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Farewell, Shamu: Can SeaWorld reinvent itself in time without prancing orcas?

Construction of Mako, right, is near completion at SeaWorld. The roller coaster, the tallest and longest one in Orlando, will debut June 10.
Construction of Mako, right, is near completion at SeaWorld. The roller coaster, the tallest and longest one in Orlando, will debut June 10.
Published May 6, 2016

Will you really spend the admission price to visit SeaWorld sans Shamu?

An honest answer to that question may determine the shape of SeaWorld Entertainment's future as the publicly traded operator of 11 theme parks that include multiple SeaWorld locations, Busch Gardens in Tampa and Virginia, plus some lesser brand parks sprinkled across the country.

Business headlines this spring best tell the SeaWorld company's response to an energetic anti-captive orca campaign and the devastating Blackfish film to retire its belly-flopping, fluke waving Shamu brand:

•"SeaWorld CEO declares end to kissing, dancing for killer whales," says a Bloomberg story.

•"In the battle at SeaWorld, the whales have won," states New York magazine.

•"Shamu goes out with the tide," says Forbes.

After resisting pressures to do away with glitzy Shamu shows and orca breeding at its parks, SeaWorld recently raised the white flag. Orcas now at SeaWorld parks will remain but no more will be added, which means they will be phased out over the next few decades.

But starting immediately there will be no more orca dancing. No more killer whale kissing. No more Shamu posing. Instead, visitors will still see the orcas beach themselves and "other things killer whales do" in nature.

Will that keep the crowds coming? And how much will they be willing to pay for — in tourist terms — a lesser show?

The dramatic shift by SeaWorld is happening under the leadership of Joel Manby, the company's relatively new CEO who received $11 million in compensation last year.

Let's call Manby's actions theme park triage, an effort to transform SeaWorld's image rather than watch it sustain more damage.

Here's how Manby describes the "new" SeaWorld.

"Think of Discovery Channel, think of Nat Geo (National Geographic), think of a really good nature documentary that is educational but fascinating," Manby told Bloomberg in a recent interview. "It's entertaining because it's fascinating, not because they're jumping five at a time to wonderful scored music."

Okay. I get it. To a point. Shamu au naturel is certainly an impressive sight. Environmental stewardship is important and the right thing to do.

But watching a trainer stand like a unicorn's horn on an orca as it rushes through the water and leaps vertically into the air? Not long ago, that would have been called priceless. Now it's politically incorrect. Even Neanderthal.

That's a circus show climax. That's what would inspire Orlando tourists with massive theme park choices to add a SeaWorld visit after hitting Universal's mega hit Wizarding World of Harry Potter or Disney's Hollywood Studios where the coming Star Wars attraction is taking shape behind construction walls.

Manby's take-your-enviro-medicine plan runs a big risk. Led by SeaWorld, the company's combined theme parks last year attracted 22.5 million paying customers. How many will show up in the future to see something that's starting to sound a lot more like a nice zoo for sea creatures with a couple of rides? Orlando's SeaWorld will debut a shark-inspired ("tallest, fastest, longest") roller coaster called Mako in June, and Tampa's Busch Gardens is expected to unveil its Cobra's Curse ride shortly thereafter.

"The new vision for SeaWorld reflects changes in society," Hanby said. He may be right. SeaWorld closely follows Ringling Bros.' announcement that it is phasing out performing elephants in its circuses.

But does that vision mean tourists will pay a rich admission price to see it?

•••

The stock market and investors have not been kind to SeaWorld Entertainment since it was spun off by bigger companies in 2013 as a standalone company of theme parks. Shares peaked above $38 in May 2013 not long after the company's initial public offering.

The Blackfish documentary, which chronicled the death of a SeaWorld trainer of orcas, appeared in the same year, slowly generating a public outcry and political backlash (at least in California, where SeaWorld operates in San Diego).

SeaWorld shares drooped by the end of 2014 to just over $15. The stock has hovered mostly in the upper teens ever since.

On Thursday, SeaWorld Entertainment announced earnings for the first three months of 2016.

The good news? Companywide, attendance was 3.3 million, compared to 3.21 million in the first quarter of 2015. Total revenue was $220.2 million, compared to $214.6 million in the first quarter of 2015.

The bad news? The company lost $84 million, almost twice the $43.6 million lost in the first quarter of last year. Orlando's SeaWorld suffered the most, with lower visitor numbers due to a drop-off in international (mostly Brazilian) tourists and a decline in local pass holders who no longer received deep discounts.

"The evolution of the SeaWorld brand will not happen overnight," Manby told analysts on Thursday, "but we have taken the most important and significant first steps." He called SeaWorld a "company in transition."

Shares fell 5 percent Thursday, closing at $18.49.

On Thursday, Manby hinted again, as he did last fall, that SeaWorld in Orlando is repositioning itself as more of a family value park — one less inclined in the future to follow every admission price hike by nearby Disney or Universal parks.

Short term, Orlando's SeaWorld is offering a limited time pass for $69 until June 5. It's an enticement, Manby says, to encourage people to visit before the opening of the Mako roller coaster later in the month.

In the end, Manby and SeaWorld may have had little choice but to reinvent the ocean life theme parks to appeal to the next wave of more conservation-driven customers. The trick is that 3-year-old SeaWorld Entertainment needs time to tell its new story to consumers while convincing investors it is a worthy growth company.

Going forward Shamu-less? That's a high-wire balancing act by itself.

Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com. For more business opinion, follow @ venturetampabay on Twitter and like the Robert Trigaux page on Facebook.

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