SeaWorld. Which days will your child remember?

Published August 16, 2010   permalink

"Child hood lasts ap proximately 4,320 days. Which ones will your child remember?"

Working at GSD&M, I first saw this spot just about the time our son ( now 9 years old) was born. It brought tears to my eyes, literally. We were season pass holders at Sea World (San Antonio, TX) shortly thereafter and have been ever since. We've been to the park dozens of times, and absolutely cherish it, especially in comparison to nearby SIx Flags (went once--seemed hotter, not as clean, didn't see the need to go back).

Recently we "Slept with the Sharks," an overnight program run by Sea World Adventure Camps where kids and parents get to sleep in ( to...) the shark tank.

Leaving Sea World after this experience, my wife and I were both left thinking "Wow...kind of a let down. I'm not sure I'd remember these two days." Here's why, and what could be done.

First, understand that SeaWorld is no longer owned by a premiere beer company, which inherently understands entertainment. The Clydesdales are gone, the Anheuser-Busch pavilion, which used to offer adults a free beer, is now a generic for-pay restaurant. This and other similar changes have been happening for a while, and we just sort of accepted those because hey, this was still SeaWorld!

This particular weekend was different in more significant ways. The guide with our group was wonderful --she was fun, helpful, pleasant. But "behind her" so to speak was a process that left a lot to be desired. Here's an example: Check in was 5pm, and the notices and instructions said clearly that "Dinner will provided any time between 5:30pm and 8:00pm." Most people travel an hour or more to get to SeaWorld (for us, it's 2 hours) and kids nearing the dinner hour need food. The first "reality" hit when realized that dinner was available when SeaWorld said it was available, which would be sometime between 5:30 and 8PM. For our group, it was about 7:00pm when we ate. Kids don't do well without food.

But wait, there's more. Not only was dinner later than anyone had expected (go back read that instructional note again, and imagine being on a cruise ship and seeing "You can eat dinner anytime between 5:30 and 8pm.") but we were not allowed to stop and buy refreshments. This again is in the program instructions. As we walked through the various exhibits (where we could not buy food to feed the animals, either, again per instructions) we sort of endured. Note too that we actually did buy some food (begging forgiveness is always better than asking permission) for the seals (which was great fun.) Eventually, we got to dinner (Pizza, which was fresh and hot) and then headed off to "see Shamu."

We arrived at the Shamu theater at 7:50. The show started at 8:30. We were asked to sit down and wait. We were not allowed to sit in the splash zone, but instead were placed high in the bleachers. Mind you that we had paid $75 per person (normal full day pass, including all exhibits and rides is $59.95) for this overnight. We checked in at 5:30, and had to leave at 8am the next morning. No rides included, either. So there we sat, for 40 minutes. At one point I got up to buy a refreshment for my wife and myself: Upon returning I was reprimanded by a program official (and NOT by our wonderful guide, who was a bit embarrassed) as i was told "No purchases are allowed in the PROGRAM." Program? What kind of word is that to use? Just made me wonder...

After the show, we listened to a short lecture about sea life (very interesting). Of course, the kids were starting to nod off...perhaps this could been done before the show. Just a thought.

The overnight too was a let down: We got in our sleeping bags, and the lights went out. We slept in darkness (couldn't see the sharks, for example) until we were awakened at about 6am and told we had limited time so please pack up and head out. The park needs to ready for its guests (whereas we were what?...) who would be arriving at 10am when the park opened.

So here's the deal: This is not a rant about how poor the SeaWorld camp was. In fact, was really pretty good. We learned a lot, kids loved it (logistics like food aside) and no one got eaten. But that misses the bigger point: If I'd been a first time SeaWorld attendee--and many parents were--I'd see no reason to return. The actual experience was generic, the distinct impression was that from a management perspective we were "OK, as long as we didn't interfere with paying guest operations" and than in general SeaWorld had devolved from a truly remarkable experience to an "also ran" with some very special animals.

Now owned by private equity firm Blackstone, the challenge is to restore the "Wow!" factor. Here are a few simple things that could be done:
1) On check in, offer an "early dinner" and "late dinner" choice. Check in is a twenty minute window (5p - 5:20p) so rather than assigning people as they arrive (splitting families arriving in different cars that would otherwise like to enjoy the park together) empower guests to choose there own itinerary, within limits. Just finished a late lunch? (like we did) -- Then hey, choose the late dinner. Been telling your kids "We'll eat as soon as we get to SeaWorld for the last two hours?" then opt for the early dinner. Choice is an amazingly powerful customer management tool.
2) Give each child a fish to feed to a seal. This program is a premium price over the full-day, non-discounted pass, with no ride privileges. We're talking one fish here...
3) Since there is obviously slack time (we sat for 40 minutes waiting for the show) invite people to visit the nearby guest shops. Parents and kids wanted souvenirs, but were not allowed to buy them. Huh? (Remember, we had to leave by 8am, well before shops opened.)
4) Let the kiddos sit in the splash zone. C' basic that?

I really hope to see SeaWorld get this fixed. The camps, like all SeaWorld programming, are great introductions for kids and parents as to why it is so important that we protect the environment, that we think about habitat and treatment of wildlife, and that there are amazingly wonderful, intelligent creatures all around us. SeaWorld has always stood out as an exceptional experience, and I know for a fact that our son will remember the many days he spent at SeaWorld from age 2 onward. The question is, will the kids and parents who attend the Adventure Camps overnight program take away the same memory, or will it instead be simply one more "checked off" activity. "SeaWorld? Done that." For all that SeaWorld has meant to us, I hope it's more.A lot more.

Reader's Comments

Mr. Evans, please excuse our delay in responding to your blog. We were made aware of your post after your follow-up article on ClickZ today. Thank you so much for your feedback in this post. I’ve shared it with our management staff. If you have additional thoughts to share, please email us at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) so we can follow up with you personally.

Brian Carter
SeaWorld San Antonio

By SeaWorld San Antonio