Tag Archive: SeaWorld


For those of you new to the blog, welcome. For those of you returning, you’ll notice a few changes.  Instead of doing a blog post on one or two topics, I’m switching over to a new format, which I’m calling “The Other Side of the News.” This format, which will run monthly (and on occasion, more frequently than that), will look at attractions industry news items you may not be aware of, or elements of news stories typically not covered in conventional media.

This blog is notorious for its sarcastic and sardonic approach, and that will remain, although it will be toned down a bit in order to concentrate on the news at hand. The Other Side of the News should not be considered a news article. It’s an opinion piece and is based on my analysis of the facts publicly available (unless stated or implied otherwise). There’s a disclaimer tab at the top of the page and I recommend taking a look before proceeding because…well…lawyers gotta be paid for something.

EPCOT’S CHANGING! WALT MUST BE ROLLING IN HIS GRAVE!

Some big news coming out of Disney’s D23 Expo was that Universe of Energy (AKA Ellen’s Energy Adventure) is being removed to make room for a Guardians of the Galaxy Ride. Almost immediately, Disney fans started protesting and griping all over the Al Gore Webosphere.  So here are some of their arguments and why they’re wrong:

Walt would have never changed an attraction like this during his lifetime.

NOT ONE single Disneyland attraction that opened in the 1950’s, 1960’s, 1970’s, 1980’s, or 1990’s retains its original appearance – and a number of these changes happened during Walt’s lifetime. If it wasn’t the attraction’s narrative or scenic elements, it was via improvement in lighting, sound, show control, animatronics, or safety systems. Imagineers from the very beginning have had a long history of removing elements that haven’t worked and of looking for ways to improve attractions wherever they could.

They can’t get rid of the dinosaurs! Those are a part of EPCOT!

Tell that to Dreamfinder. Regardless of the fact that these are NOT the original 1964 World’s Fair dinosaurs, which reside on the Disneyland Railroad in Anaheim, Disney has a history of recycling its attractions. They could end up in Animal Kingdom, fleshing out the Dinosaur ride that’s already there. Perhaps they’ll be donated to a science museum. My money’s on them being reskinned as alien beasts and staying in the attraction.

A movie franchise like Guardians of the Galaxy has no place in EPCOT

In 1987, Disneyland’s Tomorrowland was the West Coast’s Epcot Future World of its day, with semi-fact based attractions such as Circle-Vision, America Sings, Mission to Mars, and the Submarine Voyage. Then a certain attraction called Star Tours opened, replacing the semi-educational Adventure through Inner Space. The moral: It’s happened before. And you loved it.

The stars of the latest incarnation of the Universe of Energy, Ellen’s Energy Adventure, are as relevant today, if not more, than they were at the time of the attraction’s opening in 1996. But today, they’re relevant for different reasons. Ellen is no longer a sitcom star. She’s become an iconic trailblazer for civil rights and the oppressed. Jamie Lee Curtis was still a few years off her sexy turn in James Cameron’s “True Lies.” She now encourages women to embrace their bodies and their natural beauty. Bill Nye has moved on from children’s science shows to become CEO of The Planetary Society. And Alex Trebek died a few ago and was replaced by a semi-autonomous android designed by IBM’s Watson supercomputer. All four have expressed concern with climate change and with the continued use of fossil fuels, so it makes no sense to continue having them in an attraction that actually espouses the merits of coal mining, fracking, and oil drilling.

Look, change happens all the time at theme parks. It’s part of the evolutionary process and necessary for enticing new guests to visit while encouraging existing guests and passholders to return. If you can’t retain guests, you can’t stay in business. Thinkwell’s Cynthia Sharpe and Dave Cobb have written a fantastic blog piece on the importance of theme park change as a reflection of changing social mores. And remember, each Cobb Salad you buy at Denny’s gives Dave Cobb double frequent flyer points! (see disclaimer, top of page)

SPEAKING OF REMOVED THEME PARK DINOSAURS….WHOOPIE GOLDBERG!

2006 was a huge year for Whoopie Goldberg. Having been banished years before from Superstar Limo, Califia herself became the new on-screen host of the the Universal Studios Tour. So for a brief few years, Whoopie could be seen on screen at two competing Southern California parks. But of course you know that, so it’s not surprising that Whoopie just did something highly commendable across the street from her old “Golden Dreams” theater.

While being interviewed during the Disney Legend (also known as the One Arm Bandit) induction at D23, Whoopie brought up the Disney films “Dumbo” and “Song of the South,” stating that it’s time they be embraced and discussed for what they are. I have to agree.

There’s been a double standard at Disney where “Song of the South” has never been released on DVD and “The Martins and the Coys” segment of “Make Mine Music” was removed for being stereotypically offensive, while at the same time the limited edition DVD series “Walt Disney Treasures” contained cartoons offensive to modern standards (such as Pluto appearing in blackface as Aunt Jemima). But I guess that’s ok, as long as your limited run of DVD’s is only being bought by fans and cinephiles and includes an explanatory video introduction about how times were different back then by Leonard Maltin.

I want to go one step further than Ms. Goldberg (who I do hold in high regard).

James Baskett’s status as a Disney Legend (2010) is overshadowed by the continued withholding of his most famous work. 

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He needs to be recognized for it. Yes, doing so will necessitate Disney releasing “Song of the South” on video, a film for which he was awarded an honorary Oscar in 1948, and it will necessitate discussion in a public forum. It’s important, in this time and age when we as a society explore race, race relations, and racial heritage, that children understand the song “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah” did not come from a bunch of animatronic animals on a teetering showboat viewed from flume logs. It was Mr. Baskett who introduced the song into American culture – it was on the shoulder of Uncle Remus, the character he played in the film, that Mr. Bluebird landed. Seems to me it’s a lot easier to deal with a bluebird on your shoulder than to continue dealing with a monkey on your back (and I’m going to be preemptive because I know there are some who will see what I just wrote and be astounded that I allowed such a racial epithet to go through, when in fact it’s not. The phrase “monkey on your back” derives from the Fifth Voyage of Sinbad in the 12th century version of the Arabic classic “One Thousand and One Nights,” wherein “The Old Man of the Sea” attaches himself to Sinbad’s shoulders and will not let go. Eventually, Sinbad is able to get the Old Man to loosen his grip and he promptly smashes his head. The 1893 English language children’s version of the book, “Fairy Tales from the Arabian Nights,” edited by E. Dixon – which actually mentioned the head smashing – featured an illustration by J.D. Batten of the Old Man as a grotesque ape like creature. Whether Mr. Batten’s conception was rooted in the racism of the era is not known – I could not find any indication of racist leanings. However, this is why it’s important to maintain open discussion on art – and film – and to make the original material available to review in context.)

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THE MUSEUM DOESN’T WANT ITS IMAX. MUST….SAVE….ITS….IMAX!

I recall the one trip I made to the Johnson IMAX Theater at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC. I was there for an industry preview of the IMAX film “Coral Reef Adventure” and I remember three things vividly: First, it was 2002 and the theater, only three years old at the time, was absolutely beautiful, and even had a retractable stage. Second, they took away our wine as we left the atrium and entered the theater. They would not allow us to carry it inside. Third, Jean-Michel Cousteau sauntered up to the podium with a glass of wine in hand. I remember being very upset and wishing that one day they’d tear down the IMAX and expand the cafeteria.

Well, unfortunately, my wish has come true as the Smithsonian plans to do just that, claiming that the theater is often only at 20% capacity. I know the people who manage it and the people who market it, so I can’t really conceive why this is happening. But I do have a couple of general ideas of developments that may have contributed:

  • The vast majority of giant screen films available to smaller digital 3D theaters and planetariums are of the same natural history variety shown in the Johnson theater, while aerospace-themed giant screen films tend have a smaller foothold, mainly aerospace museums and science centers. Oversaturation in the overall market affects tourist choices when time is limited (why should we see Dinosaurs Alive! in the IMAX theater when we just saw it on the much smaller screen at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science?)
  • As a longtime giant screen veteran reminded me, at a certain point, the programming and operation of giant screen theaters went from being  mission-based to being profit-based. A programming model where a film might run a full year has given way to rapid turnover, especially with Hollywood fare. From a financial standpoint, it’s a necessity to remain competitive against an ever-increasing number of smaller 3D theaters, high definition full dome planetaria, and HD television channels. From an educational standpoint, it makes things more difficult as more resources must now be expended to accomplish much more in a shorter amount of time.

The group Save Our IMAX is fighting to stop the closure. I completely applaud them and encourage you to join their cause. However, the campaign is far from perfect and I would like to offer the following suggestions in this open format:

  1. With the exception of Diane Carlson, who recently retired from the Pacific Science Center, all the principals involved in the Save Our IMAX campaign are film directors or producers. This creates a bit of confusion as to who exactly the theater “belongs” to.
  2. This should really be a community campaign. Community educators and leaders from around the DC region should have an equal say in the campaign. Instead of it being the filmmakers’ IMAX, make it the community’s IMAX. Or better yet, the Nation’s IMAX. Perception is everything. Now, you do have the great Christ Palmer, a local university professor, on board, but he’s also the producer of such IMAX classics as “Wolves,” “Bears,” “Snails,” and “Dolphins.”
  3. Make sure this is about content being available in the DC marketplace and not about losing a single IMAX theater, especially important as we just lost another IMAX theater in Tampa as MOSI downsizes.
  4. The Smithsonian is a government agency. ENGAGE CONGRESS!!
  5. If the issue of closure is one of content in the marketplace, request the Smithsonian look into constructing a smaller venue. If it’s one of format, there’s always that Bible museum opening up the street. Maybe they’ll build an IMAX and show the Darwin film.
FOR SEAWORLD, IT’S NOT A BLUE WORLD. IT’S NOT A GREEN WORLD EITHER.

SeaWorld canceled its Blue World Project, a series of huge killer whale tanks, and instead did this thing called Orca Encounter in San Diego, which is a show, but it’s not really a show. It’s a documentary film accompanied by live whales, and it’s not working. Neither is Ocean Explorer, the park’s attempt to compete against LEGOLAND California and its SEA LIFE aquarium. I know this because during the recent Q2 earnings call, SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby said the company does not expect to see a return on investments on the California attractions.

Here’s some other exciting things I picked up on during that earnings call:

  • SeaWorld’s new virtual reality coaster in Orlando, Kraken Unleashed, is having throughput issues with far fewer people than projected being able to ride (as a side note, may I suggest parks considering a VR overlay to their existing coasters also expand the load station to be able to handle two trains at once).
  • Going into the future, the company expects 1/3 of its cost savings to come from reduced attendance and revenues. The simplest way to interpret this is that the money-losing San Diego park will transform from a year-round to a seasonal operation, similar to the San Antonio park.
  • The company is spending less money to build more rides and attractions and is no longer competing with Disney and Universal, doing its own thing in its own way.

I noticed two things really missing from the press release and earnings call, although one was very explicitly addressed in the SEC filing.  There was barely any mention of Zhonghong, the Chinese company that had just purchased Blackstone’s 21% stake in the company. Manby basically told analysts if they had questions about Zhonghong, they should contact Zhonghong, adding that the two Zhonghong directors on SeaWorld’s board were well engaged and a pleasure to work with.  Something felt off. Something was missing.

Then I was told by a source who would be in a position to know, speaking on grounds of anonymity (see disclosure tab at top of page) that Zhonghong had at the last minute decided against tendering for the time being an offer to buy SeaWorld, which required SeaWorld to make sure no documentation had any indication of any buyout, and all at the last minute. Which is why the press release for the second quarter financials came out almost two hours after its usual wire service distribution time, and why the SEC filing was not done until end of day the following day, almost thirty-six hours later.

Just prior, Zhonghong had placed a $3 billion acquisition of Brookdale Senior Living on hold after Chinese banks (if you’re a Chinese company, you must secure financing through Chinese banks) downgraded the company’s credit rating to “unfavorable,” resulting in Zhonghong being unable to secure financing to complete the Brookdale acquisition.  Scouring the ChinaWeb, I’ve come across a document which is either a complaint or a legal filing (not sure yet which), alleging fraud on Zhonghong’s part with a 2016 residential development near Beijing. The claims are eerily similar to a 2016 SEC fraud investigation regarding Comcast’s purchase of DreamWorks Animation (DWA). Although Zhonghong is not mentioned as being investigated or as a defendant in the SEC case, it is mentioned by name as a co-suitor to purchase DWA with one of the defendants. Although I can’t be certain any fraud investigation has affected Zhonghong’s purchase of American companies, Zhonghong certainly has been effected by the same Chinese government investigation on lending for foreign investment that saw Dalian-Wanda group drastically reinvent itself. My source also tells me that both Manby and Board Chair David D’Alessandro will stay on through at least the end of the year, by which time the acquisition is expected to be back on and nearing completion.

At the same time, private investment firm Hill Path Capital continues to buy shares of SeaWorld, to the point that it is in the top four in terms of company ownership. According to a Merlin Entertainments call the day before SeaWorld’s call, Hill Path is pushing SeaWorld’s management to sell off the two Busch Gardens parks in order to obtain immediate revenue. SeaWorld was very explicit in its Q2 SEC filing that it wants Hill Path to have no part whatsoever in any board or management decisions.

These past forty-five days have been difficult for SeaWorld, with the stillbirth of a beluga calf, the death of what was advertised as “the last SeaWorld orca born in captivity,” and the euthanasia of one of the company’s most revered orcas. I’m not going to discuss welfare or health issues here. If that’s your cup of tea, there are plenty of other sites on the interweb covering both sides of the argument. One in particular caught my attention.

Michael Mountain writes on the Whale Sanctuary Project website about the death of the killer whale Kasatka. He schools SeaWorld for their interpretation of the term “family,” disputes the company’s healthcare and medical diagnoses, questions if her trainers loved her, and then implores SeaWorld to release their whales into a sanctuary, perhaps the very one his group plans on building.

I felt like I was reading a SeaWorld of Hate piece – you know, PETA’s anti-SeaWorld page, since this followed the traditional PETA anti-Seaworld layout – call out SeaWorld on everything they do, then implore them to move their whales to a sanctuary.

I don’t think it was a wise move for the Whale Sanctuary Project, and here’s why.

You need whales for your whale sanctuary and there’s only two ways you’re going to get them – through the courts or building bridges with the whales’ owners. You can have Kiska in Canada, but right now the law prohibits her being moved out of Ontario. You could have had Lolita in Miami, but certain lawsuits and Endangered Species Act recognition means lots more red tape and hurdles to jump through.  I’m pretty sure you want Morgan from Loro Parque, but first you’ve got to figure out just who owns her (I’ve seen Loro Parque say she’s a ward of the Dutch government, their whale, and SeaWorld’s whale. Guess it depends on the day). That leaves the SeaWorld whales. And with posts like this, you’re burning necessary bridges far faster than you can get the materials to build new ones.

A MARINELAND VIDEO SENT ME TO THE BATHROOM.

Marineland of Canada released quite a few press releases last week. One was about the death of the beluga calf Gia.  Along with it was a link to a video on Marineland’s animal husbandry. I recognized the licensed music in the video. It was the same selection that Comcast’s customer service office uses. I found myself automatically headed to the bathroom thinking I was going to be on hold for 20 minutes.

But what Marineland’s doing is far more interesting than listening to a pre-recorded ad for Comcast’s Xfinity internet service play eighty times in a row while you’re internet’s down. Marineland has chosen it’s enemy as it’s become confrontational with the Ontario SPCA, going so far as to state in January:  “The OSPCA is continuing a publicity campaign at the behest of a band of discredited activists with little relevant expertise or knowledge, in an effort to avoid further embarrassment related to an ongoing investigation into the OSPCA’s perceived failure to protect animals that is being led by the same activists they are now firmly in bed with.”

Yes, the OSPCA is a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, much like many other SPCA’s or humane societies throughout the world. What makes it unique is that in addition to being a charitable organization, it is also the government mandated enforcement agency overseeing animal welfare issues in the province of Ontario.

Whereas something like a complaint being filed by, say PETA or the Animal Welfare Institute against a zoo or animal-based theme park would be a civil complaint, a complaint from the OSPCA is a criminal complaint. It is up to the Crown prosecutor to act on the charges and, in the most recent case, the charges were dropped.

Marineland continues to counter the OSPCA’s claims through press releases over the wire services, even callign the OSPCA’s Senior Manager of Communications a “self-proclaimed ‘PR (public relations) pro & writer by trade’ with no actual involvement in delivering Ontario SPCA’s animal welfare mandate.”

So, after treatment of this kind in the media by Marineland and other private zoo owners, it’s not a surprise that the OSPCA released an announcement that:

The Ontario SPCA believes that animals on exhibit in zoos solely for commercial gain is an antiquated business model that must be stopped. The time to begin working towards this goal is now, if we work together to ensure our expectations are clear for elected officials.

The Ontario SPCA advocates that the Government of Ontario put in place the following, on behalf of animals in zoos:

  1. Develop and proclaim‎ new or amended legislation to regulate zoos permitted to operate in the province, prohibiting any zoo exhibiting animals solely for commercial gain,
  2. Provide at least four Crown Attorneys to specialize in animal welfare law so that charges are seen through to justice and the public interest is served,
  3. Provide sufficient funding and resources for increased and ongoing inspections of zoo facilities, and for the eventual closure of zoos that exist solely for commercial gain,
  4. Allow the current Provincial Zoo & Aquarium Registry to be made public and available on the Government of Ontario’s website.

So…the gloves are off….on both sides.

IS CEDAR FAIR HEADED BACK TO ITS ROOTS?

Christian Dieckmann and Howard Newstate have left Cedar Fair (to 3D Live and Holovis, respectively). What does this mean for the chain? Well, we’re likely to see less of the high tech attractions (VR is still gonna be around) like Iron Reef, Wonder Mountain’s Guardian, Mass Effect, and Plants v Zombies.

So what’s taking their place?

I’ve spoken extensively with the management of California’s Great America and with Clayton Lawrence, who was recently promoted from his post at Great America to become Cedar Fair’s Corporate Manager of Live Show Development. The company’s taking a back to basics approach. It’s looking back at the history of its parks and the communities in which those parks exist and honoring both. Food service is being upgraded, accommodations are being improved. The company will present a whole slate of live entertainment with a unified standard across all parks. And most exciting of all, festivals and events are going to be a special emphasis, from craft beer festivals to beach parties, Haunt, and Winterfest, Cedar Fair will be creating multiple reasons to visit year round as they put the amusement back in the park (yep, there’s a disclaimer at top of page).

SIX FLAGS JOINS THE APPEASEMENT BANDWAGON.

Six Flags Over Texas was named after the six flags that at various times flew over the state of Texas –  Spain, France, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, the United States of America, and the Confederate States of America.  In light of the recent events in Virginia and elsewhere, Six Flags opted to remove the Confederate flag from its flagpole. Then they did one better – they removed four more of the flags and replaced them all with American flags.

In Canada, after a mother posted a Facebook photo of a carousel horse at La Ronde, Six Flags’ theme park on the Expo 67 site in Montreal, the company agreed to remove the horse, which featured the severed head of a Native American. While America deals with its racial unrest, Canada is dealing with its own legacy of abuse of First Nations tribal members. The history is a long and hard one that spans from the forced relocation to and abuse at residential schools – an attempt to “educate” the native out the native culture – to today’s epidemic of young aboriginal women disappearing and being killed.

I applaud Six Flags and its individual park management for doing the right thing.

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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