Bigger Digs for Shamu?


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Mention of “Shamu Goes to College” prompts a laugh from Otto Emme. A native San Diegan, he remembers those days in the ’70s when SeaWorld, which prides itself on research and wildlife conservation, dressed up the killer whale and made it perform in bad skits. He knows cheesy entertainment is nothing new to theme parks. “SeaWorld has always had rides,” he says. “There was an underwater show that was great when I was a kid.”

Chairman of the Pacific Beach Community Planning Committee, Emme has been at the center of the three-year debate over the park’s plans to expand, including a new 95-foot “splashdown ride.” He’s not against the idea of SeaWorld pepping up the place a bit. “It’s just a question of how large and how obnoxious it gets,” he says, betraying a slight prejudice.

The image of Shamu dressed in a cap and gown haunts the park as it attempts to gain popular approval for its master plan update, a road map for the park’s future growth. The campy Shamu shows were long ago, under different owners. That’s not SeaWorld, park officials say. SeaWorld is about saving J.J. the whale and developing oceanography camps for kids. It’s about paying homage to marine life, not Snow White fantasylands or triple-twirl roller coasters. These days, they note, Shamu performs his tricks in “Shamu’s Adventure,” a tribute to the “spectacular natural behaviors of killer whales.”

“It’s a theme park, not an amusement park,” a company spokesman tersely notes.

During the emotional squabble over expansion plans, over and over again SeaWorld executives have had to defend their motives, to answer accusations that they are forsaking the park’s heritage. Knott’s Berry Farm doesn’t have to defend its mission. Neither does Disneyland, for that matter. But SeaWorld is different.

“We have no intention of changing course,” says general manager Dennis Burks, when confronted with the inevitable question. “Guests come here because it’s a marine park, and we’re not going to drift away from that.”

But he acknowledges that SeaWorld, owned by beer giant Anheuser-Busch, must also evolve if it expects to maintain its current customer base and battle Disneyland, Six Flags and other thrill-ride mongers. “Consumers are fickle,” Burks says. “We know we have to be on the leading edge.”

There’s no mystery why the world’s largest beer company is in the family theme park business. Theme parks are cash cows. Lured by free-spending tourists going through the turnstiles, media conglomerates Universal and Warner followed Disney into the game, turning amusement parks into a multibillion-dollar business of icon attractions.

The theme park business, industry analysts say, is fairly recession proof. Families may not travel to Europe in tough times, but parents will still take the kids to the amusement park on that hot July Saturday, the theory goes. But it’s a tough business. Although steady, there is little hope of dramatic boosts, unless there is something new and thrilling to attract people.

Busch bought SeaWorld San Diego from Harcourt Brace Jovanovich in 1989, paying $1.1 billion for four SeaWorlds and two other parks. It currently owns nine parks, including two Busch Gardens and three SeaWorlds—Orlando, San Antonio and San Diego. Last year it opened Discovery Cove in Orlando, which allows customers to swim with dolphins. SeaWorld San Diego is the only Busch park on public land, and it’s also the only Busch presence in the competitive Southern California market.

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