Sea World Adventure Parks compose the largest chain of marine parks in the United States. Located in San Diego, Orlando, and San Antonio, Sea World merges the modern amusement park with elements of the aquarium and the animal spectacular. Combining entertainment with a claim to inculcate visitors with knowledge and appreciation of nature, the parks successfully aim at the upper segment of the amusement park market and yet consistently rank among the biggest venues in terms of crowd attendance.
A 2002 company press release locates the origins of Sea World in "four fraternity [brothers'] . . . dreams of an underwater restaurant on San Diego's Mission Bay in the early 1960s" realized in 1964 with the opening of "a full-scale marine zoological park." Looking more closely, however, Sea World was from the outset a large, capital-intensive undertaking when compared to most amusement parks of the earlier half of the twentieth century. Thus, it nicely fits into the category of theme parks backed by corporate capital that emerged in the wake of what historian Judith Adams has termed the "Disney Transformation." A group of area investors had responded to San Diego's planning department's solicitation of ideas for a marine park. The growth of Sea World was (at least indirectly) fueled by public funding and a city attempting to establish itself as a magnet for tourism in southern California. The park that in 1965 had introduced a show featuring Shamu, the killer whale, quickly grew during the 1960s and 1970s, outpacing local competitors such as Marineland of the Pacific and expanding through spinoff parks in Orlando, Florida, and Aurora, Ohio (which was sold to Six Flags Inc. in 2001). In 1977, publishing giant Harcourt Brace Jovanovich acquired the chain, which in 1988 opened a fourth park in San Antonio, Texas. The following year Anheuser-Busch's entertainment subsidiary (whose holdings already included such parks as Busch Gardens in Florida and Virginia) became the new corporate owner of Sea World, now a part of North America's second largest conglomerate of amusement parks.
Like most modern theme parks, Sea World features a highly controlled environment. It organizes attractions in an artificially designed landscape themed around ocean and marine life. Mechanical "thrill rides" so prominent in other modern theme parks were for a long time absent from Sea World. Instead, the park's main attractions consist of animal displays such as aquariums or penguin lagoons and—most prominently—animal shows that feature dolphins, sea lions, and Shamu the "killer whale."
In this, Sea World owes just as much to the traditions of the zoological garden and the circus as it does to that of amusement parks. The parks attempt to deliver conflict-free and universally appealing family entertainment, suggesting that all visitors may find the "child" within themselves in an innate ability to relate to animals. However, as thoroughly commercialized space (admission to the parks ranges between $40 and $50 for adults) Sea World not only promotes its own corporate brand, but that of other corporate sponsors and of its parent company, Anheuser-Busch, as reflected, for example, in a Clydesdale horse exhibit and an "Anheuser-Busch Hospitality Center."
Education and Entertainment
Two aspects of Sea World that set the parks apart from most other theme parks of its era merit further elaboration. One is the peculiar relationship between education and entertainment and the other is its commercialized representation of nature and the environment. Both topics have received insightful treatment in Susan Davis's history of Sea World California, Spectacular Nature.
The park prides itself on being committed to education, promoting stewardship for the environment, and developing interest in marine study and nature appreciation. The focus on education came at least partially out of a provision in the land lease and out of the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act that limited the display of marine mammals to educational purposes. Sea World reaches out to elementary schools, provides educational resources for students and teachers, and organizes camps. The park furthermore is involved in marine research and has links to such institutions as the Bronx Zoo and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Educational programs (Shamu TV) were introduced in the 1990s. Field trips from schools of poorer areas open up the park to a demographic that would otherwise have no access.
The educational angle that ties Sea World to the instructional and uplifting tradition of zoological gardens strongly appeals to the parks' main customer base, which is largely white, middle class, and college educated. But education at Sea World stands in an uneasy relationship to the entertainment landscape, the mall atmosphere, the rides, and the animal shows. Not only does much of the education bear the mark of corporate control and promotion, but, as Davis observes, the educational content often remains superficial and focuses on the sensational or on animal behavior and training, much in tune with Sea World's main attractions. Such education, then, often takes the form of "infotainment" popular in many areas of commercial culture.
Commercial Representation of Nature and the Environment
In many ways Sea World's icon, Shamu, captures the tension between environmental consciousness and the commercialization inherent in the parks' concept. On the one hand, the killer whale serves as a cultural symbol for the emerging concern over animal protection and the environment since the 1960s. On the other hand, Shamu, both "cute" and appealing and a fierce predator, has become a highly recognizable corporate logo and a registered trademark.
In part to deflect criticism regarding the training of animals in captivity, Sea World has become ever more environmentally conscious in its park design. What began during the 1960s as a show celebrating the modern (benign) domination of man over nature and indulging in pacific fantasies (complete with sea maids) adopted an increasingly scientific tone over the following decades. During the 1990s, Sea World cooperated with a number of environmental organizations, such as the World Wildlife Fund, and—backed by Anheuser-Busch funding—supported various environmental projects.
Such engagement, again, appeals to Sea World's key customer demographics. As Davis puts it, a visit to Sea World by itself is construed as an "act of caring." Environmental consciousness becomes consumable. Visiting Sea World is a suburban nature vacation, a contemporary form of nature tourism. Ironically, the "natural landscape" encountered at the park is highly standardized and artificially controlled. The experience of nature is designed so as to make visitors' encounters with the animals and their environment as predictable as possible. Still, the perceived authenticity and reality of the Sea World experience in the minds of its customers sets it apart from the fantasy world of amusement parks like Disney World.
Adams, Judith A. The American Amusement Park Industry: A History of Technology and Thrills. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991.
Davis, Susan G. Spectacular Nature: Corporate Culture and the Sea World Experience. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
Sea World. Home page at http://www.seaworld.org.
Sea World Press Release. 11 November 2002.
Ulmer, Jeff. Amusement Parks of America: A Comprehensive Guide. New York: Dial Press, 1980.