Despite the relentless protests, the bad press and the plummeting attendance, SeaWorld is staying in the Shamu business.
On Monday, the theme park company launched the first phase of an aggressive marketing campaign that touts how much it loves and cares for its trademark killer whales — and how much it vigorously disagrees with myriad detractors.
SeaWorld Entertainment, the parent company of Busch Gardens Tampa, saw attendance decline by 1 million visitors in 2014 in its 11 parks. That's a drop many attribute to the 2013 documentary Blackfish, which focused on disturbing behavioral issues of captive orcas, including Tilikum, the 12,000-pound whale that killed trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010 at SeaWorld Orlando. In the last quarter, the company recorded a $25.4 million loss.
"There's been a lot of misinformation and even lies spread about SeaWorld, and we recognize that it has caused some people to have questions about the welfare of killer whales in human care," David D'Alessandro, chairman and interim chief executive officer, said in a statement. "This long-term campaign will address those questions head on."
With new CEO Joel Manby taking the helm April 7 — he previously ran Dollywood and the Harlem Globetrotters — the aquatic-themed company will aggressively punch back at detractors, one of the most vociferous being PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which says captive killer whales have a much shorter life span.
"FACT: Whales live as long at SeaWorld" is the title of one of the print and TV ads. It stars Dr. Chris Dold, a veterinarian at SeaWorld. The various ads — another focuses on sea lions — will run in national periodicals, including the Tampa Bay Times; the TV spots will air on Bravo, Fox, CNN and MSNBC, as well as during network talk shows.
In Dold's ad, he directly confronts the people who have been confronting SeaWorld. "There's no other way to say it … PETA is not giving you the facts. SeaWorld has several killer whales in their 30s and one that is close to 50 — right in line with what is seen in the wild. … Just like doctors, we veterinarians take an oath. If PETA's accusations were true, I wouldn't work here."
Lisa Lange, PETA's senior vice president, shot back with a statement saying the new SeaWorld CEO needs to change with the times, much like Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus did when it announced earlier this month that it would remove elephants from its shows.
"Anyone who goes into SeaWorld without a plan to release the orcas and other animals held captive is going to sink with this sinking ship," Lange said in her statement. "As Ringling Bros. circus explained in citing its reason for retiring its elephant acts, 'There's been, on the part of our consumers, a mood shift.' The public has spoken, and they're against animal abuse. Orcas belong in the ocean with their families, not in small concrete tanks, swimming in endless circles for years on end," Lange said.
Whether SeaWorld's we're-not-changing approach — one that will focus on the 1,500 animal-care experts in the company — will have more visitors pushing through the turnstiles remains to be seen.
"I think this is a positive step in the right direction, but it's going to take time," said Dennis Speigel, an analyst with International Theme Park Services. "I've been saying this for years: They have to get out there and talk about the stories and positive things they do for killer whales and sea otters and turtles. This isn't going to be an easy fix, though. It's going to take three to five years. First, you have to correct the flow, stabilize it and then get it on the right path."
Speigel, who thinks SeaWorld should "de-emphasize killer whales but still protect that franchise," said new CEO Manby "has his work cut out for him."
But Manby, with his background, might just be the right guy for the job, others said.
"Say what you will about Dolly Parton, she is a master at publicity and public relations," Robert Niles, editor of Theme Park Insider, a website that covers the attractions industry, told the Orlando Sentinel. "Anyone who manages to work for her for any amount of time is going to learn something about that business, about dealing with the public."
Information from the Orlando Sentinel and U-T San Diego was used in this report. Contact Sean Daly at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife.