SeaWorld to end theatrical killer whale shows in San Diego

By Masaki Sugimoto

ORLANDO — SeaWorld Entertainment will end theatrical killer whale shows next year in San Diego in favor of a more natural orca experience, company executives told analysts Monday.

The Orlando-based company did not say whether something similar would follow in its parks in Orlando and San Antonio.

The announcement is part of an overall plan unveiled to transform SeaWorld into a company that’s known for conservation and animal rescue.

“We are listening to our guests. We’re evolving as a company. We’re always changing and again always evolving and so in 2017, we will launch an all new orca experience,” Chief Executive Officer Joel Manby told analysts. “It’s going to be focused more on the natural setting, natural environment and natural behaviors of the whale. It will have a strong conservation message.”

SeaWorld also plans to stress more of its rescue and conservation efforts throughout the parks. It plans rides based on its “Sea Rescue” TV show for its San Diego or San Antonio parks in the next couple of years. A different wildlife issue will be highlighted each quarter in the theme parks. Employees’ nametags will feature animal-related causes they care about.

“It’s evident in society, people love companies that have a purpose,” Manby said.

SeaWorld has struggled financially after the 2013 anti-captivity documentary “Blackfish,” which painted the theme park in a negative light.

The company has been saddled with increased marketing, legal and lobbying costs as it has fought to sway public opinion and fend off legislative attempts to phase out keeping whales in captivity.

On Friday, a Democratic congressman announced he would introduce a bill that would phase out orca breeding in the U.S. Last month, the California Coastal Commission ruled that SeaWorld could only expand its killer whale tanks if it agreed to end breeding. SeaWorld has hired a law firm to fight that ruling.

Manby said that even if successful, the orca tank expansion in San Diego might not happen. Some of the money for that project is being diverted to the new orca experience debuting in 2017.

The project was announced last year and included expansions in Orlando and San Antonio. The company did not say whether those expansions are still expected to happen.

Manby was hired at SeaWorld’s CEO last year and has been putting together a plan for recovery.

Other plans laid out included:

SeaWorld has acquired the rights to the “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” characters and will start featuring them next year in Christmas events.

The company wants to have its own hotels, just like Walt Disney World and Orlando do.