inside seaworld
Spectacular Nature: Corporate Culture and the Sea World Experience by Susan G. Davis University of California Press, Berkeley, 1997[Reprinted with permission of the author and publisher. All rights reserved.]

Excerpt - pages 17-18:

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.

Excerpt: - page 30:
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 commodities.

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?

Excerpt - page 116:
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.

Excerpt - pages 156-157:
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 whales.

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.

Excerpt - page 231:
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 managed.

Excerpt - page 244:
...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.

home .  viewer discussion .  the debate .  inside seaworld .  interviews .  keiko .  slaughter
other captive orcas .  ted griffin .  navy dolphins .  man & marine mammals .  laws
press reaction .  tapes & transcripts

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

pbs online