SeaWorld built its brand on a leaping and splashing killer whale named Shamu. She was part of its logo, gave her name to stadiums in the theme parks and was the inspiration for rides. The orca image sold T-shirts and soft, stuffed animals for the kids to take home.
With the company phasing out its killer whale program, it is forced to think about the question: What is SeaWorld without Shamu?
“The orcas were their most powerful engagement tool,” said Allen Adamson, a marketing expert based in New York. “It requires SeaWorld to reinvent its core signature attraction. It’s not an easy fix.”
Under pressure from animal rights groups and suffering from a drop in ticket sales, SeaWorld announced Thursday it was ending its orca breeding program and stopping its traditional killer whale shows.
SeaWorld isn’t the only company to lose a signature and popular icon. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is retiring all its touring elephants to a 200-acre conservation center in May under similar pressure.
SeaWorld’s decision followed a backlash from the 2013 documentary “Blackfish,” which told the story of Tilikum, an orca responsible for the death of a SeaWorld trainer in 2010 and two other people in the 1990s.
Attendance at SeaWorld’s parks — in San Diego, California; Orlando, Florida; and San Antonio, Texas — declined, and some top musical acts dropped out of SeaWorld-sponsored concerts.
SeaWorld’s 29 killer whales, who are from age 1 to 51 , will remain in captivity, but in “new, inspiring natural orca encounters,” according to the company. As they die off, the parks will have to figure out a way to attract visitors without them.
SeaWorld Entertainment chief executive Joel Manby said the company has a good story to tell about its marine animal rescue operations. “I feel like that’s where we need to go as an organization and eliminate this orca issue as a cloud over our great story,” he said.
Is that a story that will attract visitors?
Theme park consultant Dennis Speigel said SeaWorld now has the opportunity to return to its roots as a marine life park and promote itself as an alternative to Disney or Universal theme parks.
The Orlando park is getting a new roller coaster this year, but rides won’t be the company’s future, Speigel said.
“You’ll see less of that in the future. You’ll see capital dollars spent in the attractions area that focuses them back on marine life science and a really rich educational aspect,” Speigel said.
Other experts say education might not attract crowds seeking thrills. People don’t expect to visit an aquarium when they visit SeaWorld, said Arun Sharma, a marketing professor at the University of Miami.
“They will have to create experiences that differentiate themselves, as Universal does with Harry Potter or Disney does with Star Wars,” Sharma said. “Education itself is not very attractive.”