We are nearing Christmas. That’s fine. Some say it’s the best time of the year. But there are some disturbing theme park troubles.
Maybe too strong a word.
But call them at least concerns.
Mainly for SeaWorld Orlando.
That involves not only SeaWorld but even Disney. And Universal.
To lesser extents, of course.
SeaWorld Orlando has been a laggard in the otherwise robust tourist hotbed of Central Florida.
Disney's industry-leading theme parks are growing.
Ditto, rival Universal.
But SeaWorld has been struggling.
Attendance at competing parks in Orlando has risen between 4% and 76% over the past five years, according to industry tracker Themed Entertainment Association.
SeaWorld Orlando's turnstile clicks in that time have dipped from 5.8 million in 2009 to 4.7 million, off by 19% in that time.
A decline in numbers for an Orlando theme park?
Unheard of declining SeaWorld numbers
But does this matter for you, the park-goer?
Yes, the parks need to be healthy financially. That’s not only to continue operations that please guests’ but also to add future attractions as well.
And here we come to SeaWorld.
Trouble has been stirred up in the water for SeaWorld Orlando for many different reasons.
So maybe SeaWorld floundering means little to you…your favorite parks may be the other two.
But that could change. With other or added family members. Or who know what changes in your life that might lead you to consider the park?
Whether or not you have heard, SeaWorld has been drowning in bad publicity.
So much so that they recently announced a variety of changes.
These did not satisfy many people, including the company’s announcement it was ending Orca shows in its California park.
That created some sarcastic comments.
This was one:
“SeaWorld’s CEO said the company is ending killer whale shows in San Diego and putting the animals in a more natural setting. This is his way of saying he hopes people forget about Blackfish.”
You will probably recall that the film was highly critical of SeaWorld’s practice of dolphins and killer whales as entertainment.
When that film came out, you knew rough seas were the forecast.
The film put SeaWorld on the defensive.
There’s little hope of winning when that happens.
Humbug to Christmas
SeaWorld would probably much prefer it is would-be guests were far more interested in its recent unveiling of Christmas events.
These include, starting Nov. 21, a North Pole experience at the park to meet Santa Claus.
There’s Christmas celebration takes place Nov. 21-22, 27-29, and Dec. 4-6, 11-13, 18-31.
Christmas events include holiday shows featuring Shamu, of course, as killer whales enact the story of everyday miracles.
They also include the classic Christmas story with 30 famous carols told through the eyes of animals with a live nativity.
There’s also THE POLAR EXPRESS.
Sights, sounds and scents of the season are portrayed in the story of a young boy’s thrilling ride through an enchanted world.
There’s even a Winter Wonderland, an on Ice Christmas show with ice skaters whizzing through sun-splashed lakes of warm water.
And a Christmas Village, where a model train village is the setting where artisans perform their crafts while others offer holiday food and characters.
Guests will have the chance to sing along with musicians.
Whether or not you attend any of those shows, they illustrate the value of an optional SeaWorld visit.
Park offers entertainment choices
The attention of anyone following SeaWorld took another direction with its announcement of new initiatives.
This came on the same day that Disney’s Hollywood Studios had its own announcement.
The highly popular Star Wars Weekends are at an end.
Because of construction of a new land area that will provide 14 acres devoted to Star Wars every day.
"While Star Wars Weekends has been a great way to enjoy the saga for a few days every year, now the Force will be with Disney's Hollywood Studios every day," a company announcement said.
RIP: Star Wars
There seems little question Disney wanted to soften this bad news for regular visitors.
The other side or the good news was that Disney also said the Jedi Training attraction for kids would re-open in December as “Jedi Training: Trials of the Temple.”
"This reimagined Jedi Training experience will take younglings to the secret site of an ancient Jedi temple where they will face Darth Vader along with the Seventh Sister — a new villain from the Disney XD series 'Star Wars Rebels," Disney said online.
In addition, a new Launch Bay will feature exhibits, merchandise and behind-the-scenes features, including encounters with Chewbacca and Darth Vader, the company announced.
But while construction should start next year, Disney still has no dates when the new land will open.
All of this may be fine for children, but there were obviously some disappointed fans.
Wendy Jones was among them.
The event had become a tradition for her and her 15-year-old son during the past five years.
The cancellation did not offer her any holiday cheer.
After Star Wars, what is left?
The 42-year-old local Orlando resident said she hoped they would find a way to continue bringing actors from the Star Wars world back to Orlando.
"It's disappointing," she said. "It was something me and my son went to every year."
Jones said she has been going to Disney World for more than 30 years.
"For the next two to three years, it will be void of much to do," she said. "They seem to be closing more things than they are opening right now. I think it will leave a hole in their offerings."
Also because of the new construction, Disney World this year is ending the 20-year run of the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights at Hollywood Studios.
But all the area parks faced more criticism when it was revealed parking fees now were $20. That was a one-third increase in just over a year and a half.
Gouging visitors both here and from out-of-town, complained critics.
All of this was bad enough but the most serious issues involved SeaWorld.
Bad news plunges on
SeaWorld has struggled financially after the 2013 film “Blackfish.”
It suggested the stress of captivity could have caused an orca named Tilikum to kill an Orlando trainer in 2010.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has been SeaWorld's most persistent critic.
The documentary has made opposition to orca practices “the mainstream view,” theme park observers sat.
Among other things, they object to the idea of performing or trained animals.
In fact, however, it might be argued that we humans are trained.
No, not to balance balls on our noses, of course.
But engineers and lawyers go to college, graduate and law school for a purpose: to be trained to earn a livelihood or make a living.
Celebrities push anti-park message
But well-intended but often uniformed celebrities including Harry Styles, Matt Damon and Jackass’s Steve-O have waded in. They have further pushed the anti-SeaWorld message,
That message, incidentally, is targeted mainly to the youth market.
“SeaWorld has taken on increased marketing and lobbying costs to sway public opinion back to its favor and fend off legislation targeting its business,” said one account of the aftermath.
SeaWorld dismissed Blackfish as “propaganda” and “emotionally manipulative.”
The company has spent more than $15 million on a TV and social media campaign to counter negative sentiment. That program promotes their work to protect and care for whales and other animals.
“All of the falsehoods and misleading techniques in Blackfish are employed in the service of the film’s obvious bias, one that is best revealed near the end of Blackfish by a neuroscientist with no known expertise in killer whales. She claims that all killer whales in captivity are ‘emotionally destroyed’ and ‘ticking time bombs’,” SeaWorld said.
“These are not the words of science, and indeed, there is not a shred of scientific support for them. Rather, they are the words of animal rights activists whose agenda the film’s many falsehoods were designed to advance. They reveal Blackfish not as an objective documentary, but as propaganda.”
Scientific evidence scarce
SeaWorld says it wants to focus more attention on its conservation efforts, while at the same time grow revenues and stabilize the business.
Despite denials, the more likely explanation is that the park wants to appease its critics.
SeaWorld Entertainment, as you may recall, has three parks.
What might happen to the San Antonio or Orlando park?
Change, almost for certain.
Theme park consultant Dennis Speigel said he believes it’s inevitable here. The animal shows, whatever theme they have, may be on the way out.
"You can't do it at one park and not do it at the other parks," said Speigel, president of Ohio-based International Theme Park Services, Inc. "That's not the way our industry operates."
The company has fought back with a prolonged media campaign defending what it says are the parks' humane practices, and that effort will continue, SeaWorld officials said.
SeaWorld cites humane concerns
SeaWorld officials say the key to SeaWorld’s future is to remind visitors to the marine parks of its longstanding efforts to rescue injured and stranded animals.
They have done that repeatedly in the past.
Company officials also say they will work more with public schools.
They also say they will renew their Saturday morning TV show, “Sea Rescue.”
They might even develop a rescue-themed ride that would mimic the work of its real-life rescue teams.
One disturbing element of all this is that park officials say they want to offer more than entertainment.
What is wrong with that?
When Universal and Disney make announcements of new initiatives such as Star Wars and the Fast and the Furious, no one comes forward to say they have socially redeeming values.
They are entertainment.
So no one right now is predicting the imminent end of SeaWorld or that it might not be able to reverse its downward attendance.
Park proposals to sell out
There have been proposals for the park to sell its Orlando venture. That would give them hundreds of millions in profit in part because of its prime location along I-4.
“Given the surge in popularity at Universal and Disney's expansion efforts that will play out in the coming years, it's easy to see how a juicy chunk of land right off I-4 between Disney and Universal could be tempting for developers if the buyers didn't want to stay in the theme-park business,” wrote Motley.
Some observers say the Orca move to end that show will not appease critics who want any and all animal practices to be eliminated.
One statement attributed to PETA said:
“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. This move is like no longer whipping lions in a circus act but keeping them locked inside cages for life, or no longer beating dogs but never letting them out of crates.”
Extreme perhaps, most people would agree.
But does all this move inevitably towards the end of SeaWorld as a viable alternative for its guests?
For now, it’s only a change in Orca whales.
But the dinosaurs also died in a similar way: one-by-one.” ###