SeaWorld San Diego will phase out its iconic killer whale show as early as next year and replace it with a conservation-based show, SeaWorld Entertainment's CEO announced during the company's investors meeting Monday.
The killer whale show featuring Shamu has been part of the park's identity for decades. SeaWorld Entertainment CEO Joel Manby said at Monday's meeting the show will be phased out as part of a shift in focus to promote conservation as part of the company's brand.
"Now, we've been doing a lot of this quietly, ourselves, but we're making it a part of our brand going forward," Manby said.
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Instead of the killer whale show as it exists now, Manby said SeaWorld San Diego will launch a new orca experience in a natural setting, focusing on the behavior of whales in the wild. The shows will continue at parks in Orlando, Florida, and San Antonio, Texas.
PETA Foundation Director of Animal Law Jared Goodman said in a statement to NBC7 that despite these proposed changes, no change will be enough to satisfy the animals' needs.
"An end to SeaWorld's tawdry circus-style shows is inevitable and necessary, but it's captivity that denies these far-ranging orcas everything that is natural and important to them," Goodman said.
In addition to transitioning their iconic show, the SeaWorld Entertainment CEO announced a number of new changes aimed at making the parks more cause-based.
"We'll also design new ways to encounter our animals, not in shows, but in natural environments that will inspire the next generation of our guests," he said.
Manby said he envisions a hands-on experience that will inspire people and teach them about the animals.
"The show will have a strong conservation message, and that means 2016 will be the last year of the theatrical killer whale experience called 'One Ocean' that right now is in San Diego," Manby said.
Manby outlined the park's plan for "different formats of storytelling," ranging from new rides to virtual presentations of far-away places. One new experience for guests will arrive in 2016, when SeaWorld brings the world of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to life across all parks.
Going forward, park employees — now called ambassadors — will be paid to spend time engaging with guests as part of the park's push to connect with the community and build conversation into its brand. Manby said engagement days will be spent supporting rescues, educations and preservation.
Employees' name tags will now not only identify workers, but will also list animal causes they support, according to Manby.
Additionally, SeaWorld will partner with Evans Hotels as they begin to explore the idea of putting a hotel in some of their parking lot space and the surrounding areas, just off San Diego's Mission Bay.
At Monday's meeting, SeaWorld Entertainment reported its earnings and park income climbed in the three months leading up to September, even though attendance fell slightly.
More than 22 million people visited parks around the country. According to Manby, 32 percent of SeaWorld guests are millennials and half are families, numbers he would like to increase.
SeaWorld San Diego will also become the testing park for new pricing changes the company is trying out in an effort to streamline the ticketing process.
The company still faces challenges.
A California congressman introduced a bill to ban the breeding, capture and import of Orca whales for public display.
"The fact still remains that as long as SeaWorld holds orcas in captivity, the physical and psychological problems associated with their captivity will persist," Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff told The Associated Press after SeaWorld's announcement.
The California Coastal Commission, meanwhile, has required that SeaWorld ban breeding in captivity if it wanted to build a new killer whale enclosure. The ban would only apply to California properties.
SeaWorld has come under fire since the release of the 2013 documentary "Blackfish," which suggests the park's treatment of captive orcas provokes violent behavior. Since the release, the company has struggled with falling stock prices and park attendance numbers. In the past, the park has blamed a drop in attendance on its struggle to restore its image.
An online PETA petition with nearly 100,000 signatures is asking Dubai officials not to allow SeaWorld to open in the city.