Bigger Digs for Shamu?
By Kevin Brass
(page 3 of 3)Noting the slow pace of details from Sea World, one sarcastic letter writer to the Union-Tribune noted SeaWorld “still doesn’t say if the light on the lighthouse will be on.” (In fact, SeaWorld has promised not to use any disruptive lighting.)
The front entrance has been particularly controversial, since it will be one of the most visible portions of the park. The Mission Bay master plan specifically calls for the park to “avoid excessive or exaggerated thematic styles,” to keep “theme park architecture” out of the park.
In addition to the four initial projects, the SeaWorld proposal includes several vaguely defined projects classified as “Tier 2” or “special projects,” which means they’re in the plan but SeaWorld doesn’t know when or if they will be built. If the master plan is approved, many of the future projects won’t need City Council approval, as long as they don’t deviate from the broad guidelines, such as the height restrictions. (They will, however, still need an okay from the Coastal Commission.)
The undefined projects include “new land-based adventure rides,” water rides and “wildlife performance venues.” SeaWorld officials say they can’t commit to specific attractions at this point; they must be quick and flexible in order to respond and counterpunch in the theme park battles. They often note how the park hit it big when it opened Shark Encounters in the wake of the Jaws phenomenon.
“I know it is hard to believe, but we really only work a year or two out, and that’s true throughout the industry,” Burks says.
The list of special projects includes tentative plans for a transit station and a hotel, which has also sparked grumbling. SeaWorld officials say they have no plans to build a hotel, and they note that their master plan has always included provisions for a hotel. But in the master plan update, SeaWorld is asking for the size of this hotel to be increased from a height of 30 feet to 90 feet and from 300 rooms to 650.
Although there are no current plans for a hotel, “when you have a world-class attraction, typically there is a top-notch hotel affiliated with it,” SeaWorld planner Tony Lettieri notes.
But that would also put SeaWorld in competition with other local hotels. “Frankly, I don’t think they need a hotel,” Wear says. “With all the other hotels on Mission Bay, they should focus on their own project and leave hotels for others.”
Most of the complaints about the plan have centered on the lack of detail, the size of the new structures and possible traffic snarls, already a common occurrence around Mission Bay. SeaWorld will be “required to pay its fair share of traffic mitigation,” according to city of San Diego development project manager Mike Westlake.
But what that means is open to interpretation. SeaWorld officials say no taxpayer dollars will be used in the project, a claim Frye labels as “disingenuous,” since the city will have to participate in some area road improvements. The environmental impact report for the project notes that some of Mission Bay’s traffic problems will go “unmitigated.” Lettieri says, unequivocally, “SeaWorld will mitigate all traffic it generates.”
Frye believes the larger issue is the future of Mission Bay, a man-made park with strict caps on development. “Essentially, what they would do is absolutely change the experience of Mission Bay Park,” she says. “It goes against the entire theme of what Mission Bay Park is supposed be. It’s not supposed to be an amusement park.”
Despite the vocal opposition, political observers believe SeaWorld will successfully move a plan through the city of San Diego. Few neighborhoods are directly impacted, which should minimize the NIMBY factor. The California Coastal Commission may be a tougher sell, but there seems to be a general consensus that SeaWorld must upgrade to compete.
“There are some things SeaWorld needs to do to generate customers and fill hotel rooms,” says Wear. He wants to use the project to set up a Mission Bay enterprise fund, to keep generated funds focused on maintaining the park.
Naturally, the expansion plan is being closely followed by the local tourism industry. SeaWorld is an active participant in marketing programs promoting San Diego. According to SeaWorld press materials, the park attracts 35 percent of all visitors to San Diego.
“It’s very critical,” says Reint Reinders, president of the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau. “When you look at SeaWorld, that’s 4 million visitors a year. That’s a significant player in San Diego’s tourism industry.” Without prodding, he adds, “They’re not creating a Six Flags Magic Mountain. They’re staying true to their mission.”
While some charge that SeaWorld is turning Mission Bay into some sort of combination of Magic Mountain and Chuck E. Cheese with fish, Burks says the park will remain focused on “the three E’s”—entertainment, education and the environment. But he leaves little doubt about what’s at stake if the park doesn’t grow.
“Consumers will go elsewhere,” says Burks. “There is not a strong brand loyalty in this business.”