March 17, 2016, 8:37 AM ·
SeaWorld announced this morning that it would no longer breed its orcas, meaning that no more "Baby Shamus" will be born in its parks and that its current lineup of killer whales will not expand.
Set aside for the moment any debate over the ethics of captive orca breeding (which, in my opinion, should result in agreement at least that SeaWorld and its trainers have been responsible and sensitive caretakers of their whales), and look at this announcement for what it is — a business decision.
The past decade has shown that SeaWorld's appeal to visitors was built on two things — drinking free beer and seeing trainers launch out of the water on the nose of a killer whale. When SeaWorld lost both of those things, its attendance suffered. In fact, SeaWorld Orlando's attendance has yet to recover to where it was in the days of free beer and flying trainers.
By ending whale breeding, SeaWorld effectively sets an as-yet-undefined end date for visitors to see orcas at its parks. That creates a sense of scarcity that might entice some curious visitors to come see the whales before they're gone. (That SeaWorld's whales live for decades means that it will be a long time before that happens, but from a marketing perspective, I don't think that matters. Marketing ultimately is about the jist of the thing, not the details. Heck, I've talked with people who think that Disney's Season of the Force is the new Star Wars Land.)
Second, by not growing its orca program, SeaWorld frees resources in the long term to devote to attractions that have a greater potential to bring in more visitors. Remember, the current Shamu shows aren't getting that done. By ditching its expensive proposed Blue World project, SeaWorld is conceding that an expanded orca program wouldn't draw enough visitors to justify its expense, either.
Finally, SeaWorld avoids what could have been its worst-case scenario. Battered by competition from a resurgent Universal on one end, and growing Cedar Fair and Six Flags parks on the other, SeaWorld needs to find a fresh approach to attraction development in order to begin growing its attendance across the chain again. But if SeaWorld were to fail to do that — and it were no longer in the position to be able to afford to maintain its orca program — no other organization on Earth would be in the position to take on that responsibility. By effectively placing an end date on its orca problem, SeaWorld has created an exit strategy that doesn't rely on finding someone else to care for its whales.
And here let's note that releasing the whales into the wild was never a responsible decision. As SeaWorld noted in its announcement this morning, no large marine mammal born in captivity — whales or dolphins — has ever survived release in the wild. Activists who called for SeaWorld to "empty the tanks" effectively were calling for the murder of SeaWorld's whales. That's despicable, and SeaWorld is to be commended for ignoring those calls. The whole "sea pen" thing was never anything more than a fantasy dreamed up by PETA to dodge the charge that it was calling for the death of SeaWorld's whales. SeaWorld has created a functioning ecosystem for its whales in its parks. A sea pen would have adversely affected the ecosystem of the ocean — and taken a large part of public oceanfront for private use — for no demonstrated improvement in the lives of SeaWorld's whales.
So where does SeaWorld go from here? The parks need to do a better job of giving theme park fans what they want, even if free beer and flying trainers aren't options. Universal surged ahead of SeaWorld by creating more immersive environments and telling better stories, made possible by developing and licensing beloved characters. That model isn't patented. SeaWorld could do the same — using stories of the natural world beyond our shores to drive those experiences.
Today is about what SeaWorld isn't going to do anymore. But if the company is going to succeed, tomorrow needs to be about what SeaWorld will do, instead.
Keeping with our policy, we will not be publishing anonymous comments on stories about zoology.