Shamu is about to be a big fish in a less-small pond.
SeaWorld announced Friday it’ll sink hundreds of millions into larger killer whale habitats and research focused on threats to wild orcas.
It won’t, however, put a stop to the popular killer whale shows that have also inspired a wave of criticism.
The news comes during a very bad week for SeaWorld. The company’s stocks tumbled 33 percent on Wednesday alone after executives admitted for the first time that fallout from the documentary “Blackfish” had contributed to reduced earnings and attendance.
SeaWorld’s now predicting a 6 to 7 percent drop in revenue for the year, a trend it also attributes to a few other factors.
The announcement is another example of how the 2013 movie has forced SeaWorld to shift its approach. Here are some key takeaways from Friday’s news.
SeaWorld is bullish on orca captivity.
Killer whales have been one of the top draws for SeaWorld for decades. Shamu is essentially the company’s Mickey Mouse.
SeaWorld’s Friday announcement makes it clear it isn’t planning on giving up its mascot – in fact, it’s willing to invest millions into keeping its whales around.
Some former theme-park executives have said SeaWorld could transition away from its trademark orcas and still thrive.
Ron Logan, a former Walt Disney executive vice president, told me earlier this year that SeaWorld needed to respond to criticisms about its treatment of orcas and perhaps transition away from killer whale displays.
“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.”
SeaWorld just made it clear it’s not interested in that approach.
SeaWorld’s sticking with its whales — and local pols are sticking with SeaWorld.
Executives didn’t reference “Blackfish” in Wednesday’s earning call.
Instead, they zeroed in on media coverage of a proposed state Assembly bill that aimed to force SeaWorld to halt its captive breeding program and popular Shamu shows, legislation that could rock the company’s longtime business model.
That bill was placed on hold this spring but talks continue and SeaWorld’s clearly been trying to persuade influential politicians to stay on their team.
State Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins was mostly mum on the legislation earlier this year but SeaWorld San Diego featured her supportive comments in a Friday press release announcing its expansion plans.
SeaWorld’s decision to consult an advisory panel of scientists about its expansions and research projects seemed to particularly impress Atkins.
Here’s a sample of what Atkins is saying about SeaWorld now:
“I also have high expectations for SeaWorld in light of today’s announcement that major investments will improve the experience and outcomes for whales both in their parks and in the wild. SeaWorld’s decision to engage with an independent scientific advisory panel is a reassuring sign for the ongoing health and welfare of these amazing creatures.”
State Sen. Marty Block, City Council President Todd Gloria and City Councilmember Lorie Zapf also had rosy things to say about SeaWorld’s Friday announcement.
SeaWorld’s CEO claims the new plans aren’t a reaction to “Blackfish” fallout. Of course they are.
In a Friday interview on the “Today” show, SeaWorld CEO Jim Atchison claimed controversy tied to the 2013 film didn’t spur the expansion plans.
“You know, people are gonna say that but that’s not gonna deter us from the work we’ve been doing,” Atchison said. “We’re not doing it one bit because of any of that.”
The announcement follows the company’s first admission that fallout from the movie is affecting its bottom line and a disappointing second quarter earnings call. Standard & Poor’s even lowered SeaWorld’s credit rating on Thursday.
SeaWorld clearly feels it must do something to respond to the criticism and decreased attendance, and the stock market.
Then there’s the fact that “Blackfish” and its fans have panned SeaWorld for its current orca tanks and what they see as insufficient research that aids killer whales in the wild.
SeaWorld’s Friday announcement is a clear attempt to respond to those concerns.
For more on SeaWorld’s business model and its unique relationship with San Diego, check out our recent quest on what SeaWorld and “Blackfish” mean for the region.