By Dr. Brian W. Ogle, assistant professor of anthrozoology with specialties in zoos and aquariums at Beacon College in Leesburg, Fla.
The new show does a fantastic job of entertaining guests while educating them about the care of the animals at SeaWorld. While not innovative in design or approach, the show is more successful at delivering targeted messaging than “One Ocean,” but also remains friendlier to a theme-park audience than SeaWorld San Diego’s version. “One Ocean” is uniquely SeaWorld. This is the show SeaWorld Orlando long has needed.
As an anthrozoologist and advocate for zoos and aquariums, I cheered when SeaWorld announced it would join other facilities across the country in replacing its orca shows with educational presentations. Many facilities after doing so, watched their guest satisfaction scores soar.
Still, I questioned SeaWorld’s ability to execute these shows without turning its back on its traditional theme park audience. “Orca Encounter” follows the trend in zoos and aquariums of replacing traditional, entertainment-only shows with presentations with education as the heartbeat. SeaWorld Orlando adopted this approach with its launch of the “Dolphin Days” show at the Dolphin Theater. By keeping the “One Ocean” title song and aping “Dolphin Days’” structure, “Orca Encounter” feels familiar and comfortable to the SeaWorld audience.
Unfortunately, it is in its conservation messaging that “Orca Encounter” falls short. As in most SeaWorld Orlando shows, the specific conservation message — as well as the call to action — is vague and nondescript. This stands in stark contrast to SeaWorld’s Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited peers. Many, during their animal presentations, often outline specific and recognizable actions guests can take in their everyday life.
True, SeaWorld is a popular theme park and thus entertaining guests is imperative. At the same time, SeaWorld is an accredited zoological facility that should leverage its highly recognizable brand to promote actionable conservation to its guests. I left feeling underwhelmed in this regard, especially after a particularly striking set-up into the messaging. Following an exciting segment demonstrating the power and strength of this top carnivore, a simple image materializes onscreen to reveal to the audience the “most powerful animal in the ocean:” an image of a human staring back at the audience. This transition gave me goosebumps — but failed to capitalize appropriately on the moment.
While the “aha” moment clearly communicated to the audience that we not only hold the power to destroy the oceans, but also to save them, SeaWorld misses out on the perfect opportunity to harness the audience’s emotional response and provide directed conservation messaging yoked with a meaningful call to action for their guests.
Though its conservation messaging could be beefed up, “Orca Encounter” helps lift the veil of animal training at SeaWorld Orlando. The show provides a relevant context behind the behaviors the audience sees. The behaviors often witnessed in shows for years, often have a different purpose, often associated with medical care. This was one of the most important aspects of the show as it helps to communicate openly with guests about the nature of these trained behaviors.
So too, is the messaging throughout the show that not only demonstrates the power and strength of orcas, but also takes care to spotlight the trainers, their bond with the animals, and the excellent care SeaWorld provides.
While the show does not completely step away from the image of a killer whale show, it helps reconcile concerns voiced by guests and park critics. It shows SeaWorld is striving to merge its conflicting identities of a theme park and first-class aquarium. Not only that, “Orca Encounter” offers an olive branch to skeptics who ditched the parks — promising that it now is OK to return — while providing loyal fans with more reason to continue to support the brand.