What's Wrong with SeaWorld?
SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment reported this week that its attendance continues to slide
. The good news for the theme park chain is that its earnings are up, thanks in part to a combination of guests spending more in the parks and the company cutting budgets where it can. But falling attendance isn't the biggest problem around SeaWorld at the moment. The big problem is that too few people seem to understand why
attendance continues to fall.
Over the past few years, SeaWorld has elicited more lazy reporting than just any other subject in the theme park industry. According to the dominant media narrative, SeaWorld's attendance is falling as the result of bad publicity from the movie Blackfish. It's an easy story to tell — the so-called animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals [PETA] bombards news organizations with anti-SeaWorld press releases on a regular basis, ascribing every drop in SeaWorld's attendance to Blackfish and PETA's ongoing campaign to publicize the film. The narrative's even a little bit attractive to SeaWorld itself, as it allows the company to attribute its attendance decline to an outside influence, a public relations campaign that it believes is easily refuted.
For an overworked journalist, this is easy stuff. You've got two sources feeding a narrative; it fits a classic conflict/resolution model; write it up, and you're done.
There's an old saying that "if you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail." So perhaps it is understandable that people in the news business see everything within the context of PR and publicity. But while SeaWorld's recent attendance decline coincides with PETA's anti-SeaWorld campaign, people ought to remember another old saying — one from my old field of statistics — "correlation does not imply causation."
The most damning fact that counters the dominant media narrative is that SeaWorld's attendance decline began in 2010 — three years before Blackfish. SeaWorld's attendance started dropping not because of a publicity campaign, but because of changes in its parks, the themed entertainment industry, and society in general that have left SeaWorld unable to make as convincing a case for visitors' time and money as other vacation destinations have been able to make.
What happened in 2010? Two things within the industry: a tragic accident that claimed the life of a SeaWorld trainer, in February, and the opening of "The Wizarding World of Harry Potter" at Universal Orlando, in June.
Vacations are supposed to be fun — not reminders of horrible things, such as a death. But it is interesting to note that another major theme park resort suffered an employee fatality the previous year. A monorail driver at Walt Disney World was killed when another monorail train backed into and crushed the pilot's compartment of his train. Yet Disney World did not suffer any significant attendance loss due to news reports about Austin Wuennenberg's death. So what made the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau have such lasting significance for SeaWorld's attendance?
During the investigation into Dawn's death, SeaWorld pulled all of its trainers from the water during orca shows. Federal court rulings later made that change permanent. As a result, SeaWorld parks are no longer able to offer its visitors what used to be the parks' most iconic moment — a trainer launching 30 feet into the air off the nose of a breaching killer whale. It was a thrilling spectacle to witness — something no other entertainment destination could match.
As SeaWorld was limiting the spectacle it provided its guests, one of its closest competitors was becoming a "must see" destination for Orlando visitors. The opening of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter launched the Universal Orlando Resort to record attendance gains, partly at the expense of SeaWorld Orlando. While SeaWorld and Universal Orlando's theme parks once battled to become the "extra" day for visitors coming to see Walt Disney World, Harry Potter made Universal the clear number-two choice in the market for theme park fans. In fact, thanks to Potter, many Florida visitors started making Universal their primary destination for an Orlando vacation. Without its most iconic moment to offer, SeaWorld had little hope to compete.
SeaWorld Orlando's attendance still hasn't recovered to what it was before 2010.
Across the rest of the chain, societal changes began to take their toll on the SeaWorld parks, too. The Great Recession of 2008 crippled the travel and entertainment industries, along with the rest of the economy. But as the economy began to recover in 2010, fans' tastes for entertainment continued to evolve. Sold in 2009 after its owner Anheuser Busch was sold to InBev, SeaWorld and its private-capital owners did not change the company's focus from non-fiction-based entertainment that was becoming more and more unpopular with fans.
When George Millay, Milton Shedd, Ken Norris, and David DeMott opened SeaWorld in San Diego in 1964, America was a very different place than today. The modernism of the 1950s still influenced much of popular culture, reflecting an optimism in science and a curiosity about exploring the natural world. That optimism was the result of the general prosperity of the time, when a post-war boom and strong labor movement built a growing middle class in America. SeaWorld tapped into that by bringing exotic marine animals within splashing distance of visitors, creating thrilling spectacles that inspired visitors with the sight of trainers interacting with these animals.
Today, people feel very different about our collective future. What economic growth we have is slow to trickle down to a shrinking middle class. Economic mobility is more myth than reality. And global climate change has made the natural world a politically divisive, uncomfortable, and, frankly, pretty depressing topic. In entertainment, dystopian fantasies rule the box office and bestseller lists, as a dispirited public looks to superheroes, wizards, and rebels to show us the way from our too-often depressing existence toward a more promising future.
In moments of great stress, we often turn to fiction to allow us to access thoughts and feelings too intense to address directly, via non-fiction. Watching Katniss Everdeen rebel against The Capitol allows people facing unemployment or crappy pay, crushing debt, failing relationships, or just growing up in communities they feel to be oppressive or conflict-obsessed, to address those frustrations while they also feel the exhilaration of hope that might be missing from their own lives. The Hunger Games and other dystopian fantasies resonate with people who feel concern about their futures. They acknowledge our pain, and give us a cause to cheer.
It's become a cliche that on a theme park attraction, "something goes terribly wrong." As Universal Creative's Thierry Coup explained, "it has to. It gives us a chance to be heroes, and to try to save the day."
When we spend our hard-earned money on entertainment, we want to spend that time in the presence of those heroes. We want, if just for a moment, to be those heroes.
The two most successful companies in the theme park business — Disney and Universal — understand what's happening. In the 2010s, these companies have focused on creating attractions that feature fictional intellectual property [IP] — characters and franchises where heroism in the face of despair is on display. We are getting Harry Potter, Star Wars, Avatar, Frozen, and Transformers — experiences that allow us the opportunity to spend time with characters who have overcome desperate situations.
Meanwhile, at SeaWorld and Busch Gardens, we are getting the same sort of experience that the parks offered a generation ago — experiences grounded in non-fiction, in animal shows and real-world destinations, often delivered with the earnest lectures about the world around us.
But where is our hero? Where is the person who is going to fix this mess of a world we've gotten ourselves into?
Saying that "we are the hero" is a cop-out... we need to see a ally, a teacher, a role model, someone who will show us the way that we can meet our challenges — someone who will help us to become the hero we long to be. Everything SeaWorld does in education and animal care and research might be helpful to society — but it doesn't thrill and inspire people to spend their time and money to come visit them on vacation.
Until SeaWorld can give us something that does that again, many of us will continue to spend our money to visit the other parks that do, instead. This has nothing to do with a PETA PR campaign. It has everything to do with our collective need for inspiration in a dispiriting world.
Here's the thing about PETA. PETA is to animal welfare what the Church of Scientology is to religion. It's an organization that makes itself appear far more prominent than it actually is, thanks to Hollywood spokespersons, incessant PR campaigns... and aggressive legal threats. (Let's face it: the vast majority of Americans are not vegans, are okay with the use of animals as food and clothing, and are completely supportive of keeping animals as pets. Unlike PETA.) Like the Susan G. Komen Foundation was criticized for its breast cancer campaigns, PETA faces criticism that is works as much on raising attention and money for the organization as making any progress on the cause with which it is associated in the public's minds.
PETA needs targets for its fund-raising appeals. It needs something to rail against to get into newspapers and on TV broadcasts. So consider this way of looking at it: SeaWorld is not suffering because of an anti-SeaWorld PR campaign from PETA. PETA is mounting an anti-SeaWorld PR campaign because SeaWorld is suffering. Just look at the timeline: PETA's PR campaign followed the start of SeaWorld's problems.
On Monday, new SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby says that the company will announce a new attraction for SeaWorld San Diego. "We can do a very effective attendance-driving, return-generating attraction, and I'm actually very excited about the alternatives we're already coming up with," Manby said in a conference call with investment analysts.
If SeaWorld is to deliver on Manby's promise, it will need to show potential visitors a vision of of the company that focuses less on the good that SeaWorld does for animals and more on the good that SeaWorld does for its visitors.
Tell us a story. Thrill and inspire us with heroes, fighting to improve an imperfect world. Take us to a fantastic "sea world" where global warming and pollution never happened, or to a futuristic one where it happened but we fixed it. Tell us tales of the animal world, where our imaginations can dream of the heroes in the sea. Don't be afraid to take us where "something goes terribly wrong" — just show us the way to be the hero that we all long to have in our lives.
Better publicity won't save SeaWorld. Only a better, and more emotionally fulfilling, entertainment experience can do that.
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So much emotion for me about this. My big dream through much of my childhood was to become a whale trainer at SeaWorld. One of my best memories is of getting to talk to one of the trainers after the show, sharing a hug with Kandu and getting to meet the very first Baby Shamu. Part of me wants SeaWorld be like it once was -- a place of education and inspiration where kids can learn to love the oceans like I did.
I agree that it's Universal that is hurting them more than anything. Universal did such a good job with Harry Potter that it's really no comparison for choosing which park to go to.
You might not like PETA, but they are a segment of the extreme environmental movement that also claims Global Warming and Climate Change must be stopped. You can't exactly separate PETA from Global Warming for they work hand-in-hand. Animals and people both exhaust carbon dioxide, which is safe to the environment and shouldn't qualify as a pollutant. Stopping PETA is only the first step. The second step is stopping the extreme environmental movement that can kill animal captivity. While we would love for these magnificent creatures to be out in the wild, the reduction of habitat means keeping some in captivity will save them. Pollution is not a relevant issue. Human zealotry can do more damage as in poaching (which Disney got right, but wrongly presented.)
My God Robert!That's what I'm talking about....this article was so well written...I pray that Joel Manby reads this! I find it interesting how I emailed you 2 weeks regarding Sea World and all my views and your lack of reporting on it...sadly I never got a reply from you...but surprisingly I have noticed that indirectly you've answered all my questions on this article and with the one you wrote last week. I'm looking forward to Monday when Sea World makes " Their Announcement." I certainly hope that it's something extremely good and well worth it and not one dumb roller coaster among all the parks...geez! They are after all my favorite theme park and I still have so much hope for them. I've emailed them in the past that they need resorts, themed hotels, as many popular IP's as possible, at least 1 sit-down breakfast restaurant for goodness sake at The San Diego location...they literally have nothing and that's another reason why they're " suffering " so much. Your article was amazing! Tooo bad you're not THE CEO OF SEA WORLD! lol...you'd make them better in a flash.
I have mixed fellings on the SeaWorld parks. I haven't been to one before, and I definitely want to go (Mako looks awesome) but should I give money to this company?
I was at Seaworld Orlando for the first time this year after numerous trips to Florida when we only visited Disney and Universal. Decided to skip Disney this year and try Busch and Seaworld. It's a very pleasant park...with 3 decent rides. The Antarctic thing is a real mess. Poor ride and freezing exhibit. The Whale show has a real air of sadness about it. We all know it's doomed and we all know about the fatality and documentary. But the handlers keep those fixed grins throughout. Great article and yes, they all pale in comparison to Universal at the moment.
I really think the industry has reached a point where SeaWorld playing the hybrid park isn't working anymore. Right now, they are trying to be both a theme park and a marine park and it isn't working out so well. Neither side is being done at the level necessary to remain competitive, and problems with one side are having an impact on the other. I think they either need to commit to being a marine park with a few themed attractions or a theme park with a few animal attractions, and then adjust their strategy and marketing appropriately. While I've only been to SeaWorld San Diego, my impression has always been that the park has potential but is hindered by an identity crisis that needs to be resolved. I felt similar about USH until a few years ago, and I hope SeaWorld is able to pick a target and move toward their goal in the near future just as USH has done recently.
Great article Robert!
This is a great write up. Living in San Diego I'm a lifelong fan of Sea World. I'm not sure what the problem is. Other zoos and aquariums seem to be doing just fine. Personally I grew up with a Sea World that had 0 rides, and I think that's how it should be. They became famous by bringing the Orca to people that otherwise couldn't see one. They should focus on world class animal habitats and encounters and lose the roller coasters. Animals are interesting enough without rides. I think it's interesting they have a Manta roller coaster but no actual Manta habitat.
SeaWorld over-hyped the new Antarctica ride. I do think it's a good family ride, but their wild is not wild. It would be nice to add a couple more spins in there and not have it so jerky at the end scene. That jerking is not fun nor needed. I like how it's freezing for the penguins and it's not for us to linger in there for long as other guests are exiting from the ride and they don't need it overly crowded. It's nice to look around for about 5 - 10 minutes and then move on to other things. I personally give this attraction good points as a family ride and exhibit, but would prefer to have some minor changes to the "wild" ride to make it more enjoyable. I would bring the mimes back without a doubt. They were the best part of the show, always a great laugh, and it can't cost much so I don't understand why they can't do at least that much to make SeaWorld Great Again, I'm sounding like Donald Trump now! Many of my friends are very eager for Mako. Yes, seaWorld needs variety and that means the biggest roller coaster in central Florida! When funds allow many of us would love a dramatic acrobatic show in their theater again. Many I know talk about bringing back free beer samples. I would think someone would love to promote their products there with samples and have products for purchase. Companies spend tons of money on commercials, but the best promotion is allowing people to sample their products and word of mouth! I was expecting a bigger dolphin tank when I went only to find it was the same size. I want a bigger dolphin exhibit so that most of us who don't buy "The Experience" will still have a big enough area to be by the dolphins too. It feels like now if you don't buy the experience you can't get near them. The Shamu show isn't the same without the full animal and trainer interactions. I hope SeaWorld keep fighting for that right to do their shows like they use to. I still am sad about why they had to redo their bridge over their pond so they can't do their ski show? I loved the ski show and that took away from SeaWorld's entertainment value for me, plus no acrobatic show now, and no mimes. SeaWorld can't keep taking away what people love about their parks.
Visited Sea World San Diego last year and while the family had fun that one day, we didn't feel much incentive to go back unless they added/changed quite a few new things. Sea World felt like the Kodak of theme parks, and I don't know if they have a way out from their sad predicament of being trapped in entertainment past. They are neither theme park nor aquarium so they're a a confused mess. The animal shows were boring and anachronistic. If the best thing they can do with the whales is have them splash the audience then what's the point? Making the tanks bigger for the whales is just doubling down on a failed attraction. The best part of the park were the rides, but there are only a few. And one thing Robert didn't mention is that the food was absolutely awful!
We haven't been to Sea World Orlando, but we thoroughly enjoyed our day at Sea World San Diego this September. That park probably has a better location, without two Universal parks almost next door.
While I think this article is a more thoughtful analysis than I've seen elsewhere, I think it misses a key element. There has been a slow growing trend in the US in which more and more average Americans have a more empathetic view of animals in captivity. It's not just aimed at SeaWorld. Most zoos changed their concrete and bar animal displays decades ago... they've gone to larger more natural habitats.
I took my partner to Sea World in 2011, it was their first time in Florida. We had a fantastic time at Universal and WDW but we both felt Seaworld lacked something. It is hard to say exactly what, but I think it is theming, immersion and cohesion as some other posters here have highlighted.
Very good reporting!
Great article! Agree with you on almost everything!
To Anon, don't want to get into an argument here, but conflating PETA supporters with the vast majority of people (and overwhelming majority of scientists) who now face the reality of human-caused climate change is a wrong analogy. If you want to know where the market stands with climate change, ask insurance adjusters. You best believe that it costs much more to get homeowners insurance on the coast now, because the chances of climate-caused weather such as hurricanes has gone up dramatically in the last 30 years. PETA is fringe for sure. Soon, denying human climate change will be too, whether you like it or not.
Hurricanes are correlated with warm air. With Climate Change, they given up on Global Warming. Still, the science is mixed on the hurricane predictions. In California, they are predicting more earthquakes because they haven't had a big one for years. Climate Change scientists can be wishing for hurricanes to validate it's theories, but they will be disappointed. As for SeaWorld, deemphasizing its Orcas would be the better solution.
I totally agree that Universal's success has hurt SeaWorld Orlando more than Blackfish and PETA. But I find it hard to discount it's effect entirely. Even if it's easily refuted, that doesn't mean people have ignore it. Anyone who thinks consumers act rationally is nuts. We've seen consumer-led campaigns in Australia to boycott our Sea World because of Blackfish, even though it isn't related to the U.S. SeaWorld chain, and they don't have Orcas.
>>>>Here's the thing about PETA. PETA is to animal welfare what the Church of Scientology is to religion.
SeaWorld needs to take a page from Animal Kingdom here.
Very good, thoughtful article, Robert! However - and I realize that I am very much in the minority - I personally am not looking for emotionally fulfilling entertainment. I am looking for aggressive thrill rides and that's where Sea World has it over Disney or Universal. I'd get a lot more out of Kraken or Manta than I would out of Harry Potter.
They just announced that the San Diego park will end the Orca shows in favor of a more natural Orca experience.
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