An area can't be a desert if it has Shamu the whale

When the world's largest aquatic theme park opens here next month, it is expected to provide a hefty boost to the Alamo City's billion-dollar tourist trade, add more than 2,000 new jobs, and usher Shamu, the killer whale, into the hearts of thousands of children throughout the Southwest. City leaders also are pleased that the 250-acre Sea World will help identify this south Texas city with water.

``We still are constantly running into the misperception that this is an arid, desert-like region,'' says Stephanie Coleman, president of the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation. ``This will help people associate San Antonio with water.''

The misperception already is ironic, as the city's principal tourist draw is not the Alamo, but rather the quaint and lush downtown River Walk, a stretch of the San Antonio River flanked by hotels, shops, and restaurants that even in the driest of scorched Texas summers carries enough water to float river taxis. But Sea World, which could add 3 million visitors annually to the 11 million tourists and conventioneers who already come here, is expected to solidify the aquatic association.

In recent months city officials and developers with land near Sea World have met with representatives of the Disney empire. Speculation centers on the possible development of a regional entertainment or resort facility, but there appear to be no concrete plans.

In any case, potential visitors to Sea World are not making their plans contingent upon Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck moving in next-door. According to Sea World spokesman Bob McCullough, the park has already sold more than 40,000 one-year or three-year passes.

Last year San Antonio became the No. 1 tourist destination in Texas. Now the city's promoters are hoping that even at summer's wilting peak, the sight of snow falling on scores of swimming and toddling penguins, or the prospect of being splashed by Shamu, will prompt the tourists to stick around a day or two longer.

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