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San Diego Zoo and Sea World in Wild Race for Visitors

Tourism: African and Arctic exhibits are unveiled after months of preparation in what has become a trend among parks to keep tourists coming year after year.


SAN DIEGO — They are the twin engines driving San Diego's supercharged tourist economy and, in the process, shaping the city's preferred image as a place devoted to family fun in the sun.

One is owned by a high-minded, nonprofit corporation, the other by a beer company, but more often than not they are linked in a common mantra posed to visitors: "Have you been to the zoo or Sea World yet?"

Or as one Midwestern travel agent put it, "To the outside world, the zoo and Sea World are San Diego."

To the inside world, much the same could be said.

This is a city where zoo animals are known by name, and their arrivals, courtships and deaths are front-page news, where more people probably know the name Shamu than the name of their congressional representative.

There is also this offshoot of the Sea World-San Diego Zoo dynamic: a friendly but spirited competition each year to unveil the summer's biggest blockbuster attraction and thereby lay claim as King of the Tourists.

Summer attractions are months in the planning and millions of dollars in the making, and advance details are guarded like military secrets.

"In the travel industry, this is called 'arsenal wars,' " said Tim O'Brien, an editor at Amusement Business magazine. "All tourist sites need to keep the buzz going, and the tendency is to try to become the largest, biggest, fastest."

Two years ago, the zoo unveiled Hippo Beach and Sea World launched Shamu's Happy Harbor. Last year, it was Polar Bear Plunge and Shamu Backstage, respectively.

And last week, in much-trumpeted roll-out campaigns, Heart of Africa made its debut at the San Diego Zoo's Wild Animal Park, and Wild Arctic opened for business at Sea World on Mission Bay.

No short-change attractions these. Heart of Africa and Wild Arctic are easily the biggest, boldest and most innovative attractions either site has developed.

Heart of Africa is a 30-acre "themed experience" done up to look like an African safari, complete with cracked mud pathways, close-up looks at monkeys, hoofed stock, aardvarks, multiple species of birds and, in a break with zoo tradition, a chance to hand-feed the giraffes. (Sea World two years ago began letting patrons touch the orcas and dolphins.)

Wild Arctic--a duplicate of an attraction at Sea World in Florida--is 82,000 square feet of a movie lot-style environment with polar bears, beluga whales, walruses, harbor seals and more, set amid a faux research station. Think Universal Studios with marine mammals.

If you guessed that both venues have gift shops stocked with attraction-specific T-shirts, stuffed animals, mugs, books and other buy-me-daddy-buy-me items, you've begun to catch on.

There are reasons for the pell-mell rush to tourism season this particular summer.

For one, the revived national economy has the tourism industry sensing a bonanza season (this after a 5% increase in San Diego last year). For another, regional competition is fierce and getting fiercer.

"One of the more significant trends has been for beach and ocean resorts to lose business to more entertainment-based destinations," said Jim Cammisa, editor of a Miami-based travel industry newsletter. "You either have to put some theater into your destination or fall behind."

That warning is not lost on San Diego County, where tourism is a $4-billion-a-year industry, ranking behind only manufacturing and the military as an economic behemoth.

"Of tourist cities, only Las Vegas and Orlando (home to Disney World) don't have to worry," said David Nuffer, San Diego publicist and president of the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau. "The rest of us have to compete."

Part of competition is publicity, and the zoo and Sea World began their summer public relations offensives last week, with media tours, sneak previews and advertising blitzes, culminating in dueling grand openings Saturday.

The zoo has a three-part television commercial with music from the movie "Out of Africa." It also has a secret weapon: a companion commercial with the top mammalian attraction of all, pandas ("One who eats bamboo will steal your heart") on long-term loan from Beijing.

Sea World is but a half-step behind. Its swimming polar bear commercial for Wild Arctic is fetching, and, in a coup of sorts, Sea World arranged for Julia Sweeney, the comic best known for the androgynous Pat character on "Saturday Night Live," to emcee the attraction's debut bash.

Truth be told, tourism officials say that the choice between the zoo and Sea World is not an either/or dilemma for most visitors. Many attend both, or even both zoo locations, Balboa Park near downtown and the Wild Animal Park, as well as Sea World--the trifecta of tourism.

"Sure we compete with Sea World," said Amelia Brazell, director of marketing for the San Diego Zoological Society. "But we also cooperate" in joint advertising and promotions put together by the convention and visitors bureau.

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