“Blackfish” has inspired some SeaWorld opponents to argue the company should nix its trademark killer whales and become a more traditional theme park. But a city rule would complicate a big transformation.

In 2002, some San Diegans feared SeaWorld aimed to eschew its educational mission in favor of rides and theatrics that could spike attendance.

The city responded with a mandate: At least 75 percent of the attractions in the Mission Bay marine park must include significant animal education or conservation-related elements.

The requirement was central to past discussions about SeaWorld’s long-term footprint here and has particular relevance today as state Assembly members consider legislation that aims to transition the park away from orca performances.

City rules would make a shift toward more rides and fewer animals difficult. And then there’s the fact SeaWorld isn’t interested in such a change.

Here’s a closer look at the city’s mandate, which appears in SeaWorld’s Mission Bay lease and in city planning documents, plus a handful of others that shape what SeaWorld can build here.

Educational Majority

SeaWorld’s lease and long-term planning blueprint with the city make it clear: More than two-thirds of the park must contain a significant education or conservation focus.

The city defined things this way in 2002:

an element in a larger, single attraction shall be considered “significant” if, in the reasonable opinion of the city manager (i) an education or animal-conservation related element could function as a separate exhibit, independent of the larger attraction into which it is incorporated, and (ii) the education or animal-conservation related theme imparts information and knowledge about the animal and/or its environment.

City rules don’t spell out specific educational standards or metrics, though. The onus is on the mayor to decide whether SeaWorld is meeting its commitment.

Former Councilwoman Donna Frye tried to give the SeaWorld educational requirement more teeth when the City Council signed off on it in 2002, hoping to more clearly define an educational exhibit and to require a public review of proposed developments. She failed.

A year before the deal was inked, a SeaWorld-commissioned analysis found the park was 1 percent shy of meeting the 75 percent rule.

SeaWorld says education has been a key component of new attractions. For example, a spokesman said, the Manta roller coaster that debuted in 2012 includes a bat ray touch pool. And the centerpiece of SeaWorld’s new Explorer’s Reef exhibit are pools featuring various marine animals and explanations by SeaWorld aquarists and educators.

How SeaWorld Ducked the Height Limit

SeaWorld narrowly eked out an exemption in November 1998 to the city’s ban on tall buildings near the beach. At the time, the park said it hadn’t decided what it wanted to build.

But the outcome forced SeaWorld to work with the city and the state Coastal Commission to determine what percentage of its attractions – and which ones specifically – could exceed the 30-foot limit.

That meant reworking the city’s long-term development blueprint for SeaWorld to allow for buildings up to 160 feet, a process that played out over more than three years.

The update required public meetings, environmental reviews and input from the Coastal Commission. The master plan notes that SeaWorld organized eight public forums and a city planning board workshop at the park to collect community feedback.

The final version of the planning document, which was ultimately approved by the City Council and the Coastal Commission, dictated that no more than 25 percent of the theme park could eventually exceed the 30-foot height limit and that the majority of the exempted structures needed to be under 60 feet.

What SeaWorld Got to Build

SeaWorld revealed what tall structures it hoped to build in 2000.

SeaWorld executives had repeatedly told community meetings that roller coasters weren’t in the park’s long-term plans, according to Union-Tribune archives. But one of the first new attractions announced after the height limit vote sure looked like one.

Journey to Atlantis, a water ride that includes a 60-foot drop, relies on a rail system but SeaWorld insisted it wasn’t technically a roller coaster.

“It’s not a roller coaster,” a former SeaWorld general manager Dennis Burks told the Tribune when the ride debuted in 2004.”It’s a splashdown ride.”

But even SeaWorld itself  calls the attraction as a “water coaster ride” on its website, and websites like Wikipedia and Yelp refer to it as a roller coaster.

A year before SeaWorld introduced the new ride, the company built a multi-story education center. And a couple weeks ago, the company introduced the Explorer’s Reef and other entryway upgrades described in the master plan.

The master plan document also allows SeaWorld to expand its special-events center, Nautilus Pavilion, but a spokesman said the park hasn’t proceeded with the project.

What SeaWorld Might Build

SeaWorld’s master plan left open the possibility of a handful of special projects.

The most notable is a 300-room hotel along the Perez Cove shoreline. SeaWorld was barred from proposing the building – which can’t be above 30 feet – until at least July 2011.

Before it can move forward with such plans, the city’s development blueprint requires SeaWorld to provide both a traffic and economic feasibility study that shows Mission Bay could support another hotel. SeaWorld has yet to submit these to the city.

The plan contemplates expanding SeaWorld’s nearby marina too. A SeaWorld spokesman declined to say whether it plans to push for either.

The planning document also leaves open the possibility of a four-story parking garage and transit center but notes that they can’t be proposed until “park attendance justifies the additional parking.” The plan doesn’t specify what that justification might look like.

But the document raises the possibility that the parking garage could serve as more than a hub for cars. It provides an overview of a past Metropolitan Transit Development Board study that considered a transit link between San Diego’s inland areas and coastal attractions like SeaWorld, and suggested the marine park could house a stop.

A SANDAG planner told Voice of San Diego it’s unlikely a transit stop will materialize at SeaWorld anytime soon.

This is part of our Quest: SeaWorld series digging into the park’s impact on our region. Check out the previous story – SeaWorld Visitors – and Ex-Visitors – in Their Own Words – and the next in our series — SeaWorld Attendance Drops 13 Percent.

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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