Home » 3 Reasons Why SeaWorld Orlando is Facing Disaster (and How it May Try to Recover)

3 Reasons Why SeaWorld Orlando is Facing Disaster (and How it May Try to Recover)

Let’s face it. 2014 was a disastrous year for SeaWorld Parks. Does this simple change signal a new direction? While the company owns a few water parks, family parks, and the two Busch Gardens adventure parks, it derived its name from its most (in)famous asset. Indeed, over the course of the last 18 months, SeaWorld has taken a veritable swan dive from a beloved American family park to an ostracized and demonized institution, in the eyes of many no better than a prison-bars-and-concrete zoo.

It was a long way down. Faced with mounting sour press in the wake of the infamous Blackfish documentary and an ineffective silence to combat it, SeaWorld (pardon the pun) floundered. A number of strategic angles seemed only to further embroil SeaWorld in controversy. But their strategy may be about to change.

How did we get here? Let’s look at the reasons behind SeaWorld’s dreadful 2014.

1. The fall

The well-known 2013 Blackfish is a documentary (though not an unbiased one) that investigates the 2010 death of SeaWorld’s orca trainer Dawn Brancheau. Brancheau was tragically killed by Tilikum, one of the largest whales in SeaWorld’s arsenal with a history of aggressive behavior, which we reported on immediately after it happened. The documentary expands on Tilikum’s aggression to speak to the larger issue of orca captivity and the moral implications of keeping such highly intelligent creatures locked in small pools.

When the documentary came to CNN, it hit big. Everyone seemed to have an opinion on SeaWorld and its orcas; public opinion seemed to condemn the conditions that SeaWorld imposed on the whales, and heated vows to never step foot into a SeaWorld park ever again were commonplace. Blackfish became water-cooler discussion, and SeaWorld instantly lost its recognition as a tried-and-true American pop culture experience. 

SeaWorld’s response? Nothing.

It’s a common tactic in public relations. Businesses embroiled in controversy (especially controversy emerging from grassroots efforts) are usually best to stay quiet. If SeaWorld dared utter the word Blackfish, it would only draw more attention to the film.

But at some point, the fire grew too big. SeaWorld’s silent resistance had lasted too long amid increasingly vocal Blackfish supporters.  Everyone knew about Blackfish. Ignoring it was no longer helping. It might have read as guilt… even fear. SeaWorld was cast as a heartless company imprisoning animals who had nothing to say to even try to defend themselves.

2. Too little, too late

When the company finally did respond to the Blackfish scandal, it may have been too late. Their response was to focus their marketing and communication entirely on their (admittedly renowed) wildlife protection and conservation efforts and refute Blackfish’s claims one at a time. SeaWorld does rehabilitate and release lots of animals every single year. Even Blackfish didn’t argue that. In fact, Blackfish never made the assertion that SeaWorld was a poor zoological park. It’s not. On the spectrum of zoos, SeaWorld would rank among the best in most every regard. Blackfish only criticized SeaWorld’s orca captivity and program, not the rest of the park.

So SeaWorld’s eventual response was to remind everyone that their first encounter with a dolphin was at SeaWorld; that they might not even know what a sea lion was if they hadn’t come to SeaWorld as a kid; and that SeaWorld builds expansive and beautiful habitats for manatees and seals and bears and sharks – all true!

But the message was lost on those who prescribed fully to Blackfish’s lean. For them, it was too late. Those people had expanded upon Blackfish’s thesis, deeming the entire SeaWorld an abhorrent organization and vowing to never go near a SeaWorld (probably, we can humorously imagine, deciding to spend time at their local zoo instead).

3. The competition is too good…and getting better 

Even for those who were willing to hear SeaWorld out, the problem remained: even a really nice zoo can’t compete in the Orlando market… or reasonably charge admission prices that SeaWorld does. “A zoo is great, but why should I take a day out of my Universal Orlando vacation to come to a zoo when I have one of those back home?” Even if SeaWorld is twice as nice as one’s local zoo, does it warrant $65 admission for each member of the family?

The focus on conversation might have won over folks on the fence or those willing to truly look into the topic (instead of relying entirely upon the evidence presented in a very far leaning “documentary”), but it didn’t reenergize SeaWorld’s attendance, and it definitely didn’t stabilize revenues or internal politics.

But SeaWorld Orlando – the chain’s flagship park – might just be setting the stage for a new strategy. The park map details something that not many folks notice: seven themed lands that could be leveraged to build a new identity for the park. SeaWorld may be prepared to distance itself from its “zoo” marketing and re-emerge as a contender in the Orlando theme park market.

Is it too late? Read on for some signs of how SeaWorld plans to redefine itself…

A recovery strategy?

SeaWorld truly is an odd duck of a place. Equal parts amusement park, theme park, and zoological park, it holds an unusual spot in the Orlando line-up. It’s got animal exhibits scattered around a few lightly themed areas, some highly themed areas, and some spots that seem like they’re from a Cedar Fair park. That’s because SeaWorld bends to fit the trends of the local Orlando competition while also maximizing its animal exhibits and bending to the will of various ever-changing owners. 

The result is that it doesn’t match Disney’s storytelling and characters or Universal’s theme and thrills. There’s no beloved character to see or place to visit. It’s not the same as walking into Jurassic Park or Cars Land. SeaWorld is in a perpetual game of catch-up. Predictably following Universal’s Wizarding World and Disney’s New Fantasyland, SeaWorld tried their hand (or, fin?) at a highly immersive little area called Antarctica (unfortunately anchored by an attraction that is seriously lacking). But the park is not united in one identity or consistent quality like Disney or Universal’s parks.

But maybe SeaWorld’s got the key to changing that.

The Seven Seas

While the park has had a few lightly themed areas scattered around, they may be sitting on a potential key to changing the rides. SeaWorld’s map points toward its commitment to unifying its park that it just hasn’t acted on… yet.

Like Islands of Adventure’s eight themed “Islands” or Epcot’s six pavilions, SeaWorld has divided its park into seven themed “Seas.” The change actually occurred over a year ago (as reflected in our SeaWorld Orlando guide), but few visitors will have noticed much of a difference.

Granted, the actual level of theming hasn’t changed since the “Seven Seas” districting strategy. But consider that this could be a thesis statement. SeaWorld has subdivided its real estate, re-grouping attractions and delivering one consistent message: you can experience the sea in lots of different ways.

Guests enter SeaWorld through the aptly named Port of Entry and disperse into the Seven Seas. The Sea of Shallows features creatures that inhabit shallow beach environments… this includes Dolphin Cove, Turtle Trek, the flamingo exhibit, and of course, Manta and its associated aquarium. Is it a brilliant coincidence that all of the shallow-water animals happen to be in the same section of the park? I guess!

Next is the Sea of Ice – strangely intriguing a name for the area previously referred to as Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin (which, more appropriately, is the name of the headlining ride within the area). Nearby is the Sea of Legends, encompassing the park’s two rides that bring ancient sea stories to life: Journey to Atlantis and Kraken. Both are united in the same ancient-ruins style and look, and just a little bit more “oomph” would make the Sea of Legends area Universal-quality.

The other side of the park is made of the Sea of Delight (previously the whimsical seaside port called The Waterfront) and features the Sea Lion & Otter Theatre, Pearl Diving, and the Sky Tower while the Sea of Mystery contains Shark Encounter and whatever aptly-mysterious program might be placed into the recently vacated Nautilus Theatre.

Lastly there’s the Sea of Fun (containing Shamu’s Happy Harbor) and the Sea of Power, home to the Shamu Stadium and the motion-simulator Wild Arctic (which empties into a polar exhibit featuring beluga whales and polar bears).

What does it mean?

Is SeaWorld down for the count? Truthfully, we don’t know. Their announcement of the Blue World Project was a sweeping and monumental initiative that will systematically rebuild their orcas enclosures to be deeper, broader, larger, more engaging, and more along the lines of what a world class zoo is expected to have.

However, the move was read as an admission of guilt by bystanders and did not resonate as a shining and benevolent move as many hopes. It seems that those who already made their choice (informed or otherwise) are sticking by it regardless of what SeaWorld does. The Blue World Project is probably the biggest expense SeaWorld has ever undertaken, but it didn’t win over critics… Does that prove that SeaWorld should stop fighting to win over those who have already made their decision?

SeaWorld’s CEO Jim Atchison just stepped down (possibly against his wishes) in a move that’s widely seen as a good one – a chance for SeaWorld to regroup, rebrand, and re-energize with new strategies. This could be the start. It’s simple, yes. But it’s purposeful. For the first time in a long time, SeaWorld has loosened its stranglehold on the marketing that argues that it’s a really, really good zoo. The company clearly took the time and energy to rearrange its Orlando park around a new thesis statement that it can now act upon…but it needs to go further than a simple renaming.

Shallows, Ice, Legends, Delight, Mystery, Fun, and Power. Each of those words can be used to conjure different images of the same seas, and can be used to group animal exhibits, attractions, stories, and settings into succinct and obvious lands. 

The message that those themed lands send to guests is simple: SeaWorld is a fun theme park that deserves a day of your vacation just like Universal or Disney. Sure, it’s got animals. But it’s more than a zoo. Explore the Seven Seas! Sure you can learn, but you can also adventure. You can meet animals. You can ride rides. But at SeaWorld, you can experience the legends of the sea, and the mystery of life under the waves, and the fun of exploration, and the power of some of the predators of the ocean. The seas may be delightful, but they’re also mysterious. It’s no accident. This is not the world’s most costly zoo anymore. A new strategy and new themed lands.


Again – does this new interpretation of SeaWorld’s layout solve the company’s problems? No. It’s not even really a start. But it could show a purposeful new direction. It plays up SeaWorld’s identity as a theme park (which it very well ought to be if it wants people to pay $65.00 to get in). It could be the beginning of a new in-park identity that more closely aligns it with Universal’s themed Islands or Disney’s themed lands. It’s something.

The Seven Seas of SeaWorld could be the heart of a refresh; new marketing for a new identity. SeaWorld has lost a lot. It will undoubtedly continue to limp as its bruised, deflated system reels from layoffs, management switches, and unfortunate low-cost, high-return additions that betray the parks’ history (see Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s still-unannounced-yet-completely-constructed new roller coaster for 2015, reportedly to feature motocross daredevil theming… in the antique, historical European themed park). 

Redefining a park’s themed lands won’t fix it or even come close. But at least at SeaWorld Orlando, the pieces are laid for a deliberate shift.

What do you think? Do you like the new concept of SeaWorld Orlando’s Seven Seas? Do you believe that the park should play up its themed lands and develop them into Disney or Universal style areas? Should SeaWorld market itself as a theme park with themed lands, or focus on its identity as a zoo?