Busch Gardens Tampa is 72 miles from SeaWorld Orlando. The local theme park does not have a killer whale anywhere on its 335 mostly dry acres. Nevertheless, the controversy surrounding its aquatic sister park just found its way across I-4.
On Thursday, musical acts Pat Benatar and the Beach Boys canceled upcoming appearances at Busch Gardens, part of a continued and substantial music fallout from 2013 documentary Blackfish.
That film focuses on a 12,000-pound bull orca named Tilikum, the notorious killer whale involved in several tragic events, including the death of veteran SeaWorld Orlando trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010.
Previously, nine bold-faced musical acts — including Willie Nelson, Trace Adkins, Martina McBride, Heart and Trisha Yearwood — had dropped out of SeaWorld Orlando's annual Bands, Brew & BBQ concert series, scheduled to start Feb. 1, all citing Blackfish. But Benatar and the Beach Boys are the first acts to ditch on Busch Gardens' same-titled event, which begins Feb. 8 and runs through March 9.
Both Busch Gardens and SeaWorld Orlando are run by SeaWorld Entertainment, which trades on the New York Stock Exchange. The company's shares rose 8.4 percent Thursday after Blackfish did not receive an Oscar nomination for best documentary, despite buzz that it would. It was the stock's biggest gain since its first day of trading in April.
SeaWorld Entertainment is expected to report a company record $1.46 billion in revenue for 2013 — even though the company spent most of that year under heavy fire from animal rights groups that think SeaWorld places killer whales in inhumane conditions. In Blackfish, Tilikum's behavior toward Brancheau — the whale violently dragged her underwater during a show for park guests called "Dine With Shamu" — is attributed to a lifetime of captivity.
On their website, Benatar and husband Neil "Spyder" Giraldo issued a statement: "It has come to our attention that Busch Gardens is an affiliate of SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment. In light of this we have opted to cancel our … performance at Busch Gardens in Tampa."
Facebook pages for both Benatar and the Beach Boys have turned into churning hotbeds of cheers and jeers, with hundreds of people engaged in debate.
On Benatar's page: "I like zoos, my children and family like zoos and if you don't like zoos don't book a show there only to cancel on your fans! It's a stupid political stunt you have pulled and as a long (time) fan I now hate you!"
On the Beach Boys' page: "Thank you for taking a stand for what's right, no matter the cost. Your true fans will come see you at another location happily."
Despite the controversy, Busch Gardens said its version of Bands, Brew & BBQ is a go.
"We're disappointed that there is a media controversy enacted by animal activists based on misinformation," said Travis Claytor, a park spokesman for Busch Gardens Tampa. "Bands, Brew & BBQ will continue. Closer to the event, the … fans who come out to our event each year will be made aware of who's coming."
Neither Busch Gardens nor SeaWorld have released formal schedules for their respective food-and-music parties. But Claytor promised that at the Tampa park, "there will be live music on Gwazi Field every single day of the event."
SeaWorld, this year embarking on a 50th anniversary celebration, doesn't seem to be letting pressure from animal rights group get to it, either:
On Wednesday, three SeaWorld parks, in Orlando, San Diego and San Antonio, Texas, announced plans to launch a new killer whale show this summer, replacing a previous show called "Shamu Rocks."
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.