One Last Time

The Texas Story Project.

I stand in front of the marble arch, flooded with memories of this exact moment throughout the years. Walking through the entrance of SeaWorld has always given me a magical feeling, and this time is no different. Even coming here as a teenager—older—the huge arch with the orca at the top in stained glass awes me. A huge part of my childhood lives here, and every year I return to it.

You walk through the archway, and it is like Christmas spirit has exploded around you and you are now inside a little bubble of happiness. I was crazy excited just looking at the entrance, and even happier to finally be inside. It’s like a mini paradise.

As usual, the first thing we do once we get inside is ride the Shamu roller coaster. It is a family tradition, and a SeaWorld trip just isn’t complete without it. It is a tiny, purple, rickety little coaster, nothing fancy at all, but we have been riding it for years, and I love it. After standing in line for about ten minutes, we pile in. My sister and me in one row, and my dad and brother behind us.

“Are you ready?” I ask my brother, Andrew. “Put your arms up!”

Caroline, my sister, gives me one of those looks that says, “I’m not a baby!” But I can see her excitement building underneath.

The man gives the “All clear!” and off we go. We slip over a small bump, and tilt sideways. Then there is an acceleration, and we go over a slightly steeper bump. As we fly by, a camera catches the laughter on our faces. It isn’t much, but it’s just one of those things that never gets old.

I remember the first time my father took me on this ride. I was absolutely terrified, having never been on a roller coaster before, and so I was clutching my father’s hand like a lifeline. There were probably some tears involved, even though I was trying to be a “big girl.” Now I wonder how something so small and gentle could have ever been so scary, something I was so proud to say that I went on.

One of my favorite parts about going to SeaWorld is just walking around. The trees are lit up in all the colors of the rainbow, and there are little candy cane forests sprinkled in small pockets all over the park. You can’t help but oooh and aaah as you pass through them. All of the staff members are wearing light-up Christmas necklaces, and their cheeriness is infectious. The stadiums are lit up against the sky, and the reflections of the lights sparkling on the lake are breathtaking. As you journey deeper into the park, you start to notice the true beauty of SeaWorld. The smiles, the continued laughter, the excited shouts. The awe on people’s faces as they get up close to a dolphin, or as Shamu waves to them. The excitedness with which the children pull their parents to go faster, as they point ahead. And the very obvious joy on each person’s face when they experience that magic that is signature to SeaWorld.

Another huge tradition of going to SeaWorld for us are the shows. The Sea Lion show is a particular family favorite. The show is always a little different, but with the same basic idea. The instructors have to make Christmas happen for Clyde and Seamore (who were the star sea lions), but somehow at the last minute, the “magic light bulb” which holds the show together, breaks, and they need to find a new one so that they can “Save the show, and Christmas, for the sea lions!”

Now what happens is before every show, someone from the cast comes out and gives the “magic light bulb” to a child in the audience. And a few years ago, they gave it to us. I was probably about nine at the time, making my sister seven. And so they gave the lightbulb to us, more specifically, my sister. The only thing was, she was whining about something at that moment, so I took it instead. Every year, I had seen that one lucky child get to hand the lightbulb to the man in the red sweater, and “save Christmas.” So I was ecstatic that, by default, I would get to do it.

Halfway through the show, however, my sister decided that she wanted the lightbulb. Of course, I, being the stubborn nine year old that I was, was not going to let my little sister steal my glory. She tried to take it from me, but I was not allowing it. So throughout the whole show we sat there, each holding one end of this lightbulb, tugging to try and get it from the other person.

Eventually I got it, and she started to whisper-yell at me. Of course, my mom heard us, and tried to calm us down without annoying the people around us. It was with little success, because sometime during this, my sister started to cry.

“The man gave it to me! Not h-her,” she sobbed. I made some sassy retort about how she was too busy crying to even want it in the first place, earning a look from my mom. Of course, this just made Caroline cry harder.

Inconveniently, around this point came the time in the show where they needed to “find” the lightbulb in order to save the show. The man came up into the audience pretending to look for it, all the while just looking at us through the corner of his eye. His facial expression was quite comical, and his giant santa hat and red Christmas sweater really didn’t help. My sister and I both reached to hand it to him, and after a small scuffle, my sister emerged triumphant.

I remember being very upset in the moment, but after, feeling proud that I had “let” my sister give the lightbulb. Maybe that’s just a thing that nine year olds can convince themselves of.

At the time handing over the lightbulb seemed like the most important thing I had ever done, but now I think it’s hilarious because it would never matter. In fact, Caroline and I would probably just give it to Andrew. It’s strange how we can go to the same places and do the same things, but the little things that matter are completely different.

Looking back on that, the older me can’t help but think about my younger self as Caroline and I stand in line for a roller coaster. This wasn’t as big of a ride and so there were two little girls in front of us. I had seen them all over the park throughout the day; they were part of a larger group of about six children, all under ten it seemed. More than the others though, these two girls reminded me of me and my sister when we were younger. Skipping along excitedly, talking, giggling, maybe even pulling off something as ridiculous as me and Caroline’s lightbulb stunt.

For some reason, this thought made me strangely sad and remorseful. Then one of the girls, the older one, turned to us and asked, “Are you twins?” I laughed. Even though I am two years older than Caroline, she is almost as tall as me, and we had been getting a lot of the twin spiel lately. I told her “No,” and she seemed kind of embarrassed, so I made the point to continue our conversation. For the next few minutes, we talked about our families, where we were from, and then SeaWorld itself.

After they left, I stood there thinking about how I used to be just like her, running around with my siblings without a care in the world, just enjoying myself.

As we walked around the park that evening, I started to notice some things. Even though we were doing all the things that we normally did—taking all the rides, eating cotton candy, walking around looking at the decorations, everything “normal”—something was off. I grabbed my sister’s arm and slung it around my shoulders for reassurance, but as I was doing that, the slow truth started to hit me. I realized that it felt like the last time I was truly going to come here as a “child.” It seemed crazy, but I knew it was true.

I voiced these thoughts at dinner that night. It was freezing outside, so to escape the chilly night air we were sitting in a small booth at this cozy little buffet by the lake.

“For some reason, it seems like the last time we will come here,” I said quietly. I didn’t add the part about me not being a child anymore, because I wanted to think more about it privately.

“Yeah, it kind of does,” Caroline agreed.

“Well, we are getting a little old for this,” said my dad. “Eventually we will move on to bigger things.” Those words caused an unexpected pang in my heart, as true as they were. I was grateful when my sister intervened.

“But we have to keep coming! It’s a tradition!”

“Yeah,” said Andrew enthusiastically, “And besides, it’s still super fun.” My mom smiled at me. I wondered if she knew what was going on in my head.

After a few moments of silence the conversation changed, but I was left pondering these thoughts.

Every SeaWorld trip I’ve been on has been memorable. It is a special time with my family in a place where we really connect. That all was the same this time, but this trip was also very different. I felt older, and still young at the same time: like a child, but at the same time, more mature.

And it was then, sitting there with my family, that I realized that maybe SeaWorld is only a chapter of my life. Things I find entertaining, that amuse me, even though I will always cherish them, will come and go. But the people I experience them with will stay the same. The location is temporary, but family is forever.

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