SeaWorld Had Problems Beyond Blackfish

Theme Park Insider publishes an excellent breakdown and analysis of SeaWorld’s attendance numbers since 2009. Here are the numbers for SEAS four largest parks:

SeaWorld Orlando
2009: 5.8 million
2010: 5.1 million
2011: 5.2 million
2012: 5.3 million
2013: 5.0 million

SeaWorld San Diego
2009: 4.2 million
2010: 3.8 million
2011: 4.2 million
2012: 4.4 million
2013: 4.3 million

Busch Gardens Tampa
2009: 4.1 million
2010: 4.2 million
2011: 4.2 million
2012: 4.3 million
2013: 4.0 million

Busch Gardens Williamsburg
2009: 2.9 million
2010: 2.8 million
2011: 2.7 million
2012: 2.8 million
2013: 2.7 million

You can see that the SeaWorld parks suffered their biggest attendance declines 2009-2010, before Blackfish. My guess is that the numbers reflect a combination of families feeling the pinch of the Great Recession plus the negative publicity that followed Dawn Brancheau’s death in February 2010. And attendance never really recovered, and then declined again in 2013 when Blackfish starts to hit the public consciousness (and attendance was off another 4.7 percent for the first nine months of 2014).

So why did SeaWorld’s numbers never make a recovery from 2010? Bad management, and a failure to come up with attractions that could compete with what other parks were rolling out, according to Theme Park Insider:

While other theme park companies have moved aggressively to develop new attractions and intellectual property in the wake of the Great Recession, the SeaWorld/Busch Gardens parks have stumbled through one challenge after another. The debuts of the two Manta roller coasters, in Orlando in 2009 and San Diego in 2012, provide the few bright spots during this period. Otherwise, the parks have suffered through construction delays on multiple new attractions, including missed projected open dates for major new drop towers in Williamsburg and Tampa.

Looking back through our Theme Park Insider reader ratings, I can’t find a single example of a new show debuting during this time period at any of these four parks that scored a higher reader rating than the show it replaced. In 2013, SeaWorld Orlando made what it called the largest capital investment in its history in opening Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin. An effort to compete with the engaging and immersive environment of Universal Orlando’s Harry Potter land, SeaWorld chose to go with depicting what might be the most inhospitable environment on Earth: Antarctica. Sure, people love penguins, but SeaWorld’s technically innovative Antarctica ride left visitors spending too much time spinning around in low-light caverns with there were no penguins in sight, rather than spending time with cute new penguin character SeaWorld had created for the attraction. At the end of the ride, SeaWorld crafted a new, open display environment for its penguins, but doing show required keeping the guest areas in the exhibit so cold that few visitors could stand spending more than a moment or two looking at the pavilion’s most compelling attraction — the live penguins themselves.

Not good.

That said, I think the #BlackfishEffect has become a bigger part of the story in 2013-2014. Throw in the investor lawsuits, and ongoing grassroots opposition to killer whale entertainment, and it becomes clear that whoever comes in to replace Jim Atchison as CEO has a very complex puzzle to solve.

WashPost Wonkblog Charts The Blackfish Effect

Sure, sure. Correlation is not causation. But it’s still worth looking at and considering the correlation, so thanks Wonkblog.

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Here’s Wonkblog’s setup:

Jim Atchison, the chief executive of SeaWorld Entertainment, which operates SeaWorld theme parks, resigned Friday morning. Atchison’s departure comes on the heels of what has been a terrible year for the company. In the first nine months of 2014, SeaWorld’s revenue fell by more than seven percent, and its attendance dropped by nearly five percent.

The changing of the guard is likely the result of something that occurred in July 2013: namely, the release of the documentary “Blackfish.”

“Blackfish” was met with both critical praise and public uproar. The documentary depicted cruel treatment of the orca (or killer) whales that SeaWorld holds in captivity and features among its biggest attractions. It was seen widely. And the response has been paralyzing (even despite an effort to discredit the documentary).

Personally, I think that there is more going on with SeaWorld’s drop in attendance and share price crash than Blackfish (though I do think Blackfish and the investor lawsuits at least partly account for it). Consider, also, that SeaWorld has basically been offering the same show for 50 years, and today it is even less thrilling since trainers are no longer leaping off orcas. Throw in a general public sensibility that increasingly questions the exploitation of animals for entertainment (at circuses and zoos, as well as at marine parks), and you can see why Shamu might not have the same drawing power as Harry Potter World.

So, does Atchison’s departure signal that SeaWorld might be ready to make big changes? I did an interview with NPR’s All Things Considered today, to discuss Atchison’s ouster. I said I suspected the most likely change is that SeaWorld will over time start to move its killer whale entertainment business abroad to more willing audiences in Russia, Asia and the Middle East. But one thing I should have mentioned to Greg Allen, the reporter, is that the only certain signal that SeaWorld plans to reinvent itself and evolve away from killer whale entertainment as the core of its business and brand would be a cessation of killer whale breeding. No breeding means that eventually there will be no captive killer whales. Anything else is just spin aimed at somehow perpetuating the Shamu Show, whether here in the US or abroad.