Can SeaWorld survive against Disney, Harry Potter and PETA?

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San Diego Union Tribune

By LORI WEISBERG JUNE 22, 2019

SeaWorld’s parks are enjoying a long-awaited rebound thanks to new thrill rides and bargain prices compared to Disneyland. But PETA is back with a new campaign that could spoil the theme park company’s good times

Trainers lead dolphins through a series of acrobatic performances during a packed Dolphin Days show at SeaWorld in June.
(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

In a nearly full outdoor theater, audience members coo and clap as SeaWorld’s youngest sea lions slither on stage where trainers entice them with fresh fish and an orange rubber toy they obediently fetch from the show pool. Nearby, the faint shrieks of people riding the sprawling Manta roller coaster fill the air every time the trains take a 54-foot plunge.

Several animal shows and coaster rides later, many of these same visitors will end their Saturday outing by stopping to catch one of the San Diego park’s newer attractions — a summertime Sesame Street parade of whimsical floats, with Elmo and friends dancing their way down the parade route.

It was only a few years ago that growing unease over captive killer whales, fueled by the blistering documentary “Blackfish,” made visiting SeaWorld’s marine parks feel like a shameful experience for many. Company revenue and visitation tanked, and there were even rumors of a possible sale.

Not today. Last year, parent company SeaWorld Entertainment saw its first annual attendance increase since 2015 with nearly 2 million more people visiting its parks than three years ago. Meanwhile, the San Diego park, which had suffered through five consecutive years of declines, registered the single largest percentage gain in visitation — 22 percent — among all major theme parks. Wall Street responded, rocketing the stock price to double what it was a little more than a year ago.

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Credit a surge in thrill rides, more affordable pricing, aggressive cost-cutting and fading memories as “Blackfish” images of bleeding and scarred killer whales and battered trainers receded into the rear-view mirror. Three CEO’s and several federal probes later, SeaWorld seems to have found, at least for now, the sweet spot between roller coasters and entertaining marine mammal shows, sprinkled in with an almost monthly cycle of festivals and nighttime and holiday celebrations.

SeaWorld
SeaWorld senior trainer Denise Higginbotham, center, instructs Klondike, a male beluga whale, to perform for people who signed up for the Beluga Interaction Program on a recent Saturday. The participants from left are Kit Huang, Amy Ai, Dennis Cathcart, and Simon Parker.
(Hayne Palmour IV / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“I do think the negative sentiment has dissipated to the point where people aren’t feeling as guilty and now think it’s OK to go to SeaWorld again,” said San Diego State University professor George Belch, who chairs the school’s marketing department. “It’s hard to isolate one particular variable here. You have a stronger economy, new rides and a new generation of customers having kids. When my son comes to town they enjoy taking their younger kids there and the guilt issue doesn’t come up.”

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Back Story: Chronicling SeaWorld’s comeback

While the Orlando-based company made groundbreaking changes three years ago when then-CEO Joel Manby announced an end to the captive breeding of orcas and San Diego’s theatrical Shamu show, attendance still continued to slide. Only as SeaWorld started introducing more conventional amusement park attractions — the San Diego park next year will get its third coaster in three years — did visitation numbers start to climb. Flash sales and tempting annual pass offers that include free parking also helped get more people through the turnstiles.

“In our industry, coaster is king so whenever you put a roller coaster in, people come out for it,” said Dennis Speigel, president of Ohio-based Theme Park Services. “SeaWorld shifted the momentum at the right time. Will that be key to their success in their future? I don’t know. They are a hybrid park right now. I see them continuing more of what they’re doing.”

Tidal Twister
Riders brave the new Sea World ride called Tidal Twister on May 21, 2019.
Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune

While SeaWorld has clearly seen encouraging results across its portfolio of 12 theme parks, it may be premature for executives to rejoice.

Just as the so-called “Blackfish effect” is wearing off, SeaWorld’s longtime nemesis, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, has launched a new anti-SeaWorld campaign, this time targeting the marine parks’ dolphins. The animal rights group has called on the parks to cease employing circus-style theatrics in their Dolphin Days shows, which, among other things, feature trainers riding on the dolphins’ backs.

Animals, insists SeaWorld CEO Gus Antorcha, are central to both the business model of the company and its mission, and that will not change. In fact, he would like to see them emphasized even more.

“Animals are absolutely core to the experience of SeaWorld,” Antorcha said last week in his first interview with a reporter since joining the theme park company four months ago following Manby’s departure.

“Animal experiences make us unique, and the other competition doesn’t have that. Yes, we’ve been adding more roller coasters but they’re all linked back to education and conservation. If you look more broadly, we’re trying to make sure a family will have a great day at the park, and thrill rides done the way SeaWorld does them help round out that experience.”

Whether PETA’s latest offensive will dampen SeaWorld’s financial turnaround — without the help of a viral documentary — remains to be seen. But experts say it would be unwise to dismiss PETA’s influence, post “Blackfish.”

“I think it’s possible for SeaWorld to continue to recover and for PETA to still have a detrimental impact,” said Todd Regan, who operates the theme park fan site, MiceChat, and uses the pen name Dusty Sage. “It may be that PETA forces them out of the animal show business. I do think PETA will have an impact on that. There is no doubt that in the long term the SeaWorld where you have animals perform for your entertainment is not sustainable. But as long as they focus on rides and ecology, I think they can transform into a full-fledged theme park.”

SeaWorld’s Dolphin Days Show
Trainers swim with the dolphins during the Dolphin Days show at Seaworld on June 5.
(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Riding dolphins like they’re surfboards

There is no shortage of theatrics in SeaWorld’s daily Dolphin Days show, from leaps and plenty of tail-splashing to choreographed twirls. But there is one move that comes without warning, lasts for only a few seconds and delights the audience. A trainer rises suddenly from the show pool, astride two of the dolphins, her feet resting on the beak-like part of the animals’ mouths. The performance has become a flash point for PETA.

To watch the show for the first time can feel as though you’re in a time warp. Where the SeaWorld parks long ago banished trainers from entering the water with the killer whales during the Shamu shows, the aquatic rodeo moves are very much a part of Dolphin Days. The audience, packed into the nearly 3,000-seat amphitheater, cheers the trainers as they hitch a ride on the backs of the dolphins speeding around the perimeter of the show pool at speeds of more than 20 mph.

“Instead of wasting time arguing about captivity as a general topic, we should be discussing how can we save these animals under pressure.”

GUS ANTORCHA, CEO OF SEAWORLD ENTERTAINMENT

That sort of behavior, say PETA activists, may make for good theater, but it is an unnatural act that is cruel and demeaning to the dolphins and must end. It’s no accident that the group’s latest campaign, which has enlisted actor Alec Baldwin in a supporting role, comes as SeaWorld is on the rebound.

“We’re seeing the trends like everyone else is — the stock price, the attendance (gains) —and it became very clear to us that people aren’t seeing what is going on with the other animals in the parks, the dolphins specifically, so we have to step up our efforts,” said Lisa Lange, a senior vice president with PETA who has been with the organization for 27 years. The group held a news conference earlier this month to publicize a study it authored documenting what it claims are the abuses of dolphins under SeaWorld’s care.

“When you’ve got SeaWorld pushing their other attractions in their ads and we’re now six years away from ‘Blackfish,’ people are going to think it’s a different amusement park,” Lange said. “The failing on our part is we may have focused on orcas for too long, but the dolphins are still being used in circus-style shows, they’re still being bred, they’re still being forced to live in incompatible social groups. They’ve had every freedom taken away from them.”

SeaWorld responded by hastily organizing a news conference in which its veterinarians addressed PETA’s allegations. They dismissed the move by PETA as a publicity stunt that had no basis in science. Veterinary staff members rejected claims that the dolphins were harmed in any way, pointing out that they never diagnosed a dolphin injury related to any of the show behaviors, and had they, the behavior would have been eliminated.

Antorcha agrees, stressing no changes will be made with regard to the dolphins, which currently number 137 in four SeaWorld parks.

“You’ve got some folks chasing publicity. We’re not, we believe in science, and we’re committed and dedicated to these animals,” said Antorcha, who has visited each of SeaWorld’s 12 parks, some of them multiple times. “To suggest that these animals are somehow being harmed is absolutely incorrect and we’d never do anything in that regard.”

He also is quick to push back against the now familiar argument that keeping captive animals in marine parks and zoos is by definition bad.

“I hear this argument around captivity but it’s not focused on the right question,” Antorcha said. “Instead of wasting time arguing about captivity as a general topic, we should be discussing how can we save these animals under pressure. “We don’t harm animals, we rescue them.”

Part of SeaWorld’s undoing in the past, say analysts, were its missteps in responding to a growing chorus of detractors in the wake of “Blackfish.” For example, just days before the limited release of the film, SeaWorld took the highly unusual step of sending a point-by-point critique of the documentary to 50 film critics. TV commercials followed, meant to show how the parks’ trainers and vets lovingly care for their animals.

SeaWorld
Gopinath Rao and his wife Sangeetha look at sharks while in the Shark Encounter at SeaWorld on a recent visit.
(Hayne Palmour IV / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Today, most TV ads and billboards highlight new rides or special events, like SeaWorld’s nighttime summer extravaganza, Electric Ocean, with its brightly costumed aerial performers, aquatic stunts and a speedboat that performs acrobatic flips in the bay. Animals are almost an afterthought, although SeaWorld’s decades-long rescue of stranded sea animals — it reached a milestone of 35,000 rescues this month — continues to be promoted.

The company also has been on a re-branding mission when it comes to the longstanding icon of its marine parks, Shamu. The black and white killer whale plush animals are still widely sold at the park gift shops, but attractions like the Shamu Express coasters in the Orlando and San Antonio parks were updated and renamed Super Grover’s Box Car Derby. Similarly, Shamu’s Happy Harbor in Orlando is gone, replaced by Sesame Street land, which opened earlier this year.

The company, though, has been in less of a hurry to remake the killer whale shows across all of its namesake parks. Although San Diego made a big splash two years ago with the new Orca Encounter, a documentary-style reinvention of the One Ocean killer whale show, the Orlando and San Antonio parks have yet to make the transition.

Antorcha said changes will be made to the orca shows at those two parks to include more “educational components” but he could not provide details whether there will be wholesale changes to the set design, as was done in San Diego, to incorporate National Geographic-style video of orcas in the wild.

“Blackfish” director Gabriela Cowperthwaite has joined PETA in its effort to end SeaWorld’s dolphin shows, even appearing at the group’s news conference, but she has no plans to make a dolphin version of her killer whale documentary.

“They have been able to sell the idea that they stopped the orca breeding program and have done some things to be on the right side of history,” said Cowperthwaite, whose 2013 film was repeatedly aired on CNN. “Still, circuses have stopped and seeing the trainers on the dolphins seems like a strange artifact.”

Regan of MiceChat quickly discovered the still strong emotions surrounding animal captivity when he posted on his website what he thought was a charming video of “junior reporter” Lindalee Rose of YouTube fame riding on the back of one of the SeaWorld San Diego dolphins. Some of the comments aimed at the 10-year-old Rose were so harsh that Regan said he felt compelled to remove them.

Like it or not, though, animals remain a key component of the SeaWorld parks that differentiate them from their competitors in the theme park world. Touch pools featuring sea life are scattered throughout the San Diego park, many rides are accompanied by an educational marine component, and, for an added charge, there are multiple opportunities to interact with beluga whales, sea lions and dolphins.

Analysts point out that SeaWorld has to be careful to not risk alienating its loyal base of pass holders by moving away from the very thing that has drawn them to the parks for years and still does.

“It saddens us that every year the park becomes a little less like the zoo and a little more like Disneyland,” said Jared D’Onofio, a long-time San Diego pass holder and high school English teacher at Francis Parker School.

While he has seen some of the animal exhibits give way to non-animal attractions over the years, D’Onofio says he still believes the park exposes young people to ocean and animal conservation they would not otherwise experience firsthand.

“Some of my students who had seen ‘Blackfish’ asked what I thought about it and if I went to SeaWorld. When I said I did, some would ask, ‘How can you do that?’” D’Onofrio said. “Not all San Diegans are going to go kayaking or whale watching or snorkeling, but SeaWorld makes that kind of ecology real to them and makes them care, even if it’s unfortunate we have animals set aside in zoos and aquariums.”

SeaWorld
The Sesame Street Party Parade at SeaWorld.
(Hayne Palmour IV / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Disney has “Star Wars;” SeaWorld has Sesame Street

Elmo, Big Bird and the Cookie Monster wave and prance their way along a SeaWorld pathway, accompanied by upbeat tunes from “Sesame Street” and a procession of 10 colorful floats, as costumed performers engage youngsters to join the late afternoon dance party.

Once the weekend parade ends 20 minutes later, the throngs of onlookers are directed to a cordoned-off area as they make their way to the exits, prompting one exasperated mother to complain, “This is getting to be like Disneyland.”

Laments about Disneyland-like congestion would likely be gratifying news for SeaWorld Entertainment executives, who continue to explore new ways to boost attendance at their parks. Intellectual property, as it’s known in the business, increasingly plays a pivotal role in luring more people to visit theme parks, the most notable examples being the Harry Potter franchise at Universal Studios and Disneyland’s recent debut of “Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.”

While SeaWorld doesn’t own the kind of blockbuster content that its much larger rivals are able to parlay into huge, buzz-worthy attractions, it can still make licensing deals to raise the profile — and appeal — of its parks.

“Bob Iger and his team at Disney will never do another Haunted Mansion where they concoct a ride from whole cloth,” said theme park expert Martin Lewison, who teaches business management at Farmingdale State College in New York. “They’ll always choose an intellectual property from a company they already own like Marvel and Lucasfilm. Parks like SeaWorld have to buy IP or rent it, but Sesame Street is a relatively affordable and well-known IP, and it crosses generations with parents who watched Sesame Street and now have children of their own.”

Familiar brands also provide lucrative merchandising opportunities, which can account for more than 30 percent of a theme park’s revenues, including food and beverage, says Lewison. Most Sesame Street-themed offerings, though, are not going to come close to the kind of prices that “Star Wars” merchandise can fetch. Consider an Elmo light-up bubble wand that sells for $23.20 vs. a customized “Star Wars” lightsaber for $199.99.

Going to SeaWorld on the installment plan

While Disney park revenue will no doubt soar in the coming year with the new “Star Wars” attraction and a recently announced Marvel Land coming to California Adventure next year, a visit to SeaWorld remains a comparative bargain thanks to the company’s aggressive marketing of tiered annual passes.

For $6.24 a month, an annual pass will get you in to SeaWorld San Diego year-round with no blackout dates and free parking. Compare that to Disneyland’s lowest priced pass price of $20.44 a month (after a $154 down payment), no complimentary parking, and the entire summer blocked out. Although SeaWorld doesn’t have anywhere near the breadth of attractions and rides that Disneyland does, the more affordable cost for repeat visitors who will spend more once inside the park could prove to be a profitable move by SeaWorld.

While SeaWorld Entertainment did see its admission per capita fall 4 percent last year, in-park per capita spending jumped 6 percent.

“Ten years ago, one day at SeaWorld and one day at Disney were close to the same price,” said theme park analyst Bob Boyd of Newport Beach-based Pacific Asset Management. “But since then, Disney and Universal have invested dramatically and raised their prices so dramatically, so SeaWorld really had to become a better value, which is why I think they have rebounded.”

There are some, though, who caution that it’s too soon to proclaim the ascendant company as fully healed. After all, says Lewison, SeaWorld is still far off its peak performance, which is especially true for the San Diego park, which had nearly 800,000 fewer people visiting last year than in 2012, when attendance approached 4.6 million.

And if SeaWorld is banking on more thrill-inducing rides to catapult it into even headier territory, don’t count on it, says Bill Coan, CEO of Itec Entertainment, which has designed rides and attractions for parks around the world.

“What do they want to be 10 years from now, not tomorrow or a year from now?” Coan said. “In their case, they’ve made a decision to go with thrill attractions, which is short- term thinking. But if they take advantage of the fact they’re a preeminent marine park and find character in that larger thing, they have an opportunity to separate themselves from the others because Disney and Universal won’t do that.

“If they do the rides, the other guys will inevitably beat them.”

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