Tag: PETA

Questions for Merlin Entertainments, WDC, Zhonghong, and PETA

0702110044

I invite those I’m questioning in this post to respond. Answers will help direct future posts.

For Merlin Entertainments:

In your October, 25, 2112 letter to NOAA Fisheries objecting to the receipt of 18 wild-caught belugas by the Georgia Aquarium and its partners, Janine DiGioacchino wrote:

“. . . . cetaceans are not suited to captivity…no matter how spacious or well-designed
the facilities.

“They are wide-ranging, highly intelligent and social animals which suffer acute
sensory deprivation in any kind of unnatural confinement.”

If this is how the company feels about cetaceans, does it feel this way about other wide-ranging, highly intelligent and social animals? If so, why are you keeping and breeding just under a dozen gorillas at a theme park on the outskirts of London?

35331804_10156406275989035_6338002686595563520_n

For Zhonghong Zhuoye and Zhonghong Holding:
  1. Did your subsidiary Sun Wise UK default on paying its $150,000,000 loan issued by Pacific Alliance Group (PAG) and applied to purchasing Blackstone’s shares of SeaWorld stock? If so, is PAG taking ownership of those shares?
  2. Sources working within the attractions industry tell me that you announced the location of your first Chinese SeaWorld-branded park without first notifying SeaWorld that you had determined a location. Is this true?
  3. Why did you make an announcement on the 28th of this month that Jiaduobao Group and Yinyi Capital had agreed to invest equity in Zhonghong Holding, when the result was Jiaduobao announcing that it had never signed an agreement with you and Yinyi announcing that it was unaware of the contents of the agreement?
beluga-whales-shanghai2
For WDC:
  1. At the same time you were working on releasing Chinese belugas to a sanctuary, were you aware, as a member of the China Cetacean Alliance, that two wild-caught belugas had been transferred to Atlantis Sanya in October of last year, along with twelve (according to Ceta-base: 6 bottlenose, 4 Pacific White-sided, and 2 pantropical spotted) dolphins captured and transferred from Taiji earlier this year?
  2. Were you aware, as the adviser to Thomas Cook on cetacean welfare, that, regardless of the fact that the owner of this resort also has an ownership stake in Thomas Cook, the travel agency was planning to sell packages to Atlantis Sanya?
  3. Is there a reason, being that you are the adviser on cetacean welfare to Thomas Cook (per publicity issued both by yourself and Thomas Cook), that you did not ensure the company did an advance assessment of the facility prior to including it in its sales portfolio?

animal-crackers-box-content-2018

For PETA:
  1. If it’s still called Barnum’s Animal Crackers, doesn’t it still pay homage to Barnum and his circus menagerie?
  2. Did you notice how the new art is reminiscent of classic circus art designed to deceptively pull in audiences by showing animals living together in the wild (see slideshow below)?

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

  1. Was this a grassroots PETA campaign, or did you piggyback on another group’s work, as I’ve been told you’re prone to do?
  2. Did you forget about the statement you made regarding The Greatest Showman (accessible via this prior blog post of mine)?
  3. Considering you’re PETA, do you even care that your victory is incomplete?

The Other Side of the News marine life park edition part two: A PETA consultant shows he doesn’t care about animals

thomas cook page

Look, I don’t know Luke Steele. I’ve never met him, never heard of him before I wrote my blog post about Thomas Cook and Fosun.  I think I hurt his feelings, because after all those months of campaigning to get Thomas Cook to drop SeaWorld and Loro Parque, some smart ass California moron (that would be me) says “Yeah, but why aren’t you addressing this?”

I know a few animal rights activists and talk with them once in a while. Some of them, like Howard Garrett and Naomi Rose and Ingrid Visser – when they celebrate victories and someone asks “Yeah, but why aren’t you addressing this?”, they answer “We celebrate this now. We celebrate more victories in the future, like that one.”

Steele doesn’t appear to understand this concept, which is an inherent central attribute of activism of any kind. Instead, as mentioned before in this blog, he intentionally sought out anywhere my post was shared in social media and attempted to paint it as a false claim.  I wonder if Steele in his insecurity realizes that in telling activists that the Thomas Cook/Fosun relationship is untrue, he’s actually not only failing in his effort to vilify me, he’s also claiming that animal rights activists are complicit to a lie – a lie well founded in documentation.

But there’s one comment that just blew me away, though not directly tied in with my post:

steele

Glad somebody liked his comment. Now Steele is correct. Thomas Cook has no responsibility over what Fosun does…

…strictly from the standpoint of business law. (By the way, Mr. Steele, Fosun is not an investment bank. It’s an investment firm and there’s a HUGE difference).

From an animal rights activism standpoint, Steele has absolved Thomas Cook of the responsibility of meeting its stated animal welfare objective and has thrown hundreds of animal rights activists and their efforts under the bus. Bravo.

But Thomas Cook made a public commitment towards animal welfare which, although they are a for-profit company, places them in the public trust for this topic.

In December 2016, Thomas Cook CEO Peter Frankhauser wrote:

We know that for many people, animals in captivity of any form is unacceptable. However, it is a sad truth that many captive animals cannot be safely returned to the wild. Tourism has a big role to play in raising standards for those animals during the transition to ending the practice of capturing animals for entertainment, and ending practices that are known to harm animals.

The 2017 Thomas Cook sustainability report states:

Beyond our auditing efforts, it is key for us to create a step change in our industry
towards higher welfare attractions in our industry.

To that end, we are committed to promoting and developing sea sanctuaries as a financially sustainable, higher welfare attractions which can provide a long-term alternative to captive whales and dolphins.

So here’s a question: Why would Thomas Cook tell both SeaWorld and Loro Parque that if they passed their audits, they would continue to be sold, only to announce they were being dropped at the same time Thomas Cook started selling packages to a dolphin resort owned by a company that is both in a joint venture with Thomas Cook and owns a portion of the British travel company itself?

You might need to read that two or three times to take it all in.

Now understand, I’m not out to disparage Fosun. I have some issues with where they sourced their animals (Taiji, Russia), but I leave it to you as to how you feel about Atlantis Sanya.

As Steele pointed out, Thomas Cook is an independent company that sets its own policy.

And Steele is correct in that Thomas Cook does not finance marine life parks….

…at least directly.

So Thomas Cook should have no role in affecting the operation of a marine life park that it shares an owner with.

Except there’s precedent….

Remember when both Merlin Entertainments and SeaWorld Entertainment shared a common owner – investment firm Blackstone Group (which is kind of the American version of Fosun)?

Well, this happened:

merlin letter

While Steele was busy scouring the internet to protect his manhood from the emasculating nature of my post (it must have been the profile of that white sided dolphin), Dolphin Freedom UK took the opposite approach. Using my post as a springboard, along with their own research, they reported about the potential conflict on their blog, which then went viral in its own right.

The result of their effort? Thomas Cook announced that it will audit Atlantis Sanya.

I have this fear that perhaps Thomas Cook isn’t being so honest about its commitment to animal welfare. Its stock is about half the value it was a year ago.  Part of me wonders if this is an attempt to bring in a new audience – the animal rights audience – to supplement losses in other markets. Part of me wonders if the sudden dropping of orca parks was an attempt reminiscent of SeaWorld, where Joel Manby suddenly ended orca breeding in a not-well-thought-out effort to quiet animal rights protesters.

If Thomas Cook is being sincere, I don’t know if just audits for certification are enough. The ABTA guidelines for cetaceans in captivity can be found here. I don’t think it’s enough for a company pledging to protect animal welfare to just make guidelines available and say whether a property has passed or failed its audit.

Even as a for-profit company, once you dedicate yourself to a public cause, you develop a public trust, and that trust requires transparency.

I urge everyone, no matter what your view on captivity, to contact or petition Thomas Cook to make those audits publicly available. If the company is to share whether a facility passes or not, it should also tell us why, help us know what’s wrong with it so that we can work as a community to improve the lives of the animals who live there, regardless of our feelings on captivity.

And while you’re at it, see if they have any checks that need to be delivered to Luke Steele.

For the life of me, I can’t figure out why someone hired by PETA, an organization that preaches “Animals are Not Ours to Use for Entertainment,” would go to such lengths to deny Thomas Cook’s association with a dolphin park that it shares owners with.

PART THREE WILL RUN TOMORROW. HOW A SINGLE LINE IN A CHINESE NEWS REPORT PUT A CANADIAN THEME PARK ON THE DEFENSIVE

An addendum to the Thomas Cook/Fosun post and meet PETA’s troll who’s not a troll

Trolls

This is gonna be a very long post, so grab your Starbucks, your Timmies, or your Shotter (for my British readers, Coffee Shotter is a vegan coffeehouse/cafe in Croydon that’s been highly recommended by friends).

THE THOMAS COOK/FOSUN POST

On July 29, I wrote a blog post about Thomas Cook’s relationship with the Chinese company Fosun. Within two days, it had been viewed 40,000 times. I wasn’t expecting that. I usually get double digit readership, on rare occasions, triple. Obviously, this post certainly hit a cord with a number of people. And to think – this blog is simply a place for me to share my thoughts and observations.

What happens after that is just humanity in motion.

HISTORY OF THEMEDREALITY

I am a journalist covering the attractions industry. That is my profession (click on the “disclaimer” tab above. Readers should understand that this is a personal blog and is independent from any professional work I do). For the past seven years, I have professionally written extensively about theme parks, waterparks, wax museums, haunts and Halloween mazes, giant screen theaters and planetariums, virtual and augmented reality, museums, zoos and aquariums, cruise ships, and casinos for trade publications read by attraction designers and operators.

In February 2013, I started this blog. It was a way for me to examine the industry and the aspects of it that interested me in a voice unique from that of the trades. Most of its earlier posts were written in a sarcastic and sardonic fashion, often with a wink at individuals working within the industry.

On November 3 of that year, Blackfish aired on CNN. I was following the comment stream on SeaWorld’s Facebook page as the entries became vulger with wave upon wave of obscene comments – to the point that SeaWorld shut down comments altogether on the page with a note about it being “family friendly.” I blogged about this. But I wanted to understand more about why this happened. Upon request, I was sent a press DVD of the film by the distributor and watched it over and over, and I bought a copy of David Kirby’s book “Death at SeaWorld.”

These led me to write the paper “Dissecting Blackfish,” where I examined how the editing and writing of the film and Kirby’s book were designed to meet narrative goals. I recently reexamined “Dissecting Blackfish” and found it to be a horrible piece of work – not in its content, but in the writing and context, which were both poorly executed by myself. If I were to write it now, it would come out a completely different document.

I HAVE A SECRET AGENDA – HERE IT IS

Following the release of “Dissecting Blackfish,,” I was contacted by a number of leading zoo and aquarium professionals, as well as a number of animal rights activists. Somewhere in this process, I realized that if I was going to understand the issue of captivity, I had to open up and listen to both sides.

Over the past five years, I have established strong friendships with quite a few animal rights activists and also with a large number of zoo and marine life park staff and supporters.

There are quite a few on both sides that remain skeptical about my intentions and, although we may not see eye to eye on most everything, they have proven to be courteous and respectful individuals who want to hear what I have to say while sharing their thoughts in a direct two-way dialogue (much appreciation on this front to FJ and HG for our lengthy and informative chats).

Then there are those who have opted to villianize me, which is fine.

To the park lovers who find me a traitor, I’m an agent of PETA (because many actually believe PETA runs the entire animal rights activism movement. I’ve been told by friends of mine active in the animal rights movement that this is because PETA allegedly takes credit for others accomplishments. I use the term “allegedly” because PETA has never taken credit for anything I’ve done).

To the animal rights activists who can’t stand me, I’m on SeaWorld’s payroll (which would be nice, because if SeaWorld payed me for the amount of personal blogging I’ve done on my own time and at my own expense about cetacean parks, including posts that aren’t quite complimentary to the company, I could probably afford to visit SeaWorld more than once every twenty years).

I am neither an animal rights activist nor an anti-cap.

I am also not a die hard zoo or marine life park fan who believes that such places can do no wrong.

I believe that zoos and aquariums can and do serve an important purpose, but I also acknowledge that many animal exhibitors should not be in operation and that quite a few facilities, even some reputable ones, practice antiquated husbandry techniques.

I believe that zoos and aquariums need to reevaluate their mission – how they exhibit and care for their animals, how they develop and implement educational programming, how they establish conservation programs to protect animals, plants, and ecosystems in the wild, and how they fund this all.

My agenda is simple on this blog – I share what I see on a variety of topics. Not just animals. Readers are welcome to do with that what they want or to discard it altogether.

That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less.

I sometimes quote individuals as sources – some I name, many ask for anonymity due to the nature of their work and the political situation of the country in which they reside. All numbers given in the blog come from publicly available documentation.

HAINAN

For the past seven years, I have been covering the attractions industries in China and Russia both professionally and as a blogger. As a result, I have gained some very strong connections in both countries.

This past June, I wrote an article about Chimelong Group expanding into Hainan. This is an important milestone, as to date, Chimelong has concentrated on its three resorts in Guangdong Province – Chimelong Guanzhou Resort, home to the company’s original park, Chimelong Safari; Chimelong Zhuhai Resort, home to Chimelong Ocean Kingdom; and Chimelong Qingyuan Forest Resort, the 13.5 square mile animal park and resort being built in the mountains.

Now, Chimelong, which in 2017 saw more people attend its five Guangdong parks than Six Flags saw in all of its 20 North American parks, is going to build a huge resort based around marine and terrestrial wildlife in Hainan. Word is that it will likely be in Ledong, a two hour drive from Sanya, home to two major marine life parks – Atlantis Sanya and R&F Ocean Paradise (set to open next year). How will these two resorts be impacted by Chimelong’s entrance into the market? I was researching this when, on July 16, Thomas Cook announced a strategic partnership with the Hainan government “to promote international tourism to Sanya.”

In short, a major shareholder of Thomas Cook owns a three-month old luxury marine life park in a market that Thomas Cook has just agreed to promote. Thomas Cook has a huge role in  Fosun’s larger long-term entertainment/tourism strategy. On July 4, Fosun applied with the Hong Kong Stock Exchange to spin off its Tourism and Culture Group into a separate publicly traded company, with assets including Atlantis Sanya, Club Med, Thomas Cook China, and the Chinese operations of Cirque du Soleil.

And then the SeaWorld decision came down from Thomas Cook and puzzle pieces started fitting together. I’ll explain in a moment, but first…

A SHORT DISCUSSION ON TROLLS…BROUGHT TO YOU BY PETA

I began two other blogs as offshoots of this one – “The Mid-Cap Chronicles” and “Final Days of Conventional Wisdom” – to focus primarily on the issue of animal captivity and exhibition. I also started a Facebook discussion group on cetacean exhibition that grew to over 2,000 members from both sides, created an hour long video examining the business situation at the five North American parks housing orcas, and maintained a Facebook page which proved a great platform for discussing issues with both park supporters and activists. It also became a page where I could share real time updates on natural disasters, something of concern to me, such as the week I spent monitoring and reporting on Florida’s zoos, aquariums, and sanctuaries during and after Hurricane Irma, monitoring for more than 24 hours when the storm hit South Florida. Suffice to say, all this has taken its toll and I’ve been downsizing my blogging and social media posting this year.

While doing all this over the past few years, I’ve encountered plenty of internet trolls and haters. They’ve never angered me, just annoyed me. And it was easy to deal with them.

But a certain reaction to the Thomas Cook/Fosun blog post piqued my curiosity. When people started posting links to it on their Facebook accounts and in Facebook groups, I started receiving messages from them about what appeared to be a troll attempting to discredit my blog. Upon examination, it turned out neither to be a troll nor a hater. It turned out to be a man trying to defend his life’s work. And who it was fascinated me.

Luke Steele (and I am quite envious of the fantastic name) is a successful and well known animal rights activist in the UK. He is a consultant to PETA UK and played a key role in the group’s Thomas Cook campaign.

In one comment, Steele wrote:

This is a blog by somebody who says their objective is to stop any threat to the entertainment industry, including bans on orca breeding. Of course somebody of that mindset isn’t going to be applauding this decision.

In another, he attempted to discredit the entire blog post with a simple explanation:

This is untrue. Thomas Cook is ending involvement in all captive orca attractions across the globe, including SeaWorld and Loro Parque.

In all kindness, I won’t go so far as to call Mr. Steele a liar, but I will point out that his claims are both false and intentionally misleading.

“This is a blog by somebody who says their objective is to stop any threat to the entertainment industry…”

As somebody who has over twenty years experience in hospitality and attraction management, I’ll share a simple truth. If a company or park goes out of business, it’s either due to poor operations or because management is unable or unwilling to adjust to a changing market. I’m not in the business of saving entertainment companies. They go out of business all the time.

To be clear, my objective has never been to “stop any threat to the entertainment industry,” as Mr. Steele claims, and I’ve never stated as such. I have, however, opted to bring attention to some key threats to the industry. As we’ve seen with the #metoo movement, the biggest threats to the entertainment industry are internal. I’ve addressed that with a number of blog posts – on issues ranging from the wild capture of dolphins and whales for aquaria to the legal ramifications of pedophiles in waterparks, racism, and this one on homophobia, which I was excited to see one of my colleagues reference during an on-stage discussion with Greg Louganis at an entertainment industry summit (the video is on YouTube).

As for stopping “bans on orca breeding,” Mr. Steele undoubtedly missed the January 1, 2014 blog post which originally appeared here and was later moved to The Mid-Cap Chronicles, wherein I advocated for an end to orca breeding and choreographed shows, and the construction of bigger spaces for the whales. I also expressed my concerns with swim with dolphin programs in this post (which, like it or hate it, also included my opinion on why Blackfish was snubbed for an Oscar).

This was seven months before Blue World Project was announced, more than fifteen months before the hiring of Joel Manby, and more than two years before Manby and Wayne Pacelle announced an end to orca breeding. Just in case you doubt the date it was posted, you can also access the piece archived on the ThemedReality blog via the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.

As for the second comment, I’m not certain what Mr. Steele is saying “is untrue.” If it’s the Thomas Cook/Fosun blog post, then he’s alleging that publicly available information filed with a number of regulatory agencies has been fabricated as part of some big conspiracy by a number of governments in Asia and Europe with the cooperation of Canada.

However, I’m just being hypothetical, as I’m certain Mr. Steele, as accomplished and compassionate as he is, could never be as conspiratorial as someone like, say, Donald Trump, or Moby (it’s true – look it up).

The second part of his statement, “Thomas Cook is ending involvement in all captive orca attractions across the globe, including SeaWorld and Loro Parque” is absolutely true, and it wasn’t denied at all in the Thomas Cook/Fosun blog post.

I fully acknowledge that Mr. Steele and his team worked long and hard to achieve this goal.  But I’m left wondering, based on Mr. Steele’s fabrication of facts about my blog, my writing, and my intent, how honest that campaign was in its dealings with Thomas Cook and the thousands of animal rights supporters who signed petitions and donated money to PETA.

Frankly though, I’m not bothered. I’m just wondering.

TRUTH AND TRANSPARENCY

Both Thomas Cook and Steele have something in common – they both hid the truth in order to achieve their goals. How they did it was accomplished in different ways, for there are many different ways to hide the truth.

Steele created a fraudulent dialogue to protect his achievement, something which could be considered a blemish on PETA UK’s integrity.

Thomas Cook simply hid the truth through omission. Even if it never sells tickets or packages to Atlantis Sanya, two facts remain:

Thomas Cook announced a major promotion to the market where Atlantis Sanya is located just days before stripping two major marine life park companies who met the Thomas Cook guidelines at the time they were audited of their involvement in its programs.

At the same time, regardless of whether or not Thomas Cook ever sells any tickets or packages to Atlantis Sanya, every ticket or package it sells to anywhere results in a portion of Thomas Cook revenue going directly to Atlantis Sanya’s owners, as that company, Fosun, also owns a sizable stake of Thomas Cook.

THE THOMAS COOK TAIJI CONNECTION

Now, I will briefly discuss the dolphin captures and kills in Taiji, Japan. It has been pointed out by a number of people on the internet that Atlantis Sanya’s ten dolphins were captured at Taiji. This is true. And it is also true that over the past five years that SeaWorld, Loro Parque, and almost every major zoo and aquarium association globally have condemned the practices executed at Taiji, as have PETA and PETA UK.

Now here’s where it gets tricky – from a business standpoint, there is no requirement that Thomas Cook disclose its relationship with Fosun and Atlantis Sanya within its blogs, press material, social media, or websites. Moreover, Thomas Cook’s animal welfare policy is now founded on two principles – that there be no captive orcas and that facilities meet ABTA standards of animal welfare. And, as difficult as this may be to believe, the captures at Taiji actually meet ABTA standards for the wild capture of cetaceans.

But there’s something else – integrity, transparency, and honesty work hand-in-hand with truth when a company is marketing itself from a platform of taking the moral high ground. Sadly, in my opinion, these traits are lacking from Thomas Cook’s announcement of its dropping of SeaWorld and Loro Parque.

There’s a whole other part to the story, involving the relationship between Fosun and SeaWorld shareholder Zhonghong, but that’s for another post.

I’ll just end with a quote from one of my favorite authors, the great Geoffrey Chaucer:

Savour no more thanne thee behove schal;
Reule weel thiself, that other folk canst reede;
And trouthe schal delivere, it is no drede.

The Other Side of the News AUG 2017

lrg_x_D611383

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. 

James-_Baskett-_Ingrid-_Bergman
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.)

Batten01-247

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.”
  3. 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.
  4. The Smithsonian is a government agency. ENGAGE CONGRESS!!
  5. 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:

  1. 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,
  2. 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,
  3. 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,
  4. 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.