After years of pressure and sagging attendance, SeaWorld is moving away from Shamu and its signature killer whales.
In a stunning reversal of a long-held business model, SeaWorld executives announced Thursday that the park is ending its practice of killer whale breeding and theatrical shows.
"Society is changing and we're changing with it," said CEO Joel Manby in a news conference Thursday morning alongside the head of the Humane Society.
The changes won't be felt in Florida until 2019, the company said. They will start in the San Diego park next year, followed by San Antonio and then Orlando. The current population of 29 killer whales at four parks, including the pregnant Takara, will live out their lives at SeaWorld. It could be decades before the last orca is gone.
The old-fashioned killer whale performances may feel as out of date as shag rugs and lava lamps to some guests. But there was also a darker undertone leading to the decision.
In Orlando in 2012, a killer whale named Tilikum grabbed trainer Dawn Brancheau after a "Dine with Shamu" show. The whale pulled her into the pool, killing her. The death was the center of the 2013 documentary Blackfish, which showed that Tilikum was also involved in the deaths of two other people. Filmmakers questioned whether such animals should ever be captive.
Tilikum is now very sick. He has been at SeaWorld Orlando for 23 years.
SeaWorld has struggled financially since backlash from Blackfish sunk the company's attendance and stock price. It lost sponsorships and even saw a series of concert cancellations in 2014 at SeaWorld and sister park Busch Gardens in Tampa. Musicians like Pat Benatar and the Beach Boys who were outraged by Blackfish pulled out of their commitments.
SeaWorld isn't the only entertainment company feeling pressure over animal welfare.
The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, headquartered in Ellenton, announced last year that it would no longer battle local laws that ban tools like bull hooks used to manage the elephants. The circus plans to move all 13 elephants to a conservation center in Florida in May, a year and a half sooner than first anticipated.
"You can't find an animal act in Vegas anymore," said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society, who appeared alongside Manby Thursday. He called the orca breeding decision a "game-changing commitment."
SeaWorld's change in direction was brought about by Manby, who took over at SeaWorld Entertainment one year ago. In November, he revealed a turnaround plan for SeaWorld that included phasing out theatrical shows in San Diego only, where the controversy has been most heated.
The Humane Society said the changes to shows are a good first step, but there are still debates to have about what a more natural experience means, Pacelle said.
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Orcas will still be involved in educational shows, Manby said.
"But you don't need these theatrical tricks."
"My heart fell when I heard this news," said Clint Gamache, 32, of Orlando.
A roller coaster fan who started the Thrill Geek blog as a side hobby three years ago, Gamache said he visits SeaWorld monthly, sometimes weekly.
"When you hear SeaWorld, you immediately think Shamu, killer whale," Gamache said. "Every Shamu show I went to, the stadiums were filled to capacity."
He worries this business decision could mean the end of other favorite performances such as the Blue Horizons dolphin show.
The fate of other SeaWorld shows, such as the dolphin shows or comic Clyde and Seymour sea lion show, remains to be seen.
"We are definitely going to look at how this executes and will apply those learnings to the other parks..." Manby said. "So stay tuned on that. I want to do what the guests want to do."
Without whale performances, SeaWorld must distinguish itself from the glut of other theme park options on the market. Manby pointed to Busch Gardens as a model of mixing animals in a zoo-like setting with thrill rides.
He singled out SeaWorld's Mako, the new roller coaster opening in Orlando this summer. It will be Florida's largest, fastest and highest roller coaster in a shark-themed setting.
The 200-foot-tall hyper coaster will reach 73 mph along a nearly a mile-long track. It will be set in a shark-themed plaza and include a Shark Encounter, Sharks Underwater Grill, shops and educational experiences.
"In general, our most well-rounded are the Busch parks," Manby said. "As you are trying to attract and keep a family all day long you have to have the rides in there."
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals urged SeaWorld Thursday to assess the orcas to see if some can be released into sanctuaries or the wild.
Manby and Pacelle differed somewhat on this issue, though they both agreed that no orca or dolphin that was born under human captivity has been successfully released into the wild.
All but four of SeaWorld's killer whales were born under human care. And those that were captured were taken more than 30 years ago.
On returning animals to sanctuaries or the wild, Pacelle said the Humane Society, "doesn't close the door on it forever," but the details in this case make it difficult.
Manby stressed that with a clearer mission for the company that includes animal welfare and advocating an end to commercial whaling, seal hunting and shark finning, keeping the orcas is in the animals's best interest.
"For me, frankly, it would be easier from a PR perspective," to release them, Manby said. "But if we did that and it failed ... it would be on us."
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.