April 30, 2016
SeaWorld Chief Executive Officer Joel Manby came face to face with some of the company’s most loyal fans Saturday to explain what he called “the single hardest decision I’ve ever been involved in.”
SeaWorld in March announced it would end killer-whale breeding, phasing out its display of the animals over the next few decades.
Since then, Manby has reached out to both employees and customers, some of whom felt SeaWorld had betrayed them and caved in to its critics.
Manby held an online forum for annual pass holders a few weeks ago. About 300 people attended Saturday’s in-person town hall at SeaWorld Orlando’s Nautilus Theater. A similar meeting will happen Sunday at the company’s San Diego park, followed by another in San Diego in a couple weeks.
Manby told the group “it was gut-wrenching” to make a decision that will eventually phase out the theme-park company’s signature attraction.
“There were days where I felt, `I can’t do this. I would rather resign than have to make this decision.’ It is not what I dreamed would happen when I came to SeaWorld.”
But Manby saw twin losing battles looming ahead — one against declining attendance, another against increased legislation targeting orcas in captivity. SeaWorld has been fighting both after the 2010 death of a trainer and the subsequent anti-captivity documentary “Blackfish.”
“This is a beautiful, great company that got a bad rap,” Manby said.
Much of the audience agreed. Still, preaching to the converted can be a delicate task when some of the converted feel as though you’ve made a deal with the devil.
“They should have fought ‘Blackfish’ tooth and nail,” one attendee grumbled before the meeting.
“It upset me” when SeaWorld agreed to stop breeding orcas, said John Jeffries, a diehard fan from Cocoa who visits a couple of times a week. After the meeting, he said he felt more reassured about the future. “I think he [Manby] is the guy that will lead us and put “Blackfish” to rest,” Jeffries said.
Jeffries told Manby the company originally hadn’t stood up for itself enough when “Blackfish” came out. “I’m with you, man,” Manby said. “We’ve got to fight.”
That brought one of several bursts of applause from the audience.
Manby hosted the forum with SeaWorld Orlando president Donnie Mills and Chris Dold,SeaWorld Entertainment‘s chief zoological officer.
The forum also covered new improvements to the park. And Mills made a welcome announcement for many: He wants to bring back the popular mime act, perhaps as early as next year. Three mimes lost their jobs in a mass layoff at the end of 2014.
Customers submitted questions in writing. One asked whether SeaWorld might ever take in Lolita, a lone killer whale at the Miami Seaquarium. Dold said moving the aging orca might not be good for her health and that “she’s thriving there at Miami Seaquarium.” Another asked whether SeaWorld might ever change its decision about ending breeding. Manby said a couple of centuries from now, orcas’ conditions in the ocean many deteriorate to the point that people “may ask us to take whales again. It’s not something we’re going to address now.”
Loyal customers like such direct contact with company executives because it makes them feel their voices are being heard, said Robert Niles, editor of Theme Park Insider. “That said, a lot of SeaWorld fans felt burnt by Manby and thought that the company caved to anti-captivity activists, so Manby and SeaWorld have work to do to repair those relationship with their core customers,” Niles said in an email. “But it’s a good sign that Manby’s aggressively addressing this.”