Friday, August 16, 2019

SeaWorld appears to move focus from captive-animal shows to coasters and thrill rides

Posted By on Fri, Aug 16, 2019 at 2:37 PM

click to enlarge SeaWorld's Manta - PHOTO VIA VISIT ORLANDO
  • Photo via Visit Orlando
  • SeaWorld's Manta
SeaWorld saw new criticism last weekend as a map went viral contrasting the size of the parking lot, the central lake, and the orca habitat at SeaWorld Orlando.

This comes as new concerns for animal well-being at the parks moves beyond the orcas and with more than a dozen travel groups now refusing to sell tickets to their parks. Despite all of this, SeaWorld Parks has yet to announce a shift away from their animal focus, but even if they haven’t stated it publicly, the company’s actions point to a future where animals will continue to take a diminishing role in the parks.

The last significant move by SeaWorld on the animal front came in 2016, when then-CEO Joel Manby announced an end to orca breeding and a new partnership with the Humane Society. With a new CEO, Gus Antorcha, who has so far spent less time on-camera than Manby, there are questions again regarding SeaWorld’s future.

While much of the focus has been on the orcas, more recently SeaWorld has also faced criticism for its treatment of dolphins. This seems to be part of a broader shift in public views on animal captivity, with one 2017 study showing that a quarter of Americans are now more opposed to aquariums and zoos than they were a decade ago (17% said they were more in favor, 48% said their opinion had not changed).



The tide seems to be turning not only against cetaceans but also on certain land mammals, including elephants. Ringling Brothers Circus' parent company, Feld Entertainment, stopped using elephants in its shows in 2016, and a year later the circus itself was shut down. Many viewed the demise of Ringling Brothers as the writing on the wall for SeaWorld, but so far that doesn’t seem to be the case.

SeaWorld still won’t admit any issues with their husbandry or shows, but their actions show that the company understands the shifting public expectations regarding animal captivity. What new animal habitats they do have are for smaller, far less controversial animals while most of the company’s recent investments have been on new rides and not animals.

Across the company’s five major theme parks, not a single new animal habitat is even rumored to be in the works. Instead, every park has new thrill rides in the pipeline. An internal slide deck that was leaked last year showed a future that was far more thrill ride-focused. The company is now years into a shift away from animals and toward family thrills, trying to find a balance somewhere between the cheap regional style of a Six Flags park and the highly themed rides found at Universal or Disney. A plan, first laid out by Manby, to focus on those within a 300-mile radius of the park seems to be working with attendance continuing to rise and annual pass sales rebounding. Lower monthly payments on annual passes and free beer have driven positive media coverage in recent years as well, some of the first positive coverage SeaWorld has seen since before Blackfish.

At SeaWorld Orlando, where the company was hit by a double whammy of Blackfish and Universal adding Harry Potter, the last major animal habitat to be added was in 2013 with Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin. That habitat was a replacement to a former one, and SeaWorld used the update to remove another attached animal habitat, the puffins.

Since then SeaWorld Orland has focused exclusively on non-animal additions with the hypercoaster Mako in 2016, Infinity Falls in 2018, and the Sesame Street land earlier this year. Both Infinity Falls and Mako were rumored to have animal habitats included, with Infinity Falls even featuring animals in the concept art. Both do include educational displays, but ultimately neither saw any new animal habitats. The Sesame Street area 
click to enlarge PHOTO VIA SEAWORLD ORLANDO
replaced the former Shamu’s Happy Harbor. SeaWorld has been quietly removing the Shamu branding across the company, with the final Shamu ride, a kiddie coaster in San Antonio receiving a Sesame Street rebranding earlier this year. Both the Orlando and San Antonio Shamu Express coasters are now branded as Super Grover's Box Car Derby.

A new multi-launch coaster is now under construction in the Wild Arctic area of SeaWorld Orlando. This will be the fourth major coaster for the park, not counting the water coaster segment on Journey to Atlantis.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY SETH KUBERSKY
  • Photo by Seth Kubersky
At Busch Gardens in Tampa, the trend is also noticeable with last significant new animal habitat to be added, being the Cheetah Run area that opened in 2011. A new Animal Care Center opened a year later that gave guests  a behind-the-scenes look at the veterinarian facilities at the park.

Since then, two major new thrill rides, Falcons Fury and Tigris, and a family coaster, Cobra's Curse, have all opened with a record-breaking new hybrid wooden coaster now being constructed using the skeleton of the former Gwazi dueling coaster. A hypercoaster is rumored to be next in line for the park, after the yet-to-be-named Gwazi replacement opens next year.

In San Diego, the park that is thought to have been hit the most by the Blackfish backlash, the last significant animal habitat to be added was the Explorer's Reef area in 2014. Like the penguin area in Orlando, this new habitat focused on smaller aquarium animals and not the large cetaceans and pinnipeds that are typically associated with SeaWorld. While not marketed as a new attraction, a few new aquariums did open in San Diego in 2017, but again these were smaller attractions with the likes of crabs and an octopus.

A small kids areas with four ocean-themed carnival-style rides opened in 2017. This land also saw one of the last significant rides to be internally designed by SeaWorld, the short-lived Submarine Quest. The indoor-outdoor ride had multiple issues and operated for less than a year before being quietly closed for good. Not long after the Submarine Quest debacle both the Chief Creative Officer, Anthony Esparza, and the Creative Director and Vice President of Theme Park Experience, Brian Morrow, left the company. With both resigning within days of Joel Manby’s abrupt departure.

Since 2017, the focus in San Diego has been on big thrills with Electric Eel, a Premier Rides Sky Rocket II coaster that is an exact replica of Busch Gardens Tampa’s Tigris, opening in 2018 and another off-the-shelf coaster, Skywarp Horizon twisting coaster named Tidal Twister, opening earlier this year. A dive coaster, named Mako but otherwise not at all similar to Orlando’s Mako, is currently under construction at the park and a new arctic themed coaster, like Orlando’s but not nearly as tall, is now rumored to be the next project for the park.

The only recent addition that goes against this thrill rides trend is SeaWorld San Antonio’s recently opened Turtle Reef area. Two carnival-style family thrill rides are paired with a 126,000-gallon sea turtle habitat that uses a unique wetlands style bio-filtration system. This groundbreaking new animal habitat is the first for San Antonio in many years. The last significant animal habitat addition was Discovery Point, a dolphin habitat that’s home to multiple upcharge activities, which opened in 2016. It more than doubled the size of the previous dolphin habitat.
click to enlarge Wave Breaker: The Rescue Coaster at SeaWorld San Antonio - PHOTO VIA SEAWORLD SAN ANTONIO
  • Photo via SeaWorld San Antonio
  • Wave Breaker: The Rescue Coaster at SeaWorld San Antonio

In 2017, a new family coaster, themed to SeaWorld’s animal rescue efforts, opened with another new coaster, a hybrid wooden coaster, already under construction but yet to be announced for the park.

Some have questioned this shift for SeaWorld Parks, but it’s been the norm for decades at one of the company’s most successful parks; Busch Gardens Williamsburg. The European-themed park in Virginia does have a few smaller animal habitats, but those are mostly focused on farm animals and birds with the only exception being wolves. Despite the lack of animals, the park has seen constant positive reviews and has won multiple awards, including hold the title as the “World's Most Beautiful Park” for 29 consecutive years.

Coming off the heels of thrill rides in 2015, 2017, and this year, park officials recently confirmed a new multi-launch switch track coaster is slated to open at the park next year. The new coaster, named Pantheon, shares many of the same features as the new coaster coming to SeaWorld Orlando and the one rumored for SeaWorld San Diego.
click to enlarge The Sesame Steet land at SeaWorld Orlando is home to the park's first parade. - PHOTO VIA SEAWORLD ORLANDO
  • Photo via SeaWorld Orlando
  • The Sesame Steet land at SeaWorld Orlando is home to the park's first parade.
SeaWorld has also seen success with its Sesame Place park near Philadelphia. The kid-focused park has no animals, no thrill rides, and, so far, no controversies. As part of a contract extension between Sesame Street parent company Sesame Workshop and SeaWorld, the park chain agreed to the now open Sesame Street at SeaWorld Orlando and a second Sesame  Place theme park by 2021. A leaked survey pointed to Williamsburg as the likely location of this new park but more recently that looks to be less likely with SeaWorld now supposedly looking at either San Antonio or San Diego. Both of those locations feature other nearby theme parks like Legoland and Six Flags. The new contract extends SeaWorld’s exclusive U.S. theme park rights to the Sesame Street brand until the end of 2031.

Sesame Place has a similar off-the-shelf style ride lineup and demographic focus as Legoland. But unlike Legoland’s parent company Merlin, who has aggressively expanded the Legoland brand to now include eight locations including two in the U.S. with a third U.S. location opening next year in New York, SeaWorld has so far been reluctant to lean too heavily on the Sesame Steet brand. With the wild success of SeaWorld Orlando’s Sesame Street land, which already rumored to be receiving an expansion, that may now be beginning to change.

In 2017, Merlin, who operates thrill parks in the U.K., expressed interest in purchasing the two Busch Gardens parks from SeaWorld but Manby, who was still the CEO at the time, declined. In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, he called the Busch Gardens parks the company’s best assets and stated that they weren’t for sale. He went on to explain that Busch Gardens Tampa and Disney’s Animal Kingdom (now the third most attended theme park in the nation) are closer to what the future holds for SeaWorld.
click to enlarge SeaWorld Orlando's Electric Ocean nighttime fireworks show - PHOTO VIA SEAWORLD
  • photo via SeaWorld
  • SeaWorld Orlando's Electric Ocean nighttime fireworks show
The changes across SeaWorld aren’t just focused on adding new rides; one of the most successful additions in recent years has been the rave-inspired Electric Ocean summer festival at the three SeaWorld branded parks. This hugely popular festival has been credited with attendance increases. While it is loosely based on deep ocean creatures, Electric Ocean is much more an EDM celebration of summer with multiple lasers, unique foods, and glowing inflatable filled dance zones.

In the most recent quarter, revenue was a bit lower than expected, a first in nearly two years. Despite the disappointing revenue results, the rest of the report was nearly all good news with SeaWorld so far outperforming the market this year. EBITDA saw double-digit growth with the most recent quarter results beating Wall Street predictions. Cost-cutting initiatives are showing results, and while not getting the attention they once did, layoffs have also continued at the company. The twelve-month Adjusted EBITDA was over $443 million, with CEO Antorcha stating the "record-setting results that were driven by both revenue growth and our cost efficiency initiatives." For the first six months of 2019, SeaWorld Parks saw a net income of $15.6 million, compared to a net loss of $40.1 million during the same period in 2018. In March, Antorcha stated the company had a "2020 goal of delivering $475 million to $500 million of Adjusted EBITDA."

All of this comes as rumors of a buyout now seem as likely as they ever did. Ironically, the soon to be parent company of Merlin is the most likely suitor if a buyout does happen.

But it’s not all good news at SeaWorld. At least one part of the plan to shift the parks away from the emphasis on animals seems to be so far not working. As part of the 2016 announcement regarding the end of orca breeding, the company also confirmed it would be moving away from its theatrical shows and to more educational focused experiences. The first of the educational shows occurred in San Diego in 2017, where the Orca Encounter show replaced the previous Shamu show. The new show, in a more natural-looking stadium, featured video footage of wild orca habitats and had far less of the high energy production that the previous show included. But attendance at the new show, which the LA Times called "slow and boring," still seems lower than before with photos of a nearly empty stadium still common on social media. The show has yet to be rolled out in San Antonio and Orlando with SeaWorld as of year not commenting on when or if the two remaining SeaWorld parks will receive the update.

While SeaWorld continues to receive criticism for its animals, it’s clear that the company is trying to shift the focus. So far, the changes seem to be working but only time will tell if the move away from animals will help save the park chain that was once the epicenter of orca captivity.

We reached out to SeaWorld for comment about the park chain's new directions, but did not hear back by press time.

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