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...