As any good scout will tell you, the key to success is Be Prepared! The more you know before you arrive, the less you will have to worry about. Vacations are supposed to be an escape from the stress and worry of your everyday life, and planning your trip while you're still at home will give you an energizing peek at whats to come.
SeaWorld Orlando is different from any other theme park (Disney World, Universal Studios Orlando, etc) because of the limited number of rides. There are fewer lines to wait in, and planning your arrival can make your waits even shorter. The main focus of the park is its shows, and the crowds travel according to those schedules.
Before you book your SeaWorld vacation packages or order your SeaWorld tickets, consider first what time of year you'll be visiting. During the summer the park is more crowded but the weather is perfect for splash zones and kiddy rides. During the winter it may be too chilly for the wetter attractions but the lines are short and seating is copious. Either way, it's easy to have a great time, but what makes it great may differ. If a major holiday corresponds with your travel there will probably be special events within the park to add to your experience.
In the summer it gets very hot and most people wear a t-shirt and shorts and call it a day. What they aren't expecting is what every local knows it's going to rain, no matter how clear the sky looks in the morning. It rains just about every day, at just about the same time. This is good because if you know it rained around noon the day you arrived, you can plan to be indoors around noon at the park. Bring an umbrella anyway, or ponchos for your family (I get my in 2-packs at the dollar store before any theme park excursion!). No matter how hot it is outside you may also want to pack a lightweight jacket. It seems that the hotter the weather the colder the A/C in restaurants throughout Florida, and a fit of chills can ruin a fabulous meal.
A map is the most amazing, useful innovation for any theme park I've ever visited! Yes, you can look at a map online and get general information, but the one that they give you the day of your visit is pure gold. The backside of every map is printed that day and has the show schedule, ride information, and other last-minute news printed on it! It's a good idea to have a smaller map for quick reference to bathrooms and such, but the full-size informational version will be like a personal travel planner throughout your day.
The basic layout of the park is composed of a large lake to the right with attractions circling it, and a series of winding paths to the left. There's a good reason for this, and it's not just to confuse you into staying in the park. The main draw of SeaWorld is its shows, and each of those shows has a stadium. The part that you see - the seats, the stage, the screens are only a fragment of what some of these stadiums encompass. Shamu is a big star, and his trailer is an unseen pool of massive proportions where he and his friends can rest up and play between shows. Paths are actually maximizing space by curving around these stadiums and stages rather than squaring off and leaving large areas unused.
There is really only one way to make this labyrinth work for you. Don't worry about where you're going, focus on why you're going. Know which shows you want to see, where you want to eat, and if you want to do any extra add-on events. If Shamu is the #1 reason you're visiting, start at Shamu Stadium, be sure you catch that show and go from there. If you'll never forgive yourself if you don't feed a dolphin, head first to Key West and you can relax and enjoy the rest of your wanderings. This is where the back of your daily map pays off big time.
Unfortunately, this is the part that you cant pre-plan completely. The number of shows per day varies by the season and is determined by the number of people expected in the park that day. As I'm writing this it is mid-November and Believes (Shamus's new show) is only on twice a day during the week! You may be able to call ahead and get some idea of how frequently your favorite show will be performed that day, but your best bet is to show up knowing which shows you most want to see. If you've never been to SeaWorld before you'll probably want to see it all. Go for it! But try to prioritize just in case. The larger the stadium, the less frequently the show is performed. Because Shamu Stadium holds around 1,000 people, it has the fewest shows on an average day. Whale and Dolphin Theater is smaller, so Blue Horizons (that's the dolphin one!) performs more frequently. If, however, the park becomes a lot busier than anticipated, most of the shows will try to add performances. They really want you to have every opportunity to see it all. Listen to the announcements that break into the muzak throughout the park. They will tell you when a showing is full, canceled, or being added. One last variable to consider Pets Ahoy!, Oddysea, and Sizzlin Pianos are indoor shows so if it's raining they'll fill up faster. Got your ponchos? Go to one of the others and have elbow room galore! There are rides here, right?
Cant consider SeaWorld a theme park without a coaster? We've got you covered. Kraken is the biggest, fastest, scariest ride in the park. It's a big roller coaster complete with loops, and tall enough to be visible from most places within the park. Right next door is Journey to Atlantis, the water-coaster. Those two are between Whale and Dolphin Theater and Sea Lion and Otter, so plan your high-action thrills around those shows. Across the lake, near Bayside Stadium, is Wild Arctic a simulation ride that let out into the beluga whale exhibit. Behind Shamu Stadium is Shamus Happy Harbor which houses all of the kiddy rides, an arcade, and a large play area. Alternating between watching shows and going on rides will keep you from feeling like a spectator and really immerse your family in the overall experience of SeaWorld.
There are plenty of options for SeaWorld dining throughout the park, so whenever the hunger strikes you'll be near an eatery of some type. It's probably a wise idea to eat before a show and leave a little time before getting onto the rides! If you have any special dietary concerns, two restaurants stand out. Mamas Kitchen is the newest restaurant on-site and offers healthy eating for all tastes. Primarily salads and sandwiches, the menu is filling without leaving you with that post-Thanksgiving feeling. If you have specific dietary needs, Sharks Underwater Grill is your best bet. This is the premier dining experience in the park the sit-down, classy spot, and the place where special requests are most easily met. Most dining is fast-food style, with entrees being made nonstop and put on a hot-line to keep service flowing smoothly. If you usually remember a good meal long after your vacation is over, go to Sharks or one of the add-on dining experiences. If you're just really hungry and want to get back to the action, hit any other spot in the park for good food fast.
Even with your map and the roadsigns posted in most intersections, it's pretty easy to get turned around and lose your way. You need help, you need guidance you need to know who actually works here and who as lost as you are! Park Operations staff are the people with the most information. They're usually in Hawaiian print shirts, with solid-color sweatshirts over them if it's chilly. These folks are the ones seating theaters, sweeping up, and walking the park. If you cant find one of them, pull out your big map and stare at it. Within a minute you'll most likely have help finding yourself. If both of those methods fail, walk up to any kiosk or into any gift shop.
Dine with Shamu, attend the Makahiki Luau, take a shuttle to Busch Gardens, or even sleepover! Check with guest relations at the front of the park to see when (and how much) these add-ons are, and be sure to ask if there's anything special going on.
The simple rule to remember is to focus on why you want to be at SeaWorld. The shows are spectacular, but if they're just not your thing you can browse exhibits at your leisure. If you desperately want to see a comedic Sea Lion or a trained pig (yep, they've got one) then make sure to be near the theater that they perform at and explore the nearby food and exhibits before and after the show.
Believe it or not, this is the most frequently asked question among visitors to SeaWorld. The short answer is it's where you came in. Assuming you don't remember where that was and how could you after all the day's excitement? just ask. The easiest way to find the exit is to stay until the park closes, enjoy absolutely everything the park has to offer, and then follow all of the other families leaving with a smile and a sigh.