Seaworld: Looking Back and Ahead
By Larry M. Edwards
ON LUDWIG’S MOST MEMORABLE MOMENT from his nearly four decades as an employee at SeaWorld involves a whale —but not the renowned Shamu.
The emergency call came at “oh-dark-thirty” in January 1997, Ludwig recalls. His wife, Julie, a SeaWorld animal trainer, rushed to the park to help save the life of an emaciated gray whale calf rescued off the central California coast. She put on her wetsuit and went into the water with the 1,500-pound calf—and was there the rest of the night. Fourteen months and 18,500 pounds later, J.J. the whale was returned to her natural environment, but not before grabbing more headlines than her famous cousin.
“That’s the kind of caring situation we have at SeaWorld,” says Ludwig, hired 36 years ago as Pete the Penguin and now vice president for entertainment at the San Diego park. “We dedicated a killer-whale pool to J.J., which allowed the public to see a gray whale up close.” Those months of captivity also provided marine scientists with a valuable research opportunity. “We didn’t do that with the idea that this was going to be a moneymaker for us,” Ludwig adds. “The company said it will do whatever it takes to make this animal healthy and reintroduce her to the wild.”
As the marine park celebrates its 40th anniversary, it’s that image of goodwill its executives want the public to recall when they think of SeaWorld, not the controversy surrounding its latest addition—the Journey to Atlantis roller coaster–style thrill ride that opened Memorial Day weekend while animal rights activists picketed nearby. It’s a ride constructed only after voters, six years ago, narrowly approved a divisive ballot measure exempting SeaWorld from the 30-foot height limit imposed on leaseholders in city-owned Mission Bay Park. The park’s critics now wonder:
Taking the helm at SeaWorld as this undercurrent of debate continues is Andrew P. Fichthorn, named executive vice president and general manager in August. “We give back to the community,” says Fichthorn, citing not just the J.J. rehabilitation but the hundreds of other animal rescues SeaWorld makes each year. He also points to the education center, summer camps for children, career camps for high school students and the lead sponsorship of the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Foundation. It’s this type of public good that will continue, says Fichthorn, who previously served as general manager of SeaWorld in San Antonio.
As a former corporate vice president of planning and development for SeaWorld parent Busch Entertainment Corporation (BEC), Fichthorn is familiar with the thrill-ride controversy. But he has a more immediate concern: bolstering the San Diego park’s attendance numbers. “There was a decline in attendance post- 9/11, and now we are seeing a return to normalcy,” he says, noting the trend is upward for domestic visitors. International travel is also growing, but it’s still not back to the pre-9/11 level, he says. To that end, SeaWorld strives to keep admission costs down to what it regards as reasonable. The adult ticket price has escalated from $2.25 when the park opened in 1964 to $49.75 today.
“It’s still a tough time economically, and people reach out for reasonable values—we believe we offer that,” Fichthorn says. “The average visit is eight hours, so when you figure the price per hour, it’s a great value.”
The park’s visitors, apparently, concur. For the past three years, SeaWorld has been San Diego’s top tourist draw, according to the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau, based on paid admission reported by the park. (Old Town State Park claims 7 million visitors a year, but it charges no admission.) “In terms of the identity of San Diego as a visitor destination, SeaWorld is iconic,” says Sal Giametta, vice president of community relations for ConVis. “The marine park’s economic impact on San Diego in terms of jobs and tourism is significant.” SeaWorld is also a primary contributor to the bureau’s cooperative advertising program, Giametta says.
THE THEME PARK HASN’T ALWAYS BEEN NUMBER ONE. When SeaWorld welcomed its first visitors in March 1964, it was a little- known marine park occupying 22 acres on Mission Bay. It attracted some 400,000 that inaugural year. Among the attractions were the Japanese Village, Lagoon Stadium, Saltwater Aquarium, Sea Grotto, Hawaiian Punch Village and Theater of the Sea. It was in its second year that the park created a sensation when Shamu debuted as the world’s first killer whale on public display. Today, after marking its 40th anniversary with a day-long cake cutting at the main gate, the park occupies 189 acres and greets about 4 million visitors annually. It also spawned additional parks in Ohio (now closed), Florida and Texas.
San Diego’s SeaWorld has become one of the largest and most respected marine zoological facilities in the world. It’s home to 16 species of marine mammals, more than 430 species of fish and some 100 species of birds. Including its sister parks in Orlando and San Antonio, SeaWorld has claimed a number of firsts in marine animal husbandry, as well as animal rescue, rehabilitation and release. These include the first successful killer whale birth in captivity, the world’s first marine mammal born as result of artificial insemination, and the first hatching of green sea turtles in captivity.
The San Diego park’s expansion makes room not only for more and larger attractions but better quarters for the animals. Most of the small enclosures have been replaced by the bigger enclosures seen today, including the Penguin Encounter (1983), Shark Encounter (1992) and the Wild Arctic attraction (1997), which combines a simulated helicopter ride with an exhibit of arctic marine mammals.
The growth also allows SeaWorld to devote more resources to marine animal research and rescue activities. Although J.J. was big news, what the public rarely hears about are the roughly 200 wild marine animals that receive aid each year from the company. In San Diego, this typically involves California sea lions, harbor seals, dolphins, birds and occasionally sea turtles. In Orlando, SeaWorld initiated a manatee rescue program, and two of the rescued manatees are part of an educational exhibit promoting the program in San Diego.
Animal training techniques developed at SeaWorld are now used by other theme parks and oceanariums. “The training is not just for the shows but for husbandry reasons, ensuring the good health of the animals,” Ludwig says. “The animals are trained to present themselves for medical checks and for taking blood and urine samples.”
WHILE THESE ACCOMPLISHMENTS are commendable, there are concerns over the direction the park is headed under the corporate mantle of Anheuser-Busch Companies, which acquired SeaWorld from Harcourt Brace Jovanovich in 1989. SeaWorld is now one of nine theme parks operated by Anheuser-Busch subsidiary Busch Entertainment Corporation.
SeaWorld leases public parkland from the city of San Diego, and critics suggest the park is reducing its focus on marine animals and education as it is transformed into a more generic amusement park and hospitality venue. They point to the Journey to Atlantis thrill ride as just the first wave of what’s to come. Busch claims it is simply doing what’s necessary to be commercially successful in a highly competitive industry. Seventy percent of the attractions feature animal life and contain educational content, while less than 7 percent of the park has a thrill component, the company says.
“Our core goal is to maintain SeaWorld as a first-class marine park,” Fichthorn says. “We embrace our core shows, and we’re adding more theatricality, like the Cirque de la Mer and the sea lion and otter show that will reopen next year.” And while the introduction of the Journey to Atlantis was a “tremendous hit,” it also features Commerson’s dolphins, “the only such exhibit in the Western Hemisphere,” Fichthorn adds.
Not everyone is applauding. While BEC bills SeaWorld as family entertainment and thumps its chest over animal breeding and rescue programs, critics say that when it comes to the bottom line, hardball corporate tactics come into play. They wonder what they’ll see when SeaWorld turns 50—more roller coasters and a hotel, perhaps?
“We have no specific plans for the next five to eight years,” Fichthorn says. And as for the 650-room hotel and convention center described in the Mission Bay master plan—publicly, SeaWorld labels it a special events facility—“we have nothing planned in the next 10 years in that regard,” he says.
CRITICS AREN’T CONVINCED, and following the 1998 passage of Proposition D—the initiative that approved expansion—they are wary of public proclamations from Busch executives. “When SeaWorld was confronted about the roller coaster, there were constant denials,” says Bruce Reznik, executive director of San Diego Baykeeper, a watchdog organization that monitors the condition of coastal waters and bays. “SeaWorld is clearly moving away from the education mission it was founded on.”
Reznik notes that Anheuser-Busch, on its Web site, touts the use of its adventure parks to promote its products. “One has to wonder: Is that the best use of public parkland—a large corporation using an ostensibly educationally oriented theme park to sell beer?” Busch argues that it needs thrill rides to be competitive and pats itself on the back for placing the Commerson’s dolphin exhibit adjacent to the Atlantis ride, where those waiting in line can watch the marine mammals swim in the 130,000-gallon, aboveground enclosure. Yet there are no signs that identify these dolphins, let alone an explanation of their natural habitat (off the coasts of Argentina and Chile). Apparently the “face-to-face encounter” with these sea creatures is sufficient in that it provides a “personal connection” for the park’s guests as “dolphin spirits guide passengers through their journey” on a roller coaster purported to simulate the destruction of the mythical lost city of Atlantis, as it’s portrayed in a SeaWorld press release.
Animal rights activists opposed the dolphin display and tried to block the opening of the ride, but their appeal to the California Coastal Commission was rejected. Activists periodically picket the park because they believe it’s cruel to pen up wild animals in small, unnatural enclosures.
“We do appreciate that SeaWorld has established a marine mammal rescue and rehabilitation program,” says Jill Fritz, president of San Diego Animal Advocates. “Marine theme parks exist to sell tickets, not to educate the public about how these animals really live. Our highest wish is that they make that their sole activity and eventually close their garish theme park.”
SeaWorld argues that the views of “animal rights extremists” on the zoological display of marine mammals do not reflect public opinion. “Polls have repeatedly shown that 80 to 90 percent of Americans support marine mammal displays in accredited institutions like SeaWorld,” Fichthorn says. “The knowledge we continually gain from our research efforts and rescue and rehabilitation program not only allows us to provide the best care for our animals but benefit wild animals, most importantly endangered species.” While the existential merits of placing dolphins next to a roller coaster may be debated, what the park’s critics say requires no debate is the detraction of Mission Bay Park’s sightlines.
They do not want to see what was a view dominated by trees (excepting the 360-foot Skytower) usurped by the steel arches of thrill rides, or a hotel that could reach half the height of the Skytower.
Donna Frye, who led the opposition to Proposition D prior to her election to the San Diego City Council, finds the Atlantis ride “very unattractive” and vows that future developments will get as much scrutiny as possible during the public review process. Although the council approved SeaWorld’s redevelopment plans, any changes at the park must be approved by the California Coastal Commission.
“Part of the frustration I felt—not just with that awful roller coaster— was the fact that the public was not really allowed to participate in the city council meeting on how some of these designs would look and what type of mitigation we would want,” Frye says. “One mailer and we would have stopped it, but I wasn’t as knowledgeable then as I am now on how to organize a campaign.”
A Mission Bay insider offers this advice to Fichthorn: “Get on Donna’s good side.” Fichthorn says he plans to meet with Frye as soon as it’s convenient for them both.
THAT’S NOT TO SAY Frye automatically opposes anything SeaWorld proposes.
“A lot of the stuff, like the education center, I have absolutely no problem with,” she says. “Even if they wanted to go over height, I probably would have been amenable to that, had we known specifically what they wanted to build.”
On some issues, SeaWorld is very cooperative, she says, but “they are bound and determined to have their thrill rides, and on that we will always be butting heads.” She urges greater use of simulators, such as the Wild Arctic attraction, and suggests a wetlands re-creation. “It celebrates the beauty and nature of Mission Bay Park, rather than trying to overwhelm it with garish amusements,” she says. “It’s public parkland—respect it a little.”
SeaWorld says that because it competes against other theme parks for the discretionary entertainment dollars of consumers who have little brand loyalty, it must redevelop areas of the park to remain “fresh and vibrant.” “We evaluate the needs of those consumers,” Fichthorn says, “offering a different look to provide value in our ticket products.”
Hence the Journey to Atlantis, which has “proven to be the right combination of thrill ride and animal experience to satisfy our sophisticated guests” and “received the highest approval rating from our visitors of any new attraction at the park,” the company says in a statement. To improve the planning process, Frye chairs a Mission Bay citizens’ advisory committee, and the meetings are regularly attended by SeaWorld representatives. “With SeaWorld being there, they realize those things that really bother the community,” she says. “It makes them much more aware of the problems with public trust, people not feeling they are being told the truth. It certainly opens lines of communication.”
Fichthorn says he, too, wants open lines of communication as he begins his tenure in San Diego.
“We are pleased and proud to have reached the 40-year milestone and are looking forward to the next 40 years,” he says. “SeaWorld has a great heritage for tourism and caring for marine animals, and this is an opportunity to continue that stewardship.”