If SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment's new foray onto the big screen and other new businesses like hotels and more boutique parks are a success, the company will certainly see an increase in attendance and profits.
And, perhaps, this important side effect will emerge as well: Over the long term, an expanded business model could lessen SeaWorld's dependence on its most iconic image, a Shamu show that includes trainers bursting from the water on the nose of a killer whale.
That signature attraction — people swimming alongside orcas — abruptly ended in February 2010 when a trainer in Orlando was drowned by the park's largest whale.
SeaWorld quickly reworked the show so that the trainers interacted with the whales only from outside the water and recently debuted a new version, One Ocean. Behind the scenes, the company is working on safety changes that would allow trainers back in the water.
But how critical that will be to its future business remains to be seen.
The park has lately reported increases in attendance, and Jim Atchison, SeaWorld Parks' president and chief executive officer, says the feedback on One Ocean has been overwhelmingly positive even though it doesn't include the thrilling trainer-whale moments that always elicited the biggest gasps from the crowd.
"I know a lot of people miss that," said Robert Niles, editor of ThemeParkInsider.com, of the trainer-whale interaction.
But, Niles said, a head-turning refurbishment on some of the older attractions such as Journey to Atlantis or Wild Arctic could bring "better guest satisfaction than trainers back in the water."
With rides like Manta, a roller coaster combined with an aquarium that opened in 2009, Shamu may still get top billing, but other attractions are arguably bigger crowd pleasers.
Even so, SeaWorld says it is working to get trainers back in the water.
"The objective we have is to return trainers to the water as soon as we feel we've exhausted every effort to make it as safe as possible," Atchison said.
While the push for on-property hotels and other products could one day take the emphasis off of the whale-trainer interaction, Atchison noted that the strategy is one SeaWorld executives have looked at for quite some time.
"I think it's really a reflection of us looking at different ways and avenues for us to tell our story," he said. "It's really not a matter of trying to change the course of what we do."
It's part of the company's natural evolution now that it's owned by the Blackstone Group and is no longer restrained by Anheuser-Busch InBev, a beer company that operated a small group of theme parks on the side.
Blackstone has proved to be an astute owner of tourism properties. Just this week it tripled its original investment in Universal Orlando, selling its stake for about $1 billion now that attendance and sales have soared since the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened last summer.
"If you had asked me during our time with Anheuser-Busch InBev where we wanted to land, that's [Blackstone] where it would be," Atchison said.
Plans already include a movie release this summer and a new Aquatica park in San Antonio. The company hasn't said which of its locations it's targeting for a hotel, but it operates SeaWorld parks in Orlando, San Antonio and San Diego.
Atchison said the hotels will offer a fully immersive experience, with features potentially including "touch ponds" that would allow guests to feel starfish or other sea creatures.
Shamu will always be the biggest fish in SeaWorld's pond. But as that pond grows, one day he may not loom quite so large
source: Orlando Sentinel