SAN DIEGO (CNS) - SeaWorld San Diego began its 50th anniversary celebration Friday morning with the opening of Explorer's Reef -- the new visitor's entrance.
The opening ceremony was hosted by "Good Morning America" correspondent Cameron Mathison.
Visitors will now enter the park beneath a sculpture of a wave crashing into a reef, and can visit four freshwater and saltwater pools with sharks, rays, and fish that they can reach in and touch.
The celebration comes amid controversy over keeping orcas in captivity, which has been heightened by the documentary "Blackfish."
Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, has introduced a bill to ban shows involving killer whales. Bloom said the legislation was inspired by "Blackfish."
Tuesday, the City Council proclaimed March to be SeaWorld San Diego month in honor of the theme park, which first opened on March 21, 1964.
Since then, more than 156 million visitors have passed through SeaWorld gates in San Diego. The mayor said the theme park has employed 93,000 San Diegans over the years, conducted research on marine life and generated large sums of tax revenue for the city.
SeaWorld plans an 18-month celebration of the anniversary that will include its other two parks, in Orlando and San Antonio.
Visitors at all three locations will get more up-close animal encounters, interactive experiences and new shows, according to SeaWorld. The parks will also have "Surprise Squads" out each day that will hand out prizes to patrons, like special ride access, behind-the-scenes experiences, reserved show seating, T-shirts or Shamu-themed merchandise.