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For my birthday, Charlene had gotten tickets to Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, and since school starts back on Monday, we took advantage of one of our last weekdays off for the year and went yesterday. Around the time I moved to California, the land was being used as an "oceanarium" and zoo called "Marine World/Africa USA" (apparently unrelated to the operations of similar names in Florida), but in 1996 that non-profit defaulted the land to the city of Vallejo, and the company that is now Six Flags was brought in to operate it.
I am aware of the controversies over captive marine mammals. I'm sympathetic to the notion that keeping a 15-20 foot long four ton creature in a swimming pool is cruel. On the other hand, in talking to the trainers of these animals I also see the same spark and love for their charges that I observe in horse people, and I'm quite happy to wolf down a burger. The end result of this short digression into biology and ethics is to explain that when faced with a choice between riding roller coasters or watching marine mammals, I'm headed towards the walrus tank.
So we spent the day in a place now known for its rides, looking at the remnants of what it was 10 years ago. And I haven't gone to an amusement park other than Disneyland and California Adventure as an adult, so that's the standard by which I judge theme parks.
Overall, it was a disappointing experience. We may go back, but only after consideration, and then reluctantly. We weren't quite as disappointed as the folks in this message thread, but that's probably only because we've got more disposable income and expected to be nickled-and-dimed.
Our first sigh came in the parking lot, where we were informed that no outside food or drink was allowed into the park. We'd brought salads and water, but knowing that this was the era of security theater, we decided to abandon them in the car. A later conversation at the park office revealed that we probably shouldn't have pressed the issue on water, but we could have claimed a dietary restriction for the salads.
Thus parking and getting into the park both took far longer than they should, while our numbers were laboriously keyed digit by digit into the computers.
Meanwhile, we're standing in-line, and the music is very "gay dance party". Vallejo is a town that has some rougher areas, and I know that I've seen a few mentions of the park trying to keep "that other element" out. They could very easily do so by just changing their playlist a little bit so that getting into the park, and then walking around in it, was a little less like being stuck at a stoplight next to that lowered Lexus with the spinny gold rims and the fake spoiler. Hell, if they just turned down the volume a little bit that'd be cooler.
The whole place could use a little attention to detail around the edges, some paint touch-up. The staff all have T-shirts that say "Please keep the park clean, my family comes here too.", rather than reinforcing a common theme that says "this land is different from the one you came from". I realize that building such a theme is something that has to be core to the corporate values, and that's part of what separates Disney from the "milk it for profits" that we get from Six Flags, and I hate to be pimping Disney as a paragon of creating lasting shareholder value over concentrating on next quarter's results, but there it is.
After a while walking around, schedule dictated that we make some food decisions, so we decided to get a burger, the thing that most looked like food that we'd seen so far, so that Charlene could eat the patty. In general, the food in the park was awful. Battered and fried remnants that were probably animal at one point, glued together with transglutaminase. Even the Subway franchise was some sad stripped down version that had three sandwiches, and all the ingredients were hidden away behind a wall. Later in the day we ended up buying a "broccoli and beef" from Panda Express and eating the vegetable from it, just to get something.
I could go on and on with the whining about how the park wasn't what we wanted, but I think it's best summed up by a little experience I had in a bathroom break, a guy commented "yeah, gotta get rid of those beers". We started a friendly conversation, and he said "last time I was here my brother was on leave from Iraq, I managed to drink 23 beers, but he beat me by one." Now I'm actually slightly skeptical, the day we were there the park was open at 10:30 and closed at 6, so that's danged close to 4 beers an hour, but those beers were, what, $7 or $8 a piece.
So you've got people like us, people interested in the aspects of the park that are generating ethical controversy and require lots of staff (that are working there largely for the love of what they do, so hard to manage staff), paying for our entrance and then probably an extra hundred bucks or so by the time we buy the dolphin feeding experience, a couple photos of that, a bunch of bottles of water (at $3.26 a pop, gulp), or you've got this guy, slamming $6.75 in profit as fast as he can get it down, and just using the stuff paid for by capital costs and staffed by replaceable low skill workers.
How the hell does my demographic compete with that?
Anyway, the walruses were really really cool, especially when they came over to the underwater glass and started messing with the little kids who were watching, the sea lion show was fun, it was great to talk with the trainers and interact with the dolphins/porpoises at the "feed the dolphins" event, and probably the event that turned my opinions most, was when Shouka decided that she wasn't going to perform, and as the MC made excuses, went and did some wonderful mirrored play and interaction with the porpoise who was in the show. We went down and talked to one of the trainers, who was very much of the "she doesn't want to go perform, there's not much we can do but try to make her happy".
Further, the usual question that we heard several times was "how do people get into this", and she said "I've got a degree in marine biology, if I had to do it again I'd double major, psychology and general biology so that I could work with the land animals to", and then pointed out that she waited tables in the evening to pay for being able to work with these creatures.
So, would we go back? If we did, it'd be for the experience of watching the accomplishments of these people who are treating their animals a lot like horses, creatures in captivity, for various reasons, but with whom the trainers are developing relationships and working with in ways that reminded Charlene a lot of the techniques she uses with developmentally disabled kids.
On the other hand, for the price that such a day ends up being, we'd probably be better off giving some bucks to the Marine Mammal Center and visiting there, or going and watching these creatures in their natural habitat.
And leave the theme park to the drunks on the coasters.