Saturday, July 15, 2006 | The beaches, the roads, the restaurants are jam-packed. Yes, it’s summer again here in San Diego in case you haven’t noticed the out-of-state license plates next to you on Interstate 8.

The tourists are here, and the number one stop on their vacation to-do list is smack dab in the middle of Mission Bay Park – SeaWorld.

We sat down with general manager Andy Fichthorn, who oversees operations of Sea World San Diego, to talk about the park’s role in putting San Diego on the map, why there are explosions overhead every night, and what Shamu taught him about life.

If you walked into a general San Diego gift shop, you’re likely to find a t-shirt, a coffee mug, a postcard with Shamu on it. Why does SeaWorld fit in with the branding of San Diego?

San Diego, as a brand, is a family market and is a market where people know to come here for active relaxation. They can be engaged in a variety of activities, but it’s not simply just relaxing on a beach – although we have that. But we have a number of attractions and destinations within the overall market.

As the highest paid-attendance tourist attraction, SeaWorld is at the forefront of that and very active with that relaxation branding that San Diego has. It’s a place where the whole family can come and have a variety of experiences, but the family doesn’t need to be broken apart in their visit here. Families can come together and have quality time here, which we know is very important for people who are on vacation and also people – Southern Californians – who are here to reconnect with their family.

What’s the purpose of the fireworks show that everyone from La Jolla to Hillcrest can see and hear in the summertime?

We have been conducting fireworks demonstrations in our summer nights program for over 20 years now. All of our fireworks displays are conducted before 10 p.m. and most of the area residents enjoy the fireworks and, again, being on Mission Bay we don’t have many residents or commercial surrounding us.

We get some complaints about fireworks and we certainly talk to our residents, but most of the folks in the area say it’s a feature – they enjoy having the fireworks as something that can be seen at a distance around the park.

I saw six killer whales out in the arena. Which one is the real Shamu?

“Shamu” is a stage name that was created after we had killer whales on display approximately 40 years ago. It’s been an incredible journey, one that we pioneered in terms of training those animals and having a very successful breeding program. Most of the animals that we just saw were born under our care, and they all assume the role of Shamu in the show.

Are the whales bred here?

We have three SeaWorld parks: here in San Diego; San Antonio, Texas; and Orlando, Fla. The advantage of having multiple parks is that we have a larger population of animals. As we have a breeding program, we have genetic diversity and also social diversity. Whether it’s killer whales, bottle nose dolphins, walruses and the other animals in the collection, we have been very successful … such that we have not collected any animals from the wild for the last 20 years.

Speaking of the wild, you accommodate animals that are built to roam a whole ocean in some finite amount of space. How does that work?

As an example, Shamu Stadium has 7 million gallons of water. It’s the largest killer whale facility in the world. We know these animals are very social and we engage them in a variety of natural behaviors. Simply performing at shows is a great enjoyment for them.

As an example, going back to the breeding programs, animals will not breed in captivity if they are under stress. The success of our breeding program is, I think, a further testament to these animals’ well-being in our care.

With the tourist boom every summer and the increased impacts that our beach communities see, especially traffic, do you have a dialogue with the nearby residents about those impacts?

Our attendance is higher on weekends, principally because, while we attract tourists, we also attract San Diegans and people from around Southern California. Despite all the work schedules that people have. Still the weekend is the time when the family tends to come together … which is good because we’re not fighting rush-hour, weekday traffic. We fill in at generally lower traffic times in particular.

During weekdays, when we do have tourists here, people are coming after that peak rush-hour time and generally leaving after peak rush hour. Generally we fit in very well …

There’s no residential or heavy industrial between us and Interstate 5, so that mitigates any potential traffic problems. We have, over the years, invested in traffic improvement on Sea World Drive: lighting, pedestrian access and other things to facilitate the traffic flow, as well as engage appropriate security forces and off-duty officer for peak times, such as Fourth of July.

This fall, voters will see a question on the ballot about whether we should try to build a new airport at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. Being that SeaWorld is such a key figure to San Diego’s tourism sector, how important is expanded air travel to your business?

Air travel is a very important aspect to our business. The tourists that come to San Diego, a large number of them come by air. We are still predominantly a “drive” market destination with very large markets – Phoenix, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Sacramento, San Francisco – feeding folks that predominantly drive to San Diego.

Nevertheless, the airport is very important for our business and for the hospitality business overall, the convention business in particular. It’s irrefutable that Lindbergh Field has a finite amount of capacity. As the busiest one-runway airport in the [country], we will reach that capacity, as has been well-documented, in about 15 years. So we do need to find a solution to the problem, there’s no question.

Lastly, one of the most popular articles on The New York Times website right now is a column called “What Shamu Taught Me About My Marriage,” which analyzed the author’s husband as though he were an exotic animal. Is there something abstract that Shamu has taught you?

I have nine-year-old twins, and raising children, in my opinion, is the most difficult job in the world. What we do with these animals is amazing, in terms of always working on positive reinforcement … What we realized is that you cannot punish a 6,000-pound animal. You need to work positively and reward success. You reinforce positive behavior as an animal works toward a goal. It’s so true, and that’s how one should raise children. One should interact with all mammals, whether they’re in the water or on land …

Creatures respond to positive reinforcement. It is a creed by which we try to deal with people as well as deal with our animals.

Interview by EVAN McLAUGHLIN

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