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SeaWorld's Plans for Expansion Bring Opposition on Many Grounds

Tourism: The proposal would take advantage of a more liberal height limit. Critics' fears range from noise to a fundamental change at the theme park.

August 23, 2000|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Call it a battle for the soul of Shamu.

SeaWorld, the aquatic theme park that is San Diego's top tourist attraction, is seeking government approval for a major expansion: a 95-foot "splashdown" ride, a multistory education center, a four-story parking garage and, someday, a 650-room hotel.

There has been opposition whenever SeaWorld, built in 1964, has sought to change or expand its operation or to increase its leasehold, which is about 190 acres in Mission Bay Aquatic Park.

But this is the first time SeaWorld has sought to take advantage of a 1998 ballot measure narrowly endorsed by voters to lift the height limit on the property from 30 feet to 160 feet. The 30-foot limit was part of a coastal protection plan endorsed by voters in 1972.

And with indications that this is the first of several changes SeaWorld may seek in coming years, opposition has taken on a now-or-never tone.

Announced this spring, the expansion plan must be approved by the city Planning Commission, the City Council and the California Coastal Commission, a process that, at a minimum, will stretch into next summer.

Some critics are worried about increased traffic and noise caused by more visitors. Others are just philosophically opposed to keeping healthy animals in captivity.

There are other critics, however, whose objections are based on a fear that the expansion plans will change the nature of SeaWorld, which is one of the few theme parks in the United States on public land.

"I think we should strive to be more like the Monterey Bay Aquarium than like Disneyland," Barbara Workman, a nearby homeowner, told the Planning Commission recently after its tour of SeaWorld.

The villain, as far as some opponents are concerned, is Anheuser-Busch, which bought the park in 1989 and now owns four SeaWorlds and several other parks.

"I think our job is to protect SeaWorld from Anheuser-Busch and its corporate strategy," said Ed Gorham, who has founded the Save Our SeaWorld committee.

"SeaWorld is going Mickey Mouse and Disneyland," said Ruth Sewell, another homeowner. "I think it is unconscionable that SeaWorld is betraying the San Diego community. . . . Leave Mickey, Goofy and Donald Duck to Los Angeles."

The debate about whether SeaWorld is a zoo-like educational facility with some concessions and entertainment, or whether the sea mammals are just performers to lure tourists and induce them to buy trinkets and food, is an old one.

In the early 1960s, when the site was but a mud flat off Perez Cove, there was a move to turn the area into an "oceanarium," an animal refuge and open space for picnics, with either free entry or a nominal fee.

That idea lost out to a proposal from a group of investors to build a theme park with exhibitions of fish and marine animals, a few concessions and a seafood restaurant.

Among the original investors were a restaurant owner from Long Beach, a former public relations director from Disneyland, a biologist and a researcher from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in nearby La Jolla.

Later, the park was sold to San Diego-based publisher Harcourt-Brace-Jovanovich, which sold the park to Anheuser-Busch in 1989. Enter the Clydesdales and a beer garden.

The park's dual identity as amusement center and environmental refuge is symbolized by Shamu. The killer whale died some years ago, but the name and iconic image live on--in Shamu Stadium, on the outside of Southwest Airline planes, in an endless line of merchandise and as an integral part of the city's tourism advertising.

UC San Diego communications professor Susan G. Davis sees Shamu as a paradox. "In Shamu, imaginings of the freedom and power of wildness merge with the recognition that the whale is not only captive but a commodity," she wrote in a 1997 book about SeaWorld. "The whale is simultaneously a transcendent being and a souvenir."

SeaWorld officials insist the park is what it was always intended to be: a mix of theme-park entertainment and scientific research. They prefer to stress SeaWorld's research and rescue activities, such as the recently opened Oiled Wildlife Care Center.

The center includes a 32,000-gallon rehabilitation pool that can accommodate as many as 20 sea otters or pinnipeds, and outdoor aviaries capable of holding as many as 300 seabirds. A state law prompted by the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska called for creation of such centers to be ready in case of an oil spill; most of the centers are government-sponsored.

"SeaWorld is the only private company with money in [the] program," said Bill Davis, the park's general manager.

The park's expansion plans, Davis said, are "faithful to the founding principles and the core values" of the park.

But the fight over the expansion has just begun. The city is reviewing issues of noise, traffic, aesthetics and effect on the water quality of Mission Bay.

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