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The day after Thanksgiving 2016, large crowds resulted in average lines of between one and two hours per attraction at both of the Disneyland Resort’s parks.  As I was nearing the halfway point of a ninety minute queue for the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, I began to hear shrieks and screams – not from the tower hidden above me behind a brown construction tarp, but from two young children in line behind me.

“I’m scared,” said one.  “I don’t want to do this,” chimed in the other.

The young lady accompanying them did her best to reassure them.  “It’s a frog hopper,” she told them, “Just like at the fair.  Except here they’re going to do some magic tricks to make it seem scarier than it really is.”

As we entered the lobby, the Silver Lake Sisters, a trio of beauties belting out hits from the 30’s, livened up what was otherwise a decrepit and abandoned space.  Then it was on to the library for the intro video, followed by the Tower’s boiler room.  After that, everything was abnormal.

With just over a month left before the attraction’s closure, the park was offering “Late Check-Out.”  When the doors opened to the two visual effects rooms on the ride, everything was dark.  I could hear the soundtrack and see the outline of the screen and the physical props, but not a single light shone.  It was disconcerting. I felt like the ride was malfunctioning.  For the first time on any of the Tower of Terror attractions, I held onto my handle for dear life.

As I stood in the exit hallway, looking at my pose in the souvenir photo, the two children showed up.  Both were shaking, but both had a big grin from one cheek to the other.  They had survived the Tower.

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A PARK IN NEED OF PEOPLE

When I first visited California Adventure in 2002, the park was much different.  If EPCOT was the Disney Imagineers’ version of a permanent World Expo, then California Adventure was their concept of a state fair. Most guests entered the park missing out on its biggest illusion. If you knew where to stand in the esplanade between the parks and what you were looking at, you’d realize that the giant letters spelling CALIFORNIA in front of the entrance, the murals on each side, the condensed Golden Gate Bridge crossed by the monorail and the giant sun sculpture at the end of the entrance walkway all combined to form a giant postcard.

To the right, past the entrance corridor, known as Sunshine Plaza, and its 1950’s train, was the Golden State zone, comprised of Bountiful Harvest Farm, Pacific Wharf, Golden Vine Winery, Pacific Wharf, Bay Area, Grizzly Peak Recreation Area, and Condor Flats.  Past Golden State was Paradise Pier, the park’s homage to seaside amusement parks.  On the left side of Sunshine Plaza was Hollywood Studios Backlot, the park’s representation of a Hollywood studio, with backlot sets and soundstages.  There was no thematic connection between the Backlot Studios and the rest of the park, with the giant sun sculpture placed between it and Golden State.  This would later be remedied with the 2012 redesign of Sunshine Plaza into Buena Vista Street and small cosmetic overlays that converted the movie studio motif of much of Hollywood Studios Backlot into Hollywoodland, with the two linked not only by architecture, but by a new electric railcar that traversed both lands.

In 2002, there was no Tower of Terror. If you were looking for a tower thrill ride, it was the Maliboomer, an S&S Space Shot with the unique addition of plexiglass face shields to quell rider’s screams.  This ride was one of many attractions throughout the park where themed off-the-shelf rides existed without story (a giant orange called the Orange Stinger with swings inside themed to bees being another).  As a result, attendance at California Adventure after its first year of operation was far below predicted numbers and Disney was doing all it could to build up visitation.  That Summer, a dirt arena was built next to Pacific Wharf with a motocross exposition themed to ESPN. The roar of the engines could be heard throughout the park.  A concert series was set up on the shores of Paradise Lagoon.  On the day I visited, the narration of Whoopi Goldberg as Califia, the Spirit of California, in the park’s flagship film Golden Dreams (its version of American Adventure) was drowned out by the spirited tunes of Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones just outside the theater’s exit doors.

Disney knew that motocross exhibitions and concert series would not be enough to turn around attendance and work began immediately on two big money projects – Bug’s Land, which would take up the majority of Bountiful Harvest Farm, and a new version of a Walt Disney World favorite, the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror.

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SHAFT WITH A VIEW

Opened in the Summer of 2004, The original Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at Disney’s Hollywood Studios was the focal point and terminus of that park’s Sunset Boulevard expansion.  Much like the Haunted Mansion, which is a guided tour of a haunted house and graveyard, the Tower involves riders as participants in a “lost episode” of the classic television show “The Twilight Zone.”  After queuing through the lobby, guests enter a library where an introduction to the episode, about the disappearance of part of the Hollywood Hotel and five guests in an elevator, is told by series host Rod Serling.  They then enter the hotel’s boiler room and board one of the service elevators for their own trip into the Twilight Zone.  As the doors open, the five elevator passengers of the storyline appear, then disappear into a flash of electric charges.  Seconds later, the room turns into a starfield and a special effect from the show’s opening credits appears.  One floor up, the elevator, actually an autonomous vehicle, leaves the shaft and travels forward through the Fifth Dimension room to enter the drop shaft, where it goes up and down via random programming, with doors opening at the top of the shaft for a view of the entire park.

In Florida, four boarding/show shafts merge into two Fifth Dimension rooms leading to two drop shafts, which end at the ride exit.  The vehicle then returns unoccupied to the boarding position. At California Adventure, the Fifth Dimension room was dropped in favor of three single shafts.  Boarding took place on two levels, with the ride vehicle traveling a few feet back and forth between the single load/unload position and the elevator shaft.  This allowed two vehicles to operate per shaft – one loading on either the first or second floor while the other was in the shaft going through the ride cycle.  A second effects room was also added, this one with a mirror showing the attraction’s riders, who suddenly disappear in a visual effect.  The California Adventure layout is also used in the Tower of Terror attractions at Walt Disney Studios Paris and Tokyo DisneySea, which has a unique storyline involving an evil idol and the disappearance of hotel owner and international explorer Harrison Hightower, who also makes an appearance at Hong Kong Disneyland’s Mystic Manor.

On January 2, 2017, California Adventure’s Tower of Terror took its final riders into The Twilight Zone.  It will be replaced in the Summer with a new attraction themed to Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy.  This is not the first time that the Disneyland Resort has conducted a thematic layover to the existing infrastructure of an attraction, be it promotional (Disney Afternoon Avenue), seasonal (Haunted Mansion Holiday), or permanent (Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage).  It is, however, the first time in decades that an E-Ticket attraction will open in sync with the film it promotes, a somewhat rare occurrence these days.

When the Tower first opened in 2004, it was a bit out of place.  Hollywood Studios Backlot was a cacophony of concepts and attractions (about half of it still is), evocative of what one would find on an actual Hollywood studio lot.  Take a stroll to the end if its main thoroughfare and one encounters the Broadway-caliber Hyperon Theatre.  What appears to be the theater entrance at the end of the road isn’t real, it’s a façade, and there’s no grand lobby like one would find at the Pantages in Hollywood.  Instead, there’s an outside courtyard on the right side of the building where guests wait for the doors to open, with stairs on the exterior side of the building to take them to higher levels of the auditorium.

By contrast, the Hollywood Tower Hotel, the Tower of Terror’s alter ego, wasn’t designed as a recognizable physical illusion. It was fully imagineered to convey its story and ambiance, both in its external queue and within the building itself.  When it opened, it was an outcast on the far edge of the park, with only the vague notion of Hollywood linking it to the rest of its land.  One could argue that the Tower was the first stage in the evolution of the park, a move away from creating suggestive theme out of limited symbols and icons to creating a solid place with a backstory all its own.  It was followed by the redesign of Paradise Pier, the integration of Condor Flats into Grizzly Peak, and the new lands of Cars Land and Buena Vista Street.  It was the catalyst for the transformation of a Hollywood Studio (for half the land at least) into Hollywood itself.

There is a running line in the film “The Big Lebowski” concerning a stolen rug – “It tied the room together.”  In many ways, the Tower tied the park together, especially after the 2012 opening of Buena Vista Street.  No matter where you saw it from, it just seemed to fit.  It fit perfectly behind the Carthay Circle Theater.  And it fit perfectly seen from Bug’s Land, ironically not because of the film “A Bug’s Life” on which the land was based, but a competing studio’s film about ants – “ANTZ.”  The Dreamworks/PDI film ends with the camera zooming out, where we learn that the ants live in the middle of Central Park and that it’s surrounded by tall towers.  Had that been California, the Hollywood Tower Hotel could easily have been one of them.

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MORE PIPES THAN UNIVERSAL’S SUPER NINTENDO WORLD

The new Guardians of the Galaxy attraction threatens this synergy.  Even though architecturally the building does seem to fit the Hollywoodland theme with its strange pipe-encrusted art deco design, something feels off.  Marvel executives and Imagineers are quick to point out that in the Marvel universe, anyone and anything can suddenly appear out of nowhere from anywhere in time and space, adding that such is the case here.  But, if I understand properly from reading the comics and watching the film over and over, this attraction will take place during modern times in a futuristic outer space environment supported by an 80’s rock music soundtrack, all in a land designed to evoke Hollywood of the 1930’s.

There’s little doubt the ride will be a hit.  As such, it could be the catalyst for even more change at the park – such as the conversion of Hollywoodland into a Marvel land.  The newly opened Iron Man Experience in Hong Kong would be quite easy to port over with a California-centric film.  The Animation building has the space for such a ride and precedent exists for closing a popular animation attraction, such as the one at Walt Disney World, which was replaced by a Star Wars showcase.  As for the role of a Hyperion Theatre in a Marvel land – Spider-man seems to be popular in the musical genre (“Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark” on Broadway and “Spider-man Rocks” at Universal Studios Hollywood), while a new effects laden Doctor Strange stage show will be premiering in the Disney Cruise Line’s Walt Disney Theatre during Marvel Day at Sea.

Of all the lands at California Adventure, Hollywoodland, where only half the land has a coherency, is the one most in need of direction.  Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout has the potential to become the template of a new land of adventures and discoveries in much the same way the Tower of Terror redefined the entire park.  Whatever happens, one thing won’t be changing.  Young kids will still be scared to ride, and they’ll still exit shaking and grinning.

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In 1915, the Panama Canal opened, linking the Pacific to the Atlantic through center of the Americas. To celebrate this momentous milestone, the city San Diego held a glorious world’s fair.  Here, the exotic animals that would become the basis of the San Diego Zoo could be found in cages for visitors to see up close.  As could aboriginal men, part of an analysis (true to scientific thought of the day) of what caused mankind to change from savagery to civilization.  Yes, men were on display in cages as a scientific display one hundred years ago.

WHY CAGED MEN MATTER TO MUSEUMS

Last month I attended the California Association of Museum’s annual conference in Sacramento, as a journalist intent on learning what the latest trends are in the museum community.  I found common themes of inclusion, race, diversity – not ironically the same themes that will appear over and over again at the American Alliance of Museum’s annual meeting next month in St. Louis.

During a session titled “The Work Inside: Case Studies in Developing Conversations about Race, Equity and Inclusion,” Jason Porter, the Director of Education and Public Engagement at the San Diego Museum of Man spoke about the radical transformation that the museum has undergone in the past few years – from being about what biologically makes us “human” to what entails “humanity.”  Playing a major role in this revised mission is an exploration of race and racism, with a permanent installation of the American Anthropological Association’s exhibit “Race: Are We So Different?” as its centerpiece.

Combined with the former traveling exhibit are artifacts showcasing the history of race and race perception in San Diego – among these, a photo of an anthropological exhibit of live men in cages during the 1915 Panama-California Exposition.

Humankind has always been beleaguered by beliefs of superiority of one group over others – be it nationality, ethnicity, religion, sexual preference, gender, gender identification, height, weight, hairstyle, piercings….the list goes on.

This behavior is not unique to humans. In the natural world, prejudices exist within other species as well.  There is ageism, discrimination against the disabled, against those that look different, against those who act different.  One of the biggest differences between animals and humans is that we, as a species, take those prejudices and code them into law – be it religious, civil, or a combination of both.

It is not a coincidence therefore that both the San Diego Museum of Man’s exhibit on race and the Oakland Museum of California’s exhibit on the Black Panther movement featured redline maps of their respective cities.  Instituted in 1934 by the newly established Federal Housing Administration, the practice of redlining utilized “residential security maps,” where ethnic and minority communities were distinguished on the map as being ineligible for financial services, resulting in continued impoverished conditions while artificially inflating home and property values in white neighborhoods.

Museums are now looking at the past to create dialogue about our present and our future. One could say this is a response to the Trump presidency.  Certainly, there have been plenty of cries of racism during Trump’s first few months in office.  But racism did not begin with him.  Ferguson and Black Lives Matter took place under a different president.  Women’s equality did not begin with him.  The SONY hacks showing unequal pay took place under a different president.  Native American rights did not begin with him. The protests at Dakota Access happened under a different president. And countless incidents on the same topics happened before under numerous governments going back decades, if not centuries, within the United States and around the world.

As keynote speakers Gail Dexter Lord and Ngaire Blankenberg of Lord Cultural Resources showed, museums are changing their missions and the design of their exhibits as they shift from a hard power to a soft power philosophy of operation.  The difference is night and day and comes from the world of international affairs, where “hard power” refers to military action, while “soft power” refers to diplomacy.  In the museum world, the “hard power” model has a collection made of animal and artifact trophies collected around the world, explores the traditional hierarchies of empires, and the “great men” of note in history.  A “soft power” museum influences through persuasion, attraction, or agenda setting.  It becomes the catalyst for activism and community change on one end and discussion within the community on the other.  Most “soft power” museums fall somewhere in-between on the spectrum.

Museums are not the only place “soft power” can have an effect.  In just a few days, a “soft power” moment will be taking place with the world’s leading themed entertainment designers.

WHY CAGED MEN MATTER TO THEMED ENTERTAINMENT DESIGN

As has been discussed previously on this blog, there can easily be confusion between museum exhibit design and themed entertainment design.  Themed entertainment is often equated with the fun to be had at theme parks.  But it’s much more, and museum exhibit design is actually a subset of themed entertainment design.  A theme is a topic or a setting.  Entertaining is another way of saying engaging – engaging the mind through sensory or intellectual stimulation.*

If there’s a theme to this blog post, it’s intolerance and how we examine it. On Thursday, themed entertainment producer Kile Ozier will be sitting down with Olympic Gold Medalist Greg Louganis during the 2017 TEA Summit to discuss the fact that being HIV positive in many nations where TEA members do business is illegal, and could result in prison (thus the men in cages analogy) and career destruction.  Kile goes into more detail of his own issues working within the UAE in this excellent blog post.

But the HIV restrictions in the UAE, a theological monarchy, are not just for health purposes.  They are a way of circumventing a human rights issue.

As a teenager growing up during the advent of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980’s, I was taught there were three ways you could get the HIV virus – homosexual sex, needles, and sitting on a public toilet.  Yes, we were actually taught in public school the importance of keeping our rear ends suspended at least an inch above the toilet seat.

By my twenties, it was well known that anyone could contract the virus.  I recall seeing a fax to a government official staying at a hotel I was working at.  Without disclosing the most confidential of details, the one line that caught my attention stated simply: “Magic Johnson is going to announce tomorrow that he’s HIV positive.”

Later that year, one of my co-workers was hospitalized and passed away.  We didn’t know until afterwards that he had died of AIDS.  We found out only because his wife sued the hospital.  According to her, he had been afraid to disclose the HIV to his family, co-workers, or his congregation because in the Conservative, Bible-thumping South, he feared that they would associate it with the lowest rungs of their perceived moral ladder – homosexuality, drug abuse, adulterous sex.  The lawsuit, which was settled out of court, showed that he had acquired it through tainted blood in a transfusion after a car accident.

But saying that HIV doesn’t affect just the gay community poses the same risks as saying “All Lives Matter,” when such a statement evades four hundred years of civil rights oppression among the African-American community.  HIV has had an altering effect both within the gay community as an epidemic and all too real threat and from without as an associated tool for bias.

As a straight man, I’ve had gay friends, gay co-workers and bosses, and gay relatives all my life, but I didn’t understand HIV’s effect on the community until about a decade ago.  It took the collaborative efforts of a playwright, director, actors, production designer, lighting designer, sound designer, costumer, and dozens of craftspeople and crew – a collaboration of the creative and the technical arts – for me to understand.

When I was the Audience Services Director at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre, we suddenly changed our last production of the season to Steve Yockey’s play “Octopus.”  The plot is simple – an older gay couple has a one night tryst with a younger couple.  One of the older men acquires AIDS and dies.  But the anguish of both the surviving partner and that of the dead one – floating forever in an undersea abyss fighting off the eight-tentacled monster of the disease encircling him – are forever etched in my mind.

The arts and themed entertainment design have an ability to bring people together, to let them discover others and themselves in new and inventive ways.  From Parc de la Gorge de Coaticook’s “Foresta Lumina,” which uses universal concepts of folklore, to the moving 7/7 tribute and dance number during the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremonies (not seen in the USA as NBC opted to switch to paid advertising during this segment), there is an ability to transgress boundaries.

It would be great if theme parks could take on the great issues of our day.  But outside of conservation and environmentalism, they’re prone to leave societal issues to museums.  Even Epcot, founded as a showcase of the great power of humanity working together, years ago eliminated two attractions where questions of race and inclusion could be discussed – Electronic Forum and Wonders of Life.

What Kile is doing is a first step – and I applaud him on that.  He’s creating a dialogue within the creative community.  If it succeeds – if the industry can place pressure on governments or become a political force and encourage the US, Canada, and European governments to exert the pressure – the soft power moves towards advocacy.  And it can lead to advocacy on many other things.  Once the foot is in the door, it has two ways to go.  It can back out.  Or it can go further.

And maybe one hundred years from now,  a man with HIV in a cage won’t be a reality, but a photo of antiquated practices of the past in a display about humanity in a UAE museum.

*One important differentiating factor of themed entertainment, which is why it is inclusive of museums, is the OOH! Factor (trademark pending).  It takes place Out Of Home in an environment where strangers can congregate for a shared experience.

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On Friday March 24, it was announced that Blackstone will sell its 21% ownership of SeaWorld Entertainment to China’s Zhonghong Group for $23.00 per share, a markup of more than 30% over market value on the day of the announcement.  Zhonghong can purchase additional shares, buying up to 24.9%, and even own 30% or higher with board approval.

So who is Zhonghong?

Zhonghong is a real estate investment firm based in Beijing and founded in 1995.  In 2010, the company hired American themed entertainment design firm Thinkwell Group to develop a large-scale Monkey Kingdom theme park, based on the famed Journey to the West folklore story. Monkey Kingdom was scheduled to open in 2014 in Huairou, Beijing, but was put on hold due to a number of factors, among them a temporary ban enacted in late 2011 on the construction of new theme parks throughout China and a later re-zoning of Beijing that allows only one amusement park per district.  According to Chinese media, Monkey Kingdom is back on track to open, but in a new location – Jinan, Shangdong, about five hours to the south from its original location.  It is slated to open in 2020.

Zhonghong’s largest shareholder is Qilu Securities Shanghai Assets Management (QSSAM), which owns 20.5%. Other Zhonghong owners include a number of international hedge funds and institutional investors, many connected with or owned by the Chinese government. QSSAM is an affiliate company of Zhongtai (China and Thailand) Securities, which is controlled by Laiwu Iron & Steel Group, a government-owned steel manufacturing and distribution company. This should not be surprising, as every business in China, by law, is partially owned by a government-related entity.

Without discussing the complexities of international business law, the Chinese government will soon be a part-owner of SeaWorld Entertainment.

Now, this certainly isn’t the first time the Chinese have purchased an American entertainment company.  Dalian-Wanda Group, which just backed out of a deal to purchase Dick Clark Productions, owns AMC Entertainment, North America’s largest cinema chain. Wanda, which is one of China’s leading leisure companies, has also committed billions of dollars to new theme park projects in India and France.

But what does this mean for SeaWorld?  Well, one thing’s for certain – a lot of work is coming for the company’s Deep Blue Creative design studio and its partners, at least overseas.  But other than that, it’s time to put on the speculation hat:

CHINA WANTS PUBLICITY

Chinese multinationals often invest heavily in foreign companies or provide infrastructure services (such as rail, dams, sewage) to other countries as an example of the country’s economic might. A Chinese-owned SeaWorld Entertainment could see huge economic investment in the US parks, allowing the theme park company to finally be on a competitive level with Disney and Universal. Duplication of attractions in the US and China could provide similar attractions for different audiences on different continents, reducing design and production costs. How much investment are we looking at here? In 2011, it was announced that Monkey Kingdom would cost around US$1.5 billion.  That’s US$150 million more than SeaWorld’s entire revenue for its 11 parks and other corporate ventures during all of 2016. And I’m not adjusting for inflation.

CHINA WANTS REAL ESTATE

SeaWorld could sell of its US properties and exit its San Diego lease, segueing into a company that develops and operates parks in Asia and the Middle East, where the political climate is friendlier to animal-based entertainment companies. Under this scenario, those animals not restricted to export by the Endangered Species Act, along with the company’s coasters, would be shipped overseas.

The Orlando park is still beset by reduced attendance from Brazil.  Although a number of park critics have questioned this factor as just being an excuse to hide from the reality of fewer people wanting to attend the parks, state tourism figures issued by the State of Florida do show reduced visitation across the state from Latin America, along with lower hotel occupancy for 2016.

Over the weekend, I had a conversation with a number of San Diego hoteliers. One was willing to speak on the record, but requested anonymity. As I have not confirmed her statement through other channels, please consider it as opinion and with some skepticism:

There’s been a bit of confusion in the market since SeaWorld announced that One Ocean closed.  Most of our guests think the park doesn’t have orcas any more. Some ask our staff if they were shipped to Orlando. It doesn’t help that SeaWorld until just recently stopped calling them killer whales. So now, when one of our guests comes up to the desk and asks if they still have killer whales, we tell them they still have the orcas, and they say ‘No, I didn’t ask about orcas. I asked about killer whales.’ What I do know for certain is that more and more of our guests are avoiding SeaWorld because they think the orcas are gone.

San Antonio appears to be the one SeaWorld-branded park where attendance is stabilizing.  It, along with Orlando, are two properties the company owns outright, which either could be sold for a huge profit or developed. Don’t forget – Zhonghong also develops housing.

CHINA WANTS ORCAS

Two companies in China currently have orcas. There are nine at Chimelong Ocean Kingdom in Zhuhai and six at Haichang Ocean Park’s Linyi (Tiger Beach) Polar Ocean Park. Some of the Haichang orcas are scheduled to relocate to the Goddard Group-designed Shanghai Polar Ocean World when it is complete.  Other companies have announced plans to exhibit orcas in new or existing parks. None of the fifteen orcas have been on public display.

Chinese companies obtained their orcas through Russia’s TINRO Center, a quasi-government fisheries institute headquartered in Vladivostok.  Earlier this month, the head of TINRO was arrested and charged with the illegal capture and export of belugas and orcas to China. Although the arrest is tied in with a major initiative to increase offshore drilling in the Sea of Okhotsk, where the orcas are captured, it also creates a hardship for Chinese parks, as it dries up their only source.

Currently, the only state SeaWorld operates in with a prohibition on the export of orcas is California. The prohibition was signed into law on September 13, 2013 as part of the state budget. Violating the prohibition on breeding or export in California is a misdemeanor offense and carries a maximum fine of US$100,000, not a big fee for a company spending US$429 million on SeaWorld stock.

Representative Adam Schiff, who you can see nightly on the news dealing with one sort of catastrophe or another, introduced HR 1584 last week, which would amend the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) to prohibit on a national level the import or export of orcas for public display, along with breeding. Violations under the MMPA are treated much stronger than those under the California law and could lead to felony convictions and jail time. The Schiff bill presents a time constraint issue for exporting orcas.

So, under this third scenario, the parks remain in the US, along with heavy investment in the American parks, and only the orcas are removed.

Yet questions remain – what about SeaWorld’s commitment not to breed orcas at any of its parks, including international locations?

Company policy changes – often in only a few months. In December, SeaWorld was preparing to take the California Coastal Commission to court over a permit ruling that would have banned orca breeding at the park. Three months later, the company’s new CEO Joel Manby announced a voluntary end to the practice, one that to some may have appeared to be animal welfare driven, but by all accounts, was fiscally based.

Yet, the company’s stock value (under US$20 for quite some time), attendance, and profits continue to drop. If they continue to fail to increase, especially with new ownership on board, we likely could see yet another management change at SeaWorld. And often, with new management, policies change.

As Zhonghong acquires 1/5 of SeaWorld Entertainment, along with its two seats on the Board of Directors, we’ll get an indication of how much control the company wants to exert on its American acquisition. What will happen with the relationship Manby established with the Humane Society of the United States, an organization often critical of Chinese policies?  What will happen to the American parks, including the two Busch Gardens parks?  What future lies in store for the animals?

If SeaWorld’s animals are relocated to China, there’s one single line in Chinese law to keep in mind. In the United States, animals within theme parks are private property.  Even that large talking mouse.

Allow me to introduce you to Article 3 of the Wildlife Protection Law of the People’s Republic of China, as revised in 2016:

Wildlife resources shall be owned by the state.

Yes, you read that correctly. If SeaWorld sends its animals to China, they will be owned by the Chinese government.

And it all kind of makes sense, because when Blackstone’s sale goes through, the Chinese government will be an owner of SeaWorld as well.

empire-strikes-back-carrie-fisher

When I was six years old, I saw Annie Hall.  It wasn’t until I watched it again in my 20’s that I recognized the complex relationships and fully formed persona of Oscar winner Diane Keaton’s title character.  In the intermittent years, if you asked me about Annie Hall, the only thing I could remember was Woody Allen’s memory of growing up in a house underneath Coney Island’s famed Thunderbolt coaster.

The same year, 1977, I also saw Star Wars. We went to three theaters before we finally found one that had tickets – and it was standing room only.  For much of the film, I sat on my dad’s shoulders in the back of the theater, taking in every breathtaking moment.  From the age of six on, I could recite almost every line in that film.  I related to Luke, to Han, to the droids, to the Wookie, and even to Leia.  But as a young boy, I lacked something.  I couldn’t relate to Leia as a girl would.

When Carrie Fisher passed away this week (my piece relating her performance to that of mother Debbie Reynolds in How The West Was Won can be found on InPark Magazine’s website), Thinkwell’s Cynthia Sharpe posted her perspective on what this meant to her as a woman on Facebook, which I hereby republish without her permission, because such is the ThemedReality way.

Two really important things happened to me within the same horrible year of junior high, which shaped me immeasurably. One, my school librarian slipped me “The Hero and the Crown’ and ‘The Blue Sword’, whispering to me to not let my particularly humorless about girls reading ‘boyish’ things principal see me with them. Two, I finally got to see the entire Star Wars (original) trilogy.

Combined, they rocked my world. Girls could be heroes. *Girls could be heroes*. Girls could be self-rescuing princesses. Girls could be smart, and crafty, and clever. They could be snarky and sarcastic. They could have complicated love lives. They could be actual well-rounded characters, instead of window dressing. They could be the masters of their own destinies. I couldn’t quite verbalize it at the time, why seeing Leia in a slave bikini pissed me off so damn much, but even then it did. Nice try, stuffing her back in the window dressing box, guys.

As a child, I appreciated Carrie Fisher’s characters. As an adult, her wit, wisdom, audacity. She opened the door for me to talk about addiction and mental health with my kid. You can keep your ‘when I am old I shall wear purple’ simpering crap. When I’m old, I wanna have Carrie Fisher’s total willingness to live out loud, unfiltered, no bullshit. A year ago I sat in a darkened movie theatre, behind my child, and though I had seen stills and clips, nothing prepared me for the moment that General Organa filled the screen. Older. Battle hardened. Not a magic sparklepony force user. No, a woman who had lead the resistance through loss after loss (both personal and sweeping). My hands flew to my face and I must have gasped, because Sean craned around in his seat and eyeballed me. I watched her weary face and no nonsense demeanor and saw countless female execs, professors, political leaders who’ve been through a similar grind. Carrie Fisher once again was representing so many of us. Not pretty. Not perky. Not conventional. *Competent*. Good- nay, great- at what we fucking do. And thoroughly done with bullshit.

David Bowie, Prince, George Michael, Carrie Fisher. I can draw an arc through and with all of them, all people who profoundly shaped what it meant to embrace yourself, to live life unapologetically, to be authentic in a visceral, norm-defying kind of way. They were our generation’s torch bearers, who lit the way for those of us who didn’t quite fit inside neat boxes. And while I felt the first three keenly, it’s the loss of Carrie Fisher that makes my face crumple. Maybe because of what next year will bring. Maybe because it feels like we haven’t come that far from 1977 when a princess who could wield a blaster was so boundary breaking.

I was so moved by Cynthia’s piece that I tracked her down to the private island in Indonesia that she calls her winter home and invited to join me for a conversation about Fisher and Leia over that second of grandest inventions by Al Gore (following global warming) – the internet.

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If you’re not familiar with Cynthia, she is the Prinicipal, Cultural Attractions and Research at Thinkwell Group, and as such oversees the development of all educational programming. She has worked on three projects that have received the prestigious Thea Award from the Themed Entertainment Association, including that Harry Potter studio tour that the Mrs. keeps insisting I fly her to London to visit.  And this is why our discussion moved into theme parks.

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TR: I’d like to discuss how Carrie Fisher’s performance had a profound impact on the Disney heroines that followed, creating an empowered generation of young girls, which in turn changed the way Disney approached its shows and attractions

CS: Well, Princess Leia – and later, General Organa- certainly had an enormous impact even thought at the time of her creation, Leia wasn’t a Disney property.

When she first filled the big screen, most of our film heroines of a certain age were of a type. They were objects of romance, or scream queens. They were pretty and not the drivers of their own destiny, often. Princess Leia was a princess with a blaster! She had agency, skill, wit, and was- forgive my language- a badass. She wasn’t solely defined by her relationships to other men.

Despite the occasionally cheesy hairstyles, lack of bras in space, or that god awful slave bikini, you can draw a direct line from Leia screaming through the forests of Endor on a speeder to Merida galloping through the forests on her horse, or Anna taking off to find Elsa.

TR: One thing I’ve noticed is that much like Leia, the Disney princesses seemed to transform from damsels in distress needing a man to save them to empowered women that were considered equals.

CS: Exactly. And it makes sense. I’m of the same generation as Brenda Chapman (Brave) and Kristen Anderson-Lopez (songwriter, along with her husband, of Frozen). We are the generation who finally had a strong heroine in pop culture: Leia.

So it stands to reason that the women who came of age watching Leia and the strong female characters who followed her would want to continue to push that forward for a new generation of little girls in plush theatre seats.

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TR: As the Disney parks are very character-centric, how have you seen this change in female character design affect the design of attractions in parks?

CS: Great question. I’ll admit there are ways in which I think they haven’t pushed it enough (I, for one, would burn every fastpass I could on a Brave ride rather than just a character meet-n-greet). But, having said that, we see it in ways both big and small. Re-skinning Maelstrom into Frozen could have been the equivalent of the Journey of the Little Mermaid- a rehash of the movie – to satisfy the need. Instead, it is bar none one of the smartest dark rides I’ve seen in ages. It’s thoughtful, witty, emotional- the use of that track is brilliant- and it *advances the story of the two sisters more*. They continue to be the heroines of their world.

On the ‘Small’ side- it won’t be small for long, given the Star Wars land work- but the gender parity and inclusion we see in Star Wars events in park is great. You don’t see only male staff in character- you see men and women and there’s absolutely no ‘well you can only be a princess’ exclusion of girls. Leia kicked butt. Rey kicked butt. There’s room for girls now and Disney is embracing that as fast as they can, given the realities of how long it takes to build a ride or land.

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TR: A modern actress that I see having many of the same traits of Leia up on screen is Zoe Saldana. In 2017, we’ll see a new Disney attraction and a whole land based on franchises she starred in – Avatar and Guardians of the Galaxy. Will having lands or attractions based on films with strong female characters result in attractions that give a strong empowering message to young girls?

CS: I think so. It plain makes good business sense. When we look at the statistics of who drives disposable income spending in families, tweens have huge, huge influence- over 70B USD, on everything from what movie the family goes to on a weekend, to what car mom gets, to where they vacation. Tweens and teens are embracing films and characters where girls are empowered, are shaping the action and are right there in the thick of it. And this generation doesn’t hesitate to call out what they see as unfair or not doing justice to source material. Simply put: if you’re doing a land or attraction on a property with a strong female character, you had better get her right, or you’re going to hear about it from the fan base and you’re not going to get their (or their parents’) income and attention as thoroughly as you want.

TR: One last question – what are your thoughts about her scene in Rogue One and the timing of the film’s release being so close to her death?

CS: I think it’s actually going to be way harder to watch the next film- I understand she was done filming- than to see Rogue One again. Because in the next film she’s General Organa. She’s Princess Leia after Seeing It All, Losing So Much, Pushing Through The Horror. I personally felt from a storytelling standpoint it was important to end Rogue One- which, wow, it’s not like you didn’t know what kind of a mood it had to set – on a note that brings it full circle to the ‘start’ of the mythos and the opening of A New Hope.

The reminder that after all of this horror, after so much loss, there’s still hope- that was an important beat. But, personally? I think the punch of watching General Organa and knowing she’s gone will be much, much harder.

I’ll start off by sharing with you that I’m not stoned. In fact, I don’t partake in drugs at all. But I am tossing this blog post back and forth with a couple of stoners, Tim and Robbie, and as I write it, their feedback will affect its direction.  I really have no idea what’s about to take place or how successful this will be.  Consider this my first stoner crowdsourced post.  So before we continue, a warning. There will be drug references throughout.  So guys, anything to add?

TIM: You’re a couple of days late on this dude.

Yeah, I know.  I missed posting it on 4/20.  But I’m actually a year late in posting it.  It was formulating in my mind May of last year.

ROBBIE: Who’s this Hettema?

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Phil Hettema

Phil Hettema is a very tall guy.  At a recent TEA mixer, I was standing between Maris Ensing and Shane Grammer, feeling grossly inadequate about myself.  As I was looking up (imagine a sea lion in a zoo looking at someone holding a fish), I began to feel very insecure.  I started imagining that if Phil Hettema and, for the sake of imagination, Craig Hannah on stilts, were to join them, that I would be like a Hobbit surrounded by wizards.

TIM: They’d send you to chase the dragon.

ROBBIE: What if Craig Hannah was a beautiful woman?

 

 

If I were surrounded by Maris Ensing, Shane Grammer, Phil Hettema, and Kelly Ryner, I would feel like Chimelong Ocean Kingdom or Hong Kong Disneyland – surrounded by tall mountains on three sides and the beautiful ocean on the fourth (Kelly introduced me to Craig, who, off the top of his head, came up with the most remarkable attraction for my museum – just listening to him was one of the most incredible experiences I’ve had.  Unfortunately, we did not have the budget, but I can never thank Kelly enough and am so happy for her new role in Asia).

ROBBIE: OK. Wait. I’m confused. Hannah.  Hettema.  Hannamahta.  Hannama. Panama. I’m really confused. Start over.

The idea for this post started last Summer.  I received a call from a graphic designer who I shall keep nameless to protect his job, who lives in a city that had installed a giant observation wheel sometime in the past five years.  I shall also keep the name of the city and the name of the wheel confidential since that might reveal this person’s identity.

TIM: Mission Impossible

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Random generic-ish giant wheel used for illustrative purposes of the type of attraction anonymous complainer might be complaining of

Sure.  So he called me one day concerned about this giant wheel.  “It’s an eyesore,”  he told me.  “The thing looks like a big carnival wheel.  It doesn’t fit in here.  When you go on it, there’s some canned narration that’s just really boring and makes you feel like you’re on one of those inter-terminal trains at the [name omitted] airport.  I don’t like it.  I don’t get it.  Where did they go wrong.”

I had only one answer for him.

“They didn’t hire The Hettema Group.”

TIM: OK, man.  I think I get Hettema.  But I don’t really GET Hettema.  Help me out.

I first met Phil Hettema in his office in the long white building on the Universal Studios backlot back in 1999.  I had just left Texas, where I had worked on the IMAX Ridefilm simulator and was wanting to know more about how one could give the backstory and feel for a simulator ride that one couldn’t see from outside the building.  A great contact I made at the 1998 IAAPA Attractions Management School put me in touch with Phil, who had played a pivotal role in both the Back to the Future rides and the design of Islands of Adventure which featured the Spider-man hybrid dark ride simulator.

TIM: Did he ever do anything for you.

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What goes up…..

Phil gave me a poncho from the grand opening of Jurassic Park: The Ride.  I am forever grateful as that was an extremely wet experience I was unprepared for.  But that attraction also showcased something special about Phil Hettema: through effects and light and sound and animatronics, your adrenaline and anticipation build up, making the drop much more exciting.  He understands that a change in elevation can be more than an action.  It can be a complete experience unto itself.

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More bang for your buck

Regardless of whether it’s virtual, as with the aerial dogfights and flyover of the globe in Beyond All Boundaries at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, or real, like a ride on the Ferris wheel at Zhejiang, China’s Hello Kitty Park, where an intricately designed landscape of bright colors and geometric shapes begins to appear below, Hettema and his company get it.

ROBBIE: Hello…….Kitty.

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I would say “meow,” but Sanrio told me she’s a human schoolgirl from London and to stop sending catnip

There is always that one project that a company undertakes for which they are known forever….the culmination of all its employees’ experience and skill into one landmark attraction.  When I think BRC – I think of the Saturn V Center or Mystery Lodge.  With Thinkwell, it’s the Warner Bros Studio Tour in London.  Whenever I hear JRA, I think of Ferrari World Abu Dhabi.  PGAV brings to mind Chimelong Ocean Kingdom.  Everyone has their own preference, but to me these are the attractions these particular organizations worked on that are masterpieces.  There are, of course, many more such projects and the companies that perfected them.

ROBBIE: Have you been on that boat ride with the monsters at Six Flags?

Here are some of the ingredients for the ultimate Hettema attraction:

  • the excitement of a Universal attraction
  • the interactivity of Dragon’s Wild Shooting
  • the story of an entire people as in America I Am
  • the personal stories such of those told in Beyond All Boundaries
  • the integration of small theaters as in the Russian Jewish Museum
  • the international touch of the USA Pavilion at EXPO 2012

ROBBIE: Hello……Kittie?

It’s in there.  At One World Observatory, just like Hello Kitty Park starts to spread out beneath you on the Ferris wheel, the city of New York begins to appear beneath you as you head towards the observation decks aboard the world’s fastest elevators.  These are, however, not normal elevators.  On the ride up, floor to ceiling screens on each wall show the city evolving beneath you as you rise from swampland to the metropolis you see today. Going down…..

TIM: “Going down….hahahahaha.  Aerosmith.”

Going down, the elevators take on a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Great Glass Elevator dimension as they appear to fly around the tower.  The experience of One World begins in the basement and continues at the highest levels.  This is not a story about 9/11.  There’s a separate museum on the grounds that tells that story.  One World tells the story about its own tower, and about the city and the people of New York.

Las Vegas is as distant a state of mind as it is miles from New York.  New York has always been a hodepodge – the rich and the poor, ethnic communities, theater, finance, and leading universities – all within reach of the average tourist.

Las Vegas has these too, but they’re hidden behind the glitz of the Downtown and the Vegas Strip.  You have to be a local or head off the beaten path to find the reality of Vegas, and the majority of tourists don’t.  Why seek out a local greasy spoon when Gordon Ramsey has a burger joint in your hotel?

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What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, unless it’s captured on camera by the person in the capsule next to you.

About a block off the Strip lies LinQ, a somewhat new shopping/dining/entertainment complex owned by Caesars and right in the middle of it is the High Roller, the world’s largest observation wheel.

ROBBIE: Are you talking about Link from the Zelda games?

Hettema created the show, taking its cue from the Vegas Strip.  It has the same high energy in the queue and preshow as a Las Vegas casino, which then continues into the capsules.

ROBBIE: Like pills?

TIM: Is this like Tylenol?

This is where things differ from that other observation wheel the graphic designer complained to me about.  Unlike a canned narration (although I’ve heard that may have changed sometime in the past year), local comedian Lucas Dick (son of Andy Dick), was chosen to guide visitors on their spin around the Vegas skyline.  It’s got a youthful feel, it’s hip, and irreverent.

TIM: Andy Dick. Remember when he was dating Drew Barrymore?

That was Tom Green, but I see how you can confuse the two.

ROBBIE: I don’t get it, man.  This has nothing to do with drugs.  So why are we talking about drugs? I don’t get it.

I thought it was a funny joke.  “Getting high” and “taking a trip” and all that.

ROBBIE: OK, but where’d you come up with this idea man?

I actually got the idea from a Hettema attraction:

And that folks was my first and last stoner crowdsourced blog post.

 

 

 

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Is IMAX planning to install a version of its theater systems inside fitness clubs and gyms?  Could this be the next BIG fitness craze?

IMAX Corporation currently has a pending patent application for IMAX FIT, described simply as “providing fitness and exercise facilities.”

I’ll keep you updated as my gym installs its massive one story screen.

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I recently finished a book called Beneath the Surface.  When I was done, I was certain that Michael Phelps deserved every single of one of his Olympic medals, no matter how under the influence of pot he was at the time.  Then I came across another book, also called Beneath the Surface. This one is the new memoir and anti-captivity diatribe by former SeaWorld San Antonio killer whale trainer John Hargrove.  It was interesting to say the least and certainly not what I expected.  And that’s my official review.

I’m not going to discuss the controversial practices that Mr. Hargrove alleges SeaWorld conducts. Those that have read my coverage of the film Blackfish know that I tend to shy away from such matters, referring the reader instead to the hundreds of websites that portend to offer an answer on the subject one way or another.  Rather, I’m going to look at the aspect of the book just about everyone seems to have overlooked as they concentrated on food deprivation, trainer deaths, and mother/calf separation – the fact that John Hargrove has a horrible memory and is piss-ass poor when it comes to dates.

Many of Hargrove’s errors rest in his memories of that first trip to Orlando in 1980, at the age of six. In the book, he tells us:

Summer vacation for me always meant a road trip with my parents. And in 1980, my mother and my stepfather decided we’d all go to Orlando.  We couldn’t afford to fly so we drove the nearly 900 miles from our home among the bayous of east Texas to the theme park capital of America. The contrast was dramatic: Orange, Texas was a monotonous, flat swampland while Orlando was punctuated with architectural extravagance, from Cinderella’s castle in Walt Disney World to the adamantine giant golf ball of EPCOT Center.  And then there was SeaWorld.

The adamantine giant golf ball of Epcot Center, Spaceship Earth, in summer 1980.  The park opened October 1, 1982.

The adamantine giant golf ball of Epcot Center, Spaceship Earth, in summer 1980. The park opened October 1, 1982.

Hargrove continues:

We joined the crowds headed into Shamu Stadium.  The coliseum for killer whales was already the largest animal performance space in the marine park, far bigger than the theaters built for the dolphins or the sea lions and otters.

SeaWorld Orlando's first Shamu Stadium.  Construction completed 1984, fully operational 1985.

SeaWorld Orlando’s first Shamu Stadium. Construction completed 1984, fully operational 1985.

Kotar performing with

Kotar performing with “friends” in the Whale and Dolphin stadium. Killer whales and dolphins performed together in the single stadium through 1985, when Shamu Stadium opened on the opposite side of the park.

Kotar at Sea World of Florida's Whale and Dolphin stadium

Kotar at Sea World of Florida’s Whale and Dolphin stadium

Map of Sea World of Florida, 1980.  This would have been the park as encountered by a six year old John Hargrove on his first visit.  Note no Shamu Stadium to be seen during that visit as described in

Map of Sea World of Florida, 1980. This would have been the park as encountered by a six year old John Hargrove on his first visit. Note no Shamu Stadium to be seen during that visit as described in “Beneath the Surface.”

So how is it that an author that goes into excruciating detail on the history of the marine mammal display industry could get this simple fact wrong about Shamu Stadium?  There are two possibilities at play here.

First, based on the fact that the writing the writing style in the section about killer whale captures differs greatly from the remainder of the book and matches word for word similar descriptors in recent lawsuits filed against SeaWorld (this is not the first time wording has been reused. Both the Washington state House and Senate anti-cetacean captivity bills are verbatim duplicates of California’s AB-2140 killer whale bill), it appears to have been written by a third party.

Second, Hargrove has never been a SeaWorld fan.  A true die hard SeaWorld fan would know that for close to fifteen years, the killer whales and dolphins performed together in a single tank and that there was no dedicated killer whale stadium until 1985.  Hargrove’s colleagues John Jett and Jeffrey Ventre are aware of this, writing in a recent paper titled “Captive killer whale (Orcinus orca) survival,” which was published in the April 20, 2015 issue of Marine Mammal Science:

In 1985 an enlarged pool (completed in 1984) marked the beginning of improved captive killer whale breeding by enabling adequate nursing behavior between a mother and captive-born calf.

For Hargrove, there was no true dedication to the company nor to its philosophy.  He was like a Jungle Cruise fanatic who couldn’t care less about the rest of the Disney empire.  The parks were nothing more than a way to a means for fulfilling his addictive dream of swimming and performing with killer whales.

To counter Hargrove’s book, SeaWorld released a five year old cell phone video of a very intoxicated Hargrove wearing a SeaWorld shirt stating racial epithets about African-Americans.

I’ve been asked my thoughts on the video by a number of people.  I lived in Texas for close to a decade, a couple of hours from where Hargrove grew up.  I give everyone the same response: “It’s a drunk white Texan saying what drunk white Texans say.”   People who have not lived in East Texas often find it hard to recognize that racism is embedded in the local culture – especially in the small towns.  Hargrove appears to agree, writing:

The one real thing that always got people excited was the football rivalry between the two local high schools: Little Cypress Mauriceville versus West Orange Stark.  My cousin Tracy remembers my trailing along to all her pep rallies.  The underlying ugliness was that Little Cypress was the white school and West Orange was the predominantly black one.  In my town, in the 1980’s, the races still lived apart, coming together only to clash via football – with all the combined awfulness of sports fanaticism and bigotry.  Orange, however, had nothing on the notoriety of the city of Vidor, just about 20 miles away.  The Ku Klux Klan marched there well into the 1980’s; and when black families moved into public housing in Vidor during that decade, they were greeted with burning crosses. [Blogger’s note: the cross burnings continued through August 1993, the month before Hargrove’s swim test at SeaWorld.  The Klan would be represented in court by an African-American attorney appointed by the ACLU – big news in Texas]

For a book whose secondary theme is persecution of the author as a gay man, I’m surprised that the issues of rascism, homophobia, and sexism were not addressed more in the text.

Is John Hargrove a racist?  Yes.  Becoming an animal rights advocate or surrounding yourself with decent people does not remove racism.  That requires a life altering experience, often with someone you would typically have racist leanings against.  Hargrove has yet to experience that.  Until then, a part of him will retain the racism that is built into his hometown’s DNA.

Even though they might not be racists, every one of the SeaWorld trainers that was present when that video was filmed is complacent in racism for doing and saying nothing.

And the theme park industry itself has a racist history.  It was not until 15 years ago, when Terry Prather, now one of SeaWorld’s highest ranking executives, took the reigns at Jazzland park in New Orleans, that an African-American was given the title of “General Manager” of a major US theme park.

Much has been made about the lack of black trainers at SeaWorld and other marine life parks.  Part of this is an aesthetic that goes back to the 1950’s and 1960’s, when theme parks catered primarily to white audiences.

However, a recent five year study by the Centers for Disease Control showed that African-American children were five times at risk of drowning as their white counterparts, up from three times in the prior five year study.  According to USA Swimming, 70 percent of African-American children and 60 percent of Hispanic children lack the ability to swim, compared to 40 percent of caucasians.  The reason: racism.

I’ve been asked why I don’t like John Hargrove and the truth is I do like John.  But I don’t like the John I’ve seen since just before the book came out.  Watch John in this interview, then listen to his presentation to the Commonwealth Club.  Everything he says, word for word, in these two recordings and in hundreds of other audio and print interviews, is exactly the same.  It’s canned.  He’s become like a killer whale repeating the same tricks over and over for his handlers.

I miss the John Hargrove that I performed dolphin necropsies with in 1993.  And I miss the John Hargrove I spoke with extensively before he testified at the AB-2140 hearing.  I miss the John Hargrove that was free to speak his mind.  This isn’t him.  This is an automaton.

And yes, he is a racist automaton, but thank goodness he’s not a pedophile.

There are reasons why parks such as LEGOLAND restrict adults from entering if not accompanied by minors.

In 2011, a Kentucky man named Ronald Thompson was arrested at SeaWorld San Antonio’s waterpark for taking indecent photos.  Prosecutors discovered more than 70 photos on his camera – all closeups of the breast and buttocks areas of young children.  Thompson was charged under Texas’s new “improper photography” law and the ruling by a Texas Appellate Court in September 2014 not only set him free, but struck down the law as a violation of First Amendment rights.

So, in Texas, you might be served fries by a Klan member in your local McDonalds, and that man taking photos up your skirt at the mall or getting too close to your children with his camera in order to later gratify himself, has every Constitutional right to express himself in such a manner under the law.

Welcome to the Lone Star State – racists and pedophiles to the front of the line.

10370377_10152480888589026_7468982667913589742_n (1)One of the biggest news stories to come out of the Thea Awards ceremony in Anaheim actually came out of New York. Family members of some of the firefighters who lost their lives at the World Trade Center were up in arms that the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum was receiving an award from the Themed Entertainment Association.  You read that right – Entertainment.  And this award for entertainment design was being handed out at, of all places, Disneyland!  How on earth, these folks argued, could a solemn memorial on hallowed ground be awarded for entertainment unless it’s actually a big amusement entertainment attraction and not a serious memorial and museum?

10253984_10152480888669026_3385461179014578598_n (1)It’s important to note that the folks complaining were either detractors or on the fence about the museum to begin with.  When people are passionate about their cause, they often overlook the obvious, either because they don’t know to look or they don’t care to.

In the past, the TEA has recognized the places that honor America’s servicemen, who protect our freedoms, with its Thea Award – the National WWII Museum, and the museums of the Marine Corps and the Army Infantry.  It has celebrated patriotism with awards to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and the National Constitution Center.  It has memorialized another great tragedy by awarding three different exhibits on the Titanic.  And most importantly, just out of site beyond the blinders worn by these family members of lost fire fighters, is the Thea Award handed to FDNY Fire Zone in 2002.  All of the proceeds from the Fire Zone and its store go to the FDNY Foundation, and some of those funds go to leadership and professional development education for the city’s fire fighters utilizing lessons and strategies developed in the wake of 9/11.  Other funds go to counseling programs for fire fighters and their families.

Fire-Zone1200x800Is the term “themed entertainment” archaic?  I could argue that just about everything is themed to one degree or another these days.  And, especially in a museum, it’s important to install some facet of entertainment into exhibit design to maintain engagement, be it through interactivity or catchy graphics, when most visitors are now connected online through a portable device.  Perhaps it’s time to drop “entertainment” from the TEA name.  With new technologies and out-of-the-box approaches to projects, the industry has entered a phase of experiential design.  It’s no longer enough to have a designed exterior and a designed interior.  Everything now is encompassing and emotionally engaging.  Perhaps “Themed Experience Association?”   You can contact my trademark attorneys.

It’s important to remember that the artistic skills in a number of fields that began in entertainment migrated to the design of educational institutions.  The same people the apply their skill sets to one apply them to the other.  If it were not for the inclusion of these skills garnered in the entertainment industry, the 9/11 museum would use antiquated display methods and look like something out of the 1950’s.  Entertainment design has transformed museums into institutions that engage their visitors through the senses and create an emotional link between the museum’s message and the visitor.  Passivity is a thing of the past.

Some of the family members brought up the fact that Harry Potter attractions were awarded along with the museum.  It’s important to note that many of the same design firms that worked on those Harry Potter attractions also offered their services to the 9/11 Museum.  And yes, the event took place at Disneyland.  With “it’s a small world” receiving an award as a classic attraction, and everyone knowing where the Disneyland hotel is, it’s much easier than having to give them travel instructions to Stavanger, Norway (look for the tractor with the human eyes – he received a Thea too).

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The newly trademarked logo for SeaWorld's Orlando resort

The newly trademarked logo for SeaWorld’s Orlando resort, obtained legally through eighteen lawsuits and a 7-2 ruling in the US Supreme Court

Based on new CEO Joel Manby’s experience at Herschend Family Entertainment, here are a few of the things we’re likely to see happening over the next five years at SeaWorld:

  • An increased emphasis on education, especially interpretive signage.
  • More artisan craftspeople in the parks to feed into the targeted family demographic.
  • Non-theme park standalone attractions.  SeaWorld has already attempted this with its bids for the river tour in downtown San Antonio and the giant wheel in San Diego.  Manby has a successful track record in this market segment.
  • Management contracts over non-SeaWorld owned theme parks, private zoos, and aquariums.
  • The purchase of one or more hotels surrounding the Orlando park and their complete refurbishment and rethemeing, transitioning the Orlando operations from utilizing partner hotels to becoming a fully integrated resort along the lines of Universal Orlando, Walt Disney World, and LEGOLAND Florida.
  • A fourth theme park in Orlando, likely the size of Aquatica or Discovery Cove, to feed into that integrated resort.  Although the type of park is unknown, it would likely carry over the oceans or sea theme of the other three parks and the hotel(s).

showleonmarino120 (2)The reality of it all is that he was framed by the dolphins, but the deed itself was carried out by the park’s sea lions, who in the end wound up with the girl.  It’s true.  I read this in social media.

On the morning of March 3, Jose Luis Barbero Hernandez kissed his wife goodbye, stepped into his Peugeot, and drove from his home in the town of El Toro on the Spanish island of Mallorca to a meeting at which he never arrived.  Out of concern that he had reported death threats following the release of an accusational video on YouTube and to the media, The Spanish National Police and Civil Defense mounted a search for Barbero, head animal trainer at Marineland Mallorca, utilizing helicopters, boats and foot power around and throughout the island.  Four days later, Barbero’s body was found inside his car in a parking garage at the Palma Airport.

According to Barbero’s complaint with Spanish authorities, the picture and sound of the video, which allegedly shows he and other Marineland trainers punching and kicking dolphins during off season training sessions and using abusive and threatening language towards the animals, “had been maliciously tampered with, leading to a result that does not correspond to reality.”

I’ve reviewed the video in question.  It is extremely grainy in nature and contains a number of rough cuts.  It is fairly impossible, as Marineland’s investigators determined, to tell who’s in the video.  The verbal reprimands allegedly made by the trainers carry across edits between scenes, so as to make it difficult to tell which point of action they belong to.  Frame rate in the video has been sped up.  When viewed at a lower frame rate, due to the graininess of the image, it becomes difficult to tell if actual punches and kicks are taking place, as suggested when viewing the faster frame rate, or if the trainers are utilizing conventional and accepted hand and foot commands.  My assessment is based on my 20 years experience working with IMAX and other cinema technologies, combined with extensive authorship on those technologies, frame rates, and image resolution.

A second video, at higher resolution was released, but suffers from the same issues – not enough resolution to discern the individual trainers’ faces, sped up frame rate, and the inability to tell if the abusive dialogue, which in this new video has migrated to a different scene, is authentic or has been overdubbed.  The one thing I was been able to confirm, by comparing the tank configuration and background elements with overhead satellite photography, park maps, and visitor videos of shows at each Western European dolphinarium, is that the video indeed was shot at Marineland Mallorca from two different angles – one a residence adjacent to the park and the second from what appears to be within the dolphin stadium itself.

The video was posted by SOS Delfines, a project of la Fundación Asesoramiento y Acción en Defensa de los Animales, or FAADA, one of Spain’s largest animal rights groups.  SOS Delfines has stated that it targeted Marineland Mallorca by making the video public out of concern for the dolphins’ welfare. However, timing suggests that the target may be much bigger.

ASPRO PARKS

Marineland Mallorca is one of sixty parks and attractions operated by Madrid-based Aspro Parks.  The company’s portfolio includes aquariums, theme parks, waterparks, a zoo, and five dolphinariums throughout Western Europe.  Most recently, Aspro added the Aquarium Harderwijk in the Netherlands, completing its purchase in January from Compagnies des Alpes.  Aspro will soon announce a new director for Harderwijk, as its current director, Marten Foppen, is leaving in April to run the Spoorwegmuseum (winner of a 2014 Thea Award for De Vuurproef).

Aspro is part of a partnership vying for the management contract of L’Oceanografic in Valencia, Spain, Europe’s largest combination aquarium and dolphinarium.  With Parques Reunidos opting not to continue its contract (with suits and countersuits taking place between it and the city of Valencia over moneys owed), three major contendors are vying for the job.  First is Rain Forest, whose Spanish zoo Bioparc is considered a pioneer of exhibit design, partnered with Italian aquarium operator Costa Edutainment.  Aguas de Valencia, which started out as the local water company and is now operating internationally, is partnering with KET, the company that constructed and first operated L’Oceanografic, and the Vancouver Aquarium.  Finally, Aspro is partnering with live event operator Mundosenti2.  The winning bid will be announced either later this month or early April.

GEORGIA AQUARIUM

Timing is everything when running a targeted campaign.  PETA, one of SeaWorld’s most vocal detractors, has mastered this art.  On February 22, 2013, as a nine year old girl was being bitten on the wrist by a SeaWorld San Antonio dolphin, 100 PETA organized protesters were picketing outside the entrance to the Orlando park, and a PETA employee in Washington, DC stood up and heckled SeaWorld speakers at a travel industry show.  All this made its way into a single article on the PETA website seven days later, along with notice of a USDA citation against SeaWorld Orlando for two violations of the Animal Welfare Act (one of which was resolved while the inspector was still on premises.  By comparison, the San Diego Zoo was cited for 13 violations during the same general inspection period, a fact PETA has never mentioned).

In a similar way, in 2012, PETA acquired freshly shot footage of a dolphin that had fallen out of its tank at a SeaWorld park, allegedly shot by either a PETA volunteer or a SeaWorld employee.  The advocacy group held onto the video for almost a year, finally releasing it nine days after a YouTube video of a newly rescued pilot whale stuck on a tank slideout in Orlando went viral, taking advantage of the attention the other video was receiving.

Approximately half of the SOS Delfines video bears a time stamp of March 2014, yet it wasn’t made public until its posting on YouTube on February 4, 2015.  Five days earlier had been Barbero’s final day as an employee of Marineland Mallorca. After more than 30 years at various Aspro parks, he was headed to Atlanta to become the Vice President of Training at the Georgia Aquarium, an institution at which he had provided consultation services for the prior eight years.

The video and then death of Barbero could not have come at a worse time for the Aquarium’s training department, just coming off a sexual harassment lawsuit in Federal court, settled out of court this past December.  It’s another issue, however, that has made the Aquarium a focal point of the anti-captivity movement.

On June 15, 2012, Georgia Aquarium filed a permit request with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which overseas provisions of the Marine Mammal Act, to import eighteen beluga whales caught in the wilds of Russia under the authorization of the Russian Academy of Sciences.  The majority of the whales would be dispersed on breeding loan to the three SeaWorld parks, Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, and Connecticut’s Mystic Aquarium (which has since left the partnership).  This would mark the first time a whale or dolphin would be intentionally caught in the wild for public display in the United States in close to thirty years.

NOAA denied the permit request, primarily based on three criteria:

“We were unable to determine whether the proposed activity, by itself or in combination with other activities, would likely have a significant adverse impact on the species or stock.  We believe that it is likely that total removals from this stock have exceeded the total net production on an annual basis resulting in a small, but steady and significant decline over the past 2 decades.  We believe the ongoing live-capture trade since 1989 may have contributed to a cumulative decline over the past two decades, and we considered this in combination with other past, present, and foreseeable future actions.

“We determined that the requested import will likely result in the taking of marine mammals beyond those authorized by the permit.  There are ongoing, legal marine mammal capture operations in Russia that are expected to continue, and we believe that issuance of this permit would contribute to the demand to capture belugas from this stock for the purpose of public display in the U.S. and worldwide, resulting in the future taking of additional belugas from this stock.

“We determined that five of the beluga whales proposed for import, estimated to be approximately 1.5 years old at the time of capture, were potentially still nursing and not yet independent.”

On Sept 30, 2013, Georgia Aquarium filed a complaint in Federal court to overturn the denied permit request.  On January 14, 2015, it filed for the case to be dismissed under summary judgement, stating that NOAA’s decision had been erroneous based on both use of incorrect data and misinterpretation of accurate data.  On March 16, the government and a group of animal advocacy organizations acting as intervenor-defendants filed their responses to the Aquarium’s summary judgement motion and their own requests for summary judgement.

While belugas from the same Russian facility have made their way to the Polar Ocean World chain of parks and aquariums and Chimelong Ocean Kingdom, both in China, the eighteen intended for the Georgia Aquarium have remained in a collection of small sea pens at the Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station on the Black Sea, some since 2006, under a nonrefundable deposit.  If Georgia is not able to import these animals, they will likely be resold to other parties in Russia or Asia.

THE RISK OF SOCIAL MEDIA

Since I first started writing professionally about the conflict between animal rights advocates and marine life parks in 2012, the social media arena has exploded as a canvas for discourse by both those in support and in objection to the parks.  Some of the conversations have remained civil while quite a few verge into hostile territory. There are over 1000 groups on Facebook discussing the marine mammal captivity issue and “tweetstorms” and trolls have become commonplace on twitter.

With thousands of impassioned individuals discussing the issue on social media, it’s quite easy for incorrect and untrue facts, along with unvetted claims, to be promulgated, either through misinterpretation or intentionally.  In essence, social media in the conflict over marine mammals acts much like a game of telephone – what comes out is not always what went in on the other end.

One of the more easily traceable examples of this is the 2013 declaration by India that whales and dolphins are non-human persons.  This was reported by such reputable mainstream news sources as Germany’s international broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW) and the Houston Chronicle.  Gabriela Cowperthwaite, director of the anti-SeaWorld film Blackfish, mentioned the declaration during an interview on the film’s DVD.   Others, such as National Public Radio’s Robert Krulwich, noted that:

“‘Cetaceans [dolphins, whales and porpoises] in general are highly intelligent and sensitive,’ the Ministry said, ‘and various scientists who have researched dolphin behavior have suggested that [they have] unusually high intelligence … compared to other animals.’

“This means, the Indian ministry went on: ‘that dolphins should be seen as ‘non-human persons’ and as such should have their own specific rights.’ ‘Non-human persons’ — what a pregnant phrase! People-like, but not like people.”

Thus, there are two different interpretations on the matter.  The first states that the government of India declared cetaceans to be non-human persons.  The other, that the government declared they should be non-human persons.  The reality is that neither took place.  In its proclamation banning dolphinariums in India, the Ministry of Environment and Forests stated:

“Whereas cetaceans in general are highly intelligent and sensitive, and various scientists who have researched dolphin behavior have suggested that the unusually high intelligence; as compared to other animals means that dolphin should be seen as ‘non-human persons’ and as such should have their own specific rights and is morally unacceptable to keep them captive for entertainment purpose.”

The key phrasing in this paragraph – “various scientists who have researched dolphin behavior have suggested that the unusually high intelligence; as compared to other animals means that dolphin should be seen as ‘non-human persons’ and as such should have their own specific rights” – refers to the beliefs of “various scientists,” and was used solely as the basis for the dolphinarium ban, not as a separate declaration.  To date, the Ministry has not declared or suggested it be declared that dolphins be named as non-human persons and cetaceans do not have that legal standing in India.  However, the claim that they do still arises frequently within social media.

Within the marine mammal debate on social media, SeaWorld is one of the most common targets.  The majority of the claims lobbied toward its business practices often show either a disregard or a lack of knowledge of theme park operations.  One of the more visited crowd-sourced websites, The Dodo, whose majority owners include Discovery Channel and Animal Planet parent company Discovery Communications, recently released a video which it claims is “SeaWorld’s entire downfall explained in 1 minute.”  It features the release of the film Blackfish, student protests, the USDA violation at the Orlando park (which not only features the incorrect month in the video, but uses audio from the film Blackfish about conditions at a now closed Canadian park, which is dubbed over video unrelated to the USDA violations), and the termination of SeaWorld’s partnership with Southwest Airlines as factors leading to stock and revenue drops and the resignation of the company’s CEO Jim Atchison.

What the video doesn’t include is the 2014 competition that SeaWorld’s three most visited parks endured with new and newly redesigned attractions in their markets.  San Diego had to compete with heavily marketed attractions and events at Disneyland Resort, Universal Studios Hollywood, and Knott’s Berry Farm, along with a new waterpark at LEGOLAND California.  Both SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa suffered attendance losses with blockbuster attractions opening in Central Florida – New Fantasyland at the Magic Kingdom and Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Florida.  Busch Gardens Tampa’s 2014 thrill ride, Falcon’s Fury, suffered technical difficulties and was out of commission the entire busy summer season, finally opening after schools had gone back into session.  Another drop in attendance resulted from the transition of Christmas Town at the two Busch Gardens parks from a separate hard ticket event, as has been done in the past, to an event included with daily park admission.

Another misleading claim in social media is that SeaWorld is planning international expansion due to pending state and federal legislation that would ban whale and dolphin captivity in the United States.  AB-2140, which InPark previously reported on, has been undergoing review and is expected to be reintroduced to a California Assembly committee in 2016.  Bills were recently introduced in the Washington State House and Senate to ban cetacean captivity, although it is a state that currently does not house any. The text of the two Washington bills are identical to the California bill, exchanging California’s orca for Washington’s cetacean.

SeaWorld’s primary business is as a theme park company.  It has developed the SeaWorld, Busch Gardens, Discovery Cove, and Aquatica brands and has other park concepts that have been developed and may be implemented in other markets.  A large number of major theme park operators – Disney, Universal, Six Flags, Merlin, Parques Reunidos, Village Roadshow, USJ (parent company of Universal Studios Japan) – are undergoing major expansions into the Middle East and Southeast Asia.  SeaWorld is in a unique situation among theme park operators in that its two largest parks, San Diego and Orlando, operate both like regional theme parks and as international tourist destinations, drawing large attendance from Japan, China, Mexico, Brazil, and Europe.  This has given the brand high recognition in international markets.  In addition to its multi-park complex in Dubai, with the first park scheduled to open in time for Dubai’s EXPO 2020, SeaWorld executives have completed location scout visits with Village Roadshow in China, Malaysia, and South Korea.  Under the completed terms of cooperation, the new SeaWorld IP parks will be operated by Village Roadshow.

The conspiratorial nature of social media sometimes stretches to what would otherwise be respected organizations.  On March 14, a group of protesters interrupted a presentation by a former SeaWorld trainer now critical of the park at Whalefest, a large annual conference which, among other things, advocates the ending of cetacean captivity.  In response, Whalefest issued a series of tweets alleging that the protesters had been paid and placed within the meeting hall by SeaWorld.

Accusations are lobbed both ways in the realm of social media.  Many SeaWorld supporters group all park protesters together under the overriding title of PETA.  I speak often with a number of protesters and anti-captivity advocates who not only have told me that they are not associated with PETA, but that they also do not support the animal rights organization.  As one said, “Most of what PETA does actually makes our efforts look bad, but because they’re so big and vocal, we have to work with them on a lot of things.”

One of PETA’s most recent efforts to undermine SeaWorld, which will be paying them $28.35 this quarter in dividends for PETA’s 135 shares of SeaWorld stock, involves SeaWorld’s efforts to rescue emaciated sea lion pups on the Southern California coast.  This year to date, SeaWorld San Diego has rescued over 400 pups, placing its sea lion show on hiatus to free up trainers to help with the rescue effort and sending additional staff specialized in sea lion care from its San Antonio park.  Other marine mammal rescue centers in Southern California have reached capacity and have sent overflow to San Diego.  According to Federal regulations, SeaWorld is the only marine mammal rescue organization allowed to work within San Diego County.

On March 12, PETA attempted to not only undermine SeaWorld’s efforts, but placed extra stress on other already overwhelmed rescue organizations, by posting the following comment on its Facebook page:

“Please contact your local Marine Mammal Stranding Center here: http://1.usa.gov/1Ecym6o

 or PETA at . . . .“. . . .The animals released by SeaWorld are most often manatees, sea turtles, and other animals who cannot be used as ‘performers’ in their shows. Dolphins, whales and sea lions rescued by SeaWorld who can be forced to perform tricks for food are kept and used as performers.”

A CRIMINAL MATTER

Both Marineland Mallorca and Georgia Aquarium officials had the SOS Delfines video investigated and were not able to find anything conclusive.  Shortly after Barbero’s death, Georgia Aquarium CEO Mike Levin released a statement that in part said:

“. . . . After allegations were levied against him, we took the situation very seriously. Georgia Aquarium began a search for truth in hopes of disproving these unsubstantiated claims. Sadly, he and his family received death threats, and groups and individuals rushed to judge him. He was not given the right or the privilege to be considered innocent until proven guilty, a principle I hold dear. His death is untimely, unnecessary and unjust.

“We were not given the chance to thoughtfully and thoroughly review the allegations against him before activists, consultants and some in our own community tortured him with enough hatred to cause him to allegedly take his own life. I hope the death of Jose Luis Barbero teaches those who were quick to condemn him a lesson about being hasty to charge and indict.”

Barbero‘s attorney, Mateo Cañellas, has stated that he will be moving forward with pursuing defamation charges against animal rights activists, groups, and media outlets that exhibited the video and declared it to be in fact Barbero abusing the dolphins without first ascertaining its authenticity.

Cañellas also stated that the prosecution (slander is a criminal matter in Spain and prosecuted by the State) could automatically charge individuals who publicly cheered for Barbero‘s death in social or other media, citing precedence in other Spanish cases.

The morning of her husband’s death, Barbero’s wife posted a thought from a family friend on her Facebook page:

“My friend Jose Luis Barbero Hernandez was found dead in his car. A month ago, SOS-Dolphins FAADA disseminated a video in which he was wrongly accused of mistreating Marineland’s dolphins.

“The lynching that was submitted truncated his brilliant career and the helplessness that he has suffered has led him allegedly to a suicide. Now I still have to read the comments and posts of these ‘self-styled’ animal activists who are pleased with his death. They express their joy, but I’m already blocking them.  On my wall and in my life, the undesirable do not fit.”

If I were him, I’d make it a priority to block the dolphins and the sea lions, the real culprits behind it all.  Like I said, it’s there in black and white in social media.