Many people use the term “theme park” casually and without much thought about what is meant. Disney has theme parks, and so does Universal, the other big operator in the area. SeaWorld is often referred to as a theme park also. And why not? The park is just as large as Disney’s or Universal’s.
But if you scratch at the surface a little bit, you’ll start to realize that SeaWorld isn’t organized the way the other theme parks are, nor does it have the same sense of smaller identities within the larger whole. Essentially, the problem is that SeaWorld lacks lands. Simply put, a theme park has to have lands. Otherwise, it feels like you’re moving around from attraction to attraction without ever really being someplace specific. This is the eternal curse of an amusement park, and why there is a distinction between an amusement park and a theme park. A theme park has themes.
SeaWorld does have sections, and the sections do have names. But are they really differentiated from each other? In many ways, each section look like the others; there even appears to be a unified color scheme for the entire park. That makes it difficult for each section to have a unique identity and without unique identities there is no theme. Giving it a name is not enough.
That changed last year, however, when Antarctica opened. This area of the park looks nothing like the other areas, and it does provide a sense of place missing from the others. In short this section really is a land, and thus it is possible to say that it is well themed. Under one definition, that means we can now call SeaWorld a theme park.
It could be argued, I suppose, that SeaWorld has taken stabs at this approach before. Manta certainly has a lot of decorations and a unique design mentality that doesn’t look like the rest of the park, but this takes place all in the line. The rest of the land around it lacked the same consistent decorations.
That holds true for Atlantis as well, though this one attraction is even better themed in some ways than Manta. One way to think about both attractions is the concept of “parachute buildings.” Architects talk about parachute buildings as structures which do not seem to fit their surroundings, as if they floated gently on a parachute into position and landed amid other buildings that all had a consistent design.
SeaWorld has always just looked like SeaWorld: stadiums and functional buildings designed not to stick out, often sharing a consistent color scheme. There was little attempt made to make the visitor feel like he had been transported to a different time or place. Antarctica break that mold and takes a page from Disney’s book, and rather successfully it seems. The penguin ride itself may lack Disney’s refined qualities, but the land itself does a pretty solid job of doing what Disney usually does. This marks a turn for SeaWorld and a new trend, one I hope they continue.