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I Saw 'Blackfish,' Then Took My Daughter to SeaWorld Anyway

"We're going to SeaWorld," I said, eyes cast down and guilt dripping from my words. "I feel terrible, but … "

It was there where my voice faded. I didn't know what else to say. It didn't feel like there was an appropriate addendum to my confession.

I feel terrible, but … we're going anyway.

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I lived in San Diego for several years, back when I was a college-going, drink-pouring kind of girl, and SeaWorld absolutely used to be one of my favorite places to go. I had an annual pass and I went frequently, sometimes even several times a week, just to sit and watch the animals and be in my happy place.

Then, I saw "Blackfish." And my favorite place was eternally marred. I even wrote about it, and about why I would probably never be able to go to SeaWorld again.

Flash forward a few years, and my feelings of disgust had dimmed a little, but not enough to completely assuage my guilt over wanting to go back.

I do tend to consider myself to be a pretty reasonable person, and through hours of independent research, I've come to realize that "Blackfish" isn't all it's cracked up to be. It is certainly only one side of a very complex issue, and it absolutely exaggerates certain plot points, while also leaving out some of the more positive things SeaWorld has accomplished.

But I know it would be ignorant to argue against some of the underlying truths in the film's message. Just as it would make no sense to ignore the many things SeaWorld could, and probably should, be changing—right alongside most zoos and animal captivity attractions, for that matter.

The idea of not sharing my former happy place with (my daughter) was a little hard for me to swallow.

Yet, I couldn't shake the many, many happy memories I once made behind those now controversial gates. And when I started planning a vacation to San Diego with my almost 3-year-old, the idea of not sharing my former happy place with her was a little hard for me to swallow.

So even though SeaWorld has continued to face one PR nightmare after another (like the death of three whales in just six months in San Antonio) I decided that I was going to take my daughter for a visit—even as I struggled with the guilt that accompanied that decision.

When the big day finally came, I can't lie, I was excited. I slathered my girl in sunscreen and I pushed us out the door in time to be there when the gates opened. I paid the $16 parking fee, the insanely expensive entry fee ($89 for me—$10 more than my annual pass used to be), and the $15 stroller rental, all with a smile on my face. And when we were met, almost immediately, by several new tide pools scattered about, I was elated! Meanwhile my daughter refused (flat out refused) to touch a thing.

Looking at a map, I realized that the regular dolphin shows were currently canceled while the dolphin amphitheater was being upgraded. I just about cried. The dolphins were always my favorite. But I consoled myself with the fact that it looked as though they would still be doing some sort of dolphin presentation at Dolphin Point, where I fondly remembered purchasing fish to feed my favorite animals years ago.

That show would be starting at 12 p.m., which meant we had two hours to kill. It was just as I was trying to formulate a plan that my girl spotted the Sesame Street Bay of Play—another new attraction I had never seen before.

We headed that way, and my girl was instantly in love. Rides! Obstacle courses! Splashing water! She was in heaven.

For two hours, we played in that animal-free zone. And my little girl could not have been happier. She was so happy, in fact, that when I tried to drag her to Dolphin Point for the noon show, a full-blown toddler fit ensued.

You had better believe I strapped her in that $15 stroller and pointed her in the direction of the dolphins anyway. After all, we were here to make memories, dammit!

We got there a few minutes early, and I immediately started looking for the feeding times—all while promising my girl that we would be able to feed the dolphins soon! Imagine my surprise when I was eventually informed by a SeaWorld employee that they no longer did that.

Actually, the worker I spoke to had no idea what I was talking about, which tells me that feeding the dolphins probably hasn't been an option for a while.

Briefly, I was pissed at "Blackfish." I don't even know if it's related. But … I blame "Blackfish."

Standing around the pool, though, I continued to promise my girl a show. Unfortunately, about five minutes after that show began, she was tired of standing and wanted to move on. Based on how she did at the other shows that day, I was convinced that if we had been in the bleachers of the amphitheater, she would have been riveted. But instead, my absolute favorite attraction turned out to be the one she couldn't wait to get away from.

Wah, wah, wah.

From there, we wandered from one show to another, squeezing in various exhibits as we walked through the park. And there were moments where my daughter really did seem impressed. For instance, she loved the One Ocean Orca show (while I was simply aware of all the things that have changed about it—including the fact that the trainers are no longer allowed in the pools, and that every other line seemed to be an advertisement for SeaWorld's conservation efforts.) There were also a few exhibits that got her momentarily excited along the way (like the polar bears and the penguins—both of which can be seen at our local zoo in Alaska).

But nothing, and I mean nothing, excited that daughter of mine quite as much as the Bay of Play, where we wound up spending the last two hours of our day, before being kicked out at closing (but not before being coerced into buying a $20 Shamu.)

After everything was said and done, my daughter did have a pretty incredible time. I mean, this kid was truly in her happy place in that little Sesame Street wonderland. But I couldn't help but note the sour taste in my own mouth. Both because she hadn't really seen the magic in all that used to appeal to me, and because I wasn't sure I saw the magic there anymore either.

I spent about $200 on our day. And the reality is, (my daughter) would have been quite happy ... never once seeing a single animal at all.

Maybe it was because of "Blackfish." Or maybe it had to do with some of the (justifiable) changes that have occurred. Maybe it was because we were there in the off-season, so a lot of the attractions were either closed or under construction. Or maybe it was just that I'm getting older, and that having a child of my own now has me seeing everything through her eyes. And since she wasn't all that impressed by the animal exhibits, neither was I anymore.

All I know for sure is that in total, I spent about $200 on our day. And the reality is, she would have been quite happy to spend the entire seven hours we were there playing in Sesame Street land, never once seeing a single animal at all.

For my part, SeaWorld will always be the place of some of my favorite San Diego memories. And I'm glad I took my girl there, at least once, to share that experience with her. But I'm not sure I'll ever be able to look at it the same.

I'm also not sure what the alternatives are, nor do I think die-hard anti-SeaWorld activists have thought those alternatives through. Many of the animals currently living at SeaWorld simply wouldn't survive in the wild. And the park does do quite a bit in terms of conservation efforts. Not to mention, raising public awareness and a love for these animals most of us would never otherwise get to see.

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I do think things are moving in the right direction, and that recent rulings to end the orca breeding program and to expand tanks are called for. Just as I think SeaWorld fighting those rulings is a mistake.

But I will never judge anyone who declares their love for SeaWorld and their desire to share the park with their kids. Because seriously, I get it.

I'm just afraid that for me, the magic may be lost—while the guilt is definitely still there.

Photograph by: Leah Campbell

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