Can SeaWorld take theme park fans on a hero's journey again?

May 16, 2018, 9:32 AM · Countless books, movies, plays, and even theme park attractions tell the story of the hero's journey — the classic trope in which a nobody from nowhere is called to a seemingly impossible quest to save a life/a community/a cause/the world.

We watch because these stories inspire hope. They reward a faith that our lives and our worlds can become better — and that better future lies just one hero's effort away.

So many of us find theme park attractions especially compelling because they don't just let us watch a hero's journey. They allow us to participate in it. We can walk into the hero's land and go on that journey ourselves. Yes, something might go terribly wrong. But it has to, because only from that challenge will we have the opportunity to become the hero and to save the day.

Who wouldn't want to do that on vacation?

If you want to design theme park attractions, you must not only understand the structure of the hero's journey, you must be able to create a convincing environment and narrative that make visitors believe that they have embarked upon one. As visitors, maybe we are the sidekick. Maybe we are the one being rescued. Or maybe we are the heroes themselves. Ultimately, our role within the journey does not matter as much as our ability to feel that we are present within it.

Make no mistake. One way or another, we are #TeamHero.

And that — more than the loss of free beer, high-flying trainers, or a PR campaign waged by anti-animal-captivity extremists — is the reason why SeaWorld's theme parks have been struggling since 2009. In my Orange County Register column this week, I wrote about the narrative challenge SeaWorld is facing and how the chain's laudable pro-environment message might be hurting its appeal.

It's not that people don't care about protecting the environment and saving animal habitat. It's just that, in this story, we are not collectively #TeamHero anymore. We are the bad guys.

"We are ones polluting the oceans. We are ones destroying habitat for development. We are the ones choking the atmosphere with pollutants and carbon dioxide, driving global climate change," I wrote.

"No one wants a guilt trip on their vacation."

Is there hope for SeaWorld? Can the chain maintain a commitment to rescuing and protecting the world's marine animals while also reclaiming its position as a challenger to Disney and Universal? Or must SeaWorld settle for becoming the next Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, a carnival ride-filled amusement park with some animal exhibits and shows?

So now we come to SeaWorld's "hero's journey." It's the story of how a team of theme park designers and managers find a way to transport visitors into the amazing environments of the world's oceans. And, within those environments, they challenge those visitors to go on a series of seemingly impossible quests to save the ocean, its animals, its people... and ultimately, the world.

They will not do this with cheap-looking "submarine" rides on elevated tracks. Or with dark rides through a lava lamp. Or with outdoor roller coasters. Nor will they do this with lectures appended to animal shows or placards attached to 20th-century modernist aquariums.

So how will SeaWorld do this, then? I do not know. For I am not that hero. But, like many theme park fans, I stand ready to follow those heroes on their quest... just as soon as they are ready to bring us along.

Replies (13)

May 16, 2018 at 9:36 AM

The park is in horrendous shape. Horrendous attractions, but the shows that were once a highlight have been stripped of all it's passion and heart - so we are left with just pale shadows.

You can't just keep making roller coasters and morphing into Six Flags.

May 16, 2018 at 9:59 AM

SeaWorld needs to take advantage of the mermaid fashion craze. Many original IPs placed mermaid fins on their characters. They should commission some high quality videos that are distributed on YouTube that tells fantasy stories about SeaWorld mermaids. Kids loved watching Barbie mermaid. Bring them to SeaWorld with attractions and shows.

The boys needs a superhero counterpart. They allowed their Poseidon attraction to languish. They should bring walkaround Poseidon and Zeus characters to interact with the public.

May 16, 2018 at 10:04 AM

Wow, that submarine ride is a total honkfest.

May 16, 2018 at 10:07 AM

Sea World just can't seem to get a break. Coastal Commission, PETA, lousy decisions on new attractions. The entrance wave sculpture looked great in concept art, but in reality it looks like a giant mass of Playdough.

May 16, 2018 at 10:12 AM

They really need an up to down remake of their management and their version of Imagineering. Because as it stands now, they're just throwing money on poor ideas and not really realizing what needs to be done so they have to change their whole approach or go under soon.

May 16, 2018 at 10:32 AM

I have no idea. WDW deforestation for single level parking lots and roads are going on in an alarming rate as the USA/Trump pulls out every global discussion about pollution because the USA is one of the biggest polluting country in the world. Clearly the general American public doesn't give a hoot about the environment or the pollution in the sea.
So maybe Sea World can choose the dollar and cut up their animals, deep fry them and serve them with fries and continue to build coasters.

May 16, 2018 at 11:31 AM

The elevated submarine ride is indefinitely closed. Perhaps since the new roller coaster opened.

May 16, 2018 at 8:55 PM

SeaWorld is doomed. Best thing that could possibly happen is Universal buying them out, saving the B&Ms, tearing the rest of the property to the ground, and starting over. It's sad to see it languish. Just let someone save Discovery Cove, please, that place is incredible.

May 17, 2018 at 3:38 AM

Possibly not the worlds greatest ride, but my family enjoyed Turtle Trek. Definitely a step in the right direction we felt like turtle heroes.

May 17, 2018 at 6:15 AM

Totally agree Robert! I have always loved SeaWorld and got the annual pass this year after years of being away, and it was a completely different experience this last visit. The shows are all around 15 minutes, sea lion show wasn’t even running, dolphin feeding is now a training presentation around the pool, no more pilot whales in shows, no more manatees or polar bears. Their new attitude does give you a bit of a guilt trip, whereas before the message was that although species are endangered and pollution is growing, there is something you can do about it and be the hero of the story, much more uplifting. Maybe it was just because of it being off-season, and I’ll still go because I want to support them and who knows how long they’ll be around, but I definitely see cutbacks in this park and it diminishes the experience. Blackfish definitely hurt them, and now they are further hurting themselves by trying to humor that crowd. As I mentioned to my friend when I was there; if I’m here I already support your company, stop trying to win me over by defending yourselves against something I don’t agree with anyway!

May 17, 2018 at 6:26 AM

And I wouldn't be surprised if Six Flags Discovery Kingdom phases out the animals. They've shipped more to other places than they've acquired in the last few years.Orca, gone. Elephants herd, gone. Protestors are there every time I go these days.

May 17, 2018 at 11:26 AM

SeaWorld can easily turn this around. They just need to release the animals into sanctuaries and focus on actual conservation (i.e. keeping people from stealing animals out of the wild, like SeaWorld did in the 70s). It's pretty hard to believe a theme park cares about wildlife conservation when the orcas they hold captive die at a fraction of the age they would have lived in the wild. I would be the first in line for a ticket if they let all the animals go.

May 17, 2018 at 11:22 PM

I've been saying it for a decade now, Sea World is in deep ****. Not only do people not want to go there, but even if they did they can't afford to. Disney and Universal have so many attractions now to take up peoples time, so many extremely popular IPs (so if they are going to Orlando, they have to go to Disney and Universal), and have jacked their prices up so much, that people don't have the extra time or money to tack Sea World onto their trip. It seems like the only people that go to Sea World nowadays are Europeans on those really long vacations (that their government mandates they get).

The two Busch Gardens parks are still very successful however and have much more substantial local fanbases. If i'm Parques Reunidos i'm watching this situation closely.

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