On their last day in town, the cousins and I awoke at the crack of dawn to grab breakfast and make it to the Shedd by the time they opened at nine o'clock in order to evade the massive lines that have been forming there ever since the museum debuted its new "Fantasea" show in the recently-renovated oceanarium. Business might be booming at the Shedd, but it doesn't exactly improve the average visitor experience: it is hard to get in, and once you're inside, the crowds are formidable.

Upon initial inspection, the millions of dollars spent renovating the oceanarium seemed to have been for naught. The tank and the artificial scenery surrounding it appeared unchanged. It was not until the show began that the changes became apparent -- it was fairly clear that much of the money had gone to installing a professional lighting system in the ceiling to add theatrical lighting to the production, and to install a giant retractable screen around the perimeter of the oceanarium upon which they could project special effects and close-ups of the action going on in the tank. These innovations would have been perfectly acceptable, if it hadn't been for the utter ridiculousness of the "Fantasea" show they were intended to accentuate.

Whereas the Shedd's previous show consisted solely of dolphins performing tricks with trainers clad in wet-suits, the new production felt like a bizarre mash-up of Cirque du Soleil, Sea World, and the Lawrence Welk Show. It was so tacky and corny that I laughed my way through it in disbelief, and at one point, Cecelia leaned over to her father and said, "Daddy, this is silly!" If a six-year-old thinks your production is over-the-top to the point of humor, I think you have a problem.

The show opened with a set of what I can only imagine were supposed to be a trio of sea nymphs of some sort, wearing flowing robes and vocalizing in a nonsensical manner.

The bubble-shaped inset of the close-up on the screen reminded me of the caliber of special effects employed in the Lawrence Welk Show. Cirque du Soleil meets the 1970s.

After entering the oceanarium on a flying boat and selecting a "random" child (obviously a planted actress) from the crowd to participate, a series of trainers dressed in costumes that mimicked their wards moved the animals through their paces. It was really the costumes that wrecked this part of the show for me. I almost felt bad for the trainers for being subjected to such humiliation. I can't believe that at any point when they were dreaming of becoming marine biologists and working with animals that they imagined they'd be forced to wear costumes and participate in such theatrics.

Could someone please explain to me what a hawk was doing in the oceanarium show? They might catch fish occasionally, but these birds are hardly sea creatures...

Perhaps worst of all, by diversifying the show to include not just dolphins but also beluga whales, penguins, sea lions, and hawks, it felt like Fantasea was spreading itself too thin. None of the animals performed very many tricks at all. I can only hope this was done to lighten the burdens on the animals, because I missed the days of copious flips, jumps, and dolphin spins. Overall, I really wish someone would have told the planners of Fantasea that less is more. The old show deftly combined entertainment value with educational content, but the information presented in Fantasea was so overshadowed by its flamboyant production values that the show manages no semblance of balance. I'm not sure I'd ever sit through it again, but if you're going to be at the Shedd and you have very young children, I'd recommend it for their sake. Just try not to laugh too loudly -- they aren't trying to be funny.

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