For those of you new to the blog, welcome. For those of you returning, you’ll notice a few changes. Instead of doing a blog post on one or two topics, I’m switching over to a new format, which I’m calling “The Other Side of the News.” This format, which will run monthly (and on occasion, more frequently than that), will look at attractions industry news items you may not be aware of, or elements of news stories typically not covered in conventional media.
This blog is notorious for its sarcastic and sardonic approach, and that will remain, although it will be toned down a bit in order to concentrate on the news at hand. The Other Side of the News should not be considered a news article. It’s an opinion piece and is based on my analysis of the facts publicly available (unless stated or implied otherwise). There’s a disclaimer tab at the top of the page and I recommend taking a look before proceeding because…well…lawyers gotta be paid for something.
EPCOT’S CHANGING! WALT MUST BE ROLLING IN HIS GRAVE!
Some big news coming out of Disney’s D23 Expo was that Universe of Energy (AKA Ellen’s Energy Adventure) is being removed to make room for a Guardians of the Galaxy Ride. Almost immediately, Disney fans started protesting and griping all over the Al Gore Webosphere. So here are some of their arguments and why they’re wrong:
Walt would have never changed an attraction like this during his lifetime.
NOT ONE single Disneyland attraction that opened in the 1950’s, 1960’s, 1970’s, 1980’s, or 1990’s retains its original appearance – and a number of these changes happened during Walt’s lifetime. If it wasn’t the attraction’s narrative or scenic elements, it was via improvement in lighting, sound, show control, animatronics, or safety systems. Imagineers from the very beginning have had a long history of removing elements that haven’t worked and of looking for ways to improve attractions wherever they could.
They can’t get rid of the dinosaurs! Those are a part of EPCOT!
Tell that to Dreamfinder. Regardless of the fact that these are NOT the original 1964 World’s Fair dinosaurs, which reside on the Disneyland Railroad in Anaheim, Disney has a history of recycling its attractions. They could end up in Animal Kingdom, fleshing out the Dinosaur ride that’s already there. Perhaps they’ll be donated to a science museum. My money’s on them being reskinned as alien beasts and staying in the attraction.
A movie franchise like Guardians of the Galaxy has no place in EPCOT
In 1987, Disneyland’s Tomorrowland was the West Coast’s Epcot Future World of its day, with semi-fact based attractions such as Circle-Vision, America Sings, Mission to Mars, and the Submarine Voyage. Then a certain attraction called Star Tours opened, replacing the semi-educational Adventure through Inner Space. The moral: It’s happened before. And you loved it.
The stars of the latest incarnation of the Universe of Energy, Ellen’s Energy Adventure, are as relevant today, if not more, than they were at the time of the attraction’s opening in 1996. But today, they’re relevant for different reasons. Ellen is no longer a sitcom star. She’s become an iconic trailblazer for civil rights and the oppressed. Jamie Lee Curtis was still a few years off her sexy turn in James Cameron’s “True Lies.” She now encourages women to embrace their bodies and their natural beauty. Bill Nye has moved on from children’s science shows to become CEO of The Planetary Society. And Alex Trebek died a few ago and was replaced by a semi-autonomous android designed by IBM’s Watson supercomputer. All four have expressed concern with climate change and with the continued use of fossil fuels, so it makes no sense to continue having them in an attraction that actually espouses the merits of coal mining, fracking, and oil drilling.
Look, change happens all the time at theme parks. It’s part of the evolutionary process and necessary for enticing new guests to visit while encouraging existing guests and passholders to return. If you can’t retain guests, you can’t stay in business. Thinkwell’s Cynthia Sharpe and Dave Cobb have written a fantastic blog piece on the importance of theme park change as a reflection of changing social mores. And remember, each Cobb Salad you buy at Denny’s gives Dave Cobb double frequent flyer points! (see disclaimer, top of page)
SPEAKING OF REMOVED THEME PARK DINOSAURS….WHOOPIE GOLDBERG!
2006 was a huge year for Whoopie Goldberg. Having been banished years before from Superstar Limo, Califia herself became the new on-screen host of the the Universal Studios Tour. So for a brief few years, Whoopie could be seen on screen at two competing Southern California parks. But of course you know that, so it’s not surprising that Whoopie just did something highly commendable across the street from her old “Golden Dreams” theater.
While being interviewed during the Disney Legend (also known as the One Arm Bandit) induction at D23, Whoopie brought up the Disney films “Dumbo” and “Song of the South,” stating that it’s time they be embraced and discussed for what they are. I have to agree.
There’s been a double standard at Disney where “Song of the South” has never been released on DVD and “The Martins and the Coys” segment of “Make Mine Music” was removed for being stereotypically offensive, while at the same time the limited edition DVD series “Walt Disney Treasures” contained cartoons offensive to modern standards (such as Pluto appearing in blackface as Aunt Jemima). But I guess that’s ok, as long as your limited run of DVD’s is only being bought by fans and cinephiles and includes an explanatory video introduction about how times were different back then by Leonard Maltin.
I want to go one step further than Ms. Goldberg (who I do hold in high regard).
James Baskett’s status as a Disney Legend (2010) is overshadowed by the continued withholding of his most famous work.
He needs to be recognized for it. Yes, doing so will necessitate Disney releasing “Song of the South” on video, a film for which he was awarded an honorary Oscar in 1948, and it will necessitate discussion in a public forum. It’s important, in this time and age when we as a society explore race, race relations, and racial heritage, that children understand the song “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah” did not come from a bunch of animatronic animals on a teetering showboat viewed from flume logs. It was Mr. Baskett who introduced the song into American culture – it was on the shoulder of Uncle Remus, the character he played in the film, that Mr. Bluebird landed. Seems to me it’s a lot easier to deal with a bluebird on your shoulder than to continue dealing with a monkey on your back (and I’m going to be preemptive because I know there are some who will see what I just wrote and be astounded that I allowed such a racial epithet to go through, when in fact it’s not. The phrase “monkey on your back” derives from the Fifth Voyage of Sinbad in the 12th century version of the Arabic classic “One Thousand and One Nights,” wherein “The Old Man of the Sea” attaches himself to Sinbad’s shoulders and will not let go. Eventually, Sinbad is able to get the Old Man to loosen his grip and he promptly smashes his head. The 1893 English language children’s version of the book, “Fairy Tales from the Arabian Nights,” edited by E. Dixon – which actually mentioned the head smashing – featured an illustration by J.D. Batten of the Old Man as a grotesque ape like creature. Whether Mr. Batten’s conception was rooted in the racism of the era is not known – I could not find any indication of racist leanings. However, this is why it’s important to maintain open discussion on art – and film – and to make the original material available to review in context.)
THE MUSEUM DOESN’T WANT ITS IMAX. MUST….SAVE….ITS….IMAX!
I recall the one trip I made to the Johnson IMAX Theater at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC. I was there for an industry preview of the IMAX film “Coral Reef Adventure” and I remember three things vividly: First, it was 2002 and the theater, only three years old at the time, was absolutely beautiful, and even had a retractable stage. Second, they took away our wine as we left the atrium and entered the theater. They would not allow us to carry it inside. Third, Jean-Michel Cousteau sauntered up to the podium with a glass of wine in hand. I remember being very upset and wishing that one day they’d tear down the IMAX and expand the cafeteria.
Well, unfortunately, my wish has come true as the Smithsonian plans to do just that, claiming that the theater is often only at 20% capacity. I know the people who manage it and the people who market it, so I can’t really conceive why this is happening. But I do have a couple of general ideas of developments that may have contributed:
- The vast majority of giant screen films available to smaller digital 3D theaters and planetariums are of the same natural history variety shown in the Johnson theater, while aerospace-themed giant screen films tend have a smaller foothold, mainly aerospace museums and science centers. Oversaturation in the overall market affects tourist choices when time is limited (why should we see Dinosaurs Alive! in the IMAX theater when we just saw it on the much smaller screen at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science?)
- As a longtime giant screen veteran reminded me, at a certain point, the programming and operation of giant screen theaters went from being mission-based to being profit-based. A programming model where a film might run a full year has given way to rapid turnover, especially with Hollywood fare. From a financial standpoint, it’s a necessity to remain competitive against an ever-increasing number of smaller 3D theaters, high definition full dome planetaria, and HD television channels. From an educational standpoint, it makes things more difficult as more resources must now be expended to accomplish much more in a shorter amount of time.
The group Save Our IMAX is fighting to stop the closure. I completely applaud them and encourage you to join their cause. However, the campaign is far from perfect and I would like to offer the following suggestions in this open format:
- With the exception of Diane Carlson, who recently retired from the Pacific Science Center, all the principals involved in the Save Our IMAX campaign are film directors or producers. This creates a bit of confusion as to who exactly the theater “belongs” to.
- This should really be a community campaign. Community educators and leaders from around the DC region should have an equal say in the campaign. Instead of it being the filmmakers’ IMAX, make it the community’s IMAX. Or better yet, the Nation’s IMAX. Perception is everything. Now, you do have the great Christ Palmer, a local university professor, on board, but he’s also the producer of such IMAX classics as “Wolves,” “Bears,” “Snails,” and “Dolphins.”
- Make sure this is about content being available in the DC marketplace and not about losing a single IMAX theater, especially important as we just lost another IMAX theater in Tampa as MOSI downsizes.
- The Smithsonian is a government agency. ENGAGE CONGRESS!!
- If the issue of closure is one of content in the marketplace, request the Smithsonian look into constructing a smaller venue. If it’s one of format, there’s always that Bible museum opening up the street. Maybe they’ll build an IMAX and show the Darwin film.
FOR SEAWORLD, IT’S NOT A BLUE WORLD. IT’S NOT A GREEN WORLD EITHER.
SeaWorld canceled its Blue World Project, a series of huge killer whale tanks, and instead did this thing called Orca Encounter in San Diego, which is a show, but it’s not really a show. It’s a documentary film accompanied by live whales, and it’s not working. Neither is Ocean Explorer, the park’s attempt to compete against LEGOLAND California and its SEA LIFE aquarium. I know this because during the recent Q2 earnings call, SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby said the company does not expect to see a return on investments on the California attractions.
Here’s some other exciting things I picked up on during that earnings call:
- SeaWorld’s new virtual reality coaster in Orlando, Kraken Unleashed, is having throughput issues with far fewer people than projected being able to ride (as a side note, may I suggest parks considering a VR overlay to their existing coasters also expand the load station to be able to handle two trains at once).
- Going into the future, the company expects 1/3 of its cost savings to come from reduced attendance and revenues. The simplest way to interpret this is that the money-losing San Diego park will transform from a year-round to a seasonal operation, similar to the San Antonio park.
- The company is spending less money to build more rides and attractions and is no longer competing with Disney and Universal, doing its own thing in its own way.
I noticed two things really missing from the press release and earnings call, although one was very explicitly addressed in the SEC filing. There was barely any mention of Zhonghong, the Chinese company that had just purchased Blackstone’s 21% stake in the company. Manby basically told analysts if they had questions about Zhonghong, they should contact Zhonghong, adding that the two Zhonghong directors on SeaWorld’s board were well engaged and a pleasure to work with. Something felt off. Something was missing.
Then I was told by a source who would be in a position to know, speaking on grounds of anonymity (see disclosure tab at top of page) that Zhonghong had at the last minute decided against tendering for the time being an offer to buy SeaWorld, which required SeaWorld to make sure no documentation had any indication of any buyout, and all at the last minute. Which is why the press release for the second quarter financials came out almost two hours after its usual wire service distribution time, and why the SEC filing was not done until end of day the following day, almost thirty-six hours later.
Just prior, Zhonghong had placed a $3 billion acquisition of Brookdale Senior Living on hold after Chinese banks (if you’re a Chinese company, you must secure financing through Chinese banks) downgraded the company’s credit rating to “unfavorable,” resulting in Zhonghong being unable to secure financing to complete the Brookdale acquisition. Scouring the ChinaWeb, I’ve come across a document which is either a complaint or a legal filing (not sure yet which), alleging fraud on Zhonghong’s part with a 2016 residential development near Beijing. The claims are eerily similar to a 2016 SEC fraud investigation regarding Comcast’s purchase of DreamWorks Animation (DWA). Although Zhonghong is not mentioned as being investigated or as a defendant in the SEC case, it is mentioned by name as a co-suitor to purchase DWA with one of the defendants. Although I can’t be certain any fraud investigation has affected Zhonghong’s purchase of American companies, Zhonghong certainly has been effected by the same Chinese government investigation on lending for foreign investment that saw Dalian-Wanda group drastically reinvent itself. My source also tells me that both Manby and Board Chair David D’Alessandro will stay on through at least the end of the year, by which time the acquisition is expected to be back on and nearing completion.
At the same time, private investment firm Hill Path Capital continues to buy shares of SeaWorld, to the point that it is in the top four in terms of company ownership. According to a Merlin Entertainments call the day before SeaWorld’s call, Hill Path is pushing SeaWorld’s management to sell off the two Busch Gardens parks in order to obtain immediate revenue. SeaWorld was very explicit in its Q2 SEC filing that it wants Hill Path to have no part whatsoever in any board or management decisions.
These past forty-five days have been difficult for SeaWorld, with the stillbirth of a beluga calf, the death of what was advertised as “the last SeaWorld orca born in captivity,” and the euthanasia of one of the company’s most revered orcas. I’m not going to discuss welfare or health issues here. If that’s your cup of tea, there are plenty of other sites on the interweb covering both sides of the argument. One in particular caught my attention.
Michael Mountain writes on the Whale Sanctuary Project website about the death of the killer whale Kasatka. He schools SeaWorld for their interpretation of the term “family,” disputes the company’s healthcare and medical diagnoses, questions if her trainers loved her, and then implores SeaWorld to release their whales into a sanctuary, perhaps the very one his group plans on building.
I felt like I was reading a SeaWorld of Hate piece – you know, PETA’s anti-SeaWorld page, since this followed the traditional PETA anti-Seaworld layout – call out SeaWorld on everything they do, then implore them to move their whales to a sanctuary.
I don’t think it was a wise move for the Whale Sanctuary Project, and here’s why.
You need whales for your whale sanctuary and there’s only two ways you’re going to get them – through the courts or building bridges with the whales’ owners. You can have Kiska in Canada, but right now the law prohibits her being moved out of Ontario. You could have had Lolita in Miami, but certain lawsuits and Endangered Species Act recognition means lots more red tape and hurdles to jump through. I’m pretty sure you want Morgan from Loro Parque, but first you’ve got to figure out just who owns her (I’ve seen Loro Parque say she’s a ward of the Dutch government, their whale, and SeaWorld’s whale. Guess it depends on the day). That leaves the SeaWorld whales. And with posts like this, you’re burning necessary bridges far faster than you can get the materials to build new ones.
A MARINELAND VIDEO SENT ME TO THE BATHROOM.
Marineland of Canada released quite a few press releases last week. One was about the death of the beluga calf Gia. Along with it was a link to a video on Marineland’s animal husbandry. I recognized the licensed music in the video. It was the same selection that Comcast’s customer service office uses. I found myself automatically headed to the bathroom thinking I was going to be on hold for 20 minutes.
But what Marineland’s doing is far more interesting than listening to a pre-recorded ad for Comcast’s Xfinity internet service play eighty times in a row while you’re internet’s down. Marineland has chosen it’s enemy as it’s become confrontational with the Ontario SPCA, going so far as to state in January: “The OSPCA is continuing a publicity campaign at the behest of a band of discredited activists with little relevant expertise or knowledge, in an effort to avoid further embarrassment related to an ongoing investigation into the OSPCA’s perceived failure to protect animals that is being led by the same activists they are now firmly in bed with.”
Yes, the OSPCA is a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, much like many other SPCA’s or humane societies throughout the world. What makes it unique is that in addition to being a charitable organization, it is also the government mandated enforcement agency overseeing animal welfare issues in the province of Ontario.
Whereas something like a complaint being filed by, say PETA or the Animal Welfare Institute against a zoo or animal-based theme park would be a civil complaint, a complaint from the OSPCA is a criminal complaint. It is up to the Crown prosecutor to act on the charges and, in the most recent case, the charges were dropped.
Marineland continues to counter the OSPCA’s claims through press releases over the wire services, even callign the OSPCA’s Senior Manager of Communications a “self-proclaimed ‘PR (public relations) pro & writer by trade’ with no actual involvement in delivering Ontario SPCA’s animal welfare mandate.”
So, after treatment of this kind in the media by Marineland and other private zoo owners, it’s not a surprise that the OSPCA released an announcement that:
The Ontario SPCA believes that animals on exhibit in zoos solely for commercial gain is an antiquated business model that must be stopped. The time to begin working towards this goal is now, if we work together to ensure our expectations are clear for elected officials.
The Ontario SPCA advocates that the Government of Ontario put in place the following, on behalf of animals in zoos:
- Develop and proclaim new or amended legislation to regulate zoos permitted to operate in the province, prohibiting any zoo exhibiting animals solely for commercial gain,
- Provide at least four Crown Attorneys to specialize in animal welfare law so that charges are seen through to justice and the public interest is served,
- Provide sufficient funding and resources for increased and ongoing inspections of zoo facilities, and for the eventual closure of zoos that exist solely for commercial gain,
- Allow the current Provincial Zoo & Aquarium Registry to be made public and available on the Government of Ontario’s website.
So…the gloves are off….on both sides.
IS CEDAR FAIR HEADED BACK TO ITS ROOTS?
Christian Dieckmann and Howard Newstate have left Cedar Fair (to 3D Live and Holovis, respectively). What does this mean for the chain? Well, we’re likely to see less of the high tech attractions (VR is still gonna be around) like Iron Reef, Wonder Mountain’s Guardian, Mass Effect, and Plants v Zombies.
So what’s taking their place?
I’ve spoken extensively with the management of California’s Great America and with Clayton Lawrence, who was recently promoted from his post at Great America to become Cedar Fair’s Corporate Manager of Live Show Development. The company’s taking a back to basics approach. It’s looking back at the history of its parks and the communities in which those parks exist and honoring both. Food service is being upgraded, accommodations are being improved. The company will present a whole slate of live entertainment with a unified standard across all parks. And most exciting of all, festivals and events are going to be a special emphasis, from craft beer festivals to beach parties, Haunt, and Winterfest, Cedar Fair will be creating multiple reasons to visit year round as they put the amusement back in the park (yep, there’s a disclaimer at top of page).
SIX FLAGS JOINS THE APPEASEMENT BANDWAGON.
Six Flags Over Texas was named after the six flags that at various times flew over the state of Texas – Spain, France, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, the United States of America, and the Confederate States of America. In light of the recent events in Virginia and elsewhere, Six Flags opted to remove the Confederate flag from its flagpole. Then they did one better – they removed four more of the flags and replaced them all with American flags.
In Canada, after a mother posted a Facebook photo of a carousel horse at La Ronde, Six Flags’ theme park on the Expo 67 site in Montreal, the company agreed to remove the horse, which featured the severed head of a Native American. While America deals with its racial unrest, Canada is dealing with its own legacy of abuse of First Nations tribal members. The history is a long and hard one that spans from the forced relocation to and abuse at residential schools – an attempt to “educate” the native out the native culture – to today’s epidemic of young aboriginal women disappearing and being killed.
I applaud Six Flags and its individual park management for doing the right thing.