AS every visitor to the Disney World area knows, time is precious, and one of the greatest challenges to the vacationer is using it wisely. There is enormous variety in the attractions, and while the tastes of one's family and the ages of one's children provide some guidelines, these are not always enough. For example, one of the most difficult choices has recently become Sea World vs. the Living Seas. Until the Living Seas opened at Disney World's Epcot Center in January, another Orlando-area attraction, Sea World, held unquestioned dominion over the underwater tourist trade. While neither Sea World nor Disney is trying to create overt competition between the two, it is inevitable that a covert element has developed, simply because visitors with limited time and money pick one rather than visit both.
The criteria for selection can be practical. For example, if you have a three-day Disney World pass, it won't cost you anything to go to the Living Seas, whereas Sea World is $16.50 a day per adult and $13.50 for children 3 to 11. In favor of Sea World, the Living Seas is generally packed to the gills, and the wait in line early in the morning can be as long as 50 minutes to an hour. Needless to say, it is also very crowded inside despite valiant efforts to maintain a steady flow. An inside tip from an Epcot employee: If you can't get there first thing in the morning before the line gets long, go to the World Showcase and come back to Future World and the Living Seas in the afternoon or early evening, the reverse of the usual traffic pattern.
There are also significant conceptual differences between the two attractions, and it is far more accurate to say that they complement rather than duplicate each other. In fact, if you have sufficient time and interest, the best choice of all is a visit to both, a total immersion that produces a gratifying feeling of stimulation rather than saturation.
But for those of you who must choose, the main difference is that Sea World is entertainment and the Living Seas is education. The source of Sea World's popularity is its shows, which focus on the interaction between man and underwater creatures, such as whales, seals, and dolphins, and encourage attitudes of respect, awe, and admiration. The leading attraction now, for example, is Baby Shamu, a baby killer whale born a year ago in September and nurtured in captivity, who appears with his parents in a performance that movingly demonstrates the trust and communication that can develop between man and these sensitive mammals. Other draws are the seal and dolphin shows, which rely more on ``cute'' tricks than natural behaviors to show off their intelligence, and the ``shark encounter'' exhibit, which is just as clearly targeted for popular appeal especially to young children.
While Sea World is not without educational value or purpose, it cannot compare in this regard with the Living Seas. Both its stated theme, ``a better understanding of mankind's reliance on the seas, our relationship with them, and the role they will play in our future'' and its sponsorship (United Technologies Corporation) reveal an unmistakable scientific orientation. There seems to be as much emphasis on the technology of underwater exploration as on underwater life itself, despite the showcasing of its beauty and diversity along the complete Caribbean reef that the 6 million-gallon gallon ``ocean'' contains. For example, the entrance lobby recapitulates the history of ocean diving, and the perspective on the underwater environment from ``Seabase Alpha'' is meant to simulate that of a diver as scientist rather than tourist.
There is a tremendous amount the older child and the curious adult can learn at the Living Seas about ocean ecosystems, mariculture, oceanography, and state-of-the-art underwater technology. But young children, such as my seven-year-old, may be bored. Perhaps the most vivid illustration of the differences between Living Seas and Sea World is the way dolphins are exhibited. A ``hands on'' policy at Sea World permits visitors to feed and pet them; at the Living Seas, marine mammal scientists interact with them and explain their behavior.