We fell asleep to the peaceful countenances and gliding of the Beluga whales, and woke up to two polar bears attacking the frozen peanut butter-and-fish snack we'd prepared for them the evening previous.
Family sleepovers at SeaWorld in Orlando lend a whole new meaning to camping in the wild. In essence you are sleeping in the Arctic Circle, inside sleeping bags spread before floor-to-ceiling protective glass aquariums, where whales swim on one side and big white bears prowl on the other.
We got to feed the bears snacks (otherwise known by animal trainers as EEDs - environmental enrichment devices) and used practically every goodie on hand: marshmallows, Fruit Loops, Cheerios, apples, raisins, and - the piece de resistance - capelin fish.
The kids helped trainers pour in the ingredients, the first activity in our sleepover, one of several themed family sleepovers throughout the year (themes vary by year). Counselors demonstrated the power of the animals that would be eating our culinary masterpieces in the morning with two white buckets labeled "Before" and "After." The first showed a bucket in which the trainers might hide food for the polar bears, to give them something to play with - an EED. The "After" bucket was smashed, clawed and chewed to near pulp. A graphic and succinct way of demonstrating polar bear strength.
We spied on harbor seals, sharks, sea turtles, dolphins, rays, manatees and beluga whales, and then attended the Shamu Rocks America show, an energizing and splashy (literally) night-time presentation of killer whale feats, put on seasonally during the holidays. We were escorted through the back door and walked through the Wild Arctic exhibit to see the polar bears for the first time. Only one sleeping white lump was visible in the climate-controlled, domed habitat. Down below, where we would sleep, Beluga whales sang to each other and a baby cuddled with its mother, much like we'd be doing later in the chilly setting. Much later. Sleepovers, you know, don't necessarily imply sleep, and true to definition, we were up past midnight.
After a pizza party we watched the finale laser and fireworks show, another seasonal holiday favorite. Back at SeaWorld's Education Center we made a family-portrait craft, and then headed to the Arctic with bedrolls. Aaron and I positioned our sleeping bags so as to wake up to the polar bears' underwater world, a giant aquarium full of fish.
Wake-up call came (groan!) at 6:30 a.m., so we could witness the bears' appreciation of our EEDs, which were hidden in cardboard boxes. Twins Snow and Klondike tore the boxes with little etiquette and chewed on their custom-made popsicles so close to the protective glass, we felt as though we were in the room with them - though we knew that trainers don't even get into a room with these dangerous, albeit cuddly-looking, creatures. Counselors unobtrusively slipped in bits of knowledge as we watched. We learned, for instance, that the bears have black skin and that their fur hairs are actually clear.
Hungry after watching the bears devour their snack, we finished off our sleepover with cereal and muffins before the shows, action and crowds of SeaWorld even started. Made us feel special and very privileged.
Parents and kids grades kindergarten through fifth can sign up for family sleepovers (or group sleepovers for second to 12th graders), which run from 6 p.m. until 9 a.m. on select nights. Bring your own sleeping bag. Participants receive admission to SeaWorld for the next day.
A handful of other Tampa Bay attractions also offer excellent family adventures:
Busch Gardens Tampa Bay runs both day (for kids from kindergarten to high school) and resident camps (for fifth grade through college age), June through August.
Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo offers Zoo School summer camps where K-8th grade students learn about nature, science and the animal kingdom. Kids hike through the zoo, encounter amazing animals and enjoy outdoor adventures. Programs include new teen career-building opportunities, parent and preschooler programs, as well as sleepovers.
The Museum of Science & Industry (MOSI) in Tampa offers day programs, field trips, camp-ins and the Sky Trail® Ropes Course, featuring 35 elements on a 12- to 36-foot-high, multilevel structure, including a zip line. The programs are appropriate for a range of ages.