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SeaWorld bets $175 million on new orca shows and virtual-reality attractions

SeaWorld bets $175 million on new orca shows and virtual-reality attractions
SeaWorld San Diego will launch an orca encounter next summer that will have the feel of a live documentary. It will replace the more theatrical Shamu shows that have long been a fixture at the park. (SeaWorld Entertainment)

SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. said it would spend $175 million on new attractions, including a documentary-style orca encounter in San Diego to replace the theatrical Shamu shows that have been the park's signature draw for half a century.

The substantial investment in new rides and marine mammal experiences marks what SeaWorld is calling one of its largest new attraction years in its history. The Tuesday announcement, which includes Florida's first virtual reality coaster at its Orlando, Fla., marine park, also signals the company's move to lure more visitors with cutting-edge theme park technology while still staying true to its mission of providing meaningful experiences that it hopes will educate and inspire people to take action on behalf of animals and the environment.

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The attractions planned for San Diego — the new orca encounter and a miniature submarine ride geared to young families — had previously been announced, but the virtual reality coaster is a project that SeaWorld had not revealed before Tuesday. The plan is to retrofit Kraken, SeaWorld Orlando's oldest coaster, with virtual reality headsets, immersing riders on a deep-sea mission alongside sea creatures inspired by extinct and mythical creatures of the past, including the fictional Kraken.

While there is no virtual reality coaster in Florida now, more theme parks are looking to incorporate the technology into their rides, led by Six Flags, which has added headsets to some of its coasters, including Magic Mountain's reinvented New Revolution VR coaster that debuted this year.

SeaWorld is trying to boost attendance and revenue, which have been hit by criticism of its treatment of its orcas as well as its Shamu shows that called on the killer whales to perform tricks and acrobatic moves. In March, the company said it was ending breeding of its 29 orcas and phasing out the theatrical shows.

Last week, in the face of lower cash reserves than it anticipated, SeaWorld revealed that it would cut its next quarterly dividend by more than half and suspend future payouts.

"They still have huge issues around image and branding they have to overcome," said theme park consultant Dennis Speigel of International Theme Park Services. Still, he added, "They have 50 years of legacy that won't go away in two years."

Plans for the new orca encounter, which eventually will be introduced at the other marine parks in Orlando and San Antonio, will be designed to showcase the whales' natural behaviors — hunting, eating, communicating — against a documentary-style backdrop that will transport the audience to locations in the wild.

This past summer, visitors to the San Diego park could have gotten a sense of where SeaWorld was headed if they had happened to see the new "Killer Whales: Up Close" presentation, where the trainers talk about the care given orcas, what they eat, their coloration pattern and what guests can do to help protect the oceans.

Next summer, visitors will see the park's new Ocean Explorer attraction, which will occupy 3 acres and feature multiple aquariums and a three-minute-long submarine ride that will give guests the sense of being a deep-sea explorer. The subs will be outfitted with digital navigation dashboards customized for different age levels.

The San Diego and Orlando parks will also be getting a new nighttime show called Electric Ocean that will include bioluminescent lighting, music and performances along the parks' pathways.

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