On Monday, SeaWorld announced that changes would be coming to the company’s struggling San Diego theme park — beginning next year, the park will no longer feature the company’s signature killer whale show, which many have held up as an example of the park’s poor treatment of its captive orcas.
According to the San Diego Tribune, the changes were announced as part of the company’s comprehensive strategy, unveiled to senior executives on Monday. Instead of the live killer whale shows, SeaWorld plans to create a “new orca experience debuting in 2017” that will be more “informative,” take place in a more natural setting, and carry a strong conservation message.
The announcement comes as the park struggles to attract visitors — in 2014, the California park’s attendance fell by 12 percent, making it the worst-performing Top 20 theme park in North America. Following disappointing third-quarter results on Thursday, the company’s stock fell 9 percent. And, to compound the company’s troubles, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) announced on Friday that he is planning on introducing a bill that would ban breeding, wild capture, and import or export of orcas for the purpose of public shows. In early October, the California Coastal Commission approved SeaWorld’s request to expand the size of its killer whale habitat in the San Diego park, but stipulated that the company could no longer breed any of the 11 orcas currently held in captivity at the park.
The company has struggled to attract visitors and garner public favor since the 2013 release of Blackfish, a critically-acclaimed documentary that alleged mistreatment of the park’s killer whales. It also highlighted the dangers faced by the park’s trainers, telling the story of the 2010 death of trainer Dawn Branchaeu, who was killed by a captive orca named Tilikum. SeaWorld is highly critical of the film, calling it “propaganda, not a documentary.”
SeaWorld has spent a great deal of money battling a negative image in the years since Blackfish’s release. Beyond allocating $100 million dollars to the so-called Blue World tank expansion project for its San Diego park, the company has become increasingly involved in political lobbying. Last year, when lawmakers in California were considering a bill that would have banned killer whale breeding and shows, the company spent $140,000 in that state alone. This year, during the first three quarters of 2015, SeaWorld has spent some $760,000 on federal lobbying efforts.
Those efforts appear to be falling short. In 2015, a Consumerist poll ranked SeaWorld as the third most-hated business in America, behind Monsanto and Comcast. Earlier this spring, the company was hit with a barrage of lawsuits claiming that the park sold tickets while misleading attendants about the welfare of its animals.
As the San Diego Tribune reported, the changes to SeaWorld’s live orca shows currently only apply to the San Diego park, though the company could consider making similar changes to its locations in San Antonio and Orlando.