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SeaWorld's slow recovery from 'Blackfish' may be doomed by COVID-19 effects

An orca performs for the audience at SeaWorld's marine park in Orlando, Florida.

What the documentary Blackfish started—namely, the long, slow demise of the captive orca theme park industry, along with its abusive practices and dubious ethics—may be finally finished by the COVID-19 pandemic.

As Orlando Weekly reports, SeaWorld’s increasingly grim bottom line is being sharply worsened by the closures of its three U.S. parks (in San Diego, San Antonio, and Orlando) during their respective states’ stay-home orders. Now there are signs—such as an astonishing pile of over 150 liens on the parks, largely from construction firms, representing millions of dollars in unpaid bills—that the company’s board may be gearing up to file for bankruptcy.

Journalist Joe Kleiman, who has been tracking the company’s fortunes at his blog (which is currently under maintenance and unavailable), reported earlier this month that he had “confirmed more than 150 liens across all of the company’s parks filed in the four months between March and June 2020, and the number keeps climbing as additional data becomes available.”

Kleiman believes these and other recent moves by the park suggest a looming court filing: "I have a strong feeling the company is contemplating filing for bankruptcy."

The company recently tried reopening its Orlando park with new protocols and soothing words from its CEO. The first day went badly, with lax enforcement of social distancing and mask requirements (even company employees were spotted going maskless), despite long lines for the popular theme park rides. The larger park itself, however, often had the look of a ghost town, and employees were hard to find.

The company’s long-term prospects appear even rockier. The company says it is able to remain afloat through 2021 without reopening, but that’s a costly outlook, since the company must continue to maintain its animals and their health even without the revenues from park attendance.

More important, perhaps, are the issues that linger from the 2013 Blackfish explosion, which sent the company’s stock spiraling down to Marianas Trench levels before more recent modest recoveries. It had to pay out $65 million to shareholders in February after losing a lawsuit over the company’s refusal to acknowledge the damage caused by the film and downplaying its negative effects.

SeaWorld reformed its shows—mainly because of federal worker protection rules that were imposed after trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed by a killer whale named Tilikum in 2010, the central focus of Blackfish—and ended its notorious breeding programs for orcas as well. However, most of these measures have been half-hearted; state safety officials returned to the park in 2015 and imposed more fines for its ongoing failures to protect trainers adequately.

SeaWorld’s stock recovery—which it touted widely in 2018—vanished with the COVID-19 pandemic. In March, the company’s stock hit its worst price since going public in 2013.

But the decisive problems could lie with the company’s ownership. Its primary shareholder, a company called Hill Path Capital led by chairman Scott Ross, has reportedly been shopping the company’s assets around, according to Kleiman and Orlando Weekly:

[M]ultiple companies have expressed interest in purchasing all or some of SeaWorld’s assets. In 2017, it looked like the investment in SeaWorld was going to pay off, thanks to a 21 percent stake by Zhonghong, a Chinese development company interested in bringing SeaWorld's brand to mainland China. Later that year, Legoland parent company Merlin expressed interest in SeaWorld’s two Busch Gardens theme parks. With things looking up for SeaWorld, in the form of their new Chinese partner and with two thrill-focused parks leading their assets, the company rejected the idea of selling or breaking up its parks.

Ten months later, however, things took a dramatic turn, when Zhonghong was forced to sell the property upon which the first Chinese SeaWorld park was to be located. Things got so bad that Zhonghong’s CEO was at one point supposedly on the run, hiding from Chinese authorities. The year ended with rumors of Six Flags kicking the tires of SeaWorld.

SeaWorld’s last two CEOs have resigned amid disputes with Ross and the company board.

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