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Bigger Digs for Shamu?


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In part due to the rigors of the competition, earlier this year Busch sold its Cleveland park to Six Flags for $110 million in cash. (Six Flags plans to reopen it with a different focus this summer.) Nevertheless, the theme park business is a profitable one for Anheuser-Busch, generating net income of $71 million in 2000 on revenue of $837.9 million, an 11 percent increase from 1999.

“Southern California is probably the second most competitive market in the country, next to Orlando,” says Tim O’Brien, senior editor of Amusement Business, which tracks the theme park industry.

It’s not just Disneyland, although the opening last year of Disney’s $1.4 billion California Adventure signaled a new era for the Southland amusement racket. Up the road, Knott’s Berry Farm continues to expand, and just north of Los Angeles, Six Flags is constantly updating Magic Mountain with state-of-the-art daredevil roller coasters.

Three years ago, Busch started calling SeaWorlds “adventure parks,” trying to move away from the park’s aging, fairly stodgy image. “Prior to that they were struggling with their identity,” says O’Brien. He says it was a gamble for Busch to risk alienating its core constituency—the families who love Sea World for its quiet educational atmosphere—while trying to attract a new generation of fans who want something more. In the last two years, SeaWorld Orlando has added Journey to Atlantis, a “splashdown” ride, and Kraken, a good old-fashioned roller coaster.

“You can have it both ways, if it’s done smart and marketed smart,” O’Brien says. “There’s no reason they can’t be a major player with the thrill rides as well as education.”

According to the park’s filing with the city, SeaWorld San Diego’s annual attendance has been basically flat for the last 10 years, actually declining 1 percent from 1990 to 1999. The recent additions of two new attractions, Shipwreck Rapids and Wild Arctic, apparently didn’t help. In 1999, when SeaWorld rolled out Shipwreck Rapids, a new theme area anchored by a white-water river ride, attendance dropped by 6 percent from the previous year. It was down 13 percent from 1997, when Wild Arctic opened.

SeaWorld attributes the drop to a “decrease in Asian tourism” and the opening of Legoland in Carlsbad, as well as heavy discounting on tickets by the Orange County parks. Without new attractions, SeaWorld officials say the decline in attendance would likely continue.

San Diegans had their first chance to peek at SeaWorld’s plans in 1998, when the company placed a measure on the ballot that would allow the park the potential to exceed the Mission Bay master plan’s height restrictions. Although it was the first full-blown public indication of the park’s future plans, there were few specifics on the ballot, beyond a waiver on the height limits.

A large and diverse group of prominent names voiced opposition to the measure, including the Sierra Club, The San Diego Union-Tribune and Councilman Byron Wear, who represents the area. “I felt at the time there needed to be more detail,” Wear says.

In response, SeaWorld staged a well-organized, well-financed campaign, competing against a few activists with almost no budget. Critics charged SeaWorld was portraying the ballot measure as a vote to save wildlife. Still, it passed, although by only a narrow margin, garnering 50.7 percent of the votes.

There is still lingering resentment about the ballot measure, in particular the impression that voters have given the green light to SeaWorld’s plans. In fact, the ballot measure only asked, “Shall the Coastal Zone’s existing 30-foot height limit be amended to allow SeaWorld to plan and construct exhibits, attractions and educational facilities,” although it did note that the height would not “exceed ... the height of the existing SeaWorld Skytower,” which is 320 feet.

“The public had a right to know what it was voting on,” says community activist and City Council candidate Donna Frye, who coauthored the ballot argument against the measure. “There was no mandate for this, no mandate to build hotels and roller coasters. The plan in front of us now is the plan that should have been put in front of voters.”

Even now, many complain SeaWorld is not providing enough detail about its specific plans.

The first phase of the plan calls for four projects, reflecting the park’s schizophrenic roles. It includes a three-story, 22,000-square-foot educational facility to house its various programs, as well as an expansion of its still-unbuilt special-events center.

The education building will host the thousands of kids who participate each year in the park’s Camp SeaWorld and Adventure Camp programs, in addition to adult classes. The education programs, along with the Hubbs Research Center and the animal rescue programs, are what make SeaWorld different from other parks. According to SeaWorld, over the years more than 6 million people have participated in the classes, workshops and ocean field trips. The new building would also include “state-of-the-art” classrooms, “wet lab facilities” and a 130-seat auditorium.

But the centerpiece of the plan is the splashdown ride, which will include three towers, each about 90 feet tall. Though Shipwreck Rapids didn’t appear to boost the park’s long-term attendance, SeaWorld calculates that the splashdown ride is a surefire hit. Even the height is the result of theme park study. “We know from experience it’s a good height,” Burks says. “If you go below that, it takes the thrill out.”

The plan’s first phase also calls for a renovation of the existing entrance. SeaWorld will say only that it is creating an area with “visual icons” and a “marine theme.” Conceptual drawings show a small harbor, docked boats and a wharf on a small lake. A “single icon structure,” presumably a lighthouse, would go as high as 90 feet. When asked, SeaWorld officials still will say only that the icon is “most likely” to be a lighthouse, and they will commit only to planning a nautical-theme front entrance, either with a “New England ... Cannery Row or Key West” look.
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