San Diego to SeaWorld: Beat it, Shamu

    For the past few years, there has been an ongoing debate between SeaWorld and the City of San Diego. Due to the cutthroat competitiveness of the theme park business, SeaWorld has continuously pushed expansion plans in an effort to copy other successful theme parks.

    SeaWorld continues to argue that its plans are merely an innocent response to growing concerns over lackluster attendance. I side with the many other San Diegans who oppose such a venture.

    A San Diego City Council hearing in July 2001 voted 8-1 in favor of the SeaWorld Master Plan Update, a land-use policy document that approves several of the park’s new projects, including a 95-foot “”splash-down ride”” and a new front-gate attraction.

    Even earlier, there was another notorious ballot measure: 1998’s Proposition D, which exempted SeaWorld from a 30-foot height limit on new construction along San Diego’s coastline.

    Many locals opposed the measure because they felt anything higher than 30 feet would be an eyesore.

    I do not like that SeaWorld can skirt the 30-foot restriction imposed by voters in 1972, though all other San Diego businesses must follow it. It sends the message that the park can continue to slip through legal loopholes in its efforts to create another corporate clone of Disneyland at the center of Mission Bay.

    Park officials have adamantly defended their mission: to run a marine park aimed at conservation and education, not an amusement park. Indeed, unlike its competitors such as Knott’s Berry Farm and Disneyland, SeaWorld has had to defend its legitimacy constantly.

    To achieve these goals in a competitive market, it is necessary to take some liberties — but seriously, a “”splash-down ride?”” The campy Shamu shows were bearable and might have been “”educational.”” A 95-foot water ride screams desperation.

    Of course, SeaWorld has many attractions that do not relate to its mission of preserving the world’s marine creatures. The Clydesdales, anyone? No one can forget that wonderful exhibit, with all those beautiful white horses and all that free beer.

    This example might be forgivable, though — or at least understandable. After all, the park is owned by the beer-brewing giant Anheuser-Busch. Even the Clydesdales, the park argues, are educational.

    Under a recent city order, which mandates that at least 75 percent of SeaWorld’s attractions conform to its original theme of conservation and education, plans for expansion could only fall under the 25 percent of attractions designated for entertainment purposes. The park already fails to meet the 75-25 mandate.

    Much of determining what attractions fit the 75 percent is subjective, but adding rides for fun alone worsens the ratio. In other words, for every “”fun”” ride the park adds, several animal exhibits of purely educational value must accompany them, according to the mandate. Expansion becomes overwhelming in this manner.

    Theme parks are money-making machines. Anheuser-Busch jumped on the theme park bandwagon like other conglomerates, such as AOL Time Warner and Universal.

    According to industry trackers, the only market more competitive than Southern California is Orlando, Fla. Not surprisingly, expansion is a growing trend among all of the parks, the most notable example being Disney’s California Adventure.

    Unfortunately for SeaWorld, however, attendance has been lackluster. According to the park, attendance actually declined 1 percent between 1990 and 1999. The park’s strategy in attracting more people has been in selling its new image as a revamped “”adventure park.””

    SeaWorld’s conduct reeks of shadiness. Opponents of the 1998 height exemption ballot initiative accused it of being vaguely worded to avoid suspicion from the voting public. As a result, the poorly financed activists who opposed the measure found themselves fighting a much richer and better-organized opponent.

    The proposition passed by a margin of 0.7 percent amid accusations that SeaWorld disguised the expansion-friendly ballot as a vote to save wildlife.

    Advocates of the park’s expansion accuse activists of exaggerating claims of commercialization. However, SeaWorld already has plans for a 45-foot-high parking garage and transit station, and a 90-foot-tall hotel.

    The park also rejected the city’s recommendation to build a public bike and pedestrian path on the part of Mission Bay that SeaWorld occupies.

    One wonders whether the park has lost all sight of the concerns of its neighbors in favor of wooing more money from everyone outside San Diego.

    Although SeaWorld is privately owned, San Diegans should feel more than able to shout their concerns to this theme park behemoth, especially because the park leases a 189 acre, city-owned Mission Bay Park site.

    SeaWorld is a significant asset to San Diego’s tourist industry, which is one of the reasons the issue is being so closely scrutinized by industry insiders and laypersons alike.

    In fact, according to the park’s press materials, 35 percent of all tourism in San Diego is due to the park. SeaWorld should try to stay innovative to visitors, but it should also realize what it is trying to sell.

    Critics fear that SeaWorld’s expansion will lead to increased commercialization of the area, overpriced admission, questionable attractions, and increased traffic and pollution.

    All this would come in exchange for a complete abandonment of SeaWorld’s original mission to be an educational and recreational marine park.

    Although the critics are absolutely right in their concerns for the future, I argue that they’re all a little late. SeaWorld sold out a long time ago.

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