Tag Archive: SeaWorld


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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.

It’s very appropriate that Universal Orlando is reopening The Amazing Adventures of Spider-man this Thursday with a complete HD upgrade.  After all, this marks the 50th anniversary of the famed web-slinger’s first appearance.  But sadly, another anniversary is being overlooked.  On Jan. 2 of this year, Jaws at Universal Studios Florida ceased operation in order to make way for something new.  The attraction opened in 1990, but Jaws made its first Orlando appearance much earlier than that.  Thirty years ago this Summer, filming began on the third Jaws film – in 3D  – right down International Drive at SeaWorld.

So although we won’t have the Jaws ride at Universal Orlando to celebrate this milestone, we can celebrate it with another film about other carnivorous fish attacking an aquatic park – in this case, the waterslides of Wilmington, North Carolina’s Jungle Rapids Family Fun Park.

Which brings us to ThemedReality’s first Obscure Trivia Break, for as hard as it may seem, the Piranha franchise can just as easily link the SeaWorld and Universal theme park chains as Jaws can.  Here’s how:

  • The original Piranha (1978) was director Joe Dante’s third film.  In 2003, he directed a 4D film R.L. Stine’s Haunted Lighthouse for Busch Entertainment Corporation, which played at the two Busch Gardens parks and at SeaWorld parks in San Diego and San Antonio.
  • The sequel, Piranha Part II: The Spawning (1981) was James Cameron’s directorial debut.  It was a far cry from the work he did on Terminator 2 3D: Battle Across Time (1996)  for the Universal Studios theme parks.
  • In the reboot of the series, 2010’s Piranha 3D and this year’s Piranha 3DD, the character of Mr. Goodman is portrayed by none other than Christopher Lloyd, who starred in both SeaWorld’s Haunted Lighthouse, as Cap’n Jack, and as “Doc” Emmett Brown in Universal’s Back to the Future: The Ride (1991) and its replacement The Simpsons Ride (2008).

There are plenty of other theme park connections, ranging from film tie-ins to Cameron at News Corporation parks in Australia and Mexico, Everland in South Korea, and Disney parks worldwide, David Hasselhoff’s legendary work for Blackpool Pleasure Beach, and Elisabeth Shue’s performance in that Leonard Nimoy-directed thrill ride at EPCOT.

But I don’t really want to talk about all those.  I guess when it comes down it, we can all learn something from Universal and SeaWorld.  Don’t dismiss B-movies.  After all, there might just be some good theme park talent in there.  I mean, I recall a really horrible Korean-American film from 1985 called LA Streetfighters (later renamed Ninja Turf)…

la_streetfighters_poster_01…and one of the actors from that film went on to host the Thea Awards.

ORIGINALLY POSTED 3/5/12 ON THEMEDREALITY.COM

Twenty-five years ago this year, I interned in the Aviculture department at SeaWorld San Diego.  For those not in the know – it means I took care of birds.  And that includes penguins.  Now back in that day, the park was owned by book publisher Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.  It had just undergone a major expansion, doubling its size with a new entrance, the world’s largest captive orca tank, and a huge larger-than-life map of the United States.  But for me, the best attraction was the Commerson’s dolpins, freshly arrived from the Strait of Magellan.

To see these beautiful four-foot long creatures, you would enter the old mermaid show building and watch a slideshow about the dolphins, their capture, and how all cetaceans descended from land-bound cows.  Then the screen and would rise and you would watch them swim.  Fast.  In circles.  Over and over again.  Until you got bored.  Or you could go in a different auditorium just to view them if you wanted to avoid the slide show altogether.

SeaWorld at that time followed traditional zoo and aquarium principles, with the central attraction being the animal exhibits with audio-visual presentations providing optional background information.  Once SeaWorld was purchased by Busch Entertainment, things began to change.

First, there was a thematic integration with animals and thrill rides.  At SeaWorld Orlando, Commerson’s dolphins were integrated into the Journey to Atlantis attraction and later into the Dolphin’s Plunge waterslide complex at the Aquatica waterpark.  Likewise, rays were integrated into the queue for the Manta coasters and the Stingray Falls attraction at Aquatica’s San Antonio location, opening this Summer.

At the same time, animal attractions began taking on the theme of a human expedition to remote regions.  This includes such projects as Wild Arctic, with its helicopter flight motion simulator followed by a walkthrough of animal enclosures disguised as an Arctic research base, and Busch Gardens Tampa Bay’s Rhino Rally, a cross-country rally/safari experience containing both encounters with live animals and thrill ride components.

Starting last year, the parks began taking a different approach with animal interpretation.  Instead of human exploration to where the animals live, the new adventures places humans into the lives of animals themselves.  It began with Cheetah Hunt at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay.  A combination animal exhibit and ride, the rollercoaster portion of the attraction, designed by Intamin, takes its cue from the cheetah itself.  Although it contains a number of traditional coaster elements, such as scaling a tower and an inversion, the ride features 3 LSM launches and tight curves that mimic the way a cheetah hunts in the wild.  Sea World San Diego’s Manta, a Mack ride, will take a similar approach with multiple launches and twists, attempting to mimic the motion of the wild manta ray.

At Sea World Orlando, a pavilion dedicated to manatee rescue has been redesigned into TurtleTrek.  Inside, a 360 degree dome will envelope audience members in the life story of a sea turtle in a wraparound 3D experience.  34 Christie 4K projectors will be combined to create a seamless image in this latest project from Kraftwerk, a followup to their Bubble Theatre at Macau’s City of Dreams (showing Dragon’s Treasure).

When I was young and interning at Sea World, guests would take a moving walkway past a recreated Antarctic environment and see penguins swimming and rooking and moving about.  After, they could backtrack to a viewing platform and watch videos about the birds’ exciting lives.  Occasionally, we keepers would come onto the ice and kids would be happy to see the birds run around us begging for food.  There were always two rules – never look at the glass and make eye contact with the guests, and always wear a jacket to give the illusion of a freezing environment (even if it was actually 59 degrees inside).

SeaWorld Orlando is demolishing their Penguin Encounter.  In its place will rise Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin.  It’s central feature will be a ride where guests will “experience the mystery and wonder of life on the ice through the eyes of a penguin, sensing the beauty and drama of their sometimes-dangerous habitat. Antarctica – Empire of the Penguin combines closer-then-ever animal connections with state-of-the-art interactive ride technologies for adventures that are different each time.”

A human in a jacket replaced by an animal spirit guide.

To learn more about SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, visit www.seaworldparks.com

ORIGINALLY POSTED 2/28/12 AT THEMEDREALITY.COM