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A killer whale at SeaWorld in San Diego. Amid falling attendance, the company has began to cut ticket prices. (MIKE BLAKE/REUTERS)
A killer whale at SeaWorld in San Diego. Amid falling attendance, the company has began to cut ticket prices. (MIKE BLAKE/REUTERS)

SeaWorld shares dive as documentary spurs attendance drop Add to ...

A new focus on animal rights and a hard-hitting documentary have begun to take their toll on one of the world’s leading marine theme parks.

Orlando, Fla.-based SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. said on Wednesday that proposed legislation in California resulting from a documentary called Blackfish, which criticizes the theme park’s treatment of killer whales, have hurt attendance and the company’s bottom line. The news sent SeaWorld’s share price down nearly 35 per cent to a record low.

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“That was probably our biggest headwind in California,” SeaWorld chief executive officer Jim Atchison said on a conference call with analysts.

The backlash began shortly after Blackfish premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last year and became available on the streaming service Netflix. The film explores the ethics and risks of keeping massive killer whales in captivity. It focuses partly on the death of a SeaWorld trainer named Dawn Brancheau who was standing in shallow water before a crowd when a 12,000-pound Orca named Tilikum grabbed her by the hair and pulled her under water. The same whale was also involved in a trainer’s death in 1991 at the now-defunct Sealand of the Pacific aquarium in B.C.

The documentary spurred California lawmakers to propose a legislative amendment that would ban killer whales like Tilikum from SeaWorld’s shows, as well as impose a number of other restrictions on how they are kept and cared for. It was coverage of this legislation that SeaWorld blamed in part for its attendance woes.

David Koontz, SeaWorld’s communications director, said in a statement that director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary is a “propaganda film” that is “not based on science” and has directly inspired proposed legislation that is “flawed on multiple levels.”

“It assumes there is something wrong with the current approach to keeping killer whales in human care. Nothing could be further from the truth,” Mr. Koontz said. “By seeking to ban killer whale performances in shows, the bill would actually jeopardize the health and well-being of our whales, both as individuals and as a group.”

Earlier this year, as Blackfish garnered more publicity, the family of Ms. Brancheau released a statement on the website of a foundation they set up in her name that stressed they were not associated with the documentary.

“The film has brought a great deal of attention to the welfare of animals, and for that we are grateful. However, Blackfish is not Dawn’s story,” they said. “Dawn followed her dreams and became a marine animal trainer ... Dawn would not have remained a trainer at SeaWorld for 15 years if she felt that the whales were not well cared for.”

Public protests and criticism are standard operating risks for marine parks and aquariums. The Vancouver Aquarium – which owns nine belugas in total, including two at its Vancouver facility, two at the Georgia Aquarium, and five housed at SeaWorld – has constantly faced public protests demanding that the organization phase out its practice of keeping belugas and dolphins in captivity. After a review of the matter, Vancouver’s Board of Parks and Recreation banned the aquarium from breeding whales and dolphins, but did not institute a full ban on keeping cetaceans in captivity. The Vancouver Aquarium said the organization had more than one million visitors in 2013 and was expecting similar results this year.

Regardless of whether the U.S. legislation passes, the renewed focus on animal rights issues has begun to hit SeaWorld where it really matters to the company: ticket sales.

The company, which went public in April of 2013, also blamed the slight 0.3-per-cent increase in attendance on schools’ late-starting summer breaks in key markets, a delayed new attraction at SeaWorld-owned Busch Gardens and tough competition from other theme parks.

With nearly flat attendance growth, the roughly 6.6-million visitors to the company’s parks brought in revenue of $405-million (U.S.) in the second quarter, down about 1 per cent from the same period last year, and below estimates. And the company said it expects revenue to decline as much 7 per cent in 2014.

The overall decrease in revenue, the company said, was caused by a 1.8-per-cent decline in revenue per capita, which fell from $62.67 to $61.54. Last year, amid falling attendance, the company began to cut prices – offering aggressive 46-per-cent discounts to people who purchased tickets online and also giving area residents near its original theme park in San Diego a free kid’s ticket with the purchase of an adult ticket.

Importantly, though, this is the first time the company has ever linked animal rights activism to “attendance pressure,” according to analyst Barton Crockett at FBR & Co., who called the company’s results “surprisingly weak.”

The furor may also have caused Southwest Airlines Co. to end a 26-year marketing relationship in late July after more than 27,000 people signed a Change.org petition criticizing their partnership on animal rights grounds. Southwest had previously flown aircraft almost entirely covered in Orca designs, but the two companies issued a cautious statement saying it was a mutual decision related to SeaWorld’s plans to spread to new markets overseas. In Wednesday’s financial results, SeaWorld announced a letter of intent with Village Roadshow Ltd. to develop parks in Asia, India and Russia.

 

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