The format of our journey now changes. It becomes a personal one, with some of what follows never publicly shared before.
This is the story of something tied very closely with the concept of themed entertainment design.
It is the story of a brand.
SOMETIMES IT’S BEST TO WEAR A CORDUROY SUIT
Just like I did in 1981, at the age of ten. My grandfather was a retired Air Force officer, then working for the Navy Corps of Engineers. One night he and my grandmother took me to a meeting of his engineering club at the Miramar Naval Air Station in San Diego, to see a presentation by a fellow Naval engineer – Gene Cernan, the last person to walk on the Moon.
After the presentation, Cernan went around the room shaking hands. He then made a beeline straight for me. After all, I was the only person in the room under thirty and I was rocking that corduroy suit. He asked me if I wanted to be an astronaut.
“Maybe,” I told him, “But I really want to be a marine biologist.”
I expected him to be disappointed, but a smile came over his face and he started walking off, telling me to “Stay right there.”
A few minutes later, he returned with someone else and said, “Joseph, I’d like you to meet my good friend Scott Carpenter.”
Here I was, ten years old, with both the Commander of Apollo 17 (Cernan) and the second American to orbit the Earth (Carpenter, above in his Mercury space suite) chatting with me, and that chat had suddenly left the Moon and gone under the ocean, because Carpenter had also been an aquanaut, serving in the Sealab underwater habitat off the California Coast.
The night was far from over. Carpenter had brought a guest that evening, an old diving colleague from the sixties, that he introduced to me. That man was Wesly Claude and he was French. He was one of the first people to live in an underwater habitat for an extended amount of time and he had been part of Jacques Cousteau’s crew. He had a special gift of knowing how to speak with children and, if Cernan and Carpenter were engaging, Claude was memorizing to my ten year old self.
He asked me, “Where do you go to see the fish? Do you go to Sea World?”
I told him we did, usually once or twice a month.
“Promise me you will learn SCUBA. Then you can see the fish in the real world. Then you can become a marine biologist.”
After I received my SCUBA certification at 16, I found out there are quite a few marine biologists who don’t know how to dive and even a few that can’t swim at all. Apparently, it helps, but it’s not a prerequisite.
SOMETIMES IT’S BEST TO BE THE CUTE ONE IN DIAPERS
My grandparents were certainly not wealthy people. They lived through the Great Depression, saved their money, and invested wisely, allowing them to provide for their daughters and their daughters’ children.
In the mid-1960s, they were among a number of minority shareholders in Sea World, Inc. They held the stock for a decade, converting it to Harcourt Brace Jovanovich shares in the 70s, then sold it in the 80s, with the profit being much more than tenfold the initial investment.
The audiovisual history of my family is in a climate controlled vault in San Diego, housing hundreds of film and magnetic audio reels and photographic film cartridges.
Within that vault, on a single strip of 35mm photographic stock, there is a single frame taken in early 1972 in which you can clearly see George Millay, one of the founders of Sea World, who served as the company’s first President. Also in the photo is David Kenney, SeaWorld’s first veterinarian. Between them is my grandfather, and he’s holding me, less than a year old in diapers, over the Eastern holding tank at the brand new Shamu Stadium.
And I was touching a year old gray whale.
This is a story about a brand — a brand based on a single lie.
The story of the brand begins in 1841, when P.T. Barnum opened his American Museum in Manhattan. Interspersed with the deceased animals on display were a few live ones, including snakes, monkeys, and Neptune, the giant northwestern sea lion.
One of the biggest draws to the museum were the live beluga whales, the first of which was kept in a pool in the basement, then moved to a 25 ft long, 50 ft wide, 7 ft deep tank on the second floor. As Barnum was a showman, very little interpretation was given to the audience on the animals’ biology or their natural history. Rather, the exploits and courageousness of the men who hunted down and captured the animals was regaled to the enamored crowd.
Belugas lived in the museum for only five years – from 1861 to 1865. Their life expectancy in this facility was very short and Barnum capitalized on it. A July 2, 1865 advertisement for the museum read:
BARNUM’S AMERICAN MUSEUM
. . . . TWO LIVING WHITE WHALES
weighing TWENTY THOUSANDS POUNDS per registers
Hudson River Railroad Co.,
after several months of immense labor and at an expense of
NINE THOUSAND DOLLARS,
were captured and brought to this city from the coast of Labrador and are
now disporting in that MINATURE OCEAN,
the MAMMOTH WHALE TANK,
the only specimen to be seen alive.
NOW IS THE TIME
to see these wonders as
THEIR LIVES ARE UNCERTAIN,
seven of the same species having died while being exhibited at this
GEORGE, the great WHALE CAPTURER, will enter
the WHALE TANK every day at 10 3/4 A.M., 2 1/4 and 7 3/4 P. M.
The advertisement was for the eighth and ninth belugas to be on display at the museum. They would die eleven days after the ad ran, when the museum became engulfed in fire and they boiled alive in their second floor tank.
The timetable progresses.
1895 – Captain Paul Boyton opens Sea Lion Park on Coney Island, the predecessor to the modern marine life theme park. (see Act 1 of this blog for more on Boyton and his exploits).
1938 – the first modern Dolphinarium, Marine Studios in St Augustine, later renamed Marineland of Florida, opens to the public. An actual underwater filming studio, it adds a dolphin who becomes extremely popular, leading the way to more dolphins.
1954 – Marineland of the Pacific opens in Palos Verdes, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. From about 1971 to 1977, the park is operated by 20th Century Fox. Soon after, it is sold to Taft Broadcasting and rebranded to Taft’s popular Hannah-Barbera staple of animated characters.
1955 – Miami Seaquarium opens. Famous as being the home of TV star Flipper, the park also trucks its dolphins across town on Sundays to perform in a tank next to the field during Miami Dolphin football games.
A pattern emerges. Starting with the bravura showmanship of Barnum and Boyton, and later with film studios, the history of marine life parks has long been mired in entertainment. At the same time, elements of conservation, research, and education (henceforth referred to as “CRE”) could be found within these operations from the start. But they were played as second string to the entertainment component.
When George Millay and his partners founded Sea World, there was no question that it was a commercial venue, focusing primarily on entertainment with CRE placed in a support position. In fact, the Hubbs Research Institute was founded by Sea World to provide research on the conservation of sport fishing stock, as sport fishing was a favorite pastime of SeaWorld co-founder Milton Shedd. Over time, Hubbs expanded its mission as the various marine life parks around the U.S. began partnering with major universities on research – Sea World with the University of California San Diego, Marineland of the Pacific with the University of Southern California, and Marineland of Florida with the University of Florida.
Upon its 1964 opening in San Diego, Sea World set out to meet the minimum requirements for CRE as listed in its lease agreement with the City of San Diego, while concentrating almost entirely on entertainment. The park featured rare Amazonian dolphins; penguins that were trained to perform simple tricks; and a fairly standard sea lion show.
The prediction for first year attendance was one million. The actual attendance totaled out at 300,000. They needed something big and putting roller skates on the penguins, though it helped, wasn’t going to be anywhere near enough.
In late 1965, Ted Griffin, owner of the now defunct Seattle Marine Aquarium, was trying to sell a young female killer whale he had captured named Shamu. The Vancouver Aquarium and Marineland of the Pacific, which had both had prior problematic experiences with housing orcas, turned him down. The young Sea World park in San Diego decided to bring her in on a trial basis, and she ended up becoming a hit.
Sea World continued to purchase killer whales from Griffin for its San Diego park and its new parks in Ohio (1970) and later Orlando (1973). Millay realized that Griffin would eventually sell to other park owners and so would other captors wanting to get in on the profits. Knowing that Sea World could profit from its competitors, in a move common for zoological parks at the time, Millay partnered with Griffin and others on the sale of whales to other venues.
This is where the lie comes in. In another long term practice since discontinued in most venues, as also seen with big cats and apes, the female Shamu was marketed as a male. Known as “King of the Deep,” early Shamu shows highlighted the taming of the wild beast by an all-male team of trainers – including the technique established by famed lion tamer Isaac Van Amburgh in the early 1800s – where a trainer sticks his head into the animal’s mouth, a simultaneous display of trust and power.
This early exhibition of man dominating over nature proved perfect for an audience primarily composed of sailors and marines, as described in Act 1 of this blog. The actual whale Shamu died in 1971, but the character of Shamu would continue for another 40 years, and for the next decade, regardless of which whale took on the role, the character was always male.
In the mid-1980s, as the staged comedies gave way to spectacles, the nature of Shamu’s identity changed. As Professor Susan Davis describes in her book “Spectacular Nature: Corporate Culture and the Sea World Experience”: “In performance, Shamu appears to have if not an ambiguous, then a very flexible gender identity.” These changes were rooted in cultural and audience transformations in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
In 1970, the State of California introduced “no fault” divorces, where no proof is needed that the spouse did anything wrong. According to the CDC, between 1967 and 1973, the divorce rate in California increased 54%, although still below the national average. Between 1960 and 1970, it increased 129%. There were new kinds of families evolving – mixed and single parent (often in California during this period, custody was given to the mother). At the same time, the scope of women in the workplace had changed. Man was no longer the “King of the Castle” as advertised in the 50s and 60s. We had now entered the “Mom Economy.” Today, any hospitality or tourism professional will tell you that when it comes to family vacation – it’s mom that makes the choices.
Marketing professionals are well aware of this. Over the years, SeaWorld’s advertisements have changed from showcasing Dad as the central figure to featuring both moms and women in the animal care profession front and center.
Back to 1965. Killer whales were never part of the original plans for Sea World. But performing gray whales were. Sea World entered into a partnership with the prestigious Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego to acquire a gray from the wild. Sea World would train it while researchers from Scripps and elsewhere would take the opportunity to find out as much as they could scientifically about the animal in a confined environment.
Ten months before the arrival of Shamu, in February 1965, a gray whale calf was harpooned off the coast of Baja Calfornia, in Scammon’s Lagoon, one of the five Mexican lagoons where the cows give birth and rear their young. The calf was carried to San Diego and placed in a tank at Scripps, where it died two months later from an infection. Based on its looks, it was named Gravel Girtie, or GG for short. This eventually became Gigi. The name was also a play on a rather homely looking woman who lived in a gravel pit in the Dick Tracy comics.
By the end of 1970, visitors to Miami, Florida, Galveston, Texas, and even Kamogawa, Chiba, Japan could all experience performing killer whales. Sea World had lost its exclusivity and it was time to move on to the next big thing. That would involve backtracking, to the 1965 attempt to capture a gray whale.
In March 1971, a newborn female gray whale calf, named GiGi II, was captured in Scammon’s Lagoon, arriving at Sea World in San Diego on March 17, 1971. There was justification for capturing a newborn. As Ken Norris and Roger Gentry wrote in a paper outlining their capture and tracking harness tests of the time: “We attempted to capture suckling animals only because of the obvious dangers and seamanship problems presented by adult whales.”
Extensive research was conducted on Gigi’s biological processes by leading scientists of the day, the kind of research that at the time, and in many cases, still today, could not be accomplished on wild populations. To prepare for the studies, GiGi was trained to swim to different parts of the tank, to stay still in place, and to eat upon command. As far as Millay was concerned, if she could be trained for research, she could be trained for performance.
So here it is, early 1972 and I’m in diapers touching a gray whale. Within two months, Gigi would be returned to the sea with a tracking device attached to her back.
As much as Millay wanted a performing balleen whale, which was something no other park could offer, it became cost prohibitive. Gigi was only a year old when she left the park and had she remained, she would have only continued to have grown in a size. At the time, Millay could not afford a tank to house a full grown gray whale. He had just opened a new Shamu Stadium in 1971. He had just opened a new Sea World park in Ohio in 1970 and was in the development phase for a third park for Orlando, with a scheduled opening in 1973. Sea World had also just partnered with the Irvine Company for a new theme park, Magic Mountain, which opened in 1971 just eighteen miles north of Busch Gardens Los Angeles.
Millay was also trying to come to grasps with the fact that a one year old whale was eating $200 dollars worth of food each day, equivalent to $1,235 today with inflation factored in. As a growing juvenile, that $200 per day would undoubtedly increase exponentially year after year.
But something else was looming on the horizon. In late 1971, Congressman Glenn Anderson of California introduced HR 10420. On October 1, 1972, it was signed into law by President Richard Nixon as the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Sea World had concerns that it would be prohibited from capturing further gray whales under the new law. More importantly, the new law might prevent it from capturing additional killer whales, the brand’s flagship animal, which it needed for its soon to open Orlando park.
So Millay gave up on the grays, doubling down on killer whales. The company purchased the assets of the Seattle Marine Aquarium and began a lobbying campaign in Washington to ensure it could secure those additional wild whales for public display.
SOMETIMES IT’S GOOD TO WEAR AN AVICULTURE SHIRT
In August 1976, MCA, the parent company of Universal Studios, purchased an 8% stake in Sea World. Three months later, it solicited a hostile bid to purchase the company outright for $35 million. To Sea World’s rescue came book publisher Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (HBJ), which offered $65 million for the three marine life parks. The sale was finalized in December 1976.
One of the first things that HBJ’s head Bill Jovanovich wanted to do was to drop the name “killer whale.” The killer whale shows weren’t frightening. They were comedic family fare, and as far as Jovanovich was concerned, the recent release of “Jaws,” whose box office proceeds actually fueled MCA’s bid for Sea World, placed the term “killer” with relation to a marine animal in a bad context. He decided on the term orca, which was the scientific name for the species.
On July 22, 1977, actress and model Bo Derek had her leg ripped off by an orca. Although this disturbed many young children, myself included, it was all in good fun. “Orca,” a 1977 Dino De Laurentiis film, intended to capitalize on the “Jaws” craze, this time with a vengeful bloodthirsty orca.
Now, with the movie giving the term “orca” a bad connotation, Sea World would continue to call their collection “killer whales” for the next forty years.
In 1976, killer whale acquisition switched from the waters of Washington State to Iceland. By 1983, SeaWorld obtained a permit to acquire whales from Alaskan waters. 90 would be used for scientific study, 10 would be on exhibit at the Sea World parks. The permit was overturned by a federal court. Jovanovich wanted more whales for his new Shamu Stadiums in California and Florida, his new park in Texas, and his planned parks in Europe and Asia. In 1986, Sea World’s Vice President of Zoological Collections, Lanny Cornell, approached Marineland of the Pacific and offered the park $1 million for its two killer whales. When it refused, he upped the offer to $2 million. Marineland refused again.
Jovanovich decided to bypass Marineland’s management and approach the park’s owner, Hong Kong-based Far East Hotels & Entertainment, with a direct offer to buy the park in its entirety for $23.4 million. On December 30, 1986, Marineland of the Pacific became part of the HBJ family. On January 20, 1987, the killer whales were moved to San Diego. After assuring local leaders the park would stay open, HBJ announced it would permanently close on March 1. But at 5:00 pm on February 11, 1987, HBJ permanently closed Marineland, a park whose staff had played a pivotal role in the early development of Sea World. The remaining Marineland animals were moved overnight to San Diego.
The company set in motion an infinity loop of an explanation – funds are needed to repair the killer whale facility, but there needs to be a 50% increase in attendance to finance these repairs, but attendance will actually decrease if the killer whales aren’t there, but it’s not safe for the killer whales to be there if their facility needs repair, but funds are needed to repair the killer whale facility….
I was a junior in high school and interning over the Summer of 1987 at Sea World of California in the Aviculture department. Three days of the week, I worked out of the bird house, the other two at the Penguin Encounter. I placed the maccaws and parrots on their roosts throughout the park, prepared food and fed the birds, and cleaned up after them.
It was during that year that Sea World had just opened the $12 million third iteration of Shamu Stadium, what its publicists touted as “the largest marine mammal habitat in the world.” It opened a year after a slightly smaller Shamu Stadium in Orlando, the previous title holder. It’s funny to think of it in hindsight, but the aviculturists and aquarists always seemed to have their pulse on the company’s operation and could easily tell what was bullshit publicity rhetoric and what was not. Maybe it was because they worked with the animals, for the most part, behind the scenes. I remember that one of the aviculturists had taped a photo of the ocean to the bird house refrigerator with the note “largest marine mammal habitat in the world.”
One day on my lunch break, I came across Bill Jovanovich standing by himself in the middle of “Places of Learning,” a $2 million area with giant chess boards, a children’s book store (Synergy! After all, HBJ was a book publisher!) and an enormous map of the United States. He was enjoying himself watching families explore the map.
Bill knew who my grandparents were and he and I had met informally over the past decade. “Glad to see you’ve joined us,” he said, noting my Aviculture polo shirt. “Have you explored the map?” He asked. I told him I had, but I wanted to ask him a question about the map.
The new $18 million expansion featured a number of components. There was the new third version of Shamu Stadium, immediately to the left of the park entrance; the new main entrance plaza that featured one of the park’s most popular eateries – a sticky bun shop, which fueled many an aviculturist throughout the morning; Places of Learning; the conversion of the Nautilus Amphitheater into a walled-in venue for a variety show called “City Streets;” a new outdoor, tiered seating Nautilus Amphitheater, which that summer featured Chinese acrobats during the day, who were accompanied by a laser and fireworks show at night; the conversion of the second Shamu Stadium to a dolphin arena; and the dolphin lagoon’s transformation into the home to the diving and wave-runner show “Muscle Beach.”
My question was simple. “Why is Shamu all the way to the left and the map here? Wouldn’t you want Shamu to be here in the center of the park?”
“That’s a good question,” he responded. “We thought about that, but then we figured it might create a traffic jam to have Shamu, dolphin, and sea lion all lined up in the center of the park. We also thought about putting the amphitheater here. But what we did to figure things out was we looked at the animal surveys.
This is as where we discuss animal weenies
The term “weenie,” with regards to a theme park, is attributed to Walt Disney. As mentioned in Act 1 of this blog, as time goes on, it becomes difficult to tell what is factual, what is exaggerated, and what is fallacious with regards to Walt Disney the historical figure. It was quite common for his staff to come up with terms which were then attributed to Disney the man, so the truth of the term’s coinage may be lost to time.
As the story goes, Disney would return home from the studio and grab a hot dog to eat. As he walked around the house, he would notice his dog following him, expecting a bite.
Within the theme park environment, Disney used the term “weenie” to denote a structure that in some way is appetizing enough to entice a park guest to get closer for a treat.
Within today’s Disneyland park in Anaheim, there are two main axes of weenies that can be seen from a distance. The first is longitudinal. It begins with the entrance plaza, then extends through the Disneyland Railroad Main Street Station, Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, King Arthur’s Carousel, Dumbo, Mad Tea Party, and “It’s a Small World.”
The other is latitudinal and navigates the park’s mountain range: Space Mountain, Matterhorn, Thunder Mountain, and Splash Mountain.
Within Sea World, the weenies were designated by those animals surveyed guests were most interested in seeing – killer whales (A), sharks (B), penguins (C), and sea lions (D). The need to move traffic around the park played a pivotal role in the location of new construction in San Diego and Orlando and in the design of the forth Sea World park, which opened in 1988 in San Antonio, Texas.
The one exception was Sea World of Ohio, where the Sea Lion Stadium, Shamu Stadium, and Penguin Encounter lined up to draw guests to the left of the entrance, with a children’s play area and waterski stadium to the right. A shark exhibit opened in 1993 on the right side, years after HBJ had sold the parks.
SOMETIMES IT HELPS TO TAKE TIME OFF
Once my internship ended, it would be another 11 years before I returned to a Sea World park.
In 1988, Sea World of Texas opened in San Antonio. A year later, HBJ sold the parks to brewery company Anheuser Busch. Corporate operations were merged with the existing Busch Gardens parks and new branding was applied – Sea World was no more. From now on, the four parks would be known as SeaWorld Adventure Parks. Shamu was replaced with an amorphic logo that could represent anything from a shark to a dolphin.
In 1990, I moved to Texas to study marine biology. For three years, I volunteered with the Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network, of which SeaWorld was an affiliate for live rescues, though I never visited the park during this period. I dealt with the dead dolphins, performing necropsies on over twenty of them that had washed up on the Texas coast.
During one of my final necropsies, I met a young man who, as I recall, was a bit crass with his attitude. He didn’t take what we were doing seriously. He told us that the only reason he was there was because he was planning to audition to be a SeaWorld killer whale trainer (“a sure thing,” he assured us) and that they had advised him it would help if he had some animal experience. He had applied with the Stranding Network to work with live rescues, but the list of volunteers was too long and since he wouldn’t have the chance to work with live animals, he was doing this instead. He said he didn’t have much choice, there just weren’t that many options.
Almost two decades later, he would co-write a book that somehow villainized the keeping and training of orcas while simultaneously glorifying the trainer-whale bond.
In the spring of 1998, I was on vacation, exploring the tidepools of La Jolla, California. Suddenly, I saw a movement three feet in front of me and as my eyes focused in, I realized I was a short hop away from a harbor seal. The Texas coast was great. Lots of birds, lots of dolphins, lots of jellyfish, lots of shrimp, but no pinnipeds. I realized I missed the California coast and made plans to return home that summer.
I couldn’t however leave Texas without visiting SeaWorld. I had interned at the San Diego park while the the newest park was under construction. Some of the birds I had worked with in California had made the trip to San Antonio.
I remember being disappointed. I recall everything being a smaller version of San Diego. The theater in the round Shamu Stadium was interesting, but I felt the show didn’t work as well as the traditional amphitheater setting. There was a lot of concrete – a popular design aesthetic of the 1980s – and it sure made the animal exhibits appear ugly (an issue finally resolved only a few years ago with new sea lion and dolphin exhibit designs). I was so disappointed with the traditional SeaWorld fare that I spent most of the day riding the park’s one roller coaster and hitting the attached Lost Lagoon waterpark.
SOMETIMES IT HELPS TO TAKE A TRIP TO L.A.
Anheuser Busch was purchased by InBev, which ran the theme park division for a year before selling it to investment firm Blackstone. In 2010, a trainer was killed by a killer whale at the Orlando park. Blackstone was able to control the public relations spin on the death for a few years, but in 2013, two things happened.
Blackstone announced their planned IPO for the parks under the moniker SeaWorld Entertainment.
The timing of the IPO was complicated by the release of “Blackfish,” a documentary alleging that poor animal welfare standards at SeaWorld had led to the trainer’s death. At the Sundance Film Festival that year, CNN Films purchased the broadcast rights to “Blackfish.” It would premiere on CNN in October and play almost continuously for a number of months.
In December 2013, I was contacted by a CNN producer who had followed my blogging. She invited me to meet the next time I was in Los Angeles. After a number of failed attempts, the meeting finally took place in August 2018 at a cafe on Venice Beach.
“Jeff [Zucker, President of CNN Worldwide] was new to the company,” she told me. “The suits were hoping he’d provide the same kind of magic he had at NBC – turning around a network in need of turning around. He started CNN Films as what you could consider to be our entertainment division. So here was this film ‘Blackfish’ and it was gold. It was controversial. We knew that when we ran it, it would be all over social media. The people who loved it would tweet about. The people who hated it would tweet about it. Every time somebody tweeted about it, somebody who saw that tweet wanted to see the film to see what the commotion was about it. And they’d watch it on CNN. And for our production teams and talent, it didn’t matter if you agreed with the film or not, because on screen, Jeff wanted everyone to support the film – news supporting entertainment. That’s what he did at NBC. The more tweets, the more views, the more ad sales. We ended up selling ads for much more money on Blackfish airings than we did most of CNN’s leading shows.”
CNN is part of the mighty TimeWarner media empire (now part of AT&T). Another TimeWarner division is Warner Bros., and an old friend of mine is now an executive there. “Have you ever seen the licensing agreement with the Universal Studios parks?” he asked me one day. “You know we get a flat fee per year, but the other thing is that we also get a royalty on every Harry Potter item sold in the Universal parks, regardless of whether it’s a product exclusive to the park or something that’s sold elsewhere as well. We get a portion of photos taken in the land and on the rides, and a portion of every food item mentioned in the books or movies. Buy a wand – we get some of that. Buy a butterbeer – some of that goes to us too. When CNN wanted to run Blackfish all the time, the guys in New York [TimeWarner headquarters] were very happy with the plan. If SeaWorld suffered, Universal stood to gain. And if Universal stood to gain, we did too.”
SeaWorld ran a defensive campaign against the film and its allegations, but was ill prepared for the overwhelming social media campaign that its corporate public relations machine would attempt to counter. Thousands of social media parrots (those who copy posts and tweets without full knowledge of the issue at hand) received as much coverage in the mainstream media as SeaWorld’s paid advertisements in the nation’s largest papers. An “#askseaworld” twitter campaign quickly backfired as animal rights activists took possession of the hashtag.
The defense strategy became frustrating to SeaWorld’s fans, supporters, and partners. As one long-time vendor shared with me, “If the company had still been owned by Anheuser Busch, Augustus Busch III would have created a shell company, flown his most trusted executives to Sundance, outbid everyone else for the film, and he would have stuck it in a vault so nobody would ever see it and we’d never be dealing with this.”
After a year of cat and mouse defensive publicity, the company switched to re-branding. This was a strategy that had proven itself successful in 1987 following the negative publicity surrounding the closure of Marineland of the Pacific and a pair of well publicized accidents involving trainers and killer whales. The branding strategy would highlight five areas that benefited from the company’s efforts – rescue, conservation, education, research, and community relations. SeaWorld would also begin to place less emphasis on killer whales and began to concentrate on other animals, especially those that fell in the five branding categories – such as sharks, manatees, and turtles.
In July 2014, I received an email from a SeaWorld Vice President:
“Something caught my eye the other day and I wanted to see if you knew anything more about it. I was reading a story in National Geographic about how swell Lori Marino is. There was something of an offhand line in the story about how Marino is packing up to move to Utah. She apparently is joining her partner, a guy named Michael Mountain. I’m not sure what ‘partner’ means in this context, nor do I particularly care. I think Michael Mountain runs a huge no-kill shelter out there, which would make him a natural ally for Marino. Ironically, it would make him a natural ally for SeaWorld too, given our disgust over the goings on in the PETA shelter in Norfolk.
“I’m not sure if this means that Marino is abandoning academia entirely or just changing her base of operations. The interesting thing is what appears to be a very odd origin and evolution of this shelter and Mountain too. Some weird cult thing that started in the ‘70s. You know anything about all this?”
I knew a little bit about Mountain. What I knew actually stemmed from a lawsuit titled “Tilikum v SeaWorld,” through which PETA and a number of co-plaintiffs sued on behalf of SeaWorld’s orcas, claiming the company was holding them as slaves in violation of the Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.
In January 2012, the Nonhuman Rights Project issued a statement that read in part: “While the NhRP sympathizes with PETA’s claims that these orcas are enslaved, in the usual meaning of that word, it believes that PETA’s claim that the orcas are enslaved within the meaning of the Thirteenth Amendment is dangerously premature and that a decision on the merits will damage future animal rights law cases.”
The statement was written by Michael Mountain, then the group’s Communications Director. Mountain’s name had popped up before – as a board members of the Emory University-associated Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy, founded by neuroscientist Lori Marino.
Indeed Mountain’s background was colorful. Mountain had been a leading member of “The Process,” which by all means appeared to by an apocalyptic religious order. Some sources say it was Satanic, but I’ve never seen any member proclaim that, which is usually what proud Satanists do.
In 1984, the group founded the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah. This was followed by a no-kill shelter in Los Angeles, considered to be one of the top shelters in the country.
Had it not been for Mountain’s relationship with Marino, SeaWorld would have followed through by contacting Best Friends and seeking out a partnership. But Marino was a problem. She was vocally anti-SeaWorld and, to top things off, had appeared on screen in Blackfish.
I personally believe that the biggest mistake SeaWorld made in fighting Blackfish was not owning up to its past. “We made mistakes fifty years ago, but our understanding of animal welfare and conservation has since changed.”
SOMETIMES IT HELPS TO ENJOY TELENOVELAS
In the second half of the last decade, SeaWorld’s management began to feel like a Latin American soap opera.
Enter the Joel
In December 2014, theme park industry legend Joel Manby, who had successfully led Herschend Family Entertainment, joined SeaWorld Entertainment as its new CEO.
In the updated version of his bestselling book “Love Works,” Manby talks about the stress involved from dealing with PETA and animal rights extremists – protesters at the park entrances and at his home, having to send one of his children away for safety after death threats from animal rights activists, 24-hour police protection at his home and SeaWorld headquarters. He relates how SeaWorld almost lost its license for Sesame Street when a PETA email campaign crashed the Sesame Workshop servers.
After the California Coastal Commission tentatively approved SeaWorld’s Blue World Project, which would have substantially increased the size of the park’s killer whale facility, with the requirement that breeding be banned; after Assemblyman Richard Bloom introduced legislation in California that would have outlawed the breeding of killer whales in the state; and after Congressman Adam Schiff introduced a bill that would have established a national ban, Manby took the one action that he figured would quiet everyone down – he proclaimed an end to breeding of killer whales. Those already in the parks would be the last generation the company would own. When they were all dead – no more killer whales.
For many animal rights activists, this was a move in the right direction, but it wasn’t enough. For the park’s employees and fans and for the greater community of zoo professionals, it was too much. Without a commitment to replenish the collection, the message became clear – SeaWorld was now saying, “our whales don’t really belong here.”
Many remember the moment they heard the announcement. Few recall that a month before, Manby had made the same decision to end breeding and to maintain the last generation of its tiny Commerson’s dolphins. Fewer still know that, following Ringling Brothers’ decision to remove elephants from its circus, Manby was examining options to remove elephants from SeaWorld’s Busch Gardens Tampa Bay park.
Subtly, as if to ensure everyone was talking about the same animal, SeaWorld management and publicists started referring to killer whales with the term that had been embraced by animal rights organizations – the same term Bill Jovanovich had wanted to adopt in 1977 – orcas. Slowly, the term orca began to replace the established Shamu brand.
Manby partnered with the Humane Society of the United States, an organization that not all animal rights activists approved of due to its recent embrace of convicted fighting dog breeder Michael Vick as an HSUS spokesperson. Together with HSUS CEO Wayne Pacelle, Manby made the rounds of the morning talk shows. Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the partnership was Pacelle, who was publicizing his new book “The Humane Economy.” During book signings, Pacelle would tell fans that the orcas were just the beginning. He would say that HSUS was working with Manby on also ending captivity of other animals in SeaWorld’s care, such as belugas and dolphins.
Manby and Pacelle wrote a number of joint letters to government officials on marine conservation issues, but other than that, the partnership soon fizzled. Not long after, SeaWorld was once again partnering with conservation organizations not intent on ending animal exhibition.
Enter Zhonghong and Hill Path
Blackstone sold its majority stake in SeaWorld to Zhonghong, a Chinese real estate development company, that, at the time of the acquisition, was already experiencing major financial issues in China. In the midst of the Zhonghong ownership, a former Apollo Group manager named Scott Ross began buying large chunks of SeaWorld shares. Ross had been on the Apollo teams that had purchased Great Wolf Lodge and Chuck E. Cheese and on the team that had come close, but failed, to purchase theme park chain Cedar Fair.
Zhonghong began taking out a series of loans at ever increasing interest rates, at one point as much as 30%, to cover its existing debt. It finally reached the point that it needed to sell off assets to meet obligations. One of those assets was its SeaWorld stock. Ross would purchase a good portion of it, giving him control of the company. According to Manby,’s book, Ross was exerting that control even prior to becoming the majority shareholder. Manby relates how in 2017, he discovered that Ross was obtaining and looking through his files without his knowledge, how Ross was ordering management without Manby’s consent, and how Ross was making business dealings with vendors behind Manby’s back. According to the book, when Manby went to Yoshi Maruyama, the then-Zhonghong appointed Chairman of the SeaWorld Board, he was blown off – “Joel, Frank [Manby refers to Ross as Frank in the book] is who he is. I can’t change him, so you’ll have to get used to him.”
In the time since Manby’s firing in February 2018, SeaWorld has seen the resignations of three long-term executives – the company’s COO, who served as the interim CEO for a year, and the park presidents of Orlando and San Antonio – as well as the resignations of two outside hire CEOs, neither of which lasted a full year. Such leadership instability raises questions as to the future of the company.
SOMETIMES YOU NEED TO REINVENT
It’s one thing to have a theme park with lots of coasters. Consistent construction on thrill rides in a park chain controlled by an investment firm usually implies there’s a potential sale on the horizon.
It’s also possible to have an animal park that concentrates on rescue, conservation, education, research, and community relations.
It’s possible to have both, as long as they are synergistic. Just look at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. This is a conservation-based theme park designed from the ground up. It’s the opposite of what SeaWorld’s doing, which is taking a theme park/zoo and converting it into a conservation park.
This can be done. It has been done. The Zoological Society of San Diego is now known as San Diego Zoo Global. The New York Zoological Society is now known as the Wildlife Conservation Society. New names were just part of the change. Both of these organizations have transformed their images from zoos with conservation programs to conservation societies that run zoos as part of their outreach.
To become a true conservation organization, it’s time to let Shamu go.
I get it. I understand. When something’s a beloved part of your childhood, losing it is like losing part of your family.
I’m part of the group that felt that way when Disney dropped Dreamfinder from Epcot’s Imagination pavilion
But Shamu’s another thing. For me, Shamu died around 1980, when the classic shows were switched out for something more glitzy and, in some cases, a stage set that looked like it came from an afternoon television talk show. I miss the 70s, when the park was an animal sitcom haven – the dolphin show was funny, the sea lion show was funny, and Shamu and his friends – yes, I said his, because this was the 70s – were comedic actors, going to Hollywood, running for mayor, attending college, and winning the Revolutionary War. What a great time to be a kid!
The Shamu of the 80s, 90s, and 2000s is not my Shamu. It’s as if Dreamfinder were abducted, had his head and facial hair shorn off, and was given a suit and a new role at the Walt Disney Company.
This is one of the longest blog posts I’ve ever written. It’s taken me quite a bit of time to figure it out. I’ve had to cut out a few parts, including how I met the design team from Busch Entertainment by chance while they are on a research trip to Halloween Horror Nights. That’ll have to be for another time.
Researching SeaWorld becomes problematic as time goes on since accurate facts become harder to come by. For example, I encountered six different figures on what HBJ paid to acquire Sea World from ten different sources. The truth becomes even harder to ascertain when looking over the past decade, as it’s been primarily dictated by animal rights rhetoric and SeaWorld corporate speak. Over time, the storied truth of the company will fall into the realm of myth.
I have my memories, but memories eventually change over time. My one copy of the photo where I touch Gigi was damaged by a water leak and I have no plans to head to San Diego to make another print anytime soon.
I can’t discuss my memories with many of those mentioned in this piece.
My grandparents are dead.
Gene Cernan is dead.
Scott Carpenter is dead.
Wesly Claude is dead.
David Kenney is dead.
George Millay is dead.
Bill Jovanovich is dead.
Gigi is dead.
Shamu is dead.
Yeah….Shamu is dead…..the whale and the brand.
The future of SeaWorld may lie with rides like Infinity Falls, themed realms that can work successfully with or without animals. Next time, our journey takes us on a unique trip to SeaWorld Orlando’s Infinity Falls as we depart from a subway station under downtown Las Angeles.