex on International Drive.
Many of the tropical aquariums are complete with bubbles that you can pop up into (pictured left, right) for a completely immersive view of life under the sea.
These are, of course, tons of fun for the kids, but are tall enough for the grown-ups to crawl into as well, giving you the chance to come face-toface with some pretty wild creatures as you’ve never seen them before. There are also plenty of front-facing bubbles at all different heights on many of the tanks, including the sharks and manta rays, that offer a fish-eye view of the underwater scene.
If that isn’t close enough to the sea life for you, you can always dip your hands in the frigid waters of the interactive rockpools where you can touch the slimy and bumpy creatures of the north Pacific ocean. The animals available for touching (gentle now! No one likes an aggressive fish poker) include starfish, sea anemones and sea cucumbers. I’m a huge fan of anything interactive when it comes to animals, so I left my hands in the 50 degree water until they went numb. My favorite are the starfish, which we are used to seeing dry and brittle on land in gift shops, but are surprisingly soft in the water. The sea anemones are very reactive to touch, and give your fingers a tiny “hug” with their tentacles.
The pride and joy of the aquarium is the 360-degree view glass tunnel inside the shark tank, complete with a glass floor (pictured left). Throughout the exhibits, the aquarium proves there is no better way to get an up-close glimpse of the animals than to be completely immersed in their environment. While you visit the shark tank, keep an eye out for an exceptionally pudgy nurse shark named Potato. Trust me, you’ll find her. She’s very slow moving and very hard to miss. We were told that unlike me, she’s not actually pregnant, she just very much enjoys eating (same, girl!) and has become a favorite among the visitors and staff alike. In fact, the sharks and other predators are so well-fed that the staff never worries about them eating the other animals in the tanks.
A very cool and unique experience is offered daily at 11:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. when the staff takes the plunge into the Atlantic Ocean Tank right alongside the sharks, rays and resident rescue sea turtle (pictured above, featured image). Throughout the dive, one the of the divers is available to give a talk on the various animals in the exhibit, interact with the audience and answer questions (pictured top right). Other dive shows are held in the Pacific Ocean and Indian Ocean tanks throughout the day, with feedings and other talks held all over the aquarium as well. Schedules are available upon entering and online.
The various exhibits take you on a trip around the world with stops in each ocean and major waterway, including a look into Florida’s backyard with animals we are surrounded by but rarely see up close. Other stops offer the chance to see the mesmerizing dance of jellyfish floating through the water, with the chance to change to color of the lights in the tank, and with it the color of hundreds of jellyfish. You can scope out seahorses hiding in a tangle of seaweed, and meet the world’s largest octopus species, the giant Pacific octopus. All of these experiences offer great learning opportunities for all ages, with interactive digital displays, touchscreen fish catalogs at many tanks and kids’ activities like the Dive Log Book. Kids can grab one as they enter the aquarium and stop at the various “Dive Stations” to emboss the pages of their book along the way with special stamps specific to each area, memorializing their journey through the sea.
The Sea Life Aquarium is just one part of the massive I-Drive 360 complex. Adjacent to Sea Life is the Orlando Eye, one of the world’s tallest Ferris wheels, and Madame Toussad’s Wax Museum. Package pricing tickets are available for any combination of the three attractions, with special discounts for Florida residents. Outside the aquarium, with the Eye as its stunning backdrop, the rest of the complex offers a large variety of dining options ranging from quick and easy to fine dining and a miniature outdoor mall of shops. A small children’s train circles the complex for rides, and the area hosts events and music on many weekends throughout the year.
After a day at the aquarium and exploring the area, we enjoyed a delicious meal at one of the newest restaurants in nearby Universal Studio’s CityWalk, The Toothsome Chocolate Emporium and Savory Feast Kitchen. The restaurant is essentially Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory with a steampunk twist, serving up a unique array of meals and desserts. I was really only there for the enormous milkshakes they are known for, however. I dove into a Marshmallow Crisp, which was a marshmallow fluff shake topped with an entire Rice Krispy Treat and a marshmallow the size of my fist. Needless to say, my cravings were satisfied for the evening.
After dinner, we took a romantic sunset ride aboard the 400-foot tall Orlando Eye (pictured below). While the height may be intimidating, this Ferris wheel is a little different than the ones you find at the county fair. Each glass capsule is completely enclosed and can hold several riders. A touchscreen offers an interactive map of the area to point out what you can spot in the distance as you climb over the skyline. As you reach the top, you get a breathtaking view of the entire city. The entire ride takes about 25 minutes, so you have plenty of time to take it all in!
I couldn’t have asked for a better weekend getaway and distraction. If you choose to take longer than a day trip, there are an abundance of hotels all within a short walking distance of the complex. Have fun exploring under the sea!
Sea Life Aquarium
8449 Int. Drive, Orlando, FL 32819
Mon. – Sun.: 10 a.m. – 9 p.m.
8401 Int. Dr #100, Orlando, FL 32819
Sun. – Thur.: 10 a.m. – 10 p.m.; Fri. –
Sat.: 10 a.m. – 12 a.m.
Her work focuses on travel and documentary photography.