“Blackfish” has inspired some SeaWorld opponents to argue the company should nix its trademark killer whales and become a more traditional theme park. But a city rule would complicate a big transformation.
In 2002, some San Diegans feared SeaWorld aimed to eschew its educational mission in favor of rides and theatrics that could spike attendance.
The city responded with a mandate: At least 75 percent of the attractions in the Mission Bay marine park must include significant animal education or conservation-related elements.
The requirement was central to past discussions about SeaWorld’s long-term footprint here and has particular relevance today as state Assembly members consider legislation that aims to transition the park away from orca performances.
City rules would make a shift toward more rides and fewer animals difficult. And then there’s the fact SeaWorld isn’t interested in such a change.
We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?
As reported in the LA Times: "Amid ongoing controversy over its killer whale shows, SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. reported a 13% drop in attendance for the first three months of the year."
As Carolyn Chase notes, adoption of the Sea World Master Plan included a requirement for the City of San Diego proceed on improvements on open public parkland in Mission Bay Park. This was a directive by the Coastal Commission as a condition placed on their approval of the SW Master Plan. The directive included that the Commission would not review major leasehold redevelopments, including but not limited to a SW proposed hotel.
However, I disagree with much else that Ms. Chase has written. As a member of the Mission Bay Park Committee for many years and including that time, I can state that there was never a proposal or intent to "kick off-leash dogs" off of Fiesta Island.
The first discussion at the Mission Bay Park Committee
(MBPC) in May, 2006, included public comment expressing concerns
about continued off-leash dog use on Fiesta Island and arguing that this
use had been ignored in creating the Mission Bay Park Master Plan,
adopted in 1994. While true it begs the question - there were no off-leash dog use advocates participating in the Master Plan Update process or that issue would have been addressed. I was there for almost every meeting and many of the subcommittee groups, 1991-1994, and don't recall this issue being brought up.
In 2006, at the initial MBPC workshop
with the consultant for developing the Fiesta Island plan, members
of the committee unanimously agreed by consensus that off-leash dog use of Fiesta Island
needed to be accommodated in the proposed improvement plan. As a member
of MBPC as well as a long-time advocate for all of Mission Bay Park on behalf of
Citizens Coordinate for San Diego (C-3), I submitted 5 pages of comments
to the consultant, dated May 16, 2006. On page 1, item 3, I stated that
"I feel it's essential to identify and retain substantial leash-free
areas on Fiesta Island". The consultant agreed and all versions of the
plans he drew up accommodate this use.
Unfortunately, FIDO has consistently misrepresented the intentions of the MBPC, the consultant and others in order to garner substantial support for their own position which is to leave over 90 acres of Fiesta Island unimproved so that off-leash dog owners can continue to use it.
So, it's certainly true that there has never been an adopted plan for Mission Bay that accounts for off-leash dog uses but that's because approval of the Fiesta Island GDP has been stalled by FIDO for years; if it had been moved forward and adopted, there would be substantial off-leash use incorporated into an adopted plan.
A first version of a draft plan was voted on by the Mission Bay Park Committee in Sept., 2007. Off-leash dog owners packed the room with hundreds of supporters of what became FIDO. The plan never moved forward to the Park & Recreation Board because the mayor required the consultant to meet further with FIDO representatives and revise the plan to better accommodate the desires of the off-leash community. This was done but took several more years so that the most recent version (I use "recent" tongue in cheek) was approved by the MBPC in Dec. 2010, recommending that it move forward to the Park & Recreation Board. Once again, the plan was stalled by FIDO, Mayor Sanders and CD2 Councilmember Kevin Faulconer - they believe that a single user group should be able to dictate that over 90 acres of Mission Bay Park must be left unchanged despite the reality that off-leash use would continue in that area but improvements would make the area more accessible for other users as well.
So, here we are - more than 10 years since the Coastal Commission directed the City to improve public parkland acreage for the greater enjoyment of all park users, stuck because one user group objects to sharing use of that area. They argue that, of course, anyone can come into the area and use it, but it's hardly desirable parkland for most other types of uses and provides no ADA access. The Fiesta Island GDP planning process and the Dec. 2010 version of the plan voted on by MBPC can be viewed at http://www.fiestaislandgdp.com Look especially for exhibits posted regarding areas designated for off-leash dog use and for the paddling community (outrigger canoe clubs, Dragon Boats, etc.) which has never had an area within Mission Bay to call their own, unlike most other water user entities like those at El Carmel & Santa Clara Points.
Mr. Jones: I believe the electorate is a bit larger than 10,000. BTW: I take my dog to Fiesta Island as well.
In the proposed Fiesta Island plan, the off-leash use that is there would continue and *at no time* was there consideration of removing that use despite claims to the contrary by FIDO.
The paddlers' groups were looking at less than 1 acre of a 90+ acre area. The have no "home" place in Mission Bay but have been able to, from time to time and as individual groups not for all of them, have been able to sub-lease small areas from other water-user lessees like the rowing club at El Carmel Point. How is allotting less than an acre for that purpose taking away from off-leash dog uses?
I'll answer the question myself: FIDO does not want a road along the extreme east edge of that area (adjacent to Hidden Anchorage where the water skiers are), which would lead to a small area for storing the boats, or a small parking lot at the south end of that roadway or the small tot-lot east of the small parking lot - all of which would also provide access to a beach on the edge facing Sea World which is called for in the 1994 Mission Bay Park Master Plan.
The Fiesta Island plan already has proposed substantial changes to what was approved in 1994 following 4 years of a very broad-based public planning process. What FIDO is demanding is to leave almost 25% of Fiesta Island for a single user group; anyone else who may want to go into that area will have to walk through the weeds and dirt and there's no where really to go if you aren't there with your dog.
Fiesta Island belongs to all of us, regionally, and not just to those who enjoy the off-leash use of Fiesta Island.
Again, I urge anyone interested in this discussion to look at the plan online and see what is actually proposed: http://www.fiestaislandgdp.com
Mr. Jones: I understand. I've seen some of the proposals and I happen to generally agree Ms. Swink's point of view, despite impacts on me personally. But I don't think this Sea World issue is probably a good place to debate the specifics. A discussion for another day.
Good article although needing some clarification and detail added.
Three-quarters and not two-thirds of Sea World's attractions must contain a significant educational or conservation component. The 75% educational vs 25% entertainment ratio was established by the California Coastal Commission when they approved the Sea World Master Plan and the 3 proposed attractions that would exceed 30', leaving it to the City to establish criteria for assessing that ratio as new attractions were brought forward. Some of us lobbied hard to get more specific criteria than were adopted by Council but were unsuccessful. Therefore, the Journey to Atlantis was ruled to be an educational exhibit because riders could view the Commerson's Dolphins pool from the ride (I would guess from the waiting line but I've never been there and ridden it).
The 50' wide promenade from the eastern
Sea World boundary to Tecolote Creek was a condition placed on Sea
World by the Coastal Commission in mitigation for not opening up the
shoreline along the north frontage of Sea World to everyone as the
Mission Bay Park Master Plan calls for on any Mission Bay leasehold
The 1998 30' height limit exemption (Prop. D) was approved by a 0.7% margin - barely squeaking by and mainly because petition circulators emphasized the good work that Sea World has done with its Marine Mammal rescue program rather than what they might build as tall as 90 feet. Prop D. specified that anything built would be limited to a maximum of 1/2 the height of the Sea World tower, therefore a maximum of 90 feet in height.
The most positive thing to come out of this change to the 30' height limit was that Sea World was then directed by the City to prepare a real Master Plan for Sea World instead of the 1-page list of possible attractions that had been provided to those asking previously. The draft Sea World Master Plan, once adopted and approved by the Coastal Commission, became a part of the Mission Bay Park Master Plan. Previously, though in Mission Bay Park, Sea World could bypass the usual City public review process and new attractions or other changes would go straight from Real Estate Assets to the Coastal Commission.
The biggest gain for the public is that Sea World must bring forward for local public review any new attractions or structures which may exceed 30', beginning at the Mission Bay Park Committee & proceeding up through the Park & Recreation Board, Planning Commission (at the Commission's request to be inserted into the process), and City Council before going to the Coastal Commission, thus creating plenty of opportunity for the public to learn of and about any proposals and submit public comments for or against a proposal, or even make suggestions that might be an improvement to the project from a public perspective. I can hear the screams of anguish from some as I write but you must keep in mind that Sea World is on publicly-owned parkland and does not have the relatively free hand that it would have if the land it's on were theirs in fee-simple.
The 75% educational vs 25% entertainment ratio was established by the California Coastal Commission when they approved the Sea World Master Plan and the 3 proposed attractions that would exceed 30', leaving it to the City to establish criteria for assessing that ratio as new attractions were brought forward. Some of us lobbied hard to get more specific criteria than were adopted by Council but were unsuccessful. Therefore, the Journey to Atlantis was ruled to be an educational exhibit because riders could view the Commerson's Dolphins pool from the ride (I would guess from the waiting line since I've never been there and ridden it).
The 50' wide promenade from the eastern Sea World boundary to Tecolote Creek was a condition placed on Sea World by the Coastal Commission in mitigation for not opening up the shoreline along the north frontage of Sea World to everyone as the Mission Bay Park Master Plan calls for on any Mission Bay leasehold redevelopment plan.
We still have not succeeded in another directive from the Coastal Commission, this time to the City, that is to make significant advances in obtaining funding and approving a plan for open parkland improvements at South Shores and Fiesta Island. I'll address this in a separate post.
Judith: Question for you. There is obviously a master lease with Sea World, which has been amended from time to time. I presume the master lease was signed with the legal representative of corporate entity that owned Sea World at the time. That corporate entity has changed several times. I am wondering then: Does the city currently have a valid lease with the current corporate owner? Perhaps there is a successor clause in the lease? VOSD has posted a lease amendment, but not the master lease, as near as I can tell. I'm intrigued to know: If the corporate entity that signed the lease disappears and the property is sold to another, is a lease amendment required? I know it's a legal question, but I'm wondering what the master lease states.
@Chris Brewster You're correct that any time ownership changes for a Mission Bay lease, there must be an amendment to the lease and, I believe, the change must be approved by City Council. I don't have that information but presume that this occurred with the recent changes of ownership as was necessary several years ago when ownership of the Islandia changed. It's certainly worth investigating though not by me - my knowledge and experience is based in land use planning for Mission Bay Park and not in the legal nuts and bolts of leaseholds.
Your question would need to be posed to the director of Real Estate Assets Dept., Jim Barwick (leases are not in the purview of the Mission Bay Park Committee) or, perhaps, to the City Clerk's office. While I have been told the READ has posted leases online, I couldn't find a way to get to them from the READ web pages.
Judy: Thanks for this. It's an interesting situation As noted in my post below, the company was privately owned by Blackstone up until April of last year, at which time Blackstone took a company named SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc. public. I am not sure if taking the company public changes things, but it definitely changes the owners, who are now public shareholders. Interestingly, the most recent lease amendment that I have seen lists the leaseholder as Sea World, Inc., a Delaware corporation. I am not able to find a reference to that company on the Delaware corporation website. I wonder if the current Sea World has a valid lease? As for Mr. Barwick, the new mayor reportedly fired him.
@Chris Brewster That's certainly interesting about Jim Barwick - he was personally brought on as READ director by Jerry Sanders back in his first term as mayor. So, I guess your questions must be directed to his replacement, whenever someone is hired - hopefully not very long since the City has numerous leases of many different sorts.
Your comments about the ownership changes, which I sort of knew about, and the change to a public shareholder company, which I didn't know of, are very interesting. As I said, past practice (perhaps memorialized in the Charter or the Muni Code?) has required a negotiated amendment to a leasehold on change of ownership. I don't think that the issue of public or private corporation would be pertinent, necessarily, though I don't know the status of all of the commercial lease-holding companies.
Orca pens and education aside, their "non-roller-coaster-roller-coaster" monstrosity is a total eyesore. It is ugly, out of place, and sticks out like the proverbial turd in a punchbowl. It is a blight on our coastline and a black eye for the City that allowed this to happen.
Chris, with all due respect your post suggests that simply because Sea World now happens to be owned by a different entity than in the past, and may have different plans than previous owners, that it should be exempt from past restrictions? This seems a non-starter. If a company can get out of its promises or obligations to its community that easily, why wouldn't it? Successive owners of highly impactful companies -- Sea World, banks, oil companies, utilities -- cannot and should not be allowed to wash away previous agreements and restrictions with the wave of a corporate attorney's pen. I realize this happens regularly, but it should be resisted with full public force. Should SoCal Edison be permitted to walk away from its failed nuke plant up the coast if it changed ownership or decided to reorganize in order to avoid responsibility? Just look at the current situation with General Motors and it's shoddy cars. "Old GM" built those defective cars; why hold "New GM" responsible?
Like you, I would contend that for-profit corporations will ALWAYS function as corporations do: maximize profits, limit competition, reduce its taxes, pass costs off on customers and the public where possible, resist regulation, influence legislation. That's the simplest message of the free market: Companies protect themselves and their profits at all costs. That's what they have always done, and always will, and once you realize that it's hard to blame them for behaving exactly as expected.
That's why we have to rely on our ELECTED officials to try to keep corporations in check so they don't run completely over the rest of us without a fight. Elected officials respond to pressure. If the public manages to bring more pressure than a corporation, theoretically, at least, that's who the officials listen to. Sometimes it even works.
So, forget about trying to convince a Sea World, a GM, or a SoCal Edison to voluntarily do the right thing. That's a fantasy world. It requires a club, wielded by legislators, backed by voters and community sentiment. Pardon my cynicism, but that's the way it's always been and, it appears, always will be.
Mr. Dower: You misunderstand my post (below). Sea World is bound by the lease agreement, law, and federal regulation. The fact that ownership of the company has changed MAY allow the city to renegotiate the lease, but I can't imagine how it would allow Sea World to avoid the current requirements, because if they argue they are no longer bound by the terms, then the city could evict them. My point is that we tend to refer to Sea World as some sort of monolithic entity that thinks in a continuum. It is nothing of the sort. Ms. Halverstadt stated, "City rules would make a shift toward more rides and fewer animals difficult. And then there’s the fact SeaWorld isn’t interested in such a change." I do not contest her first sentence. It's probably true. But stating that SeaWorld isn't interested in such a change is misleading. First, who knows what SeaWorld (the corporation) is interested in and who are we talking about anyway? Did the president say that? The board of directors? The PR person? Second, since SeaWorld is currently run by Blackstone installed management even though they now own only 25%, how important is their current interest? It's something of a zombie management structure in which the former owners are running the company until the shareholders elect a new board. What we need to understand is that SeaWorld may decide to make all sorts of changes within the constraints of law and regulation, or may seek to change those laws and regulations. SeaWorld is a company in transition that may change its position at any time.
While I appreciate the in-depth analysis of Sea World, there is a bit of disconnect here in the understanding of what Sea World is. Sea World, of course, is not a person. It’s not an organization that exists to perpetuate marine life. It has not even been a consistently owned corporation. It’s an entity used for generating profit. That’s not a bad thing. It’s very American. But we should not ascribe consistent positions or sensibilities to a corporation with ever-changing ownership. And we should not anthropomorphize.
In the past ten years, Sea World has had three different owners. First was Busch Entertainment Corporation (Anheuser-Busch), then the private equity firm Blackstone, and now very recently SeaWorld Entertainment (a public company created by Blackstone). Blackstone undoubtedly bought Sea World for the express purpose of selling it as quickly as possible for as much as possible, since that is what private equity firms do in these cases. In the past year, Blackstone created the public corporation (SeaWorld Entertainment), sold shares, and has very recently reduced its ownership in the newly created entity to 25%. I think it fair to expect them to exit the investment entirely soon.
To conflate Sea World’s past positions on things like roller coasters with their present and future position is absurd. These are different owners with different priorities and different leaders. It’s naïve to expect continuity. Thus, it is misleading for Ms. Halversadt to state, “City rules would make a shift toward more rides and fewer animals difficult. And then there’s the fact SeaWorld isn’t interested in such a change.” No one knows what SeaWorld Entertainment is “interested in.” They are under new, transitional, ownership (with Blackstone management still in place but board elections needing to take place) and it is anyone’s guess what the new owners will endeavor to do.
Shareholders in a public corporation generally expect the corporation to maximize shareholder value. It is unlikely that shareholders in SeaWorld Entertainment will expect anything different. How the leaders of SeaWorld Entertainment may decide to accomplish that in the future is anyone’s guess. They will be constrained by law, the lease agreement, and their perceptions of how their actions may be received by various audiences (to the extent that those actions may impact the business).
A friend who was at the approval hearing for Journey to Atlantis said the owners at the time argued (as you've reported) that "it was not a roller coaster, and so was consistent with the educational purpose requirement of the lease."
Do you know whether Journey to Atlantis counts toward the "educational" requirement, as they initially argued?
Since they're considering building another new coaster, if they're still counting Journey to Atlantis as "educational," will that designation ever be revisited?
The Master Plan Update for SeaWorld also required that the City invest in "public recreation improvements at South Shores and Fiesta Island" as a condition of and before the contemplated hotel is permitted.
In the shorter term, SeaWorld was required to put in the new sidewalk-area improvements allowing pedestrians to walk along the shoreline between the causeway to Fiesta Island and South Shores. Plans also require the shoreline paths to continue around the water, though it appeared that SeaWorld did not appreciate plans to allow public access between their gated leasehold and the public shoreline. I'm not sure but I hope this path survived the negotiations to the end.
What of the required improvements to public recreation on Fiesta Island and South Shores? The City initiated an expensive update to the Fiesta Island portion of the Mission Bay Master Plan. But conflicts of interest between City staff and public interest groups ground the process to a halt.
Fiesta Island Dog Owners a volunteer non-profit group was formed in response to efforts to kick-off-leash dogs off Fiesta Island during that planning process. Off-leash use was placed on Fiesta Island when dogs were banned from other public beaches (except for OB Dog beach) in 1971.
FIDO has proposed a solution to move forward in a letter to Mayor Faulconer requesting he include an update to the Mission Bay Park Master Plan in his budget. No such update has been done for 20 years. SeaWorld may not be worrying about it now since the market doesn't justify a new hotel at the moment, but they would do well to support moving forward so that this issue won't be an impediment later.
For the record, I am one of the volunteer Board members for FIDO (now with more than 11,000 members). My husband and I take our rescue-dog Dozey to Fiesta Island almost every other day and the fenced off-leash area is the most utilized beach in the City. Hundreds of people and their dogs use it 365 days per year. We need a process to ensure our fenced off-leash area gets officially in the Plan and that we are able to do needed maintenance and improvements.
There are many issues in Mission Bay Park that deserve attention, but members of the community are unable to effect change without an official process. I urge Mayor Faulconer to include an update to the Mission Bay Master Plan in his budget.
HERE is what a far more educational AND entertaining SeaWorld San Diego could look like, well within the City's Master Plan: WELCOME TO A BRAND NEW SEA WORLD—
(WHERE THE ONLY THING CAPTIVE IS YOUR IMAGINATION!)
You have asked for change to happen in Sea World and we have listened, working closely with some of the top marine biologists, animal behaviorists, wildlife sanctuary experts, all of the passionate animal activists, documentarians and politicians, etc. as well as a global family of animal-lovers who have offered wise perspective on the best ways to transform Sea World into a whole new world for our until now captive animals.
We are about to introduce the most exciting wildlife and family entertainment venue the world has ever experienced before. Once inside the gates of our new Sea World of the future, guests will be immersed in layers of multi-media—sounds and sights and interactive rides and vibrant sensations that bring orcas and dolphins breathtakingly close to everyone.
And yet, in reality, the real marine mammals will be free to live out their lives in sea pens—protected sanctuaries—away from the public and without any human-provoked performances of any kind. The only human interaction these animals will have is from veterinarians and biologists watching over them.
This will be a Sea World that truly educates as well as entertains. Guests will leave feeling wildly entertained as well as far more knowledgeable about the marine world than they ever were before.
What Sea World will offer is astounding:
A Whale of a Ride: The wildest “roller-coaster in the world!” Sitting on the back of a “whale” you reach huge heights and then plunge deep into the depths of the sea feeling what it’s like to breach and dive like a whale.
Pick a Wave: Want to feel what it feels like to be splashed on by an orca? Pick wave sizes from huge to small and get ready to be soaked as you sit on bleachers next to wave after wave splashing you.
IMAX-imum multi-media: Be surrounded by the sights and sounds of orcas in their pods swimming in the ocean through rain and thunder and lightning and beautiful sunrises and sunsets, etc.
The Languages of Whales and Dolphins: They all are unique just like the world’s human languages. At this exhibit we hear most of the world’s world languages and also hear the languages of orcas. Now we can hear what orcas from different parts of the world talk like when communicating to each other. What are the sounds of happiness? Fear? Humor?
Can You Guess What This Is? Put your hands inside the box and feel the rubbery sensation of an orca and dolphin, a penguin, a starfish, etc. None are real but they feel exactly like the real thing.
I Sea You: As seen on huge screens throughout the park, all marine mammals are observed as they live out their lives freely in the sequestered sanctuaries. They cannot see the public but the public can see them.
Recycle and Save the Sea: “Ride” on a boat through islands of plastic waste like bumper cars until you “net” it all and find yourself in clear pool and waterfalls free of the human plastic pollution.
Sea Monsters: In this exciting ride guests are plunged deep into the sea encountering huge sea monsters, squid, fish, octopus, etc. that look at us like future meals. It is totally scary and realistic and wild.
Rock On: Some of the most record-breaking musical entertainers in the world will perform in acts that will rival those offered in Las Vegas and Broadway.
Children’s Choirs: Children from all over the world will perform uplifting songs sung in their languages, including sign languages: “Be Brave”; “Let it Go”; “Color of the Wind”, etc.
This is just a peek at what we will be offering you. There will be so many more surprises you just have to SEA it to believe it!
APRIL FOOLS! But don’t you just wish this were true? It could be. If Sea World would realize how very possible this is. We’re not asking Sea World to shut down, just open up to a whole new vision that would look like this and so much more. Sea World, are you listening…?
@Martha Sullivan Sounds like a museum with a roller coaster and concerts. I think they'd put the non-profit in non-profit, not that there's anything wrong with that!
THIS would be a way for SeaWorld to meet the City's requirement for 75% of the park to have a significant educational/animal conservation component AND still have the amusement park features -- without having to increase the footprint of those features by using cutting edge digital multi-media, as well as creative ride design. The argument that consumers want junk food OR entertainment is a cop out. Consumers consume what's made readily available. Just as there is a growing market for cruelty-free products (not tested on animals), particularly given the EU's ban on animal-tested products last year, and use of animals in drug testing and biomedical research is declining as technology provides better methods -- WE can be educated and entertained by orcas WITHOUT confining them inhumanely. See THIS example from National Geographic:
"British digital agency Appshaker did an augmented reality project for National Geographic Channel in a mall, allowing passersby to watch themselves 'interacting' with various animals and dinosaurs on a big screen. The effect isn't unlike Who Framed Roger Rabbit, by which I mean it's awesome and toes that line between advertising and art installation. Plus, it's way better than what usually passes for foot-traffic entertainment in malls. I mean, really, no living statue is going to compete with rocking out behind a T-Rex."
THAT sounds incredibly narcissistic to me -- that we humans are so important to orcas as to make us indispensable in their lives. Indeed, this is why REHABILITATION is included in retirement planning, with human care of the orcas continuing, without the forced performances and breeding at human hands (literally).