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Sea World Building New Pool for Shamu : $18-Million Expansion to Give S.D. Park World’s Largest Marine Mammal Habitat

Times Staff Writer

Construction has begun at Sea World’s Mission Bay aquatic theme park on an $18-million expansion that Sea World officials say will make it “the largest marine mammal habitat in the world.”

A 7-million-gallon tank for killer whales with a 3,500-seat stadium will be the centerpiece of the project, which was announced by Sea World of California officials at a press conference Monday. The expansion, the most ambitious in the park’s 22-year history, will include a new front gate complex and an education center, increasing the park’s size from 95 to 110 acres.

“The park has been here a long time and, though we’ve added to it one element at a time, we’ve never done anything on this scale,” said George Becker Jr., president of Sea World of California. “It’s the start of the third decade for Sea World in California and we felt we should do it in a fitting manner.”

Attendance was not a primary reason for the expansion, Becker said, noting that Sea World had 3.1 million visitors in 1985 and admissions have steadily risen by about 3% a year.

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“We’re always anticipating the business of several years down the road,” Becker said. “With the killer whale facility, we need more size for more animals and for the animals we have as they mature and get larger.”

The $12-million killer whale stadium, scheduled to be completed next May, will be slightly larger than a similar one built last year at Sea World’s park in Orlando, Fla. Even after the expansion, however, Sea World San Diego will remain physically smaller than the Florida park.

“It won’t be as many acres as Sea World Florida, but San Diego as an oceanarium will have more in it than any other facility in terms of exhibits,” Becker said.

Besides being the most expensive part of the expansion, the new tank to showcase the park’s star attraction, a killer whale called Shamu, is the most difficult logistically. Before bulldozers began grading six weeks ago, Sea World officials had to complete a three-year journey through seven city departments and the California Coastal Commission to obtain necessary permits.

“The main performing pool will be 35 feet deep,” Becker said. “We’re well below the water table in Mission Bay, so it’s a very complex project to build.”

Simple by comparison will be the $2.2-million “Places of Learning” education center, designed by the publishing firm of Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, which owns Sea World Inc. The center, to be completed by December, will include a “parents’ store” offering “all the latest in educational paraphernalia,” such as maps, books and games, Becker said.

Another attraction will be a one-acre concrete map of the United States, with pools of water representing the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico, and an ice-skating rink representing Alaska. A similar map, which is in Florida but is not part of the Sea World park there, has proven very popular, Becker said.

Also due to be completed by December is the park’s new $3.5-million front gate complex, which Sea World officials hope “will facilitate a smooth flow of people in and out of the park.”

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However, the new front gate will feature something Sea World officials have been reticent about promoting--higher admission prices. General admission, currently $14.95 for adults and $10.95 for children, will be increased by an as yet undetermined amount. Becker said the rise is not related to the expansion, since Sea World usually increases admission prices every two years, and has not done so since 1985.

“Our prices in California are much less expensive than those in our other parks,” he said. “We have a very large resident visitorship and we’re sensitive to what they’re willing to pay. We think the new facilities will give people a greater value in terms of things to do.”

Sea World’s value as a profitable theme park does not eclipse its importance as a center for research on aquatic mammals, according to David Butcher, vice president for animal research. Instead, Butcher said, the commercial success of Sea World parks in San Diego, Orlando and Cleveland helps protect endangered species of killer whales and dolphins without exploiting the animals.

“You don’t see any fire hoops . . . these animals are not doing circus tricks by any means,” Butcher said. “The entertainment angle and the research angle go hand in hand. It is almost like we are breaking down the barrier between man and the rest of the animal kingdom, and the result is so enjoyable to watch that we built stadiums.”

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