The properties that now form SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment were formerly owned by Anheuser-Busch (of Budweiser fame) under the "Worlds of Discovery" moniker. In 2009, after the all-American brewer was bought out by the Brazilian-Belgian conglomerate InBev, the parks were sold to The Blackstone Group, already owners of Madam Tussauds and Legoland attractions around the world through their Merlin Entertainment subsidiary. The SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment banner is Blackstone's not-altogether successful attempt to create a single brand name for a decidedly eclectic group of ten theme parks and water parks, located in five states scattered across the North American continent. Five of the ten parks are located in central Florida and form the subject of this book.
Unlike Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando, the SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment family of parks faces some unique marketing challenges, starting with its thematic and geographic diversity. Even in Florida, three of the parks are in Orlando, while the other two are an hour or so away in Tampa. The brand grew partly by acquisition of existing parks with existing names and more or less established brand identities and partly by internal expansion. So to the casual observer, there is no immediately apparent connection between SeaWorld in Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa. Or even between SeaWorld and Discovery Cove.
The Florida outposts of SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment also do not have the advantage of large tracts of land on which to build their own, separate "world." All of the parks in central Florida are surrounded by and separated by public roads and other businesses over which SeaWorld has no control. So they can't stage manage the visitor experience in the same way that Universal and Disney can. Nor can they offer the sort of on-property resort experience served up at the other megaparks, although some nearby posh resorts offer a terrific do-it-yourself alternative.
So what holds this all together? What makes SeaWorld and its sister parks in central Florida special and distinct from Disney and Universal? In a word: animals. At SeaWorld and the other Orlando parks, that means marine animals and the watery world they inhabit. At Busch Gardens Tampa it means the magnificent beasts of the "Dark Continent."
In other words, the SeaWorld parks of central Florida celebrate the natural world and preach a subtle message about preserving it. (Animal conservation is a major beneficiary of the company's corporate philanthropy.) That's not to say that they neglect the fun, fantasy, and thrills aspects of the theme park experience. The parks in this book offer some of the best thrill rides in the state, indeed in the entire Southeast. Yet it is the animals and the imaginative, often unique ways in which they are displayed and celebrated that set the tone.
Another thing that binds these parks together is a system of "Passports" that allow multi-day access to several or all of the central Florida parks and, as we shall see, offer very good value for the money.
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