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SeaWorld to end theatrical killer whale show


A good first step, maybe.

SeaWorld intends to replace Shamu show with a new orca experience in 2017 | SanDiegoUnionTribune.com

SeaWorld, in a move to rebuild its brand and combat declining attendance, will phase out its traditional Shamu show in San Diego and replace it with one that is less about tricks and more about orcas' natural behaviors in the wild.

Next year will be the last for the show and coming in 2017 will be what SeaWorld Entertainment describes as a new orca experience, designed to take place in a more natural setting. The announcement, made during a Monday morning presentation by senior SeaWorld executives, is part of a multi-pronged effort by the Orlando company to refocus the public's attention on its conservation efforts.

CEO Joel Manby, though, was short on specifics as to what the new orca shows will entail.

"We start everything by listening to our guests and evolving our shows to what we’re hearing, and so far that’s what we’ve been hearing in California, they want experiences that are more natural and experiences that look more natural in the environment," Manby said. "...But it’s not universal across our properties."

Manby, however, did not indicate whether the signature killer whale shows would be overhauled at its two other namesake parks, in Orlando and San Antonio.

"You can't do it at one park and not do it at the other parks," said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services, Inc. "That's not the way our industry operates."

In totality, Speigel said SeaWorld's presentation amounted to "getting back to basics" under new management. "They're going to listen to their guests and continue to react to guests, and they're not going to overreact to antagonists."

The plan to gradually phase out the traditional Shamu show comes amid efforts at both the state and federal level to clamp down on SeaWorld by ending the captive breeding of orcas. SeaWorld has already vowed to fight a recent ruling by the California Coastal Commission to bar it from breeding its orcas as a condition of moving forward with the tank expansion projects.

On Friday, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, said he plans to introduce federal legislation that would prohibit the breeding of captive orcas, end the capture of wild orcas and stop the import and export of the killer whales.

For now, though, the tank expansion initiative in San Diego will be on hold, although Manby did not rule out returning to it at a later date.

"We know, with the regulatory environment out there with orcas and what’s happened in California with the reputation, we’d be foolish if we didn’t look at options," Manby said. "...We're not comfortable putting $100 million into a market when there are regulatory questions. Until that whole issue settles, then we’ll make a decision at that time."

In the meantime, though Manby confirmed what he had hinted at last week, that there will be a new attraction coming to the San Diego park designed to generate more revenue and attendance. Between one-third and one-half of the $100 million cost of the Blue World project will be re-allocated to the new attraction in 2017, but Manby offered no clues as to what that would be.

"We haven't had a good attraction there in awhile," he said of the San Diego park.

SeaWorld parks, most notably the one in San Diego, have been seeing declines in attendance over the last year following the 2013 release of the critical documentary, "Blackfish," which has aired repeatedly on CNN and brought negative publicity to SeaWorld. The company has fought back with a prolonged media campaign defending the parks' humane practices, and that effort will continue, SeaWorld said Monday.

"I’m a little surprised that they were open to pulling the plug on the orca show, but I think it’s smart and I think it shows that the new management team is willing to put everything on the table and tackle some of the taboos that the prior team was unwilling to address," said James Hardiman, an analyst who covers SeaWorld for Wedbush Securities.

The move away from performances featuring killer whales, though, is not likely to silence its critics who still want to see the end of captive breeding.

“The decision by SeaWorld to phase out killer whale shows in San Diego is a welcome step along the path towards ending the captivity of these magnificent creatures,” said Schiff. “Much more needs to be done, however, and I would urge the company to curtail the breeding of their orcas and partner in the creation of ocean sanctuaries. The fact still remains that as long as SeaWorld holds orcas in captivity, the physical and psychological problems associated with their captivity will persist.”

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, SeaWorld's most persistent critic, repeated its call for an end to the breeding of orcas in captitivity and urged the parks to build sea sanctuaries for the marine mammals.

"An end to SeaWorld's tawdry circus-style shows is inevitable and necessary, but it's captivity that denies these far-ranging orcas everything that is natural and important to them." said PETA Foundation Director of Animal Law Jared Goodman.

Stashed in: Whales!

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I wonder if they'll be moving toward Virtual Reality Whales.

There will be a new attraction coming to the San Diego park designed to generate more revenue and attendance. Between one-third and one-half of the $100 million cost of the Blue World project will be re-allocated to the new attraction in 2017, but Manby offered no clues as to what that would be.

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