March 24, 2016
When he became CEO of a very troubled SeaWorld last spring, Joel Manby wasn’t sure he actually would need to end the killer-whale shows that had ranked as a leading American tourist attraction for decades. His predecessor was sacked after the documentary Blackfish tarnished the public myth of happily tamed orcas named Shamu living to entertain audiences at SeaWorld, yet Manby took the job thinking that the business model might be salvaged.
But last week Manby — and SeaWorld — finally succumbed to the new reality. The company announced that SeaWorld parks would gradually phase out their iconic orca-trick shows over the next few years and begin a difficult transition. The new mission of the parks in Orlando, San Antonio and San Diego would be to provide “experiences that matter” by leveraging a marine-life conservation theme, instead of thrilling audiences to expertly choreographed play between human trainers and natural killers that could gut their masters within seconds if they chose to.
“We built the brand around Shamu many years ago and made people fall in love with killer whales,” Manby told me, “but now the paradox is that it’s one of the leading reasons people are uncomfortable with SeaWorld.”
SeaWorld simply had to announce a phase-out to the shows, he explained, because of Americans’ rising suspicions that that these well-trained animals were being mistreated merely by being captive. The company was scrambling to preserve the past; it even had SeaWorld employees posing as animal-rights activists to try to infiltrate the opposition, a practice that Manby ended in February.
Sun Belt vacationers increasingly were bypassing SeaWorld; regulators were encircling the shows; and investors were continuing to punish the $1.4-billion enterprise.
“The world is moving in a different direction,” Manby said about the abrupt corporate paradigm shift. “Society is changing and moving in a different direction, and we needed to get ahead of it. Our research showed it would be a losing battle” to continue the shows in the face of this rising tide of hostility.