Each year, tens of thousands of Southern California students visit SeaWorld.

SeaWorld has long said the arrangement is central to its mission of helping visitors understand and care about marine mammals.

The park’s educational programming, the requirements of which are enshrined in its lease with the city, separates it from most other theme parks. But those offerings also benefit SeaWorld itself.

The company’s programs provide students a fun, affordable trip to SeaWorld or a hands-on learning opportunity with a marine park expert. At the same time, the company gets an in with valuable young customers who may persuade their families to buy passes or spend more time at SeaWorld.

SeaWorld’s city lease requires that it provide low-price admissions for field trips to area schoolchildren and last year, more than 87,000 students and chaperones visited as part of the park’s most basic instructional program. Thousands more went on longer field trips, attended camps or enjoyed SeaWorld’s other educational offerings.

SeaWorld’s master plan, a document that lays out long-term developments for the park, drives home its educational goals too. The blueprint the city and the theme park signed off on more than a decade ago dictates that at least 75 percent of SeaWorld’s attractions include significant educational or conservation-related elements, a detail the park has said for years that it easily achieves.

SeaWorld says its learning opportunities are centered on giving back to the community and informing San Diegans about marine animals.

“The intent and focus of this program is and has always been to get students excited and help them learn about marine animals, the ocean environment and conservation, and environmental stewardship,” spokesman David Koontz said. “Virtually all major zoos, marine parks and aquariums are committed to having extensive educational programs, and SeaWorld is no exception.”

But marketing experts note that SeaWorld’s educational push also benefits the theme park.

Think about Walt Disney for a moment. Children who grow up watching Disney movies or take a family trip to Disneyland become Disney consumers for years to come.

SeaWorld’s educational programs and investment inspire similar goodwill, San Diego State University marketing lecturer Miro Copic said.

“(The educational programs) are a way for SeaWorld to do that with students and engage them more deeply,” said Copic, also a partner at a local marketing firm. “The ones that resonates with, they’ll be fans for life.”

Former UC San Diego professor Susan Gray Davis was even more convinced of the connection between the park’s educational programming and positive publicity when she studied its programs more than 15 years ago.

Davis shadowed classes on a handful of field trips, interviewed SeaWorld educators and marketing gurus and came away with this takeaway: “Education and promotion had just become inseparable.”

Here’s an excerpt from her 1997 book, “Spectacular Nature: Corporate Culture and the SeaWorld Experience”:

Education here is literally about reaching millions of people with the SeaWorld image and message, with programs that allow the theme park to contact specific audiences located in precise and predictable environments. That these environments are not formally educational – the school, the day care center, the college classroom, the instructional television channel and its programming guide – but also give access to families with children is not a fact lost on the marketing department. Such settings can be powerfully influential in helping parents perceive SeaWorld and its products as sound and fun.

In her book, Davis wrote that the park’s education program workers were enthusiastic about serving the public but emphasized that SeaWorld managers’ open acknowledgement that “using educational programs to promote the entertainment product is common sense and good business strategy.”

At the time, brewing giant Anheuser-Busch owned the theme park. It’s since become a publicly traded company and its educational programming has been updated many times since Davis, now a University of Illinois professor, wrote a book about the park’s business model.

But SeaWorld’s investment in local education has likely come to its aid as it faces criticism over its treatment of killer whales.

Students at one local school that has a formal alliance with SeaWorld, for example, remain enthusiastic about the resources offered there despite bad press associated with “Blackfish,” a movie that pans SeaWorld’s practices.

Jennifer Sims, who helps oversee curriculum development at Pacific Beach Middle School, said the school enjoys a partnership with SeaWorld that’s benefited all involved.

SeaWorld has donated equipment left over from its summer program, stopped by multiple times a year for classroom demonstrations and has participated in the school’s annual math-science night for years. It even worked with the school to seek a grant.

“Their staff in the education department is awesome and really easy to work with,” Sims said.

The SeaWorld partnership has also translated into free student admissions for field trips – though Sims said the school hasn’t been able to afford busing in recent years – plus access to meeting facilities and reduced annual pass prices for school staffers.

Despite recent backlash against SeaWorld, the school’s eighth graders are still set to go there on their end-of-the-year trip, as they’ve done for years. And Sims said the school’s Founders Club, which she supervises, recently opted to go to SeaWorld and the affiliated Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute instead of a rock-climbing adventure.

“I don’t really know of a student that doesn’t have an annual pass because of where we live,” she said.

SeaWorld has similar partnerships with four other local schools, including Clairemont High School and Halecrest Elementary.

Not all San Diego Unified school kids are fans.

Last fall, a class at Point Loma High School produced a public service announcement calling on SeaWorld to stop using animals for entertainment and the school later hosted a forum featuring “Blackfish” director Gabriela Cowperwaithe.

Still, a spokesman for the San Diego Unified School District said SeaWorld has offered helpful learning experiences to district students for decades. The company also hosted the district’s Salute to Excellence program, which honors the district’s best-performing students, for years.

“Our students have been going to SeaWorld since the park opened 50 years ago,” district spokesman Jack Brandais said. “It’s an excellent place for children to learn about marine life.”

Brandais couldn’t say whether fewer classes have visited or partnered with SeaWorld since “Blackfish” debuted last year or if any had canceled previously planned field trips.

SeaWorld said it’s only aware of one school that’s backed out of a field trip, a Malibu elementary school.

The city’s lease with SeaWorld ensures the company closely tracks its field trip bookings. It’s required to report details on the outings to the city of San Diego annually.

Last year, the company said more than 87,000 students and adult chaperones attended its basic field trips at a cost of $6 each. (Students with park passes or those who attended schools that partner with SeaWorld got free admission.)

Laura Slanec, who supervises education programs at SeaWorld San Diego, estimated about 80 percent of those attendees go to San Diego County schools.

The students who went on those field trips usually spent about five hours at SeaWorld and kicked off their day with a tour of SeaWorld’s animal exhibits.

SeaWorld shared detailed field trip guides with Voice of San Diego that provide chaperones with guidance on many of the exhibits, as well as activity books and curriculum guides shared with schools before their visit.

SeaWorld education department employees are stationed at about 10 of those exhibits during field trips and can answer questions from students and regular visitors. They’re tasked with talking to students about the animals and explaining how students can help with conservation efforts.

Slanec said SeaWorld regularly updates those presentations and student activities based on state science curriculum guidelines. The informational booklets students and teachers receive are revised every two years, she said.

Students who go on the traditional field trip also attend a show at SeaWorld’s dolphin or sea lion and sea otter stadiums, where they learn about the animals and how the marine park cares for them.

Slanec said the focus on animal husbandry is largely based on student and teacher feedback.

“They’re interested in learning not only about the animals but how we care for the animals,” she said.

SeaWorld’s city lease bars it from making money on these $6 field trips. Last year, the company reported receiving $494,000 in admissions and about $565,700 in expenses, for a roughly $71,300 loss.

But the park does make some money from longer and less-structured SeaWorld field trips. The marine park charges $30 for all-day visits that allow the students to enjoy the park’s rides and traditional Shamu shows, a sum that’s still significantly cheaper than the $78 sticker price the park charges for a traditional child admission.

At least some of the students who attend those field trips return for another, more expensive SeaWorld educational program too.

About 13,000 scouts and students attend SeaWorld’s overnight camps each year. Another roughly 2,700 participate in its overnight or day camps, Slanec said.

This is part of our Quest: SeaWorld series digging into the park’s impact on our region. Check out the previous story – What We Learned at SeaWorld’s Big Bash – and the next in our series  San Diego Explained: SeaWorld’s Economic Impact.

Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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