SeaWorld San Diego seemed to be doing everything right in 2011, by the standards of the international theme park business. In an industry report for that year (pdf), it was one of two parks noted for being “outstanding performers.” The park was praised for its 13% attendance growth, and credited for opening a new show featuring the killer whales Shamu and Baby Shamu, plus an attraction called Turtle Reef.
Then in 2013, Blackfish premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and hit theaters a few months later. Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, the documentary criticized the treatment of orcas at the hands of the industry, saying it led to stress and aggression among the whales. One whale was responsible for the deaths of three trainers.
The documentary went on to earn rave reviews and more than $2 million at the North American domestic box office, and made many viewers think more deeply about the lives of the whales in captivity. One 2013 review in the comments section of IMDb reads:
Do we ever consider, that these intelligent creatures spent a lifetime enclosed in a large bathtub so that we can be entertained? Imagine going to see a show of children ballerinas knowing that those children spent their entire lives locked up in a room when not performing. Would anyone stand for this? Surely not, I would hope.
Since the documentary, the park’s attendance numbers have gone steadily downhill. The trend was further confirmed with the release on May 25 of industry figures for 2015 (pdf), provided by the Themed Entertainment Association and AECOM. Amid a generally strong year for the industry, Sea World’s park in San Diego suffered.
After reaching 4.44 million visitors in 2012, attendance fell to 3.79 million in 2014 and 3.53 million last year. Yesterday the Orange County Register described the park as “still reeling from the 2013 Blackfish documentary controversy.”
The San Diego Union-Tribune called it the “worst-performing park in North America,” noting that the 7% decline in annual attendance for 2015 was “even more stunning during a year in which the overall 5.9% growth among the top 20 North America parks was nearly three times what it was in 2014.”
In 2014, Southwest Airlines ended a 26-year-old marketing relationship with SeaWorld, calling it a business decision—although it came after an animal-rights group accused the airline of supporting animal cruelty.
Last November, SeaWorld said it plans to end the long-running but increasingly controversial orca show at its San Diego amusement park this year. In March, SeaWorld said it will stop breeding orcas altogether.
Next year a new feature will focus more on the natural environment of orcas and, SeaWorld hopes, resonate more with visitors.