Make us your home page

Will Oscar snub save SeaWorld, Busch Gardens investors?

Who knew a snub by the Academy Awards would draw high fives at SeaWorld and Busch Gardens?

On Thursday, shares in publicly traded SeaWorld Entertainment Inc., the Orlando-based owner of SeaWorld and Busch Garden theme parks, rose a healthy 8.4 percent. Analysts credited the big bump to the surprise failure of the heavily promoted Blackfish documentary, so critical of the theme-park operator's treatment of captive killer whales, to win an Oscar nomination.

Talk about an odd business intersection of investors and animal activists.

A corporation that runs major Central Florida theme parks presumably will profit from less bad publicity now that a film, bought by and aired on CNN in October, will be left out of the spotlight leading up to the Academy Awards on March 2.

Analyst Timothy Conder at Wells Fargo Securities said investors "overwhelmingly" expected the documentary to receive an Oscar nomination. Its failure to do so removed an overhang on the theme parks' stock. Conder has an outperform rating on SeaWorld Entertainment shares.

Unfamiliar with Blackfish? The anti-Shamu documentary film premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival one year ago today. It tells the story of SeaWorld's 12,500-pound Tilikum, the largest bull orca anywhere in captivity. And it explores its role in the deaths of trainers at different sea parks, especially the grisly 2010 death in Orlando of veteran SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau.

The movie's message? It's dangerous and inhumane to keep orcas in captivity, and SeaWorld's heavy corporate spin of Brancheau's death was misleading and self-serving.

By coincidence this same week, SeaWorld chief executive officer Jim Atchison — a familiar name at Busch Gardens Tampa where he used to work — celebrated SeaWorld's 50th anniversary by visiting the New York Stock Exchange.

"We have great issue with the film," he told Bloomberg TV. "We don't agree with the premise of the film. It is an activist-driven agenda film."

Atchison was quick to point out that SeaWorld Entertainment just reported record fourth quarter and annual results. Attendance at the SeaWorld parks hit an all-time high in the fourth quarter. The company expects record annual revenues when its books close in March.

• • •

SeaWorld Entertainment went public last April, its stock approaching a peak of nearly $40 a share by early summer.

Blackfish was released in July.

To counter the film's buzz, SeaWorld adopted an aggressive campaign. It was encouraged by SeaWorld's majority owner, investment firm Blackstone Group, which was anxious to protect its recent theme park spin-off.

With guidance from public relations consultants 42West, SeaWorld sent critiques of the film to 50 critics considered likely to review Blackfish. The film's producers returned fire, rebutting SeaWorld. And SeaWorld responded by making its executives and animal caretakers available for interviews to debunk the film's claims that captive killer whales can exhibit psychotic and potentially dangerous behavior.

By documentary standards Blackfish has reached a wide audience, largely thanks to CNN. The film is compelling and often emotional, rich with disturbing footage of captive killer whales at multiple sea parks in this country and abroad involved in life-threatening actions with their trainers. SeaWorld complains that some of that footage, plus selective portions of testimony by its theme park employees, is misrepresented by the film.

By late August, company shares had dropped under $30.

Shares closed Friday at $33.25, buoyed by investors hopeful the lack of an Oscar nomination will soon backburner Blackfish. SeaWorld Entertainment shares, though, remain well below their initial highs.

While Oscar hype might have re-energized Blackfish, its influence on SeaWorld Entertainment is hardly over. Responding to activists and Blackfish fans, scheduled musical acts from Willie Nelson to Heart at Orlando's SeaWorld and Pat Benatar and the Beach Boys at Tampa's Busch Gardens have canceled their shows.

• • •

The orca protest also targets some of SeaWorld's "corporate partners" like Coca-Cola and Southwest Airlines that have marketing agreements to pitch their brands with the theme park company.

Southwest says it is keeping its ties with SeaWorld. On Jan. 8, the airline explained on its website blog.

"We have a longstanding relationship with SeaWorld that is based on travel and bringing families together," wrote Southwest's Marilee McInnis, senior manager of culture and communications. "We are engaged with SeaWorld related to the recent concerns being raised. We are in a listening and education mode with the goal of upholding our commitments as a good corporate citizen."

So far, that blog post has spurred more than 100 online comments. Most are critical of Southwest's unwillingness to end its relationship with SeaWorld. A few applaud the airline for not being bullied.

Some comments are more thoughtful. "There's a very sticky ethical question about whether orcas should be kept in captivity at all much less be put into shows," states one. "I hope to see this dialogue continue and hope that Southwest and their employees look at this as a long-term ethical issue and not a short-term bottom line decision."

How much of this fight between Blackfish and SeaWorld — and by common ownership, Busch Gardens — is reaching the general theme park visitor?

SeaWorld is trumpeting strong theme park attendance as evidence that the film has persuaded few visitors to stop coming. But SeaWorld also began offering lower admission prices and more deals to entice visitors.

Following price hikes by Universal Orlando and Disney, SeaWorld Orlando raised its one-day admission to $92 for adults and $84 for children in June.

Later in 2013, it dropped those prices to $82 for adults and $77 for kids. Now, for $92 and $87, respectively, adults and children can get yearlong admission tickets.

For now, SeaWorld visitors can thank Blackfish for at least part of the cheaper admission.

But long run, the film may bring more substantive changes to the world of Shamu.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at

SeaWorld Entertainment Inc.


Spun off as public company by owner Blackstone Group, which still holds a majority stake. Formerly part of Anheuser Busch.

Trading symbol

SEAS on New York Stock Exchange.


Three SeaWorld parks in the United States, including Orlando, San Antonio, Texas, and the original in San Diego. Also two Busch Gardens parks: the original in Tampa, and a second in Williamsburg, Va. And Sesame Place theme park based on Sesame Street TV show in Langhorne, Pa. Five water parks including Adventure Island in Tampa.

Market value

$3 billion.


Jim Atchison, former president of Busch Entertainment Corp., a past vice president at Tampa's Busch Gardens and a USF graduate.


(Last 12 months)

23.5 million.


(Last 12 months)

$1.45 billion.

Will Oscar snub save SeaWorld, Busch Gardens investors? 01/17/14 [Last modified: Saturday, January 18, 2014 9:54pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Memorial Day sales not enough to draw shoppers to Tampa Bay malls


    TAMPA — Memorial Day sales at Tampa Bay area malls were not enough to compete with the beach and backyard barbecues this holiday weekend.

    Memorial Day sales weren't enough to draw shoppers to Tampa Bay area malls over the long weekend. 
  2. Austin software company acquires second Tampa business


    Austin, Tex.-based Asure Software acquired Tampa's Compass HRM Inc. late last week for $6 million. Compass focuses on HR and payroll.

    [Company photo]
  3. Hackers hide cyberattacks in social media posts


    SAN FRANCISCO — It took only one attempt for Russian hackers to make their way into the computer of a Pentagon official. But the attack didn't come through an email or a file buried within a seemingly innocuous document.

    Jay Kaplan and Mark Kuhr, former NSA employees and co-founders of Synack, a cybersecurity company, in their office in Palo Alto, Calif., in 2013. While last year's hacking of senior Democratic Party officials raised awareness of the damage caused if just a handful of employees click on the wrong emails, few people realize that a message on Twitter or Facebook could give an attacker similar access to their system. 
[New York Times file photo]
  4. Big rents and changing tastes drive dives off St. Pete's 600 block

    Music & Concerts

    ST. PETERSBURG — Kendra Marolf was behind the lobby bar of the State Theatre, pouring vodka sodas for a weeknight crowd packed tight for Bishop Briggs, the latest alternative artist to sell out her club.

    Sam Picciano, 25, left, of Tampa and Molly Cord 24, Palm Harbor shop for record albums for a friend at Daddy Kool Records located on the 600 block of Central Avenue in St. Petersburg, Florida on Saturday, May 20, 2017. OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times
  5. How Hollywood is giving its biggest stars digital facelifts


    LOS ANGELES — Johnny Depp is 53 years old but he doesn't look a day over 26 in the new "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie — at least for a few moments. There was no plastic surgeon involved, heavy makeup or archival footage used to take the actor back to his boyish "Cry Baby" face, however. It's all …

    This combination of photos released by Disney, shows the character Jack Sparrow at two stages of his life in "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales."  Johnny Depp, who portrays the character, is the latest mega-star to get the drastic de-aging treatment on screen
[Disney via Associated Press]