On May 14, 2016, SeaWorld San Diego invited premium pass members to a special, complimentary town hall with CEO Joel Manby, park president Marilyn Hannes, and chief zoological officer Chris Dold. The meeting, which took place in the park’s Mission Bay Theater, lasted about an hour and 15 minutes, and was attended by only about 200 pass members. Orca Action Network attended the event and greatly enjoyed and appreciated it, and we wanted to tell you about what was announced.

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In the courtyard of the Mission Bay Theater, attending pass members were given refreshments such as pastries, juice, and coffee. We also received cards to write questions on and special SeaWorld Pass Member pens for us to keep.

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The meeting began with a brief introduction by the host, Jeff, who used to work as “Biff” at Sea Lion and Otter Stadium. He thanked us for our loyal support, announced that there would be a raffle during the town hall (more on that later), and then welcomed CEO Joel Manby to the stage. Manby talked about how difficult the last few years had been, and again thanked pass members for their support.

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The first item of discussion was the recent announcements. Manby said he’s been in business for about 35 years, and the end to breeding was “by far the most difficult business situation” he’s ever been in, and the most difficult decision he’s ever had to make. He and the board didn’t make the decision impulsively -it was based off of lots of research. Manby described the decision as “agonizing” and “gut-wrenching”, and acknowledged that people inside and outside of the company were angered by it. He further commented by saying “I completely understand that. The crispest way I can say it is there were a lot of people involved that care deeply about this company, and if you had read all that we were reading, ultimately we came to the conclusion that it had to be a SeaWorld without whales or a world without SeaWorld.” He listed three reasons SeaWorld came to that conclusion.

  1. The company’s “reputation was going south”. There wasn’t enough vocal support, and the activists were winning.
  2. Earnings and attendance were going down as well. SeaWorld was going down, even with the other parks like Busch Gardens and Discovery Cove doing well.
  3. “The straw that broke the camel’s back” was legislative efforts against SeaWorld. The California Coastal Commission decision influenced SeaWorld’s decision, as did the information SeaWorld received regarding new anti-orca legislation in California. “Our experts told us we weren’t going to win – that our fans in the House of Representatives…were going away….basically we didn’t think we were going to win that.” Manby said that if orca captivity was banned in California, that legislation would move east – “it’s just a matter of time”.

The day after the announcement, 65% of people knew about it, and favorability of the decision was seven to one. Intent to visit SeaWorld increased for 4 out of 5 people. “Those are incredible statistics,” Manby said. That didn’t lessen the difficulty of the decision. Manby described his meetings with orca trainers after the decision was announced as “some of the toughest meetings I’ve ever had in my life and my career…watching their tears, their frustration, not just with this decision but, you know, it’s been a tough five years really ever since Dawn’s death it’s been one thing after another with our whale trainers. It’s been hard.”

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Manby then talked about the Humane Society of the United States partnership. SeaWord initiated that partnership. “We were going to do what we were going to do anyway, but our board felt very strongly – and I agreed with them – that you want to keep your friends close and your enemies closer….We knew that to keep this decision the right one we needed to have them as advocates for us, not fighting us.” He acknowledged that PETA’s never going to be happy – and that’s okay. He also said the company was not trying to please PETA, or even HSUS – they were trying to please the people who were not visiting SeaWorld because of the orca controversy.

On the HSUS partnership, Manby said the following: “That relationship has its difficulties. We do not agree on everything, we are not validating their point of view on everything, and they’re not validating our point of view on everything….They do see the benefit of us, they do support AZA-accredited organizations, and they love our rescue operations.” He mentioned the PETA news conference on sea pens, and said that didn’t gain much traction because the HSUS stayed quiet on it.

Manby then discussed the new orca encounters. “They’ll be more whale-focused than theatrical-focused.” The new set will be more natural, with softened seating areas and a huge screen that will allow the environment to change depending on what natural habitat the orcas are supposed to be in – whether it’s Washington, Argentina, or Antarctica. He then showed SeaWorld’s video about the new encounters.

Manby said the trainers are very engaged in and excited about designing the new orca encounters. “We’re convinced it’s going to be every bit as interesting and fun to watch – it’ll be much more educational, though, than the one we have today.”

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Marilyn Hannes, the new SeaWorld San Diego park president, then came out to talk about the San Diego park specifically and some pass member benefits. The first major item on the agenda was the announcement that Aquatica’s first pass member appreciation month will take place in June, with early ride access for Tassie’s Twister and free Quick Queues.

The pass member preview for Summer Nights at SeaWorld will be June 17, with the second year of Summer Vibes beginning the following week.

Marilyn then announced that Pass Member Appreciation Month would take place at SeaWorld in September. This will include a free ticket for a friend, and a special One Ocean for pass members before it closes.

She then talked about SeaWorld’s exciting 2017 plans, which include an all new area called Ocean Explorer. A video for the new area was shown, which unfortunately has not been put online yet. The video showed animations of the new rides and teased new dining and shopping. Two of the family rides, which we previously had no information on, were shown, including one similar to this and one similar to Elmo’s Flying Fish at the Bay of Play. Does this mean Bay of Play will be replaced? Who knows.

Marilyn showed another video, this time about recent SeaWorld San Diego rescue efforts. Nearly 550 animals have been rescued in May alone, with 380 seals and sea lions and 170 birds. After the video, she talked about how SeaWorld is looking for ways for us to experience their rescue efforts for ourselves, as a part of “turning the park inside out”. She announced that SeaWorld members should look for an invitation to be a part of a beach cleanup.

Two prizes were then raffled off, one being the chance to take a guest and go on a rescue boat to release rehabilitated sea lions, and the other a 2-guest Dolphin Interaction Program.

Joel Manby then came back out on stage. He talked about SeaWorld’s mission to provide “experiences that matter”. Manby said that SeaWorld is “doubling down” on conservation and research efforts, and is “tripling down on” rescue efforts, with more merchandise (the Orlando Airport SeaWorld store will sell only rescue merchandise), and a greater focus on rescue in SeaWorld TV commercials.

Manby talked about SeaWorld’s fantastic new “Real. Amazing.” ad campaign, and showed the new commercial.

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Manby talked some more about rescue, including mentioning that Sea Rescue has been renewed for four more years. SeaWorld San Diego will be getting a new “Sea Lion Rescue Tour” soon (the “Behind the Scenes Rescue Tour” that is listed for San Diego is actually for San Antonio). He discussed the Global Rescue Network that SeaWorld wants to set up, which we detailed in this post. He then showed the following video.

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The Q&A then began, with Jeff hosting and Manby, Hannes, and Chris Dold, the Chief Zoological Officer for SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, answering the questions. Below, the questions and answers are listed.

How can you justify aligning SeaWorld with the Humane Society when they are anti-captivity? Manby went over what he had said earlier in the presentation. He said they are still working out some issues with the HSUS, but he would “rather have them not be actively against” SeaWorld.

What happens now that the door is open when PETA or others come after the other animals – dolphins, sea lions, polar bears? Manby acknowledged that PETA’s attacks will continue, but believes these attacks will not gain traction. Manby called the orca issue a “perfect storm”, beginning with Dawn’s death and helped along by a lack of sufficient response by SeaWorld to Blackfish. “We are very committed to not letting anything get traction anymore, and we’ve learned from our mistakes in the past,” he said.

Recent reports indicate new sea sanctuaries being built, including the Munchkin company’s pledge of $1 million in hopes that they will be occupied by SeaWorld’s whales. Will SeaWorld’s whales live out their happy lives at SeaWorld, or in the newly proposed sea sanctuaries, and why? Manby talked about increases in risks to the whales in sea pens, with oil spills and hurricanes, as well as the extreme costs associated with building sea pens. “We’ve researched this, and the average citizen who sees what I just articulated, we go from 65% thinking sea cages might be a good idea to 70% think it’s a crazy idea.”

As a teacher and lover of all animal life, I am concerned by how SeaWorld will continue to inspire our children to be fascinated and love these animals enough to fight for conservation and rescue, which takes money and manpower. Can you say how this will be done? “We have 800 species of animals, we have over 150 rides, dozens of shows, festivals, entertainment, merchandise – all those things can add together to…inspire people to act,” Manby said. “I lose sleep over a lot of things, leading SeaWorld, but one thing I don’t lose sleep over is the fact that we can motivate young children and young adults to be inspired by the work we do.”

The Human Society of America is bragging about the killer whales and say that the belugas, pilot whales, and dolphins are next. What guarantee do we have that those cetaceans are safe? Manby doesn’t believe HSUS has much traction on those issues. He says he is “very committed” to not let that happen.

Does SeaWorld plan to more aggressively rebut PETA’s attacks? Manby responded with an enthusiastic yes, followed by cheers from the audience. “We are not going to let that happen again.”

With the changes to the Shamu show, are there any planned changes to the other shows? Manby said there are no plans at the moment, but that if the orca encounters are successful, there is the possibility that the other shows might change.

Is waterwork desensitization going to continue with the orcas in the med pool? Chris Dold answered this question, and said that it will continue. “Water desensitization is part of our overall safety program – it’s how the whales become used to people in the environment and in the event that a trainer or someone else were to end up in the water, through water desensitization training we’re actually able to….train the whales to respond appropriately, to swim away from that person as they fall into the water….”

The protesters are focusing on the past. What can your local advocates and pass members do to get them to see and recognize all the things SeaWorld does to better the environment and the lives of all animals of the world? Marilyn Hannes took this question, replying that she would like to see more talk on social media about the positive things SeaWorld does. Chris Dold agreed, and said SeaWorld needs to share more of what they do.

With the research about why people were not coming, do you have research to indicate the end of the orca breeding would bring any of those people into the park? Manby reiterated what had been said earlier, about people’s intent to visit the park increasing seven-to-one.

Are you going to improve the online answers to questions? Many seem cut-and-paste and evasive rather than thoughtful and honest. Manby seemed concerned about this question and asked the person who asked it to stay after and provide more detail. Chris Dold says SeaWorld wants to add more independent references to those questions.

Is Dine with Shamu staying? Marilyn Hannes took this question, and said that Dine with Shamu is indeed staying.

Will you create new attractions and rides annually, like your competitors? Hannes answered first, saying their intention is to “keep the park fresh”, whether it’s through new attractions or events. She also teased more upcoming attractions after 2017. Manby added that the company’s investment strategy is that 2 out of 3 years there will be a major new attraction at the park, and that some small new attraction or event will come during the off year.

Will there be changes to the summer camps? Hannes said yes, that new, innovative, educational experiences will be added, both to camps and individually.

Any possibility of one upscale sit-down restaurant in the future? Hannes answered, not answering yes or no but teasing “exciting new culinary experiences” with Ocean Explorer. There will be an indoor restaurant, although it probably won’t be considered “upscale”.

What about WiFi access in the park? Hannes said the park is trying work on WiFi in the park over the next few years.

Will membership prices stay the same? Hannes answered that EZPay prices will stay the same, but that one-time payment passes may go up. Manby said the company’s goal is to have the best pass value of any theme park.

Any plans for a pass member lounge? Hannes answered that she’s seen Orlando’s pass member lounge and that the park is looking at how to provide something similar for pass members in San Diego.

Will you be increasing any passholder benefits to maintain our attendance levels? Hannes said yes, that the park wants to deliver the best value to members, and asked for feedback.

We loved Terrific Tuesday and miss it. Is there any chance you’ll bring it back? Terrific Tuesday was a weekly pass member event which would allow people to go on tours and the like. Hannes said something similar could come in the future.

Jeff then raffled off two more prizes – a two-person Beluga Interaction Program and a two-person Dine with Shamu. They thanked us again for coming, and then we were allowed to ask any remaining questions of the officials in attendance.

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