ORLANDO – Stepping beyond its signature trained animal shows, SeaWorld has put its conservation message in state-of-the-art computer-generated animation.
The theme park's $30 million-plus TurtleTrek attraction, which opened Friday, features the world's first 3D film projected on a wraparound 360-degree dome, which is 60 feet in diameter.
Built over huge aquariums filled with 1,300 of the park's rescued manatees, sea turtles and marine animals, the dome becomes the screen for a clever telling of the odyssey of Florida loggerhead turtles.
In the seven-minute CGI film, the white dome cracks into a hatching egg. That launches the audience on a turtle's-eye view of the struggle through a foot of sand and a panic-stricken dash to the surf for a swim to Bermuda and back.
Dangers emerge from all directions. A seagull saves you from a crab's pincers. Sharks bump about. Tasty (to a turtle) jellyfish disguise a toxic plastic bag, and an outboard motor boat barrels overhead, trapping you in a fishing net (which fortunately has a TED — Turtle Excluding Device).
It's not a pedantic documentary; visuals and sounds carry the story. Unlike Disney's riotously colorful Finding Nemo, TurtleTrek is a mirror image of the real ocean. For clarity, SeaWorld toned down the slight tint of dust, micro-organisms and other particulates that cloud seawater.
The details are sharp, but not quite as vivid as a 3D film like Avatar, which has the advantage of being shown on a screen to a seated audience.
Theme parks had to invent their own 3D systems. Twenty years ago, for its Spider-Man ride, Universal Orlando developed the first 3D effect that could be seen from a moving vehicle. SeaWorld, through Orlando attraction production company Falcon's Treehouse, developed 3D for a wraparound screen. So the 3D effect can be seen by people standing against a rail for balance as they move around to see all of the screen.
TurtleTrek is shown using 34 projectors carrying 17 different pairs of synchronized images. Software bends the digital images so the movement appears seamless and natural as it travels over a domed and curved surface from floor to ceiling.
There was enough digital drawing work to keep four studios around the country busy. One did just the beach, another the reefs. Downloading the finished product took six days – about five hours for each 10 seconds of film.
"We're still tweaking to perfect all the high resolution," said Brian Morrow, Sea World design director, explaining why a few moving figures remain haunted by ghost images.
The opening morning audience liked what it saw.
"Amazing," said Iris Lee, 27, a nurse from Orlando. "I really loved how realistically the turtle's journey was portrayed."
"It was epic," said Rob Snow, 33, a vacationing electrical engineer from New York. "I felt like I was part of the experience."
While still below the 2008 peak, SeaWorld attendance has steadily grown this year. Last year, high gas prices drove the park to limit its summer ad campaign to one-day-drive markets from Atlanta and south. This summer the park resumes advertising in Northeast and Midwest markets even as air fares increase.
"Our attendance is running ahead of last year, and we're counting on TurtleTrek to help keep the momentum going into next year," said Terry Prather, park president.