In the middle 1980s, when I began this project, the theme park as public
space seemed like an intriguing metaphor. By 1996, it is less a metaphor than
an incipient reality. I have already noted that the theme park suffuses
entertainment with advertising and public relations. But there are more
boundaries to blur. In the current context of discussions about dismantling
public education, when Sea World argues that it produces a mental-educational
product, it is not hard to imagine that the theme park might soon replace the
classroom. Indeed, I argue here in some ways it has already done so.
Similarly, given the growing enthusiasm for subcontracted, long-distance
instruction via video and computer, Sea World's education and media departments
may soon find themselves producing courses for schools and colleges, a project
that is already well under way in San Diego. Given the increasing
commerciailzation of formerly public functions and the swollen rhetoric
claiming that private enterprise can alwavs do public work better, such
scenarios are entirely plausible. SeaWorld's entrance into the schoolroom
would be another step in the injection of a corporate view into the content of
education, as well as an extension of control over the educational process.
Such incursions could and arguably already do limit and distort democratic
control over education, over what can be taught and learned. Whether or not
such scenes come to pass, Sea World and places like it have had an important
role to play in heralding the growing role of the private corporation in
producing public services for a profit, just as they have been important in
promoting the private corporation as environmental activist and educational
philanthropist. Sea World is successful in its public roles in part because it
has occupied the entertainment space of nature so well and mobilized the
universalistic meanings of nature so aggressively. Whether this corporation
and others like it ought to occupy such an ample space is a different question,
and I hope this book will help educators, parents, and citizens address it.
In the case of Sea World, the live nature of the oceans and coasts is the
heart of the successful entertainment-promotional mix. Nature-- living
creatures in harmonious environmental balance-exists at Sea World as a
commodity for sale in its own right, in order to sell other things and to help
people feel good about larger social projects and arrangements, including the
high-consumption economy typified by the theme park itself. On one hand, Sea
World shares this use of nature as a surface with much of the rest of American
consumer culture, and in this sense, nature is just another industrial
product or symbolic cornmodity, available today to anyone who can afford the
poster, the T-shirt, or the ticket. But of course, in another sense, nature is
not just another product -not only is it the basis of all human existence but
culturally it carries meanings that seem special and magical. It is a world
beyond the human that is invented out of inevitably human meanings and desires,
an escape from the limited, the routine, and the mundane. Here the oceanic
nature on display at Sea World may have special salience. As we shall see in
chapter 3, there is something special about the underwater worlds the theme
park constructs for viewing. They can seem especially remote, deep, and
endless, free of boundaries and limits. Such nature visions promise
transcendence of the polluted and conflictual social world on land, even while
we realize that they are in fact terrestrial and, artificial, highly processed
As a piece of industrial magic, Sea World represents an enormous
contradiction. Using living animals, captive seas, and flourishing,
landscapes, the theme park has organized the subtle and contradictory cultural
meanings of nature into a machine for mass consumption. At the same time and
despite its best efforts, Sea World makes nature -one of the ideas most taken
for granted in Western culture -into a problem that leads to questions. Why
should nature in general and ocean life in particular be so central to the
workings of this hypercommercial space? How does nature work as a commodity in
the late twentieth century? In what way is what we see at Sea World "natural"
or unnatural? Who wants to see it and buy it, and why?
On inspection, what is compelling though not at all strange about Sea World is
its offer of freedom and leisure combined with the careful control of
perception and the evocation of feeling. There is never anything wild,
chaotic, or out of control about this theme park-except as we shall see, at
moments when performing animals cause problems despite the park's claim to show
us dangerous, unrestrained, and startling nature. Indeed, all "nature" at the
park, from the perennial borders to the sharks in their coral reef dioramas, is
thoroughly tamed. Even the whole-environment displays show or tell very little
about the cornplex patterns of animal life and society in the wild. To do so
might emphasize how far from the wild the animals are at Sea World. To see
some version of real "wildness," the audience would have to see something
potentially complex and confusing, something perhaps not transparently visible
or harmonious or colorful at all.
Producing this environment is a complicated series of interconnected tasks,
and Sea World's management will admit that it doesn't always work so well.
They get letters complaining about lines, high prices, bad food, predatory sea
gulls, scheduling, impolite employees, the hot sunshine, animals that will not
perform, and, again, high prices and long lines. Nevertheless, the park as a
machine for moving people, showing them things, and selling them things has
worked reasonable well for decades, well enough to return excellent rates of
profit in most years. Although Sea World continues to refine and expand its
exhibits, most of the changes in the park are at this point just that -
refinements of a system that works rather well for an audience familiar with
the nature theme park as a well known commodity. Failing some severe crisis--
unionization of the employees, an earthquake damaging the phvsical plant, or a
sharp change in consumer attitudes toward animal performances - the turnstile
game will tick along, supported by the electronic number-gathering technology,
accumulated managerial wisdom, and low-wage labor that make it possible.
The history of performing marine mammals helps shed light on the ingredients
that go into the whale shows. In the United States, the first large oceanarium
was developed as part of the film industry; Marine Studios opened in 1938, to
film movies under water; it later became Marineland of Florida. The
oceanarium-studio was integrated into the powerful Florida tourism industry; in
1949 it began featuring short dolphin performances. In the early 1950s,
Marineland spun off Marineland of the Pacific, in Palos Verdes, California, and
in the early 1960s, Karen and Tap Pryor raised the money to build Sea Life
Park, a dolphin research facility cum tourist attraction in Hawaii. Karen
Pryor was one of the first people to work in a concentrated and applied way to
discover what dolphins in captivity could be trained to do. Her writings and
lectures taught a generation of marine mammal trainers and researchers around
the United States.
Mike Scarpuzzi, Sea World of California's head trainer, learned his craft
from his uncle and grandfather who had started a small dolphin show in Florida
in the 1950s. This family business was one of many small attractions that
existed on the periphery of the tourist economy and embodied a kind of folk knowledge of training; at times the
Scarpuzzis barely scraped by. By the early 1970s, however, the industry, was
growing quickly and it became clear that the petty entertainments were a thing
of the past. With the rapid expansion of mass tourism in South Florida (of
which Sea World in Orlando was a part), the increasing governmental limits
on the capture and treatment of marine mammals, and the need for larger
pools and theaters, it was clear that only businesses with a lot of capital
would be contenders in the game. Scarpuzzi hired on with Sea World and
began, along with other trainers, to apply his skills to work with killer
When it came to discovering how to keep killer whales alive in captivity, the
large oceanariums like Sea World and Marineland were destined to succeed over
sideshows, small museums, and parks. The tourist attractions were supported by
companies that could afford the construction of huge tanks and elaborate water
circulation systems necessary to keep the whales alive, the expensive
veterinary care, the thousands of pounds of food a day, and the lawyers to
negotiate legislative and regulaton, mazes. And as the Sea World parks grew,
they could support specialized training staffs that devoted all their time to
working with the performers. The scene was quite different when Mike Scarpuzzi
worked for his uncle back in the seventies. As he recalls, "... I took care of
the water. I went and got the fish. I gave the medicine, I called the vets.
I did the stretches. I trained the [dolphins]. I cleaned the pool. I painted
the pool. My family constructed and built the oceanarium. My uncle, my
grandfather, my dad, and I. Totally from the bottom. There's just no way you
can do that now."
Sea World's size, profitability, and corporate backing allowed it to produce a
new commodity--the performing orca--and to dedicate staff to the behavioral
shaping and physical reproduction of those performers. The progressive
expansion of Sea World from a local company to a national chain, to a
publisher's subsidiary, to part of the Busch Entertainment Corporation has
meant ups and downs for its entertainment managers, but in general it
has also provided a growing bank of financial and technical resources to draw
on, and as a result, productions can be more expensive and elaborate.
Finally, the work of creating feelings and relationships interlocks with the
task of helping the audience understand their own relationship to Sea World and
its corporate parent. In the process of loving and taming, investigating and
breeding, Shamu becomes a mediator between the audience, Anheuser-Busch, and
the larger corporate world. These multinational economic actors must indeed
have our best interests at heart if then, care so much about the killer whale.
And here at Sea World, in their own domain, we the audience learn to love them,
as we learn to see the mighty beast as the tame prankster who will kiss a
little girl. Through Shamu's apparent free will, playful rebellions, and final
cooperation we learn that the real nature of being in the world is to cooperare
and conform. Nature is separate from our world but it exists in harmony with
private enterprise. Wildness itself is really obedient. It is obedient to
human beings, and it is cheerful in the face of research, and it is, after all,
not as vulnerable as we feared, for it presents itself as willing to be
...By taking the right to have an authoritative opinion, by extending itself
into the schools, and by calling itself a research institution, Sea World has
made itself into a private-public actor.
Given these claims to responsibility, it's fair to ask what public needs the
theme park does fill. On the level of customer as individual, Sea World urges
us to think about our relationship to the world by having feelings that it
helps design; it puts seeing and touching, contact and for the customer, while
it argues that the experts will take care of the complicated scientific and
technical parts. More generally, Sea World is a material argument for private
business solutions to environmental problems that, though unequal in their
origins and effects, are of course not private but collective and social in the
most profound sense. And perhaps most important, like all major theme parks
Sea World is an advertisement for and a triumphal, material celebration capital
of the wonders that the private corporation and multinational capital can
produce. A public service needs to be assessed in terms of how broadly
positive, effective, and equally accessible its benefits are. Unless we think
that public service means creating audience emotions that in turn validate and
promote private solutions, it is hard to see what progress is made here. Of
course, Sea World does serve its corporate parent admirably, providing both a
good return on investment and excellent public image benefits. But this is
completely private service despite the fact that the imagery of public effort
has been channeled to produce it.
viewer discussion .
the debate .
inside seaworld .
other captive orcas .
ted griffin .
navy dolphins .
man & marine mammals .
press reaction .
tapes & transcripts
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