ORLANDO – “See how he uses his tail to swim really fast?” a dolphin trainer at SeaWorld told the crowd. “He uses his powerful muscular peduncle to help him jump really high. Want to see him jump really high?”
The trainer, Ashley Orcutt, taught a volunteer to point at the water and make a check-mark sign to signal Tiger, the dolphin, to leap. The crowd roared as the animal soared.
The new dolphin show is one of many changes the company is making, along with an end to orca breeding. It’s also indicative of SeaWorld’s identity crisis. Built on Shamu’s image, it will have no killer whales in a few decades.
The public is losing its taste for performing animals. Just as the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus saw dwindling crowds disappear after it retired performing elephants, SeaWorld’s shift has yet to shore up needed goodwill.
Last week, the company reported a second-quarter loss of $175.9 million. SeaWorld’s stock has fallen 28 percent since the beginning of the year.
It has been a rough ride since the 2013 documentary “Blackfish” questioned the park’s handling of killer whales, especially the orca Tilikum that killed a trainer in 2010. Meanwhile, deep-pocketed rivals at Disney and Universal open blockbuster attractions every year.
“There are changing public sentiments and I think people are much more aware of animal welfare issues and much more sensitive to them,” said Joel Manby, hired as CEO in 2015 to turn the company around. “Our goal at SeaWorld is to go along with that changing sentiment and be the leaders in what we call the Blue Planet. We have been the leading rescue organization in the world for a long time, but people don’t know that.”
SeaWorld partnered with the Humane Society in 2016 to move away from its signature shows and use more humane sources for food served in parks. The company also stepped up advocacy, urging Japan to end its dolphin hunts and commercial whaling.
Enlightened consumers, wrote Humane Society CEO Wayne Pacelle in his book “The Humane Economy,” are forcing food companies and the entertainment industry to be kinder to animals. You can’t find an animal act like Siegfried and Roy anymore in Las Vegas, and McDonald’s is switching to cage-free eggs.
Pacelle stood by him when Manby said that SeaWorld would no longer breed killer whales in captivity. By 2050, the current population of orcas will likely be gone at SeaWorld. After the announcement, the company’s stock shot up 14 percent. That’s been followed, though, by flat or declining attendance at SeaWorld Entertainment’s 12 parks.
“Our whole relationship with animals continues to change and change pretty rapidly,” said Bob Boyd, who analyzes theme parks for Pacific Asset Management. He expects to see zoos and animal attractions become filled with rescue animals, not those bred for our entertainment.
Manby said that Disney’s Animal Kingdom, or Tampa’s Busch Gardens, a SeaWorld property and the company’s best asset, are closer to the model for SeaWorld’s future.
At SeaWorld, Manby envisions an ocean-themed attraction with shows and roller coasters, but without animal performances as its centerpiece. The performance-based orca shows in Orlando are set to change in 2019.
“We have to entertain people for four to six hours and there will be plenty to do,” Manby said. “I wouldn’t want to be needing killer whales to survive in this [business] environment 50 years from now.”
Thanks to Harry Potter, Universal now rakes in a whopping 25 percent of the Orlando theme park market share, compared to 16 percent in 2009 before any Potter-themed attractions opened.
SeaWorld ranked 12th in attendance globally with 4.4 million guests in 2009, just before the dawn of Harry Potter and the Tilikum incident. Since then, it has fallen to 25th.
SeaWorld has tried to tune up its rides. It opened Mako, Florida’s first hyper coaster with a 200-foot drop, in June 2016. And this summer it brought the first virtual reality addition to a Florida theme park, adding goggles to 18-year-old coaster Kraken.