TAMPA — After spending more than 30 years working at SeaWorld Entertainment parks across the country, Busch Gardens' newest park president, Stewart Clark, still wasn't prepared for the backlash he and his family faced after the release of the documentary, Blackfish.
Clark's wife, Kelly Flaherty Clark, a longtime animal trainer and spokeswoman at SeaWorld, was prominently featured defending SeaWorld in the documentary from 2013, which explored the controversy over captive killer whales and the death of a SeaWorld trainer.
"There were several very personal and demented attacks on my family," said Clark, who left his role as vice president of Discovery Cove to become park president of Busch Gardens and Adventure Island in Tampa on Jan. 16. "I told my kids this then and still tell them to this day: Hundreds of thousands of people come to our parks on any given day. They are the quiet supporters who don't want to engage in a fight on Twitter, but they're seeing first hand the great conservation and educational work we do."
Clark, 52, doesn't have much time to look back. He has a challenging path ahead — in helping bolster both Busch Gardens and his parent company. SeaWorld Entertainment, which operates Busch Gardens and Adventure Island, has struggled financially in recent years. Attendance has dropped significantly at SeaWorld Entertainment's Florida parks — down 547,000 visitors in 2016 — company officials said during an earnings call earlier this week.
Clark said the company doesn't share individual park attendance figures. However, new rides and attractions — including the recent opening of the Cobra's Curse roller coaster — have helped boost attendance at Busch Gardens Tampa.
SeaWorld announced earlier this year that it will end killer whale shows at its theme parks amid mounting consumer protests. Busch Gardens also closed the Jambo Junction section of the park late last year after a park guest manhandled a flamingo named Pinky, which ultimately led to the animal's death.
"Honestly I feel like the way people engage with the media and social media has changed so much just in the last six months with this past election," said Clark during an interview with the Times on Wednesday. "What we've done wrong is not share more of the good work we do. The people who work here are so passionate about helping animals. We're the group who's called as the last ditch effort to help save endangered species and rescue animals in need."
A spokesperson was quick to add that Busch Gardens has never faced the kind of backlash that SeaWorld parks have from the documentary.
As Busch Gardens' new chief, Clark hopes to continue to grow the park as a tourism driver for the Tampa Bay region. He said he wants Busch Gardens to be a leader in improving the area of Tampa around the park and strengthen the relationship with the nearby University of South Florida.
Clark said he was initially surprised at the success of Busch Gardens' annual events, like the upcoming Food & Wine Festival and concert series, and holiday-themed attractions like Howl-O-Scream and Christmas Town. So his plan is to find new ways to make them better.
"We want to drive events that resonate with people of all ages," Clark said. "What's different about Busch Gardens is that we have a little something for everyone. We're not just competing with other amusement parks, but for people's time in general. We're competing with the beach, ball games and the Renaissance fair. So we must stay top of mind."
While there are no announcements of another new ride just yet, Clark said the debut of Coba's Curse was an important one for Busch Gardens.
"It's a great family friendly ride that anyone can enjoy," Clark said. "We have small coasters that kids graduate from to Coba's Curse and then eventually can go on to our bigger coasters."
Clark is also taking a hard look at Busch Gardens' strategy for the next five to 10 years, but didn't have much to share yet.
"It's important that we remain forward thinking about what our guests will want," he said. "That starts with the little things, from making sure the bathrooms are clean to making parking as easy and as carefree as possible."
Clark began his career at the former SeaWorld location in Aurora, Ohio, where he worked part-time in the summer while he was in college. That's where he met his wife, who he says was much more passionate and determined to work with animals than he was. He too spent many years working with animals as a trainer at a variety of SeaWorld properties before landing at Discovery Cove, where he led the development of the park's interactive programs and animal exhibits.
Clark replaced Jim Dean as president of Busch Gardens. Dean left Tampa after six years to become park president of SeaWorld, Aquatica and Discovery Cove in Orlando last month.
Clark returns to Tampa and Busch Gardens after working here for a short time in the '90s. During that earlier stint, Clark said he played a role in instituting the dolphin and sea lion show, which ran at the park for 22 years. One of the original dolphins from the show is still alive and well in Orlando, he was happy to note.
"My wife and I just spent time with him recently," Clark said. "He's doing great."
Contact Justine Griffin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.