May 26, 2024

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SeaWorld at 60: It survived ‘Blackfish’ and COVID. Where San Diego’s biggest theme park is headed now | Travel

6 min read

SAN DIEGO — When SeaWorld San Diego marked its half-century anniversary 10 years ago, it was enmeshed in a public relations quagmire following the release just a year earlier of “Blackfish,” the searing anti-captivity documentary that threatened to upend the theme park’s identity as the home of Shamu the beloved killer whale.

What a difference a decade makes. As the park embarks on a yearlong celebration of its 60 years in business, much has changed, even in the past 10 years.

While the San Diego park has yet to exceed — or even reach — its peak annual attendance milestone of 11 years ago, it ultimately weathered a yearslong “Blackfish” backlash from both the public and animal rights activists and retained its appeal as a marine theme park while doubling down on thrill rides. In just a five-year span, SeaWorld added four roller coasters, although one — Tidal Twister — was plagued by multiple operational problems and was shuttered for good in 2023, five years after it had opened.

SeaWorld also survived a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic that shut down the park for months and kept it from returning to full capacity for more than a year.

The iconic Shamu show is now gone, although it lives on, sort of, in what’s now called Orca Encounter. The park no longer breeds killer whales but still has a healthy population of eight orcas. And its trainers stopped riding astride dolphins four years ago in the shows featuring the acrobatic marine mammals.

Is it an amusement park or a marine park?

As much as SeaWorld continues to showcase its animal population and the rescue work it conducts year-round, the park opened two coaster rides in just the last two years, the most recent being Arctic Rescue, which debuted in 2023.

There was a time not all that long ago when some pundits wondered whether SeaWorld was planning to transition to a more traditional theme park model as it fought back against unceasing news stories about the marine park’s treatment of killer whales in the wake of the “Blackfish” film. The documentary focused on Tilikum, a 12,000-pound killer whale that fatally attacked a SeaWorld Orlando trainer in 2010.

“This park was lacking on rides so we started adding rides,” said Byron Surrett, chief parks operation officer. “We survey our guests and we ask what they’re missing and they told us pretty loud and clear you need more rides when comparing us to other parks in California. We listened to that and responded. So we have had several teen to adult rides as well as some of the kids rides in our Rescue Jr. area.

This year, in a departure from its string of spine-tingling coasters, SeaWorld is debuting in late spring a new exhibit that reinforces the park’s roots as a sea life-focused attraction.

“Jewels of the Sea: The Jellyfish Experience,” which will be housed in the park’s former Clydesdale barn near Journey to Atlantis, will be a first for any of the SeaWorld parks. The new exhibit area will give visitors a close-up look at the tentacled invertebrates in a three-room gallery that will include an 18-foot-tall cylindrical acrylic aquarium. The new exhibit will reinforce SeaWorld’s educational mission, which is incorporated into SeaWorld’s master plan and requires that at least 75 percent of the park’s total attractions include “significant” educational and/or animal conservation-related elements.

SeaWorld also will be revealing this month its brand-new entrance, which, in addition to featuring a new look, will eventually have self-service kiosks and biometric-equipped turnstiles that will allow pass holders to enter the park via facial recognition. The technology upgrade is expected to come on line later this year

To mark the occasion of its 60th year in business, the San Diego park has a number of things planned, including limited-edition food and beverage items, like the return of the Shamu cookie and a special 60th Anniversary IPA from San Diego’s Mike Hess Brewing. There’s also “vintage merchandise,” such as reusable water bottles, plush animals and backpacks, plus a collectible figurine featuring a boy and a girl looking down at a dolphin, orca and sea lion.

SeaWorld, to a degree, remains a giant aquarium, with its touch pools, marine mammal underwater viewing areas and animal shows that the park now characterizes as educational presentations. And the park’s parent company continues to remind the public of its longstanding animal rescue work. In all, the SeaWorld parks have participated in more than 40,000 rescues.

“I grew up in the company and went through that whole period (following the release of ‘Blackfish),’” Surrett said. “I never heard within the company — nor did I ever think it would happen — that we’d become a rides-only park. We’ve had the conservation theme since 1964, and we are still that same company. That’s why our rides are themed after animals, and we try to partner with other industries out there that are either protecting or saving animals.

“I can’t talk about upcoming attractions, but I will tell you that we continue to have animal habitats in our plans.”

With its collection today of 12,000 animals, more than a dozen rides and an off-site water park in Chula Vista, SeaWorld San Diego has come a long way from when it was a kernel of an idea to create a park full of sea life that would rival Marineland in Palos Verdes, which closed nearly 40 years ago. It too was known for its performing killer whales.

George Millay, a former stockbroker and successful restaurateur, was looking for a new challenge and found just that after talking to a customer, Kenny Norris, curator of fish and mammals at Marineland. Why not build a rival park in Mission Bay, Norris suggested.

And so they did. The two men, joined by two of their UCLA fraternity brothers, opened the park on March 21, 1964.

Some of Millay’s grand ideas have survived to this day — the Skytower ride and a killer whale show. Others, like the pearl diver shows and hydrofoil boat rides, did not.

Eventually, the San Diego park would successfully spawn two more marine parks in the U.S. — in Orlando and San Antonio — which opened in 1973 and 1988, respectively, and are under the umbrella of parent company United Parks and Resorts. More recently, the Orlando-based company opened a SeaWorld park in Abu Dhabi under a license agreement with the Abu Dhabi-based company Miral Asset Management, which is the park owner and operator.

SeaWorld has long been one of San Diego’s biggest tourist attractions and an important driver of visitation to San Diego, but in recent years, the relationship between the city and the theme park has frayed. After multiple failed efforts by the city to collect back rent that went unpaid by SeaWorld during the height of the pandemic, the San Diego city attorney filed suit in September of last year, demanding payment of more than $12.2 million in outstanding rent and fees.

A pretrial hearing is scheduled for next April.

Even as SeaWorld’s ownership ventures into overseas parks and is in the midst of developing plans for its own branded hotels, it is still struggling, as are other theme parks, to build attendance back to pre-pandemic levels. Some analysts are predicting that the industry as a whole may not see a full recovery until possibly 2025. SeaWorld San Diego, though, has a ways to goes before it approaches the peak visitation it reached more than a decade ago.

Surrett says he has faith that SeaWorld can continue to grow its attendance in San Diego but acknowledges the challenges of wooing visitors at a time when people are still cautious about their discretionary spending.

“I don’t think money is as easy to come by as it was prior to COVID,” he said. “I see it out there everywhere. As we continue to add compelling rides and products like the jellyfish habitat, people will continue to come back.

“The economy has to change at some point and when people have more money in their pockets for discretionary spending, they’ll want to come back to theme parks more.”


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