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Guest Editorial: SeaWorld’s ‘Orca Encounter’ is the show the aquatic park needed

by Attractions Magazine Staff

Earlier this month SeaWorld Orlando debuted its new killer whale show, “Orca Encounter.” This show replaces “One Ocean,” which debuted in April 2011, and took its final bow recently.

Orca Encounter show at SeaWorld Orlando

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.

SeaWorld trainers with killer whales

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.

Trainer with killer whale

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.

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24 comments

Sherryl January 13, 2020 - 1:37 am

I don’t think I will be going back to sea world any more

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Rosell January 13, 2020 - 12:04 pm

Why not? I haven’t been since it was in Ohio.

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Lacey January 13, 2020 - 6:04 pm

What garbage. People stopped going to SeaWorld because they keep their orcas in teeny tanks meant for seals. How does a slightly different show with the same orcas and tanks change that? Calling those of us whom are concerned about these animals “skeptics” suggests that SeaWorld did something to address our concerns, but they have not. This show sounds patronizing and may make some attendees feel like the Orca shows are a positive experience, but they should know that their attendance continues a practice of animal abuse. They shouldn’t be patting themselves on the back. They should teach their family better morals and go elsewhere.

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Shirou January 16, 2020 - 12:50 pm

Ahh peta members at it finest. Let’s attack anything that educates the public, while doing anything ourselves.

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Richard Perhai January 16, 2020 - 11:34 pm

The tanks were specifically built for Orca’s in Orlando. The whole stadium was.

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Aisling May 21, 2021 - 3:12 pm

Such a good point Lacy! And they were built to house them yes but they are the eqiuvalent of a bathtub for us! Did you guys knw orcas can swim over 80-100 miles a day in the ocesn? Oh you had no idea? Not surprising.

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Aisling May 21, 2021 - 3:15 pm

Oh please, you call that education? I am twelve and I know that is garbage and lies. They used to stand on their faces and use them as surfboards for Pete’s sake! Educating the public would be using CG or holographic technology instead of keeping these animals in tiny tanks with strangers, loud music and screaming, with food given for doing tricks that do not remotely show wild behavior. Shirou, reply to me and try to disprove my point. You can’t? Sad.

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Hans David Doderlein February 1, 2020 - 2:27 pm

Orca show is informative and well presented.

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Elsa February 16, 2020 - 4:25 pm

I went yesterday to see the Orca show and it’s totally different from many previews years. It’s more educated and I don’t think there are miss treated at all. There are well feed and if they don’t want to do the show there are no pressure on the orcas. I also done the animal encounter and the tour behind the scenes and it’s very informative. They doing an amazing job.

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Aisling May 21, 2021 - 3:17 pm

Not mistreated? Please. They are fed small, dead, frozen fish and they eat a bunch of gelatin otehrwise they would be severely dehydrated. They have a lower caloric intake and actually, they are forced to do tge show. They used to starve the orcas and dolphins so they would behave! The only thing they are doing an amazing job of is causing needless suffering of endangered animals.

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Jessica January 13, 2020 - 1:49 pm

The reason the conservation message isn’t in the show because it is in the park. The Educators at all the animal exhibits give guests ways they can help wildlife.

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Heather January 13, 2020 - 3:05 pm

On the surface,sure it’s nice that they changed the show to b more educational & stop making those poor Orcas do tricks for their meals,but it’s still an entertainment show&6,000pound+ orcas are stuck in an unstimulating tank!!! The same goes for the dolphins,beluga whales,seals,sea lions&whalrus! And though these beautiful animals can not be released into the wild,they can certainly go to an ocean sanctuary!!!!
I loved SeaWorld,my mom,who is no longer here on Earth,loved it even more& I can’t/won’t even step foot in any of SeaWorlds parks due to the utter disregard for a true life all for the sake of money. Nor do I support kidnapping&that’s what they did/do!!! Shame on u SeaWorld. Why not just take your billions of dollars&do good things for our beautiful&loving animals in need instead of putting them in an entertainment prison?
And yes,I saw the new show via internet& yes,more educational,but still has lies in it,still has performances,and again,these animals are in a water prison! So again I say,Shame on you,you money hungry animal wardens!
PS,no I’m not an activist,I’m just a person that has a voice,a deep love,appreciation & respect for the beauty our world has to offer.

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Robin Devall January 13, 2020 - 5:45 pm

You must not go to The Zoo then either..?

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Standing with SW January 13, 2020 - 6:28 pm

An “unstimulating” tank? I guess the huge collection of live fish in the tanks for the Orcas to hunt and play with is “unstimulating”. Clearly you have not been to SeaWorld is many, many years. Please don’t comment unless you know what you are commenting accurate information.

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Kat January 14, 2020 - 1:41 pm

Yes those huge tanks the orcas are kept in. It is like you were in kept in one small room and given one tomato plant so you can pick your own tomato.

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Aisling May 21, 2021 - 3:19 pm

Pretty sure there is no fish in the tanks, and I have seen a few at some places on Youtube, but the orcas never pay any atention to them, probably because they are so wasted they don’t even know how to HUNT

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Philip January 14, 2020 - 1:28 am

SeaWorld does do good things, they have rescued 10,000s of animals (many of which are rehab + release). When you look at the bad SeaWorld represents it is not even a drop in the bucket compared to how much damage the rest of human activities has done and is doing to ocean life.

I would rather see the animal captivity at SW as a sacrifice to help the others. It’s worth it. Getting people to care about the ocean is not easy, and it is what SeaWorld does best of possibly any organization in existence right now. If you can get even 5% of the human population to be more careful about the trash they throw in the ocean, that is a win and worth the capture and suffering of a few dozen animals. Especially if you are preventing the suffering of thousands more.

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Jeffrey February 7, 2020 - 8:01 am

Do you just special plead everything? Ignoring the reduced life span, poor sociability, and reduced range Orcas have to deal with in captivity compared to the wild?

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Aisling May 21, 2021 - 3:24 pm

Phillip I am crying right now because of you! A SACRIFICE?!?!?! then it is a sacrifice need never be made! I care so much about dolphins and whales and I have never seen them except at the Georgia Aquarium (I am so sad I went there and thought it was okay) and even before that I lvoed them mroe than anything! And it is worth the SUFFERING AND CAPTUR of a few “dozen animals” that is exactly what a sick psycho would say! A few dozen less resident and transient orcas is a colossal blow to their population! I don’t believe you, a win would be umm hm lets see… NOT IMPRISONING ANIMALS TO SPEW PR LIES AND MAKE NOTHING BUT MONEY! TRy and convince me I’ll wait.

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Susan Honeycutt January 14, 2020 - 1:57 am

This is just a farce. Nothing has really changed. These highly intelligent, sensitive mammal are still barely existing in what are basically sensory deprevation tanks until the are released from this torture by death.

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Kevin March 18, 2020 - 6:00 pm

As a former seaworld employee, I can attest to this being true. Nothing has really changed except for what the names they use. Tricks became natural behaviors and shows became encounters. Any good seaworld does, which is quite a lot outside the parks, is merely to try and reduce the negative image they cultivate by raking in money hand over fist by exploiting uneducated people who just want to see an animal up close. That is their only true goal, exploit the lowest common denominator out of as much money as possible,why do you think they offer free beer during the summer…

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James January 14, 2020 - 10:51 am

Same here when I was a kid I wanted to be a trainer at Sea World and do all those things but now I think the opposite and I think poorly of anyone who support’s them

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Sur January 16, 2020 - 10:47 pm

I guess no one goes to Disney Epcot because they have dolphin and other sea creatures experiences in tanks Disney Good — Sea World Bad

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patsy May 18, 2020 - 11:49 pm

why do you have the animals in captivity, do you have them in captivity against there will just to make money?

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