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The Making of Seaworld's Holiday Show

How did Seaworld get its popular Christmas show? Find out!

In the slide show above, you're viewing pictures of the Seaworld Holiday Show at the Sea World San Diego in Southern California. This visually stunning show touches the hearts of viewers as they watch Shamu the Killer Whale perform to the sounds of beloved traditional Christmas music. A cast of trainers, musicians and choir members make this holiday spectacle a show you'll treasure in your memories for years to come.

On this page, you can take a peek behind the scenes and discover how Shamu's Christmas show was developed, rehearsed, and co-ordinated with the many cast members performing in the show with Shamu! (Photo notes: The slide show pictures were taken by our family members at several different performances. Most of the photos on the page below were sent courtesy of Sea World San Diego.)

Later, don't forget to visit the SeaWorld San Diego Christmas Events page to discover the rest of the park's fun holiday attractions!

How is a SeaWorld show developed?

Pictures: 2 whales jump during Seaworld San Diego's Holiday Show How you ever wondered how a Seaworld Shamu show "comes to life?

While each different show has its own behind-the-scenes story, there are certain common elements needed to produce all of them. What will the story be for the show? What music will be used? What actions will the killer whales perform?

On this page, you may enjoy an interview with Rick Schuiteman, producer of SeaWorld San Diego's Shamu Holiday Show, who will help you discover how one of Seaworld's popular whale shows moved from the drawing board to its stunning performances at Shamu Stadium!

An interview with the Seaworld Holiday Show's producer

Rick Schuiteman explains how Shamu's Christmas show came to life!

Rick Schuiteman holds a position within SeaWorld San Diego that many people would love to have---producer of SeaWorld's Holiday Show! (He also oversees the production of other SeaWorld shows...but chose to work directly with the Christmas performance because it was a project just too special to turn over to someone else!)

Have you ever wondered how a SeaWorld show gets its start? If you have, you'll find Rick's explanation about the Holiday Show to be fascinating!

Question: When did SeaWorld's Christmas show begin?

Picture: Shamu and 2 trainers in the SeaWorld Holiday Show

How were you approached with the project? Was the plot of the show already decided before you heard about the idea, or did you have a lot of "free reign" to develop the show's story line?

Rick's answer: The first time Shamu’s Holiday Night was seen by park guests was December 3, 2004 for our SeaWorld annual pass members. The first few years we ran the show was for pass members only. The first time Shamu’s Holiday Night was open to the general public was in 2006.

In June 2004, I was approached by the pass members relations representative asked me if we could do a special Skytower Tree of Lights lighting event at Shamu Stadium that all pass members would be invited to attend. We had done many of these tree lighting events, but she said she wanted it to be something completely different from what we’ve ever done before. That was as much direction as I was given. No plot, no theme – only Holiday Shamu Show. We had never created a Christmas Shamu Show, so is sounded like a fun opportunity. Challenging, but fun.

SeaWorld Orlando was performing a wonderful show called “Shamu’s Christmas Child,” so I started my search there. That show was based on a little girl’s dream to meet Shamu for Christmas. There were many elements of the show that we liked including live musicians and a vocalist. Music for the show included “Sleigh Ride” and “Silent Night.” (sound familiar?) While the SeaWorld Orlando story was fun, it was far too complex for a one-night show at our park, so we decided to create our own show.

Question: How did you come up with the basic themes for the Shamu Christmas Show?

Picture: 3 whales show off their tails during the SeaWorld Christmas Show in San Diego, CA Rick's Answer: I grew up in Massachusetts and recall those cold nights as a kid playing in the snow and how much fun it was, so we developed a very light storyline based on a typical holiday night. The main opening scene, “Sleigh Ride” features trainers and whales playing and having fun. They throw snow balls and are having a blast together, just like I did when I was a kid.

I also remember that the later into the night we stayed outside, the colder it got. Sometimes snow would start falling and there was always a little anxiety about getting home while it was still safe. Our Storm Segment, which features music from Tran Siberian Orchestra, is that anxiety or conflict. The scene is dark and the whales perform high energy athletic behaviors. The next scene, which features our saxophonist and live vocalist, brings peace back to the story. I correlate this to when the snow storm is over and leaves behind a beautiful and serene snow scene. Before you go out in the snow, you just take in the beauty and silence. This takes us to the finale, “Joy To The World” as a celebratory piece where we ask the audience to stand and sing. The whales perform their most spectacular behaviors in celebration as we welcome all of our guests into the festivities.

Question: How long did it take to come up with the finished script?

Picture: Musicians at Shamu's Christmas Show at SeaWorld San Diego in California

How many different versions of the show were made before you found the one which seemed "just right?"

Rick's answer: We’ve had many versions of the script versions - I’m guessing approximately 20 variations - and each year we’ve made minor adjustments. For example, in 2006 when we installed the moving video screens as part of the new set for the Believe Shamu Show, we selected all new video and even added some music just for the screens to ‘come alive’ during the show. We wanted guests to think the screens might not be used in the show until the suddenly jolted alive during the start of the “storm segment.”

In 2007, we invited 200 choir members from around San Diego to perform in the candle light “Silent Night” segment. They all marched into the stadium slowly from every entrance to a Manheim Steamroller version of the song. It was very emotional.

In 2008, we added a new song to help introduce the show. The host welcomes guests to Shamu stadium and then sings Michael W Smith’s song “Christmastime.” We received an extremely positive response from our guests to that song since it’s a great song for the season, but not well known. I initially heard “Christmastime” a few years ago when my wife was listening to Christmas music. It really caught my ear and I though it would be a great addition to the Christmas Shamu show, however, I just didn’t know where to put it. After sharing the song with show’s creative team last summer, we decided to put it at the top of the show. I was glad they loved the song as much as I did. It was really a great way to start the show.

While I love the show and we get a huge response from our guests, I don’t know if I would ever say the show is “just right.” I’m always looking at ways to tweak the show, and I have a few new ideas for next year. Sometimes it’s something completely subtle that no one may notice. This year we added the song “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” on the exit ramps of the stadium, so when guests leave the show, they hear the song playing while they leave. When you attend the show next year, listen for it when you exit the stadium!

Question: After the script was decided...

Picture: Choir members sing at Shamu's Holiday Show in San Diego, California did you connect with the performers, rehearse the shows, and decide which ideas to keep (and which you'd change?)

Rick's answer: From the production perspective, we use huge storyboards to display each segment. Under each segment name, we write the music, what video is seen, what the camera shots are, if there is a need for specialty lighting, and how we want to move the video screens. We also indicate if there is a need for a microphone or performer. Each segment will also have a whale behavior breakdown – behaviors that we think are the perfect fir for each segment. Finally, we include the lighting team with our suggestions of what the lighting looks should be.

Initially, each team works on their part of the show individually using the basic script I provide. Later we start to combine elements to make the show take shape. The trainers, for example, begin by working with the whales on specific behaviors we’d like them to perform in each of the different scenes in the show. After a number of practice sessions, we’ll play the music in the stadium and they talk through the timing of the behaviors with each of the songs. The trainers then look see if they need to modify the behavior menu to fit with the music. It’s a step-by-step approach. The whales pick up on it quickly; it’s the trainers who need rehearsals!

We have two weeks of day rehearsals where we go through each segment focusing on animals and music only. We then begin to add the layers – camera shots, video shots, and performers. The last two weeks of rehearsals take place at night, incorporating our lighting team.

There are a lot or cold late nights, but it’s a great way to welcome in the holidays. It really puts you in the spirit!

Shamu's Christmas Show---Fun Facts

Picture: Christmas show at Sea World San Diego features a classical guitarist playing music as the crowd gathers before the show

Music in the 2008 SeaWorld Christmas Show at San Diego:

Christmastime (Michael W. Smith)
O Holy Night
Sleigh Ride (Laura Morgan)
NFL Films Theme Song
Christmas Eve (Tran Siberian Orchestra)
Silent Night
Joy To The World (Mormon Tabernacle)

Performers in the Christmas Show:

Classical Guitarist, William Wilson
Male Singer and Host (several alternates)
Saxophonist, John Serrano
Female Singer and Hostess (several alternates)
Sign Choir, “Love in Motion”

Picture: Shamu spins on his shelf at the Sea World Christmas Show in San Diego, California

Production Team:

Producer & Writer, Rick Schuiteman
Choreographer, Vicky Agostino
Shamu Stage Supervisor, Vanessa Wiater
Talent Coordinator, Ricky Vasquez-Guy
Technical Project Manager, Chris Kelishes
Video/Screen Designer, Mark Ekhaml
Scenic Designer, Danny Grodecki
Lighting Designer, Ric Mittleider
Sound Designer, Sal Agostino
Costumes, Linda Shepherd
Animal Trainer Contact, Lindy Fordem
Show Control Programming, Rick Ingram

How do I get a job like yours?

Readers ask how they can get great jobs and careers with Sea World!

Picture: Shamu poses with Rick Schuiteman, producer of the Sea World Christmas Show in San Diego, California

Question: Readers will surely wonder what training you had that helped you get such an enjoyable career with Sea World. I know that not everyone who works at Sea World studied the same courses in college nor has an identical work history. However, Rick, knowing what your own career choices have been might be of interest to readers who are considering a career with Sea World. (Photo note: Rick Schuiteman poses with Shamu in the picture to your left.)

Rick: I saw my first Shamu show in 1983 when I was 13 years old (after moving to San Diego.) I knew I had to be a part of the show somehow. Twenty years later I became the Producer of the Shamu Show. Dreams do come true!

I have a drama degree from San Diego State University with an emphasis in Stage Management. I started working for SeaWorld when I turned 16 and haven’t left yet. I’ve had the privilege of working with many amazing people and I’ve learned so much about customer service, theme park operations, and the entertainment industry.

When I started working at the park I rented strollers, parked cars, and took tickets. I spent 13 years in the park operations department and worked a variety jobs and positions. Eventually I was promoted to park operations manager and ran the front gate area, but in 1999, I decided it was time to take on projects that reflected my degree. I was hired to be a talent coordinator for the entertainment department. There I began to book entertainment acts for the park -- jugglers, magicians, musical groups, and big name acts for Club SeaWorld. In 2003, the producer of the Shamu Show asked if I’d be interested in tweaking the Shamu Adventure Show. It had been around for a few years and needed some retooling. I was honored. Since that time I’ve been lucky enough to work on a variety of Shamu projects including Shamu’s House of Douse, the Shamu Experience, Believe, Shamu Rocks, and Shamu’s Holiday Night.

I’ve had so many highlights it’s hard to say what my favorite job has been. Working with the Shamu trainers and whales has been an amazing experience. The whales are fun to watch and inspire me every day. How many people can say they direct and produce a cast of killer whales? I still enjoy each and every show as much as I did as when I saw my first Shamu Show in 1983. My job is a true blessing and I am honored to be a part of this team.

Question: If talented readers would like to audition for a part in Shamu's Christmas Show, where should they apply?

Rick: Since there are a few changes in cast members every year, it might be possible for one of your readers to fill a position. Anyone interested in trying out for the show should visit the following special Sea World website:

We have four auditions a year looking for hosts, performers, musicians... you name it, we see it!

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