SeaWorld San Diego plans to add a major aquarium-based attraction

SeaWorld San Diego visitors view an orca whale through a window at the park in 2014.
(Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

SeaWorld San Diego, moving to rebuild its brand and revive lagging attendance, unveiled plans Tuesday for a major aquarium-based attraction featuring a submarine ride that will traverse a 3-acre area.

Designed to mimic a global research expedition, the Ocean Explorer ride will offer visitors close-up views of huge octopuses and spider crabs, along with hundreds of colorful jellyfish as they navigate a new SeaWorld realm via mini subs.

The San Diego park says it’s on track for a late spring opening next year.


The announcement comes a few months after SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment Chief Executive Joel Manby said the company was putting on hold a $100-million plan to double the volume of the San Diego park’s killer whale tanks and would divert a significant portion of that budget to a marketable attraction.

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SeaWorld San Diego President John Reilly would not disclose the cost of Ocean Explorer but said it would be in the tens of millions of dollars. Ocean Explorer, he noted, was already in the works before Manby spoke last November about the possibility of diverting money from the killer whale project.

SeaWorld’s tank expansion plans were stalled after the California Coastal Commission voted last year to bar future captive breeding of orcas as a condition of approval of the project. The theme park company has filed suit challenging the commission’s authority to regulate the care and breeding of killer whales.

Assuming Ocean Explorer passes muster with the Coastal Commission, construction is expected to begin by this summer.

Ocean Explorer’s three-minute-long submarine excursion will be one of five planned rides, including a “wave swinger” that is modeled after a similar attraction at Busch Gardens Williamsburg. In the Ocean Explorer version, individuals will be suspended in chairs from the tentacles of a giant rotating jellyfish as they fly through thousands of real bubbles.

“The idea behind [Ocean Explorer] is you’ll be transported around on a research expedition and you’ll be learning about all these animals and then will leave SeaWorld inspired to act on their behalf,” Reilly said.

Theme park consultant Dennis Speigel said Tuesday that the Ocean Explorer is the right prescription for an ailing SeaWorld. The San Diego park has been hit hardest by the backlash against SeaWorld since the release of the 2013 documentary “Blackfish” that was critical of the theme park company’s treatment of killer whales.

SeaWorld San Diego attendance last year was 3.6 million, down more than 4% from 2014’s 3.7 million visitors and an even more precipitous decline from 2013 when 4.5 million people visited the park.

“They need to reconstitute their product and this is what they’re doing,” said Speigel, president of Ohio-based International Theme Park Services. “These are the kinds of attractions that are highly marketable and really reach out to both the local market and the tourist.”


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