Sea World in San Diego is developing a state-of-the-art shark exhibit, a new restaurant, a bird show and several other attractions that park officials on Wednesday described as the single largest capital improvement project in the 27-year-old history of the aquatic park.
C. Michael Cross, the park’s general manager, declined Wednesday to state the dollar value of the improvements. However, the capital outlay will exceed the $25 million that Sea World spent during the late 1980s on a major renovation that included a new park entrance and the massive 5,000-seat Shamu Stadium.
Word of the planned additions, scheduled to be completed by next summer, was welcomed by local tourism officials who have been battling the chilling effects of the nationwide slowdown.
“Sea World is one of San Diego’s biggest attractions, and what they do to help themselves helps all of San Diego,” said Al Reese, vice president of the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Cross said the improvements announced Wednesday will help the attraction on Mission Bay to “retain the market share we already have, and, if possible, allow us to steal (market share) from someone else.”
Sea World no longer publishes its annual attendance figures, but industry observers believe that the park’s 1991 paid attendance will be about 3.5 million.
Cross said the improvements also will “position Sea World for the future. . . . We wouldn’t be doing this work without a strong belief” in San Diego’s future as a tourist destination.
Sea World’s planned improvements, some of which still require permits from state and federal agencies, include:
* Shark Encounter, where the “world’s largest collection of sharks” will swim freely through a 680,000-gallon tank, according to Cross. Visitors will be able to watch the sharks from an underwater tunnel made of a clear acrylic material.
The exhibit will house more than a dozen sharks and moray eels, along with “thousands” of brightly colored fishes, said Mike Shaw, Sea World’s curator of fishes. The exhibit is an improved version of “Terrors of the Deep,” an 875,000-gallon walk-through habitat that opened several years ago at the Sea World park in Orlando.
Sea World has received federal regulatory approval to capture more sharks for the show. The park will also use sharks that it already owns, as well as sharks that were acquired from other institutions.
* A new, 25-minute bird show that will utilize the “City Streets” stage that Sea World recently closed down. The “multimillion-dollar show,” which will feature free-flying hawks, aquatic birds and a bald eagle, will “highlight the plight of these endangered birds,” Cross said.
With the exception of the eagle, Sea World will use birds that have been raised in captivity. The eagle, which was rescued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is not in condition to be released into the wild, Cross said.
* An as-yet-unnamed Italian restaurant that will seat up to 500 diners at a time. The 3,660-square-foot facility will be the park’s first new restaurant since 1978.
* Clydesdale Hamlet, a Southern California home for the Anheuser-Busch Clydesdales, the horses that are synonymous with St. Louis-based Anheuser-Busch, Sea World’s corporate parent.
Sea World will reintroduce the popular “Snow World” attraction that last was held during the winter of 1985. The special event that will open this Christmas season will feature a large play area packed with 480 tons of man-made snow.
Snow World was canceled when Sea World was still owned by cash-strapped Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. The park was sold to Anheuser-Busch Entertainment in 1989, along with sister parks in Ohio, Florida and Texas.
Tourism industry observers have credited Anheuser-Busch with pumping needed capital into the Sea World parks around the country. Anheuser-Busch earmarked $15 million for the San Diego park, with a good chunk dedicated to routine maintenance that had been deferred when the park was still owned by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Cross acknowledged that, although the new attractions will bolster attendance, Sea World and other Southern California tourism attractions face yet another tough year, given the sluggish economy in California and across the country.
Whether the industry rebounds after a tough year in 1991 “depends entirely on the economy,” Reese said. “Tourism is a very accurate barometer . . . because tourism depends on discretionary spending. And, when the economy is bad, people cut back on pleasure travel.”
Reese said the shark exhibit, the Clydesdales and the other improvements should help Sea World remain competitive with other Southern California attractions. “Major attractions (like Sea World) seem to have a need to constantly come up with new attractions to maintain their competitive positions,” Reese said.