Welcome to SeaWorld 2.0.
On Tuesday, the company announced it is developing a “next-generation” marine park in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, where virtual reality immerses visitors in the ocean’s realm and Shamu is nowhere to be seen.
“SeaWorld Abu Dhabi will be the first new SeaWorld without orcas, and will integrate up-close animal experiences, mega attractions and a world class aquarium, bringing the latest technology in visitor engagement,” the company said in a statement.
It’s not clear whether the new park, the first SeaWorld outside the United States, will feature other marine mammals, such as dolphins or beluga whales, or where the company would acquire those animals. SeaWorld did not respond to requests for comment.
Opening ahead of the park will be a “marine life research, rescue, rehabilitation and return center with world-class facilities,” the statement said. “This project presents an opportunity for collaboration and greater understanding of how species have adapted to the region’s unique marine environment, and to inspire the next generation of visitors, conservationists and animal care experts.”
SeaWorld will develop the project, slated to open in 2020, in partnership with Abu Dhabi government–backed Miral Asset Management on Yas Island, a burgeoning tourism and entertainment destination in the United Arab Emirates.
The two companies have been discussing the partnership since 2011. Under the deal, SeaWorld will license its brand and provide animal-care expertise. No details about the size and cost of the complex or the types of attractions it will offer were released.
But Miral’s chairman, Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, told The Associated Press that the theme park will deploy 3-D mapping and virtual reality technology to immerse visitors in scientific expeditions or deep-sea dives, something anti-captivity activists have been calling on SeaWorld to do for years.
The announcement of a high-tech, orca-less venue comes at a time when SeaWorld is confronting growing public disapproval for holding killer whales in captivity, declining attendance, and a falling stock price. The company last week said it would eliminate about 320 jobs.
SeaWorld announced in March that it would phase out killer whale shows and end its captive orca breeding program in the United States, and that it would not display the animals at any overseas park it opened. A month later, California passed a law banning orca shows and breeding in that state.
The Abu Dhabi park, then, “really positions SeaWorld for the future in the right way,” SeaWorld chief executive Joel Manby told AP. “This is the right time to do it, as we are pivoting the brand in a new direction.”
Animal-welfare advocates had mixed feelings about the news.
“Hopefully, something new is on the horizon,” said Howard Garrett, director of the Orca Network, a Washington state–based conservation group that has long opposed captivity. “We have changed society, and SeaWorld is trying to start over. It seems like there’s this reset in Abu Dhabi.”
“SeaWorld is admitting you can make money without killer whales,” he added.
Garrett said the use of virtual reality at SeaWorld parks was long overdue.
“We’ve been trying to tell them to do that for 15 years,” he said. “Now they are looking at world opinion and, if they stick with this and don’t bring in any orcas – although I’m worried they’ll have a bunch of choreographed dolphins to show – at least they will have a lot of non-animal shows to depict animals, which I think would be far more thrilling and educational, to feel what it’s like to be in a deep-sea habitat with whales and dolphins.”
“It will be really interesting to see if they send some of their animals from abroad or potentially even from the wild, though I think that would be unlikely, because back here, it would look hypocritical to get around U.S. laws,” she said.
“If they still want to do business in the United States, what they do abroad matters,” she added. “They have to stay consistent with how they are rebranding themselves.”
Rose is also encouraged by the move toward virtual reality. “If it’s a huge hit, that will help us more than them,” she said. “We can say to them, ‘You should do it everywhere, get rid of these animals.’ ”