Journalism won’t die if you donate. Support Voice of San Diego today!

Shamu has been synonymous with SeaWorld for much of the park’s 50-year history and theme-park experts largely agree:  A “Blackfish”-fueled push to get the marine park to phase out its killer whales and the popular shows featuring them could hurt business.

But a few former theme-park executives told Voice of San Diego it doesn’t necessarily have to harm the company over the long haul – if SeaWorld is prepared.

They say SeaWorld would need to come up with a dynamic new draw and perhaps shift its business model, concepts that SeaWorld hasn’t publicly addressed in the wake of the controversial film.

Instead, the company has doubled down on what it says are the benefits of its orca shows in an anti-“Blackfish” campaign and most recently, an appearance in Sacramento, where lawmakers are considering legislation that would force the marine park to change its approach.

The push places SeaWorld at a crossroads.

Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo, once known as Marine World, offers one possible path forward if the company is ultimately forced to give up its killer whales. The largely animal-themed park, which once heavily promoted its orca shows, has transitioned to a thrill-ride focus since Six Flags took over about 15 years ago.

The San Diego Zoo and the Monterey Bay Aquarium offer another model, one that relies less on animal shows and more on the creatures themselves.

But both approaches could prove complicated for SeaWorld, which has carved out a niche as marine-animal park that also has some rides.

SeaWorld’s seems determined to continue business as usual and hope the “Blackfish” backlash fades.

If SeaWorld eventually changes it approach or is forced to shift, experts say change won’t be easy.

Connecting With Orcas

SeaWorld brought in its first killer whale in 1965, a year after the park opened in San Diego. They’ve been a go-to attraction ever since. The mascot instantly reminds visitors they’re close to an animal they can only see at a handful of marine parks around the world.

But it’s not just killer whales’ presence that matters. How they’re displayed is crucial to SeaWorld’s business model too.

SeaWorld emphasizes the creatures’ social intelligence, massive bodies and interactions with humans in its shows and allows visitors to marvel at the orcas’ striking appearance up close in its 7 million gallon tanks.

Theme-park experts and a zoo historian note that these emotional elements are central to SeaWorld’s success with Shamu.

That dynamic could be demolished by a proposed state Assembly bill.

Assemblyman Richard Bloom’s legislation would end the Shamu shows and likely move SeaWorld’s killer whales to sea pens where they’d likely be less visible. (Little is known about the sea pens and it’s not even clear they could be housed at SeaWorld San Diego.)

SeaWorld has defended its treatment of its killer whales and the shows featuring them. They say the orcas are a primary reason people come to their parks.

Tying the human experience to the animal one is the vital thrust behind the Shamu shows and the park itself, said Dave Goodman, who spent five years directing entertainment programs at SeaWorld Orlando.

But Goodman, who left SeaWorld in 2007, thinks the company could find an equally appealing replacement for its Shamu shows and killer whales if the state Assembly bill passes.

“Replacing Shamu to Seaworld is like getting rid of Mickey to Disney,” he said.  “It would have a pretty strong effect but I think the people at SeaWorld are smart enough to make a change and keep moving ahead.”

The Shamu Brand

The transformation wouldn’t be simple. SeaWorld has spent decades building a ubiquitous association with Shamu.

Disney parks emphasize the company’s popular movie characters and family experiences. Universal Studios plays up its blockbuster ties. And SeaWorld is all about killer whales.

Jason Snyder, a professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, said abandoning the orca could translate into losing customers.

“My feeling is that they would lose their key point of differentiation,” Snyder said. “They’re starting to become closer to an amusement park and a zoo, and one can get those experiences at other competitors, probably better.”

Goodman and a handful of other former theme-park executives stopped short of suggesting that nixing killer whale shows would lead to SeaWorld’s demise.

One former Walt Disney executive vice present even said SeaWorld could see success with a new focus.

Ron Logan, who now teaches at the University of Central Florida, likened Shamu to a lead actor who’s ready to retire or a movie crew regrouping after a film bombs.

Logan said the company should develop a new star and at least begin to scale back its killer whale displays and shows.

“Recognize that times have changed,” Logan said. “It’s no longer appropriate to do that like it’s no longer appropriate to spank your kids. Realize it and get on with whatever the new thing is.”

He acknowledged taking that approach will require creativity and a willingness to move on. SeaWorld would have to come up with a replacement or even multiple ones, and stick with it.

Logan thinks SeaWorld should remain a marine-mammal park. But one California theme park decided years ago to make a big pivot.

Marine World, which was originally founded in Redwood City, Calif., once featured killer whales as a central attraction but housed fewer than SeaWorld San Diego has today. The park moved to Vallejo in 1986 and changed ownership about a decade later after financial troubles. Six Flags took over operations in 1999 and eventually bought the park in 2007.

Robin Hall, a theme-park consultant who once did work for Marine World, said the park’s killer whales often took top billing despite the presence of other animals. At the time, unlike SeaWorld, the Vallejo park didn’t have rides. Animals and shows featuring them were the only draw.

That changed after Six Flags purchased it.

By 2012, Marine World was renamed Six Flags Discovery Kingdom – which now focuses more on roller coasters. It transferred its last killer whale to SeaWorld San Diego.

The park hasn’t released attendance figures recently but Patrick Tierney, who chairs the San Francisco State University’s tourism department, said Discovery Kingdom appears to have weathered tough financial times.

He thinks the gradual transition from a marine animal park to ride-dominated park with some animals was critical.

“From an outward appearance and as an observer, it appears like it was reasonably smooth and done over a period of years,” Tierney said. “I think that’s a key.”

But a crucial clause in SeaWorld San Diego’s agreements with the city may complicate the park’s ability to follow Marine World’s example. The city mandates that at least 75 percent of SeaWorld attractions contain a significant animal education or conservation element.

Add that to the fact that SeaWorld isn’t interested in abandoning its marine-animal focus. If it adds more thrill rides, the company said in a statement, it wants each new one to include animal and educational components.

“Our animal exhibits and attractions will continue to be front and center,” the company said in a statement.

Nor has SeaWorld contemplated becoming more like a traditional aquarium or zoo, it said.

Goodman, the former SeaWorld executive, said there are plenty of other destinations that offer that experience.

He said SeaWorld’s particular draw is the ability to entertain, educate and show animals in action rather than in simple demonstrations or displays where visitors may not get to see the animal in action.

“You get to see these animals do things,” Goodman said of SeaWorld’s shows. “They’re not just lying there in a sleeping position. The fish and mammals are jumping and swimming and doing all kinds of things.”

The focus on entertainment may be partly inspired by numbers. The Monterey Bay Aquarium, sometimes cited by SeaWorld opponents as a model for the company to follow, drew a record 1.9 million visitors last year but that’s still a fraction of the 4.6 million who came to SeaWorld San Diego last year.

The San Diego Zoo, which might become a SeaWorld competitor if the marine park shifted its model, hosts an average of 3.2 million people at its main location and another 1.5 million at its Escondido Safari Park each year.

Logan, the former Walt Disney vice president, doesn’t think SeaWorld needs to take such a drastically different approach – whether as an aquarium or rides park – to succeed without Shamu.

In fact, he thinks it should remain a marine park but he’s convinced a response to changing notions about SeaWorld’s display of killer whale interactions is necessary, even if the Assembly bill fails.

“Unless they change it, they’re going to have this on their back forever,” Logan said.

This is part of our Quest: SeaWorld series digging into the park’s impact on our region. Check out the previous story – SeaWorld Attendance Stops 13 Percent – and the next in our series — Inside the Alternate Reality (According to SeaWorld) Where the Blackfish Bill Passed.

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...

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.