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SeaWorld's Summer Nights a splash of happiness

Dewayne Bevil on Attractions

Theme Park Ranger

August 2, 2012

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I had a moment of clarity at Shamu Stadium last week: Throughout my theme-park adventures, the most consistently upbeat crowds are the ones at Summer Nights at SeaWorld.

The atmosphere is a shared celebration for surviving a long, hot day at the theme park. By the time guests make it to "Shamu Rocks," the nighttime-only killer-whale show, the tone is positively giddy.

Before the animals are in sight, SeaWorld revs up the crowd with classic rock and big-screen shots of audience members. On my last visit, we all saw a man play a mean air guitar to "Stop the Rock," much to the horror of his family and the delight of the crowd. (A little later, he got a slow-motion replay — and more cheers.)

The show itself continues the rockin' theme with an original song, a Latin segment and an electric guitar soloist while the whales go through their impressive jumping, twisting, splashing paces. The musical selections work nicely with the park's piped-in music, which is more hard-driving during the Summer Nights hours and includes current hits and rock standards such as "Addicted to Love."

The fresh music, darkening sky and thinning crowd (weaklings!) combine for an experience that doesn't feel like the same ol' SeaWorld.

It's smart to have a different whale show at night. The daytime, very earnest "One Ocean" show just wouldn't fly in these conditions. However, I would like to see the fountains that were installed at Shamu Stadium for "One Ocean" added to the "Shamu Rocks" routine. Just don't spray the electric guitar.

Lesson learned: Romantic princess plots, high-tech thrill rides and trainers catapulting from whales are fantastic but sometimes Joan Jett's "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" is enough to delight.

Major attractions receive a gentle skewering in "Sea Lions Tonight," my favorite element of Summer Nights at SeaWorld. What's extra refreshing about the show is that it allows SeaWorld to make fun of itself.

The show changes a little bit each summer to reflect new elements of the park. This year, there's a brief bit about TurtleTrek, which opened in April.

There's a longer segment about the year-old "One Ocean," and it has a good time making fun of SeaWorld's whale trainers and their egos.

"Ladies and gentlemen, it's such a privilege for all of you to meet me today. I'm sure I inspired you to make a difference," the "trainer" says sincerely in "Sea Lions Tonight."

Even the name of the big show gets ribbed. " 'One Ocean'? There used to be, like, five oceans and now there's only one?"

A walrus ("Shamu, the killer whale-rus") performs water ballet with an on-dry-land trainer, which kind of tiptoes around the sensitive subject of if trainers should be in the water.

The show sort of goes out of control. It transitions from the usual "Shamu, Shamu" chant to some LMFAO action. The trainers do the running man dance, the sea lions wiggle, wiggle, wiggle and the SeaWorld mime dons an Afro for the finale.

The happy crowd again is happy. You know it's been a good show when folks linger in the stands just in case there's more, even though the "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye" song is playing.

(Side note: Our inner copy editor and spell-check is pleased to see SeaWorld spell the show "Sea Lions Tonight," unlike the "Tonite" of years previous.)

Summer Nights is capped with a fireworks-and-fountains show called "Reflections." Bayside Stadium is open and available for seating, but try to sit out from under the roof, which can cause sight-line obstructions.

The Summer Nights programming, included in regular SeaWorld admission, runs nightly but only through Aug. 12.

dbevil@tribune.com or 407-420-5477