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SeaWorld revealed this week it saw a 13 percent drop in visitors during the first three months of the year, fueling speculation that a controversial documentary is hurting the theme parks.

The company said about 3 million people visited the parks between January and March, compared with 3.5 million last year. The numbers reflect attendance at SeaWorld’s 11 theme parks, including those in San Diego, Orlando and San Antonio.

The revelation came Wednesday in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing that reported equity firm Blackstone’s plans to sell off more of its SeaWorld shares.

Blackfish,” which criticizes SeaWorld’s treatment of its trademark killer whales, emerged on CNN and Netflix late last year. But it’s unclear whether the documentary is actually deterring people from visiting the theme park.

SeaWorld executives said last month that its marine animal parks actually saw upswings in attendance in the latter months of 2013. That trend reversed in early 2014, with roughly 450,000 fewer visitors.

But there’s reason to believe “Blackfish” isn’t the sole driver of the slump, as the Orlando Sentinel pointed out Thursday:

SeaWorld executives warned investors last month that they expected first-quarter attendance to drop because the busy Easter holiday period arrives later this year than it did last year and because the company, which owns several seasonal parks that close during the winter, would have a fewer park operating days this quarter than it did a year ago.

They said the Easter shift would cost it about 250,000 visits during the first quarter and the shorter operating calendar would cost it another 100,000 visits.

That’s not to say “Blackfish” didn’t play a role in swaying at least some would-be SeaWorld visitors but it’s clearly not the only variable driving lower numbers.

If SeaWorld’s attendance predictions last month played out, other factors contributed to about 20 percent of that drop.

This is part of our Quest: SeaWorld series digging into the park’s impact on our region. Check out the previous story – What SeaWorld Can Build – and the next in our series — What a Shamu-Less SeaWorld Might Look Like.

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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