ORLANDO, Fl. – Plummeting attendance at SeaWorld’s US locations has left executives at parent company Blackstone Group struggling for ways to lure visitors back into their parks. Traditional promotions and reduced ticket prices have mostly failed, however, so beginning next month, SeaWorld will begin testing its newest idea: Killer whale rides.
SeaWorld Entertainment CEO Jim Atchison admitted that the plan is a “desperate, last chance effort” to repair park attendance, but said he believes that the chance to “ride a killer whale like a bucking bronco” will attract visitors by the thousands.
“We’re going after a new market, essentially,” Atchison said. “Used to be, most SeaWorld visitors were animal lovers who just wanted to see these majestic creatures up close. But recent events have largely alienated that demographic from our parks—thanks a lot, “Blackfish”—so we’re hoping to attract a more dynamic, thrill-seeking crowd. People who are more interested in having a wild, near-death experience, and who aren’t necessarily so concerned about the moral implications of SeaWorld—those are the patrons we want.”
Wildlife campaigners say that SeaWorld’s sinking attendance—down 13% so far this year—can be largely explained by increased awareness of the suffering and abuse often experienced by whales and dolphins in captivity. Last year’s documentary film “Blackfish,” the main source of this new awareness, described how these animals are often separated from their families, forced into cramped and inadequate living quarters, and given psychotropic drugs to calm them down and help them “perform.” SeaWorld denies most of these charges, but they do admit that “people seem less interested in coming to get splashed by Shamu these days.”
“But if you can actually ride Shamu,” Atchison said. “Now that’s a reason to come out and buy some tickets.”
Opponents of the plan say that “whales are not ponies” and charge that “riding these creatures is both morally reprehensible and extraordinarily dangerous,” but SeaWorld managers argue that “the danger is half the fun.”
“Yes, [this plan] is extremely dangerous—and yes, the whales probably aren’t going to like it,” said Susan Flower, Communications Manager at SeaWorld Orlando. “But it’s only ten bucks a ride, and I can promise you that if you survive the first few minutes, you’ll never forget the experience.”