You don't exactly have to be an industry insider to know that SeaWorld hasn't exactly been having a great decade. Likewise, you probably already know what caused the park chain's pivot ten years ago: the 2013 documentary Blackfish.
Though many animal care experts rebut the film's more dubious claims about SeaWorld and its care of orcas, there's no denying that Blackfish turned Shamu from a widely-recognized cultural icon to a flashpoint, causing SeaWorld to announce in 2016 that it would end its breeding program, ensuring that its current whales would be its last.
For the last ten years, SeaWorld (which also owned Busch Gardens, Sesame Place, Aquatica, and Discovery Cove) has been on its own spiritual journey, working to refocus is messaging from animals to broader conservation. It's been rough, with years of distressing financial results, disappointing cuts to entertainment, and desperate moves (like a very irritating 5% surcharge automatically added to every purchase in the parks). SeaWorld's three parks (in San Diego, San Antonio, and Orlando) have pivoted from animals to thrills, hoping to carve out a niche as coaster parks.
So even as SeaWorld parks feel like they're on an upward trajectory after a long downswing, it's a weird time to say that a brand new SeaWorld just opened... and it might be the most impressive we've seen in a very long time...
SeaWorld Abu Dhabi
The only thing that makes less sense than a new SeaWorld is its location: smack dab in the scorching desert of the United Arab Emirates. We explored the industry's jump to the Middle East in our look at the new SeaWorld's neighbor, Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi. Long story short, powered by the bottomless cash of the oil industry, countries on the Persian Gulf have set their sights on major entertainment brands as ways to soften their image and artificially create an industry of tourism.
In fact, this new SeaWorld is the first to not be owned or operated by SeaWorld Parks at all. Instead, SeaWorld simply licenses its name and brands to a UAE real estate developer and asset managing company called Miral – the developers of the larger Yas Island entertainment complex that SeaWorld, Warner Bros. World, Yas Waterworld, and Ferrari World (home of the world's fastest roller coaster) are a part of. SeaWorld Abu Dhabi is the first SeaWorld to not have orcas at all. But when it opened in May 2023, visitors found that it had a whole lot more...
SeaWorld Abu Dhabi isn't just an aquarium, and it isn't just a theme park. Instead, it's a stunning, multimedia, larger-than-life experience. The park is divided into several themed zones:
- One Ocean is the park's hub; a 360-degree, continuous, seamless, 720-foot-long, 45-foot tall wraparound projection zone (above) with portals to the other lands;
- Abu Dhabi Ocean, the park's ode to local ecology and the architecture, geology, and culture of the Persian Gulf;
- Polar Ocean, a land with separate, immersive villages themed to the Arctic and Antarctica and containing the "Hypersphere" attraction – a seamless 360-degree projection ride;
- Microocean, a land themed to the ocean's smallest occupants like plankton, tiny jellyfish, and more. It also contains the park's kiddie coaster, "Eel Racer," which darts through the glowing, oversized, deep ocean entertainment in a frantic tour of the land;
- Tropical Ocean, featuring the multi-launch Manta that soars through shipwrecks in the adjacent outdoor desert, and...
- Endless Ocean, the park's iconic deep sea base aquarium – the largest in the world – containing 68,000 individual sea creatures. The multi-level zone includes various caves, tunnels, decks, and vantage points into the 65 foot deep space, which contains 6.6 million gallons of water.
Given the state of SeaWorld's parks back in the U.S., it might be shocking to see that not only has a new SeaWorld park opened, but that it's got all the theming, entertainment, and atmosphere you expect of a Disney Park. Yet here we are, with another astounding awesome theme park in Abu Dhabi... Paired with Warner Bros.World and Ferrari World (home of the world's "most immersive coaster" and the current fastest coaster) as well as promises of Falcon's Flight – the world's new tallest and fastest roller coaster – coming to Saudi Arabia next door, it's clear that the Middle East's push to become an entertainment capital of the world is ongoing...
Until then, is SeaWorld Abu Dhabi on your bucket list? What do you think about this next generation, all-indoor SeaWorld park? And for that matter, what can U.S. SeaWorlds learn from this 21st century reimagining?