SeaWorld is in serious trouble. The chain of theme parks owned by the corporate entity SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. has been struggling with sagging revenue and declining attendance every since 2013. In that year, the documentary Blackfish was released to the public. In the film, the park’s mistreatment of killer whales was exposed for audiences around the world. The filmmakers documented numerous exploitative tactics used by the parks to kidnap baby whales from their mothers and then exploit them for their entire lives all to keep people coming to the parks for the financial benefit of the company. Since the documentary release, animal rights activists have boycotted the company and have even protested outside of their theme parks in California and around the country.
Now, SeaWorld is trying to rebrand itself as an “entertainment company” in a desperate attempt to stay afloat. Part of the plan includes building a hotel on park premises. Transforming SeaWorld into a resort is an obvious business move for Chief Executive Joel Manby. He called it a “very proven model” of business, one that he hopes will overshadow the company’s poor treatment of its killer whales. Room rates in resorts and hotel properties on park premises around the country in places like Disney World are often two or three times higher than immediately outside park grounds.
As part of the plan, SeaWorld will partner with a proven hotel operator with a long history of hotel management in southern California. The San Diego resort will be run by Evans Hotels. The company already operates two Mission Bay resorts near SeaWorld. By operating a third on park grounds, they will have the market power to set monopoly level room rates the immediate area.
Experts expect the hotel to only be 2 to 3 stories tall, but to cost as much as $60 million to $80 million to construct. There is no specific design yet, but real estate attorneys have indicated that any plan for an additional structure will require approval from the city. That process will likely bring out animal rights advocates, who will use it as a platform to advocate for better treatment of animals. For its part, SeaWorld claims that building the hotel will help the company diversify away from animal shows and into other fields like hotel and resort entertainment. Leisure industry insider Bob Boyd is not so sure that the park can turn a corner. He notes “With the growth of the Internet, which has made minority voices louder than they normally would be, there is a good percentage of the population that doesn’t like SeaWorld having orcas in captivity. And if they see SeaWorld on the hotel name, they won’t go there.” Hedge Fund Manager Vito Brown believes that the anti captivity voice may not be a minority at all. “The entire brand is built on the mistreatment of Orcas and no hotel will turn that around. Most Americans will not put up with that kind of animal abuse, which is why I am short on SeaWorld for the foreseeable future.”