2014: Al Weber, who held CEO positions at Paramount Parks, Six Flags, and Palace Entertainment, starts his own company – Apex Parks. The new chain, financed by two investment firms – Broad Sky Partners and Edgewater Funds – starts off by purchasing fourteen family entertainment centers (FECs) and Big Kahuna’s Water Park in Destin, FL from Palace Entertainment. Joining Weber is an experienced management team migrating from Palace, including Doug Honey as CFO, Gregg Borman as SVP Operations, and Ken Kobane as VP Business Development. Together, the four bring more than 100 years experience in FEC and amusement park operations to Apex. Among the new company’s board members – Tim Fisher, at the time CEO of Village Roadshow Theme Parks, who had established a close professional bond with Weber while at Paramount Parks.
2015: Apex Parks purchases the historic Indiana Beach amusement park, ninety minutes north of Indianapolis. Broad Sky’s founders, including Apex Chairman Tyler Zachem, join investment firm Carlyle Group. Broad Sky’s ownership stake in two companies – Apex Parks Group and pet goods label Mana – transitions to Carlyle.
2016: Apex Parks purchases another historic amusement park – Fantasy Island, near Niagara Falls, NY. Weber has grand plans for updating both Indiana Beach and Fantasy Island while honoring each historic parks’ heritages. In early November, Weber dies. How valuable was Weber to the company? According to his key person life insurance policy (when a company takes out a life insurance policy on an executive and is payed upon death), $10 million. This turned out to be a payout Protective Life Insurance Company refused to honor, based on its allegations that key health information on Weber was not included in the application. After an expensive seven day trial, a jury rules in Apex’s favor. At the end of the year and starting into the next, new management joins the Apex team. Fomer Six Flags Great Adventure park president John Fitzgerald is named the park’s new CEO. Brenda Morris, formerly a Finance SVP with clothing chain Torrid, becomes consulting CFO.
2017: Indiana Beach adds Oktoberfest and Halloween festivals.
2018: Indiana Beach adds “Rockin’ the Beach” summer concert series.
2019: Carlyle Group purchases three of Latin America’s largest (primarily mall-based) FEC chains – Peru’s Coney Island Attractions (86 locations), Columbia’s Happy City (50 locations), and Chile’s YuKids (33 locations). Rather than merge the operations with Apex Parks, the two are maintained separately in the Carlyle Group portfolio.
2020: Indiana Beach, Fantasy Island, and two FECs are permanently closed by Apex Parks. Why? Fitzgerald is an experienced attraction operator and he undoubtedly has an understanding of Weber’s vision, having served as General Manager of Paramount’s Terra Mitica in Spain when Weber was CEO of Paramount Parks. But, as we’ve seen with other theme park operators over the past few years, there’s a hierarchy in decision making. Management reports to the Board of Directors and the Board reports to the shareholders. When individual shareholders control the board, executives may not have a say in decision making. Sometimes this leads to differing approaches on how to solve an issue. If an executive believes that an infusion of cash may be necessary to maintain a property operating in the red, the shareholder/Board may find it easier to shutter the property (before the season starts), dismantle it, and sell it off for a quick infusion of cash. I’ve personally seen this happen with one of my former employers. The question then going forward is – where does that cash go? Does it go to Apex to pay off debt, is it invested in other existing properties and new acquisitions, or does it just go back to the shareholders?
APEX: the top or highest part of something. The visionary’s gone and what’s left of his vision has now been swept into an accountant’s ledger.
In late 2009, Russian journalist Svetlana Krasnayazvezda began investigating allegations of corruption between one of Russia’s largest steel manufacturers, government officials, and a Russian-associated organized crime group based in the Canadian province of Quebec.
Over the next decade, her investigation would expand to include other areas of private-public cooperation that could be considered unethical or illegal, including the illicit trade in wildlife. In 2016, a colleague of Krasnayazvezda, based near Montreal, brought my writing to her attention. At the time, I had been blogging about the plans to display orcas at the Sochi Dolphinarium and the facility’s link to the Ukranian company NEMO and the Russian Navy.
Using this Montreal-based journalist as an intermediary, Krasnayazvezda and I began communicating on a weekly basis. In September, fearing arrest as a consequence of her continued investigations into Russian corruption, Krasnayazvezda transmitted over 50,000 documents to her Montreal-based colleague. Approximately 4,000 of these pertained to the capture and sale of killer whales, belugas, and pinnipeds.
The documents were forwarded to me once I agreed to three stipulations:
For the time being, I have been asked to act as the conduit on matters regarding the marine mammal trade. I was asked to do this due to the large number of my readers who, regardless of whether or not they support public exhibition, care about animal welfare.
The identities of all of the journalists globally (there are a number of us) reviewing the 50,000 documents, our translators, and Svetlana Krasnayazvezda, which is a pseudonym, are to remain anonymous, except when reporting directly to the public. So, for example, when my colleagues write about the industries they are experts in, my name will not appear, even if I contributed to their reports.
As this is an ongoing investigation and documents may give clues to their origins or to the identities of individuals mentioned or communicating in them, they cannot be shared or publicly dispersed until the entire investigation is concluded.
After consulting with my colleagues, I have decided to begin the year by sharing information garnered from correspondence surrounding the release of orcas and belugas from the so called Russian “Whale Jail.”
At the center of everything is Kirill Mikhailov, co-founder of White Sphere, a company that develops and operates dolphinariums, public pools, and waterparks throughout Europe and the Middle East and that has recently embarked on residential and commercial real estate development as well.
Through allegedly questionable means, Mikhailov acquired control of both the Sochi Dolphinarium and the Utrish Dolpinarium group. The latter is an offshoot of the Utrish Marine Station (UMS), a facility on the Black Sea operated by the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS). UMS is where the eighteen belugas ordered by the Georgia Aquarium were being held and there are indications that Mikhailov may have been involved in the capture and the transaction of these whales. In 2016, six walrus pups illegally captured by his associates (the captures included the alleged illegal killing of nursing mothers in order to acquire the pups) were transferred to UMS when a sister RAS facility at the Primorsky Aquarium in Vladivostok refused them.
With the Olympics headed to Sochi, Mikhailov decided to showcase two orcas at his Sochi Dolphinarium. International public outcry with heavy accompanying media coverage forced him change his plans at the last minute. Two large, rusty open topped oil tanks were place on the grounds of the All-Russian Exhibition Center, filled with water, and covered with an inflatable dome while construction commenced on the giant aquarium next door. His company, White Sphere designed the marine mammal habitats and therapy pools in this new building, dubbed the Moskvarium, and Mikhailov became a minority shareholder. When the aquarium opened the following year, three orcas captured by one of his companies would be on display.
At the same time that the Moskvarium was opening, the Primorsky Aquarium, a pet project of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was experiencing continued delays, primarily due to embezzlement of construction and operating funds by its management. The Moskvarium’s management would do everything they could to take any positive attention away from Primorsky, including prohibiting the Vladivostok aquarium from acquiring an orca, an species whose trade in Russia was controlled exclusively by White Sphere and its associate companies.
Those companies, operating under the names Sochi Dolphinarium, White Whale, DV Oceanarium, and Aquatoria, would make a lot of money for their owners. Although the four companies have different operating names, places of business, and registrations, they all report to one person – Mikhailov.
Eventually, the four firms would take over the former TINRO Center, a fisheries research institute, and use it to house close to 100 orcas and belugas.
Russian courts found the four guilty for having captured the orcas and belugas held in the “Whale Jail” illegally. Throughout the internet, one can find reports of the captors being fined and having to turn over the animals for repatriation to the wild. However, this was not the case.
Mikhailov struck a deal with the Russian Federal Research of Fisheries and Oceanography, or VNIRO, to purchase the orcas and belugas initially released for a study on “behavior and migration.” The remaining belugas were not included in the study and were not released until the last minute, and en masse. Purchased by the government at the highest possible government rate, when added up, the payment from VNIRO of 10 million rubles per orca (about US$156.5 thousand) and 3.045 million rubles per beluga (about US$47.7 thousand), covered the 122 million ruble fine that had been imposed upon the four firms. Essentially, the government refunded the fines back to the captors.
Officially, those purchase fees also included transport and release costs, as the four firms were also contracted by the government to provide these services. However, there appears to be additional billing above costs incurred, submitted in a separate record, to pay the captors to release their prey.
Further along in the correspondence, we found something disturbing. We don’t know if this happened, or if it was planned to happen, but it was certainly discussed. As you read on, keep an open mind.
In correspondence between two trainers, we see plans develop to recapture the orcas.
“We’ll have the boats and nets just to the North,” says one. “Trainers will be onboard and will coax the whales over with fish.”
“Where will we take them?” asks the other. “We can’t bring them back here.”
“They have already started work on Site B,” responds the first.
The second trainer finds humor in this comment. “LOL. Like Jurassic Park. Very good.”
There is another email from a trainer to a VNIRO official asking, “If we provide you good photos of the whales, can you ‘officially’ locate some in the wild that look like ours?”
The response: “Yes.”
As I mentioned before, we have yet to uncover evidence that this progressed beyond the discussion stage.
I want to conclude with a question. At a November 21, 2019 press conference covering the release of all the whales, Kirill Kolonchin, the Director of VNIRO, shared that the decission to release the whales was “more political than scientific or practical.” He followed this by sharing that orcas are not in the Russian Red Book because their populations are too high to be considered endangered. He then compared wild orcas to wolves, indicating that should they endanger the populations of Baikal seals or cause economic harm to fishermen, it would be acceptable to shoot them.
So…..what’s the difference between a shot whale and a captured whale?
When I was six years old, I saw Annie Hall. It wasn’t until I watched it again in my 20’s that I recognized the complex relationships and fully formed persona of Oscar winner Diane Keaton’s title character. In the intermittent years, if you asked me about Annie Hall, the only thing I could remember was Woody Allen’s memory of growing up in a house underneath Coney Island’s famed Thunderbolt coaster.
The same year, 1977, I also saw Star Wars. We went to three theaters before we finally found one that had tickets – and it was standing room only. For much of the film, I sat on my dad’s shoulders in the back of the theater, taking in every breathtaking moment. From the age of six on, I could recite almost every line in that film. I related to Luke, to Han, to the droids, to the Wookie, and even to Leia. But as a young boy, I lacked something. I couldn’t relate to Leia as a girl would.
When Carrie Fisher passed away this week (my piece relating her performance to that of mother Debbie Reynolds in How The West Was Won can be found on InPark Magazine’s website), Thinkwell’s Cynthia Sharpe posted her perspective on what this meant to her as a woman on Facebook, which I hereby republish without her permission, because such is the ThemedReality way.
Two really important things happened to me within the same horrible year of junior high, which shaped me immeasurably. One, my school librarian slipped me “The Hero and the Crown’ and ‘The Blue Sword’, whispering to me to not let my particularly humorless about girls reading ‘boyish’ things principal see me with them. Two, I finally got to see the entire Star Wars (original) trilogy.
Combined, they rocked my world. Girls could be heroes. *Girls could be heroes*. Girls could be self-rescuing princesses. Girls could be smart, and crafty, and clever. They could be snarky and sarcastic. They could have complicated love lives. They could be actual well-rounded characters, instead of window dressing. They could be the masters of their own destinies. I couldn’t quite verbalize it at the time, why seeing Leia in a slave bikini pissed me off so damn much, but even then it did. Nice try, stuffing her back in the window dressing box, guys.
As a child, I appreciated Carrie Fisher’s characters. As an adult, her wit, wisdom, audacity. She opened the door for me to talk about addiction and mental health with my kid. You can keep your ‘when I am old I shall wear purple’ simpering crap. When I’m old, I wanna have Carrie Fisher’s total willingness to live out loud, unfiltered, no bullshit. A year ago I sat in a darkened movie theatre, behind my child, and though I had seen stills and clips, nothing prepared me for the moment that General Organa filled the screen. Older. Battle hardened. Not a magic sparklepony force user. No, a woman who had lead the resistance through loss after loss (both personal and sweeping). My hands flew to my face and I must have gasped, because Sean craned around in his seat and eyeballed me. I watched her weary face and no nonsense demeanor and saw countless female execs, professors, political leaders who’ve been through a similar grind. Carrie Fisher once again was representing so many of us. Not pretty. Not perky. Not conventional. *Competent*. Good- nay, great- at what we fucking do. And thoroughly done with bullshit.
David Bowie, Prince, George Michael, Carrie Fisher. I can draw an arc through and with all of them, all people who profoundly shaped what it meant to embrace yourself, to live life unapologetically, to be authentic in a visceral, norm-defying kind of way. They were our generation’s torch bearers, who lit the way for those of us who didn’t quite fit inside neat boxes. And while I felt the first three keenly, it’s the loss of Carrie Fisher that makes my face crumple. Maybe because of what next year will bring. Maybe because it feels like we haven’t come that far from 1977 when a princess who could wield a blaster was so boundary breaking.
I was so moved by Cynthia’s piece that I tracked her down to the private island in Indonesia that she calls her winter home and invited to join me for a conversation about Fisher and Leia over that second of grandest inventions by Al Gore (following global warming) – the internet.
If you’re not familiar with Cynthia, she is the Prinicipal, Cultural Attractions and Research at Thinkwell Group, and as such oversees the development of all educational programming. She has worked on three projects that have received the prestigious Thea Award from the Themed Entertainment Association, including that Harry Potter studio tour that the Mrs. keeps insisting I fly her to London to visit. And this is why our discussion moved into theme parks.
TR: I’d like to discuss how Carrie Fisher’s performance had a profound impact on the Disney heroines that followed, creating an empowered generation of young girls, which in turn changed the way Disney approached its shows and attractions
CS: Well, Princess Leia – and later, General Organa- certainly had an enormous impact even thought at the time of her creation, Leia wasn’t a Disney property.
When she first filled the big screen, most of our film heroines of a certain age were of a type. They were objects of romance, or scream queens. They were pretty and not the drivers of their own destiny, often. Princess Leia was a princess with a blaster! She had agency, skill, wit, and was- forgive my language- a badass. She wasn’t solely defined by her relationships to other men.
Despite the occasionally cheesy hairstyles, lack of bras in space, or that god awful slave bikini, you can draw a direct line from Leia screaming through the forests of Endor on a speeder to Merida galloping through the forests on her horse, or Anna taking off to find Elsa.
TR: One thing I’ve noticed is that much like Leia, the Disney princesses seemed to transform from damsels in distress needing a man to save them to empowered women that were considered equals.
CS: Exactly. And it makes sense. I’m of the same generation as Brenda Chapman (Brave) and Kristen Anderson-Lopez (songwriter, along with her husband, of Frozen). We are the generation who finally had a strong heroine in pop culture: Leia.
So it stands to reason that the women who came of age watching Leia and the strong female characters who followed her would want to continue to push that forward for a new generation of little girls in plush theatre seats.
TR: As the Disney parks are very character-centric, how have you seen this change in female character design affect the design of attractions in parks?
CS: Great question. I’ll admit there are ways in which I think they haven’t pushed it enough (I, for one, would burn every fastpass I could on a Brave ride rather than just a character meet-n-greet). But, having said that, we see it in ways both big and small. Re-skinning Maelstrom into Frozen could have been the equivalent of the Journey of the Little Mermaid- a rehash of the movie – to satisfy the need. Instead, it is bar none one of the smartest dark rides I’ve seen in ages. It’s thoughtful, witty, emotional- the use of that track is brilliant- and it *advances the story of the two sisters more*. They continue to be the heroines of their world.
On the ‘Small’ side- it won’t be small for long, given the Star Wars land work- but the gender parity and inclusion we see in Star Wars events in park is great. You don’t see only male staff in character- you see men and women and there’s absolutely no ‘well you can only be a princess’ exclusion of girls. Leia kicked butt. Rey kicked butt. There’s room for girls now and Disney is embracing that as fast as they can, given the realities of how long it takes to build a ride or land.
TR: A modern actress that I see having many of the same traits of Leia up on screen is Zoe Saldana. In 2017, we’ll see a new Disney attraction and a whole land based on franchises she starred in – Avatar and Guardians of the Galaxy. Will having lands or attractions based on films with strong female characters result in attractions that give a strong empowering message to young girls?
CS: I think so. It plain makes good business sense. When we look at the statistics of who drives disposable income spending in families, tweens have huge, huge influence- over 70B USD, on everything from what movie the family goes to on a weekend, to what car mom gets, to where they vacation. Tweens and teens are embracing films and characters where girls are empowered, are shaping the action and are right there in the thick of it. And this generation doesn’t hesitate to call out what they see as unfair or not doing justice to source material. Simply put: if you’re doing a land or attraction on a property with a strong female character, you had better get her right, or you’re going to hear about it from the fan base and you’re not going to get their (or their parents’) income and attention as thoroughly as you want.
TR: One last question – what are your thoughts about her scene in Rogue One and the timing of the film’s release being so close to her death?
CS: I think it’s actually going to be way harder to watch the next film- I understand she was done filming- than to see Rogue One again. Because in the next film she’s General Organa. She’s Princess Leia after Seeing It All, Losing So Much, Pushing Through The Horror. I personally felt from a storytelling standpoint it was important to end Rogue One- which, wow, it’s not like you didn’t know what kind of a mood it had to set – on a note that brings it full circle to the ‘start’ of the mythos and the opening of A New Hope.
The reminder that after all of this horror, after so much loss, there’s still hope- that was an important beat. But, personally? I think the punch of watching General Organa and knowing she’s gone will be much, much harder.
Last week, The Whale Sanctuary Project gave an update on site selection for its proposed facilities. Co-founder Michael Mountain wrote:
In British Columbia, we have researched hundreds of locations that would be ideal for orcas, and we’ve visited dozens of them around Vancouver Island. Most, however, are too far from human civilization – fresh water, power, transport, schools, medical facilities – to be practical. But one fits many of the necessary physical criteria and has better access to civilization is Mound Island.
The San Juan Islands, by comparison, are within easy reach of a major metropolitan area. But most of the sites that would be good for whales are also close to people with homes and businesses nearby. One location that doesn’t have this challenge is Deepwater Bay on Cypress Island.
Nova Scotia is the third region we’ve been exploring. And several small communities have stepped forward not only to offer their help in finding a suitable location, but to engage with us as potential partners in the creation of a beluga sanctuary.
Delving deeper into Deepwater Bay, he continued:
While the sites we explored in B.C. are remote from cities, those in the San Juan Islands are within easy reach of a major metropolitan area. That’s a big plus in terms of having access to power, infrastructure, and all the facilities that staff members would need for their families who are living there year-round.
It also means, of course, that many of the sites we’ve looked at that would be ideal for a sanctuary are also close to people with homes and businesses nearby. And while they love the idea of a sanctuary, many people prefer not to give up any coastal access.
One location that doesn’t have this challenge is Deepwater Bay on Cypress Island, which is sparsely populated and close to the mainland. Deepwater Bay is home to some Department of Natural Resources operations. It was formerly a salmon hatchery that failed two years ago, and the owners must give up possession by 2023, so we’re working to see if we can acquire the bay sooner than that for an orca sanctuary.
The bay has good depth and excellent tidal and current flows, and can be segmented to accommodate the net enclosures. It is also close to the mainland and it continues to be one of our preferred sites.
In a carefully selected choice of words (after all, any statements a nonprofit group makes can have an impact on fundraising), he tells us that the site was “formerly a salmon hatchery that failed two years ago.” The story behind this failure is noteworthy and, although it doesn’t discount The Whale Sanctuary Project’s ability to build a successful facility in this location, it brings up an important question.
In August 2017, a sea pen housing 305,000 Atlantic Salmon collapsed in Deepwater Bay. Approximately 250,000 escaped into the Salish Sea and Pacific. As of January 2018, close to 200,000 remained unaccounted for.
So here’s the question – how much does it cost to maintain an orca sanctuary, including net and pen maintenance?
For the proposed Whale Sanctuary Project facility in Deepwater Bay, Mountain uses the phrase “net enclosures,” as in the plural not singular.
In April 2014, as part of my reporting on the California ORCA bill, I attended a screening of the film “Blackfish,” followed by a Q&A with the film’s star, John Hargrove, and the bill’s co-author, Naomi Rose of the Animal Welfare Institute.
I’m pretty sure I had the same idea as most people attending – that a sea sanctuary would be just a giant net securing an inlet. That was until Hargrove and Rose pointed out that just like at a park like SeaWorld, there would need to be gated pens within the larger space – pens for quarantine and medical needs, pens to separate incompatible animals, and pens to keep males and females from being in a common area and breeding. It’s also possible that the larger sanctuary could be separated into smaller areas of equal size.
The more pens and nets in a facility, the more the maintenance cost.
The optimal plan for an orca sanctuary-type operation would be to secure all its financing for five years ahead of time. This means initial costs, such as site selection, procurement, licensing, and construction, along with five years of operational costs.
And it’s a good idea to go in with a contingency plan just in case. From a financial standpoint, the biggest problem with the Keiko repatriation had nothing to do with the construction of facilities and transport of the animal. It happened later when the primary source of operational funding disappeared.
When Keiko arrived in Iceland in 1998, the estimated annual operations costs were around $3 million ($4.6 million in 2019 dollars). By 2002, operational costs had dropped to $500,000 per year.
In 2017, I began predicting that the second Sesame Place park would be an overlay of the existing Aquatica San Diego. At the time, my prediction was tied in with a plan developed by management in 2013 that, if implemented, would close the San Diego SeaWorld park over a five-year period. After the closure, the new park would use the strong Sesame IP to maintain a company presence in the San Diego market. Obviously, that didn’t happen, but there still were plenty of clues that Aquatica San Diego was destined to be the home of Sesame Place #2.
So far, the park has gone through three incarnations. It started as White Water Canyon, which had a Gold Rush theme, in 1997. Two years later, a lender foreclosed on the property, after which it was purchased by Cedar Fair. The Gold Rush theme had been replaced by a beach party when it reopened in 2000 as Knott’s Soak City San Diego, under the management of Cedar Fair’s newly acquired Knott’s Berry Farm.
Cedar Fair sold the park to SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, which rethemed it yet again to a tropical paradise and the moniker Aquatica San Diego, which opened in 2013. Unlike the other Aquatica parks in Orlando and San Antonio, which feature dolphins and rays, respectively, Aquatica San Diego fell under a provision of SeaWorld’s Mission Bay lease with the City of San Diego. Under this non-competition clause, SeaWorld is prohibited from operating another park with marine animals in any other city within a 560 mile radius of SeaWorld San Diego (SeaWorld’s purchase of Marineland of the Pacific is a much different story for a different time).
Not only does Aquatica San Diego fall within the 560 mile limit, but it’s also in a different city – Chula Vista. With the legal prohibition on showcasing marine animals at the newly acquired waterpark, Aquatica San Diego’s animal showcase was limited to birds and freshwater turtles.
It’s also telling that the last new attraction the park received was in 2014. Every year since, its parent company has announced new rides for four of its five waterparks, but San Diego has consistently been left off the list.
From a business and marketing standpoint, Sesame Place’s location in Chula Vista is perfect, with large Hispanic populations in both South San Diego County and North Mexico, which tend to visit parks such as this in the three generation model (grandparents, parents, children all visiting together). The distance between the new Sesame Place and SeaWorld San Diego is just under the distance from SeaWorld to LEGOLAND California. There’s one important factor, though – it’s in the opposite direction. With dual park ticketing and passes, this could pull a small share of attendance from the Merlin operated park to the north.
The cross-marketing opportunities between the two parks are fantastic as well. With a “Bay of Play” at SeaWorld, children will now be invited to visit the other park to meet the Sesame characters where they live. Going the opposite direction, Sesame Place will act as a gateway to SeaWorld, encouraging families with young children to visit the “other” home of the Sesame Street characters, bringing them into SeaWorld at that impressionable age when they’re most susceptible to corporate branding.
The new Sesame Place is also located only a few miles from the new 1600 room Gaylord Chula Vista, being built on the city’s waterfront. The $1.13 billion project will also feature a 400,000 square foot convention center. If there’s something to be learned from the Orlando and Anaheim markets, it’s that if there’s family friendly parks to be had in the vicinity of a convention, conventioneers will bring their families.
Of course, there’s going to be that weird shift in attendance from teens to families with younger children. But families with younger children tend to have more money to spend and bring more mouths to feed.
In 2009, two monorails at Walt Disney World collided, resulting in the death of one of the pilots. Two federal agencies – OSHA and the National Transportation Safety Board – conducted multi-year investigations into the cause of the crash. But that likely won’t happen with the October 5 collision on the Disney Skyliner aerial gondola system. Here’s why:
The Department of Labor’s Occupations Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) investigates workplace conditions based on one of two initiating factors: death or serious injury in the workplace or a complaint about dangerous work conditions, which need not come from within the company being investigated. Cased in point: The 2010 OSHA investigation of SeaWorld Orlando was the result of a trainer death, while the 2014 investigation of the Miami Seaquarium was instigated by complainant Animal Legal Defense Fund. Because there was an employee death in the 2009 monorail crash, an OSHA investigation ensued. However, there does not appear to be any evidence that employees were at risk during the incident, and since non-employee passengers do not factor into starting an OSHA investigation, there likely won’t be one. OSHA did sign off on the system prior its opening, a requirement for insuring the Skyliner, and it may likely need to sign off on the system again before it reopens, but that’s far from an accident investigation.
The National Transportation Safety Board is mandated by Congress to investigate accidents involving the five forms of interstate and international commerce – aircraft, highways, maritime, railroads, and pipelines. Since cable cars, aerial tramways, and gondolas are typically fixed within a single state, they don’t fall under the NTSB’s parameters. However, if a cable-pulled train, such as San Francisco’s cable cars or the cable trams that connect the Mandalay Bay, Luxor, and Excaliber resorts in Las Vegas were to have an accident, it would fall under the NTSB’s oversight as a railroad. In 2001, the Angel’s Flight funicular railroad derailed in downtown Los Angeles, resulting in seven injuries and one death. In its report on the accident, the NTSB cited ANSI safety standard B77.1, which also covers safety for aerial trams and gondola systems. However, using an industry safety factor in an investigation does not change the parameters of what’s covered by the congressional mandate. Unlike Angels Flight, the Disney Skyliner is not a railroad. Now, if instead of the Skyliner, Disney had opted for dedicated bus road, a light rail system, or more boats, this would be a different story.
Quite simply, unless a federal or state investigation ensues, this will be solely an internal investigation conducted by Disney, the system’s supplier, Doppelmayr, and their vendors. Last year, I rode a Doppelmayr gondola system to the top of a hill at the Oakland Zoo for the grand opening of the California Trail exhibit. It was an extremely comfortable and enjoyable experience. The following day, the ride suddenly stopped, stranding 80 people for close to half an hour due to a computer glitch. Very likely, this was too.
When I travel, especially on business trips, I like to get of the beaten path and explore local neighborhoods and dine in the same restaurants as the locals do. Last April, when I was in Anaheim covering the annual Themed Entertainment Association Summit at the Disneyland Hotel, I wanted something different from the IHOPs and the Cheesecake Factories surrounding the park and found myself at a huge Chinese seafood buffet in the neighboring town of Garden Grove.
We’ll return to the buffet in a moment.
In August 2018, I was standing on the VIP balcony of the Two Bit Circus Micro-Amusement Park in downtown Los Angeles interviewing Two Bit Circus President Kim Schaefer.
If you haven’t been to Two Bit Circus, you really should try to schedule a visit. It’s as if maniacal genius circus clowns, technical wizards, and Imagineers that had worked on DisneyQuest (it’s true!) figured out a way to combine Dave & Busters with maker culture and steampunk, with elements of role playing and a lot of social interaction. Just watch the darned video. It’s your opportunity to see me look ridiculous in a VR headset.
So there I am talking with Kim, and we discuss her previous position, which was as CEO of Great Wolf Resorts, the chain of themed family hotels with attached indoor waterparks. We talked about the differences and similarities between a Great Wolf Lodge and a Two Bit Circus Micro-Amusement Park, about her stint on one of the greatest episodes of Undercover Boss – in my opinion a much, much better one than the fabled Joel Manby episode, and about why she left. Basically after close to two decades with the waterpark resort company, she was ready for a change.
Now, I didn’t ask her then, and I have no intentions of asking her now, about her relationship with the Great Wolf Resort owners. But researching this piece, I noticed her departure shared many similarities with the departure of SeaWorld’s former Chief Operating Officer and Interim CEO, John Reilly.
Which takes us back to that Chinese seafood buffet. Looming over it and the adjacent Vietnamese sausage factory is one of the final projects that Kim worked on – the Great Wolf Lodge Garden Grove (that’s the top of the hotel tower with the paw print). Groundbreaking on the project was also the first day of employment for the Great Wolf CEO that followed her, and I’ll get to him in a moment.
There’s a common factor between Schaefer and Reilly – it’s an investor named Scott Ross. I don’t have a current photo of Ross. Unfortunately, all the ones I have of him are about a decade old, where he’s attending various social circle events with different attractive women. Since I don’t want to bring those women into this article, since they, as far as I know, were not involved in Scott’s business ventures, I’ll be representing him here with the corporate mascot of another company he was involved in the acquisition of.
Follow along, because I’ll be bouncing back and forth between Great Wolf Resorts and SeaWorld Entertainment to show some rather unexpected parallels between the two.
2012 – Apollo Group, with Ross as part of the team, announces that it’s purchasing Great Wolf Resorts. Ross joins the Great Wolf board.
2017 – Zhonghong Zhouye Group of China purchases Blackstone’s 21% stake in SeaWorld. Hill Path Capital, owned by Ross, begins buying up small batches of shares, eventually becoming the second largest owner. In November, Ross is appointed to the SeaWorld board.
THE COMPANY PERSON
One of the five founders of Great Wolf, Schaefer was promoted in 2008 from Chief Brand Officer to President and COO. On January 1, 2009, she became the company’s new CEO. She agreed to remain in the position another five years at the time of Apollo’s acquisition.
A 33 year veteran of the Busch Entertainment Group/SeaWorld Entertainment team, Reilly served as Park President at both Busch Gardens Williamsburg and SeaWorld San Diego before being named Chief Parks Operations Officer, then was promoted to COO. Following the resignation of CEO Joel Manby in February, 2018, Reilly was named Interim CEO.
CHANGE IN CONTROL
Three years after its purchase, in 2015, Apollo sold Great Wolf Resorts to Centerbridge Partners. Ross remained in a position of power on the board.
In 2018, Zhonghong’s financing structure began to collapse. At one point, the Chinese company was taking on debt at a 30% interest rate to pay off existing debt. Ross and Hill Path began to assert more control over SeaWorld board decisions.
Ruben Rodriguez had been a partner and managing director for a firm called Boston Consulting Group. One of his clients, Carnival Cruise Line (not to be confused with its parent company, Carnival Corporation), had hired him as Executive Vice President, Guest Experience in 2007, promoting him to EVP, Ship Operations in 2009. Less than three months after the sale to Centerbridge, Great Wolf named Rodriguez its new CEO.
Gustavo (Gus) Antorcha had been a partner and managing director for a firm called Boston Consulting Group. One of his clients, Carnival Cruise Line (not to be confused with its parent company, Carnival Corporation), had hired him as Senior Vice President, Guest Commerce in 2012, promoting him to SVP Guest Operations in 2015 and EVP and COO in 2017. In February 2018, a year after John Reilly had taken over as Interim CEO, SeaWorld named Antorcha its new CEO.
Once Rodriguez was on board, Schaefer agreed to transition back to Chief Brand Officer through the end of the year and then move onto the company’s board. Rodriguez would stay with the company for two years before returning to private consulting.
Reilly departed a month after Antorcha’s appointment. Within the following few months, the park Presidents from Orlando, Williamsburg, and San Antonio would all resign within days, and in one case, hours, of giving notice. This would be followed by the resignation of Antorcha, citing an inability to work with the board.
SeaWorld is suffering an image crisis, and management departures is the least of its worries. For a moment, the company triumphed in a brief media coup as Thomas Cook, which had discontinued selling tickets to SeaWorld in a very publicized move, suddenly ceased operations, stranding thousands of customers overseas. SeaWorld’s solution: free admission to stranded Thomas Cook customers.
But then a week later, more negative news as TripAdvisor announced its new policy on selling tickets to venues with dolphins and whales.
Now pay attention closely:
Facilities can still sell on TripAdvisor if
1. They commit to relocating their cetaceans to a sanctuary
2. They are accredited by a World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) member association (such as AZA) and commit to phasing out public exhibition through ending breeding, prohibiting wild capture, and not importing from another facility.
Pretty much the Joel Manby/HSUS policy on SeaWorld’s orcas, but on some higher dose steroids.
I expected to see Dan Ashe, the President and CEO of AZA and Christopher Dold, the Chief Zoological Officer for SeaWorld, address the specifics of these stipulations when they made statements yesterday.
But they didn’t. They talked about the usual stuff whenever someone says they’re going to quit selling tickets – accreditation, conservation, education, welfare.
The problem with such arguments is that the WAZA exemption takes into account accreditation, conservation, education, and welfare. And though the exemption was most likely written by TripAdvisor in a way to specifically exempt Walt Disney World ticket sales from being dropped, the individuals who are fighting for zoos and aquariums are not arguing about the prohibitions in that exemption. Nobody is saying, “If we want to continue to use our animals to raise awareness for conservation and to provide a platform for education, we need to breed and we need to be able to transfer animals from one facility to another so we will have them for decades to come.”
A few days ago, the Mystic Aquarium filed an import permit for five belugas to be moved from Marineland of Canada to itself and the Georgia Aquarium for a research project. I’ll just assume at this point that TripAdvisor will be dropping both locations.
More than Thomas Cook, more than Virgin Holidays, the TripAdvisor decision will have a a hard impact on SeaWorld. TripAdvisor’s programming is integrated into hundreds of thousands of web pages, and used by millions of customers in evaluating facilities and making decisions. Dropping ticket sales is the first step. And there’s nothing to prohibit TripAdvisor from dropping a location altogether on its website as the second step. This will prove problematic for SeaWorld, which is one of many companies that relies heavily on TripAdvisor awards and ratings for its marketing.
I see Ross having three options at this point – one is to diversify by purchasing a number of regional theme and waterparks, which could shift attention away from the animal parks. There are rumors that Premier Parks might be up for sale. That would give SeaWorld Elitch Gardens in Denver, but the future of that park’s current plot is up in the air.
There’s the rumored Six Flags/Cedar Fair merger, which would open up a few parks if it’s a real thing.
But the best option is one that was originally part of a rumored merger between SeaWorld and Parques Reunidos – the acquisition of Palace Entertainment. EQT, which is purchasing Parques Reunidos, is looking to sell off some assets and the Palace properties have been underperforming for a number of years, primarily due to weather issues. Such a purchase would give SeaWorld a presence in the Wisconsin Dells, at Kennywood (below) and with the 1-2-3 punch of Dutch Wonderland, Sesame Place, and Lake Compounce to compete against LEGOLAND New York, which opens July 4, 2020. Of course, it helps that a Hill Path partner is Chairman of the Board at Parques Reunidos.
Speaking of Sesame Place, I’m standing by my belief that the ideal location is a transformation of Aquatica San Diego. The park has not opened a new attraction for a number of years and is in a prime location to pull tourism from both San Diego and Tijuana to compete in the same market against LEGOLAND California.
The second option I see for Ross is to convert SeaWorld Entertainment into a REIT (Real Estate Investment Trust), owning the properties and the buildings, with a spin-off nonprofit operating the parks.
Third is the notorious Plan B, which has been considered by SeaWorld management for decades – gradually and quietly remove all the whales and dolphins to other facilities.
Why not sanctuaries? Sanctuaries take time.
In 2011, PETA argued in court that SeaWorld was violating its orcas’ constitutional rights by keeping them as slaves. The restitution they sought was for the orcas to be removed to an ocean sanctuary (and of course they lost, because their argument was flawed, but I’ll save my Steven Wise-ish analysis of its flaws for another day).
It’s been eight years since that lawsuit and, though the Whale Sanctuary Project (WSP) has taken it upon itself to make a sanctuary a reality, we’re still waiting on a location. Even the selection process is imperfect. At public meetings held in July in the San Juan Islands, WSP revealed its primary location in Washington State for an orca sanctuary – Deep Water Bay on Cypress Island. And that’s good and fine. Until this very moment that I point out that Deep Water Bay was where a sea pen collapsed in 2001, releasing 300,000 Atlantis salmon into the Pacific. Some say it was due to an abnormal tide, others say it was hungry orcas banging against the netting. My next door neighbor believes it was the US Navy experimenting with extraterrestrial technology. I just don’t know.
The National Aquarium has delayed its sanctuary due to climate change adversely affecting potential locations.
Ten years ago, Merlin Entertainments announced it was partnering with Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) on a sanctuary for the dolphins it acquired with its purchase of the Heide Park and Gardaland theme parks. Still waiting.
It did, however, ship two belugas from Shanghai to a sanctuary in Iceland. But they’re spending the winter inside an indoor quarantine pool because the external weather is too severe for them to be in the sea pen.
I digress. Back to this guy:
What’s Ross’s ultimate goal. He’s told a number of people he’s in SeaWorld for the long run. But how long is long?
I have a feeling he’s waiting for the stock value to drastically increase. Right now, SeaWorld is at about half what competitors Six Flags and Cedar Fair are trading and less than a third what it traded prior to the huge post-Blackfish drop.
Why do I think this? Great Wolf Lodge.
Purchased by Apollo 2012:
Sold 2015 to Centerbridge:
October 2, 2019: Blackstone announces it is purchasing a 65% controlling stake from Centerbridge. Total valuation of company:
This is for a chain of hotels with indoor waterparks. Imagine what Ross can make off theme parks if he gets his strategy right.
A disclaimer: Over the past decade, I have been a contributor to Disney fan-operated websites Jim Hill Media and MiceChat. I am currently a shareholder of the Walt Disney Company and I write on a regular basis both professionally and as a blogger about the company and its competitors. I personally have known Todd Regan, AKA Dusty Sage, for close to twenty-five years, though only in the capacity of us both being theme park fans and on a professional basis. I have read Al Lutz’s writings for decades and chatted with him via IRQ a few times in the mid-90s. I have never met Al in person. Until yesterday, I had no idea who in the hell Gary Snyder was. I thought he was one of our greatest poets. Apparently, anybody can tarnish a name. Everything I’ll be writing in this post is opinion and observation based on facts readily available on the internet. For those that are lawsuit happy, there’s a disclaimer tab above which goes into more detail on how opinions work on this blog.
On August 18, a blog post appeared (some call it an article, but it lacks the finesse of editorial oversight), which stated that the columns of the long-time Disney critic Al Lutz on the MiceChat website were actually being written in one form or another by a Disney staffer. I won’t link to this particular blog post because it’s difficult to read, but rather will link to Madness Kingdom’s crib notes version, because it’s much easier on the eyes and the brain.
Did Disney’s communications team manipulate social media to impact public opinion?
Is there a personal agenda between the author and MiceChat?
What was Gary Snyder hoping to get out of this?
I’ll start with the question of whether or not Disney manipulates social media.
Of course they do. All large corporations do. There is plenty of data (not necessarily from Disney) of corporate employees participating en masse in surveys and polls to manipulate results. It’s also common for corporate representatives to participate in message boards or on social media channels under monikers and bios that do not give out their true identities or intent.
So, I have no doubt that Disney manipulates social media. But did a Disney employee start writing Al Lutz’s opinion pieces for him?
Back in the early and mid-90s, I was a young IMAX projectionist looking for something to do on my days off when I discovered the internet in the local university library. Via Usenet and later IRQ, I participated in a board called alt.disney.disneyland (A.D.D.). Many of the people who went on to found leading Disney and theme park fan sites – Rob Alvey (Theme Park Review), Jim Hill (Jim Hill Media), Kevin Yee (Ultimate Orlando), Todd Regan (now going by his moniker as CEO of MiceChat, Dusty Sage), and Al – were all there.
One thing was very clear from the start – Al was surprisingly well connected within the Disney organization and, even back then, most – not all – but most of what he reported proved to be true. A few years later, as I developed professional contacts within Disney – both on the film side and at Imagineering – inevitably someone at the company would ask if I knew Al and if I knew where he got his information. This happened about three or four times between 1997 and 2005.
Did a Disney staffer try to use Al’s pedestal to oust Michael Eisner?
If he did, it wasn’t necessary. Al has always been cantankerous, yet eloquent, and he’s always spoken his mind. If he wasn’t happy with something, he’d let you know. And if Al wanted someone out, he didn’t need someone whispering in his ear to tell him so.
Did this same Disney staffer write Al’s recent piece on the failure of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge?
Likely not. I have a feeling that Al, in his feeble state, dictated what he could, still remaining in contact with people at Disney in the know. Then someone at MiceChat transcribed it and gave it the elocution that the site’s readers expected from Al.
Is Al correct?
He’s been right quite a bit of the time. But over the years, some of his information has been off – way off – to the point of completely missing the mark.
Is there an agenda between the writer and MiceChat?
Folks, as we digest what was alleged in this nearly unreadable hit piece by Dusty’s ex-husband and his friend (and banned MiceChat user), we can tell you without a shadow of a doubt that the entire gist of the article is wrong. In fact, it’s slander. Anyone that has ever read the Al Articles knows the truth.
Supposedly, the unnamed source in the piece is Dusty’s ex. I don’t know the circumstances regarding their separation. Frankly, it’s not my concern. And that leaves two possibilities. This was either a personal hit piece out of spice. Or Dusty’s ex (who I’ve opted not to name) was manipulated by the author.
Finally, what was Gary Snyder hoping to get out of this? More importantly, who is Gary Snyder?
Snyder’s late father was the cousin to Sumner Redstone, who, through the company’s firm National Amusements, is the controlling shareholder of CBS and Viacom. By all appearances from his family’s interests in National, Snyder will be greatly affected by the impending merger of Viacom and CBS, of which Sumner’s daughter Shari will be Chair of the Board.
The judge opened Monday’s hearing by disclosing that he had received an email hours earlier — at 1:38 a.m. — from a cousin of Redstone’s who had expressed an objection to the proceeding. In the email, which was reviewed by The Times, Redstone cousin Gary Snyder said that he had filed an elder-abuse report this year that alleged that Redstone’s former girlfriends had taken advantage of the mogul. “Obviously, I have not responded to this,” Cowan told the attorneys who participated in the hearing. “There are ways to do this during business hours…. We’re open for business from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.” Then, as the hearing was concluding, a man near the back of the courtroom raised his hand and asked to be heard. It was Snyder. The judge beckoned him to step forward. “My email speaks for itself,” Snyder told the judge. Then he noted that none of Redstone’s close family members were in attendance. “I am the only blood relative of Mr. Redstone to find this court hearing worthy of my time,” Snyder said. Outside the courtroom, Snyder acknowledged that he hadn’t seen Redstone for years. Still, he said, he was troubled that the only participants in the proceedings were eight attorneys, who represented the Redstone and Herzer sides. “They were arguing about the estate of a man who is still alive,” Snyder said. “And in some way, Sumner is paying for all of this.
In a Feb 17, 2016 opinion piece in The Wrap, in an eerie premonition of his allegations of Disney ghostwriting Lutz’s columns, Snyder states (Note: Dauman is former Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman):
Shari Redstone only gains control upon Sumner’s death or incapacitation. Of the former, it is inevitable. Of the latter, with [former Sumner Redstone girlfriend] Manuela Herzer’s claims front and center, I believe Shari is confident she can bide her time. (She has waited this long, why take an unnecessary risk and show Manuela’s claims to be in any way legitimate?)
The situation is complicated. The board of a publicly traded company that has reason to believe its CEO has been making up the quotes and all of the communications of the company’s founder and majority shareholder should dismiss that individual. But instead Dauman has been repeatedly rewarded.
Dating to the summer of 2014, Dauman and other confidantes outside of the family have been acting in ways to make it appear Sumner is somehow actively involved in managing Viacom and CBS — and his own life — when that is wholly inconsistent with the day-to-day reality.
The truth: When it was not Manuela Herzer who appeared to be making up quotes attributed to Sumner, it was likely Dauman doing the ghostwriting.
Shari’s strict adherence to Jewish law has at times conflicted with her duties as an executive, says Gary Snyder, her cousin and Sumner’s nephew.
“A common issue had to do with Shari’s refusal to accept telephone calls, or anything from the outside, on the Sabbath,” says Snyder. Snyder questions how Shari can be observant and be a mogul. “The strict tenants of Shari’s faith are totally incompatible with her new role,” says Snyder, who says Shari’s devout demeanor masks a ruthlessness that has successfully hobbled many of her unsuspecting opponents.
It’s a description similar to that Snyder gives Zenia Mucha, the EVP of Corporate Communications for Disney in his current piece:
Mucha earned her reputation as an off-with-their-heads but always-on-message political operative for then-New York Governor George Pataki who came to Disney’s ABC television network having been courted by Robert A. Iger. At the time, Mucha had turned her role as communications director and advisor to the governor to include, as the New York Times noted, “virtually every major decision made by the governor.”
Arriving on-scene in Burbank, the rise was swift and deliberate. By May of 2002, with longtime CEO Michael D. Eisner in a curiously choreographed media swiftboating, Mucha, who was known as “Director of Revenge” in her prior life as a politico and termed “Mickey Mouse’s Karl Rove” by journalist Matt Stoller, was promoted to director of corporate communications for ABC’s parent company — the Walt Disney Company. Replacing John Dreyer, a trusted and loyal keeper of the Disney brand, Mucha was a harsh turn from the almost family-like atmosphere Michael Eisner and Frank Wells, Disney’s former president, had fostered as part of their rise to the very top of the House of Mouse.
The timing on the Snyder piece on Al Lutz is interesting to say the least, coming a few days after the announcement of the Viacom-CBS merger and a few days before the D23 convention, where Disney will be unveiling its film, television, and theme park projects for the coming years.
In the Al Lutz piece, I see Snyder positioning himself as a kingmaker. To paraphrase: “I came up with the idea of Disney using a trusted voice. I’m responsible for George Kalogridis getting a huge promotion. I made Bob Iger King. I can bring him down.”
But did he do all this?
In his new piece, he calls Al Lutz an “influencer,” someone that the mainstream media listen to and thus someone who could influence the board and shareholders. He cites an LA Times piece from 2007 and a Los Angeles Magazine piece from 2005. But according to Snyder, the appropriation of Al Lutz by the Disney Communications team took place in 2002.
And here’s the problem with all that. Four years ago, the infiltration program Snyder described was losing money. In his 2015 Huffington Post piece on Iger’s departure from the company, Snyder writes:
Starting in the mid-1990s, superfan Al Lutz became a prominent voice on the Disney brand as the Burbank-based media behemoth increasingly relied on the cash heavy theme parks and resorts as a backstop for failures and deficiencies in other segments of the company. Using at first the MousePlanet.com imprimatur and later that of MiceChat.com, Lutz championed the vaunted Disney of Walt’s day.
Delivering management changes at the parks, specifically in Anaheim at the industry making Disneyland, Mr. Lutz became a well-known personality and pundit of the Disney product from the consumers’ lens. With that, for the first time, Disney found itself being questioned not by Wall Street but by Main Street.
Not long after Mr. Lutz launched into the Disney-verse, Stephen Frearson, an import from the United Kingdom, premiered wdwmagic.com — a Walt Disney World centered site. And around both, communities grew and conversations were had. Still today, these conversations occur with regularity. Only, the dollars spent on Disney by these most devoted of fans have dwindled.
Well, heck. If Disney’s not making money off its most adamant fans, then the infiltration’s not working and the kingmaker may turn out to just be a jester.