Tag: Six Flags

Death Knell for Zhonghong

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As I write this, I’m awaiting word from the Chinese authorities on whether or not Zhonghong Holdings will be the first company to be delisted from a Chinese exchange for trading under 1 yuan for over a month. At today’s exchange rate, 1 yuan is aproximately 14 US cents. Zhonghong Holdings holds the exclusive license to develop SeaWorld branded parks and entertainment centers in China, Macao, Hong Kong, and Taiwan,

Meanwhile, a development just as big is taking place. China Securities Journal reports that Zhonghong Holdings’ 33 billion yuan of unpaid loans are being auctioned off. At today’s exchange rate, that’s US$4,762,890,000. According to the report, buyers are less interested in taking on the debt, so much as there are in acquiring the collateral – the Zhonghong Building in Beijing.

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Now the SeaWorld shares owned by Zhonghong Zhuoye are safe from what’s happening to Zhonghong Holdings – kind of. And I’ll get to that in moment.

First though, some quick background. As I’ve mentioned before, Zhonghong Zhuoye and Zhonghong Holdings are two different companies. Zhonghong Holdings is a publicly traded real estate development company. Zhonghong Zhuoye is the private investment company that owns a sizable stake each of  Zhonghong Holdings and SeaWorld Entertainment. So technically, they’re different companies and this is where things get tricky.

When looking at Zhonghong Holdings’ attempts at expansion, one thing becomes evident: it wanted to be like its competitor, Fosun.

Fosun co-founded and funded the film and television company Studio 8, after which Zhonghong Holdings entered into a partnership to try and acquire DreamWorks Animation.

Fosun partnered with Fortress Investment Group to develop senior housing in China. Then Zhonghong attempted to purchase Brookdale Senior Living in the US. It could not secure the financing and ended the attempt. After which, Fosun invested in Brookdale.

Fosun bought Club Med, Zhonghong followed by buying luxury travel company Abercrombie and Kent.

Most importantly, a year before Fosun opened its Atlantis Sanya resort in Hainan, a co-venture with Kerzner International, Zhonghong Zhuoye paid 33% above market to purchase Blackstone’s remaining shares in SeaWorld. As part of the deal, Zhonghong Holdings got the license rights for China.

Now there is a victim in all this – and that’s SeaWorld Entertainment. The company had nothing to do with the Zhonghong Holdings situation. It didn’t determine who bought the stock – that was Blackstone. And as for the rather lucrative shareholder and licensing agreements that were signed – David D’Alessandro was the Chairman of the Board at the time the agreements were formulated, and he was a Blackstone appointee. In fact, he had been appointed Chairman of SeaWorld’s Board in 2010, when the company was 100% owned by Blackstone. If you consider Blackstone and Zhonghong to be a rock and a hard place, then SeaWorld was indeed between a rock and hard place.

By all indications, Zhonghong Zhuoye’s not doing so good either. A good portion of its assets are tied up in Zhonghong Holdings and were frozen by the courts. A year ago, the auction house Christie’s sued Zhonghong Zhuoye’s owner Wang Yonghong for HK$120 million (US$15,357,600 based on the exchange rate of Sept 25, 2017) for the amount due on a Chinese vase won at auction.

With Zhonghong Holdings not being in a position to build SeaWorld parks, those contracts will likely be dissolved. And without the contracts in China, Wang most likely will want to increase his equity, and that’s done through the sale of his shares in SeaWorld.

But wait! There’s more!

Because Zhonghong’s tale is the gift that keeps on giving.

To finance the purchase of that 21% of SeaWorld stock, Zhonghong took out two external loans.

The first wasn’t technically a loan. Zhonghong Zhuoye issued 10,000,000 Class B preferred shares of Sun Wise UK to China Huarong Investment for $100,000,000. Sun Wise is the dummy company Zhonghong Zhuoye created to purchase the SeaWorld stock.

So why does China Huarong matter?

Meet Lai Xiaomin.

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He was arrested yesterday after a lengthy investigation by Chinese authorities. Charges include bribery and his firm dolling out billions of dollars in loans to companies they allegedly knew were unable to repay. His corruption trial is expected to be the biggest yet in modern Chinese history.

Lai Xiaomin was the Chairman of China Huarong at the time the SeaWorld shares were purchased.

And continuing….

PAG (formerly Pacific Alliance Group) loaned an additional $150,000,000 for the purchase. I highly suspect that Zhonghong Zhuoye, if it has not yet, will default on a loan payment to PAG. Around the middle of August, colleagues of mine in China began telling me to look for something happening between Zhonghong  and PAG (though they weren’t sure if it was Zhonghong Holdings, which has had business dealings in the past with PAG, or Zhonghong Zhouye). About the same time, a mysterious page appeared on the SeaWorld Entertainment website, only to be taken down the same day:

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A few days ago, I posted on the ThemedReality Facebook page that I had been informed by reliable sources that Six Flags was in talks to purchase all or part of SeaWorld Entertainment (click on the Disclaimer tab above for my policy on anonymous sources. A similar disclaimer appears on the Facebook page). The one line post was picked up by national news (I guess the elections and Jeff Sessions resigning weren’t important enough) and there were quite a few naysayers, which I’m comfortable with, since I advocate free speech.

Now, I have no reason to doubt my sources. At the same time, I understand the reasoning behind those that do doubt the statement.

If you look at the statement of Six Flags and SeaWorld strictly as a domestic transaction, it makes little sense.

But it does make sense if it’s part of a global strategy.

Teir 1 parks are a growth market in China. The biggest submarket of those are marine life parks – places like Atlantis Sanya, Chimelong Zhuhai, and Shanghai Haichang Ocean Park, which is opening next week.

In Hainan alone, which is now a visa free tourist zone for visitors from more than 50 countries,  we can expect eight to ten large scale aquariums and marine life parks within the next decade on an island the size of the US state of Maryland.

The 2017 AECOM/TEA Theme Index gives us an idea of how many people visited the two flagship SeaWorld parks last year: 3,962,000 in Orlando and 3,100,000 in San Diego. During the same period, 5 million people visited Hong Kong’s Ocean Park, while 9,780,000 visited Chimelong Ocean Kingdom in Zhuhai, up 15.5% from the year before.

Without a doubt, the world’s most well known marine life park brand is SeaWorld. Whoever has control of the SeaWorld brand in China stands to make significantly more than they would off the SeaWorld branded parks in the states. Owning a significant amount of shares in SeaWorld makes it easier to secure those licensing rights.

Six Flags talking with SeaWorld? It’s about much more than Six Flags Tampa Bay.

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A later than promised late February 2019 edition of The Other Side of the News wherein we learn who SeaWorld’s tagged as its next whistleblower, the relationship between China, Six Flags, and Tacos, and what happens to sky rides when God blows his (or her) nose

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This is gonna be a weird ride. Alcohol or a purring cat might help get you through.

THE BUCKET LIST

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One day in my youth, I was at Disneyland, strolling through Old Fantasyland, when I was shoved to the side by cast members as the Anaheim Fire Department’s ladder truck made its way to the center of the pathway to rescue riders stuck on the Skyway. They had already been dangling there for two hours and this was the only way to get them down. The truck would make its way up and down the line in Fantasyland and Tomorowland over the next few hours in order to retrieve every single passenger from every single bucket.

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On the evening of President’s Day 2019, the Bayside Skyride (originally called the Atlantis Skyride as it conveyed diners across the water from the park to the Atlantis fine dining room to enjoy fine dining meals of whale blubber and shark eggs) at SeaWorld San Diego was hit by a gust of wind estimated at around 50 mph and shut down. 16 riders, including children were suspended for hours in the chilly night air. What made this different from the old days of the Disneyland Skyway was the fact that a ladder truck couldn’t just drive underneath each bucket – at SeaWorld, almost all the riders were stuck over water.

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So what happens if there’s a breakdown with the most high profile gondola system of our time – the Disney Skyliner, opening soon at Walt Disney World? Well, according my intel, the gondola system is actually a series of different cables, creating four or five different lines. It all depends on the number of drive wheels installed. So, if my calculations are correct, EPCOT to Riviera Resort is either one or two distinct lines, depending on whether or not the cables terminate at the 45+ degree turn located near the Boardwalk Resort. Other individual lines are Riviera to Caribbean, Art of Disney to Caribbean, and Caribbean to Hollywood Studios.  And if I’m wrong, they weren’t thinking about this issue.

Why is this important? Because the fewer cables there are, even in a straight run, the fewer people might get stuck during a breakdown. – one short stretch might stop while the connecting one is turned into a loop so that those riders can just be pulled into the closest station.

And a breakdown will happen. The Oakland Zoo uses an almost identical gondola system from Doppelmayr/Garaventa to transport guests up a hill to its new California Trail area. The day after the exhibit’s grand opening, the gondola system suffered a “digital glitch” and stopped operating for half an hour, stranding about 80 passengers in the air and another 100 at the top of the hill, waiting for a way down.

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Those stuck in the gondolas had something nice that, from the artwork I’ve seen, Disney’s passengers won’t.  On the interior side of the gondola is a large grate open to the elements, through which cool San Francisco Bay breezes can come through. Without air conditioning, and with the likelihood that there’s no such large vent, we’ll eventually be seeing some interesting interviews on the news with riders who were stuck on the Skyliner in the sweltering heat and humidity of a Central Florida summer.

SIX FLAGS AND FIVE STARS

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The over-borrowing, low return on investment, and huge debt pileup of Chinese real estate developers like Dalian-Wanda Group and Zhonghong Holdings have placed new worries and restrictions on the Chinese real estate market. To open parks in China, Comcast and Disney partnered with government owned companies, who are the majority owners of the Universal Beijing and Shanghai Disney resorts, respectively,. Six Flags took another route, by licensing to and advising its Chinese partner, which has led to substantial delays on its Chinese parks.

Jim Reid-Anderson, CEO and Chair, Six Flags Entertainment Corporation:

Our international agreements continue to be a significant contributor to revenue growth as revenue approached $42 million in 2018. It would have been approximately $15 million higher if not for a fourth quarter adjustment to reflect delays in some of the China Parks opening schedules caused by recent macroeconomic events that many companies are experiencing and from which our partner is not immune. The delays result from three main areas.

First, the economy in China is experiencing a general malaise due to global trade tensions and the lowest pace of GDP growth in almost 30 years. Second, new policies and regulations have reduced the volume of real estate transaction, our partner’s primary business and made it more difficult for private companies to obtain loans. Third, recent turnover of government officials in Chongqing and Nanjing has caused development plans to be temporarily paused until the plan can be reviewed and re-approved by new leadership.

“…recent turnover of government officials in Chongqing and Nanjing has caused development plans to be temporarily paused until the plan can be reviewed and re-approved by new leadership.”

Huh?

THIS IS AMERICA

We have one political party.

The Republican Party.

There are few elections.

If you vote, it’s because your’e a party member in good standing.

Your mayor is chosen for you.

Your city council members are chosen for you.

Your county board of supervisors, state assembly members, Congressmen, Senators – all are chosen for you.

As long as their actions don’t upset their superiors or violate America’s strong anti-corruption laws, these lawmakers are given broad range to make their decisions.

Your President is Donald Trump.  He was chosen for you too. Then he was given a lifetime appointment.

There is no Facebook. No twitter. No Instagram. Well, they exist, but they’re blocked. And if you can access them, and are caught using them, you face arrest.

Instead, you use social media designed with the government’s input and fully monitored by the government – Trumpbook, Tiffer, Ivankagram.

You have freedoms. But those freedoms come with a price.

If you’re caught littering, you lose your privilege to travel.

If you protest something, you’re sent to a “re-education center.”

SIX FLAGS CEO BOTCHES MEETING WITH FLORIDA GOVERNOR

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For over two years, Six Flags has been in talks to purchase Fun Spot Orlando.

Last month, during a Visit Florida reception in Tallahassee, Six Flags CEO and President Jim Reid-Anderson approached Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to discuss the permitting process.

DeSantis noticed that Reid-Anderson was holding a plate of fish tacos, which disgusted him as he neither cares for wildlife nor Mexicans. He immediately stopped progress on the Six Flags Orlando project, because he felt disgusted, and because he could.

And because….

THIS IS AMERICA
….IF AMERICA WERE CHINA

AND NOW AN ADVERTISING BREAK:

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TIDBITS:

OUT AND IN

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IMAX Corporation has shut down all its virtual reality gaming centers at a substantial loss – they were opened with a $50 million VR fund established by the company. But that’s technically not the end of IMAX VR centers. Just one day after the company filed with the SEC that it would be shutting down the IMAX owned enterprise, Dreamscape Immersive opened its first high-end VR center in Los Angeles. Among Dreamscape’s investors are AMC Theaters, Fox, Warner Bros, Viacom (parent company of Paramount), MGM, Westfield Malls, Steven Spielberg, film composer Hans Zimmer, and that $50 million IMAX VR fund. It’s a lot safer for a company to be just an investor than a financier-owner-operator in such a volatile new industry.

THERE’S A PLACE

According to Richard Zimmermann, President and CEO of Cedar Fair, the company’s current collection of thrill rides is strong enough that the company can “space out our larger investments in new rides and attractions over a longer period of time, while our near-term investments will increasingly focus on interactive and immersive family attractions, special events, concerts and outdoor gathering spaces.”

Over in the twittersphere and in a number of of groups, hard core theme park fans are a bit perplexed at this strategy. But, as I reported on this blog in 2017, it’s something that’s been in the works for a number of years, driven by Season Pass sales (see my article here on festivals and events and how they’re used to market season passes).

One interesting part of Cedar Fair’s strategy is utilizing rides and attractions as part of a placemaking process tying together a central theme. The company is doing this a number of ways, concentrating on the historic themes of its parks or their locations.

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At Knott’s Berry Farm, Bigfoot Rapids is being rethemed as Calico River Rapids, tying it through scenic elements and a new storyline with the historic Calico Ghost Town area. Through new animatronics from Garner Holt, it will now become a third story-driven “dark ride” attraction in the land, joining the mine train and the log ride. At Cedar Point, an area that once housed dinosaurs will become a new Western-ish town with an interactive adventure that carries its changing storyline throughout the season and the years – this is version 2.0 of Knott’s Ghost Town Alive.

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Even new coasters are playing a central role in the creation of new thematic environments. At Canada’s Wonderland and Carowinds, they will be the centerpiece of new lands themed to the Yukon and Blue Ridge Mountains, respectively. Each of those lands presents new themed retail and dining opportunities, along with new opportunities for themed festivals and events, which, again, helps sell season passes.

THE MAIN EVENT

YOU KNOW HOW TO WHISTLE, DON’T YOU STEVE? YOU JUST PUT YOUR LIPS TOGETHER, AND BLOW.

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SeaWorld Entertainment has a new CEO, Gus Antorcha, the former COO of Carnival Cruise Lines. The ThemedReality unpaid interns were sitting around recently eating pizza and playing LEGO Harry Potter, so I decided to turn off the TV and put them to use doing something productive – comparing the employment contracts of Antorcha and the prior permanent CEO, Joel Manby. The contracts are publicly available on the US Securities and Exchange Commission website, included with the company’s financial filings. Although the salary and bonus structure is different for each CEO, we won’t be discussing that here, because we found a few more interesting things that piqued our curiosity.

We’ll start with the non-competition clause, which states that the CEO cannot conduct business of any kind with a direct SeaWorld competitor either while employed or within a number of years of leaving the company.

For Manby, that meant conducting business of any kind that could benefit a SeaWorld competitor within 100 miles of a SeaWorld park. For Antocha, that restricted area has increased to 300 miles.

There is also a list of core competitors that the CEO is forbidden to do business with during this period – Disney, Universal, Six Flags, Merlin, and Herschend. A new company has been added to the list for Antorcha – Parques Reundios. We’ll see how that fits in with our ThemedReality prediction from last year that SeaWorld and Parques may be looking to merge.

Most interesting is a new provision in the contract which did not exist for Manby. I couldn’t tell you if this was included by SeaWorld’s lawyers or if it was done at the insistence of Antorcha’s, but it is a clear response to the recent SEC and Department of Justice investigations:

Nothing in this Agreement shall prohibit or impede Executive from communicating, cooperating, or filing a complaint with any U.S. federal, state, or local governmental or law enforcement branch, agency, or entity (collectively, a “Governmental Entity”) with respect to possible violations of any U.S. federal, state, or local law or regulation, or otherwise making disclosures to any Governmental Entity, in each case, that are protected under the whistleblower provisions of any such law or regulation, provided that in each case such communications and disclosures are consistent with applicable law.  Executive understands and acknowledges that an individual shall not be held criminally or civilly liable under any Federal or State trade secret law for the disclosure of a trade secret that is made (i) in confidence to a Federal, State, or local government official or to an attorney solely for the purpose of reporting or investigating a suspected violation of law, or (ii) in a complaint or other document filed in a lawsuit or other proceeding, if such filing is made under seal.  Executive understands and acknowledges further that an individual who files a lawsuit for retaliation by an employer for reporting a suspected violation of law may disclose the trade secret to the attorney of the individual and use the trade secret information in the court proceeding, if the individual files any document containing the trade secret under seal, and does not disclose the trade secret, except pursuant to court order.  Moreover, Executive is not required to give prior notice to (or get prior authorization from) the Company regarding any such communication or disclosure.  Notwithstanding the foregoing, under no circumstance will Executive be authorized to disclose any information covered by attorney-client privilege or attorney work product of any member of the Company Group without prior written consent of Company’s General Counsel or other officer designated by the Company.

AND NOW THIS:

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FINALLY:

Oh boy, we’ve run out of time. But did you know there’s plenty of additional material on the ThemedReality Facebook Page and exclusive content and early access for ThemedReality Facebook Group members? Posting in the group on February 23 is a bonus The Other Side of the News piece on a Chinese government theme park being built at a Trump resort. Membership is free. Click on the group tab on the Facebook Page and just ask to join.

The Other Side of the News: A very Asia-centric end of November 2018 edition

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Fox World Malaysia. Photo credit: Danny Yap
This just in from Asia….

Back in December last year I wrote about the Disney acquisition of FOX:

One of the biggest unknowns surrounds the Fox World theme park currently being built at Resorts World Genting in Malaysia. Construction is well underway, but would Disney allow a Fox-only theme park operated by a company that operates a Universal Studios-licensed park in nearby Singapore to exist? I expect that over the next six months, we’ll find out the fate of the Malaysia park – if it will continue as is under its current contract, or if Disney will sink its participation in the project faster than the Titanic attraction going into it, causing Genting to seek out another (or multiple other) studio(s) to partner with.

Well, it took a little longer than that as today Genting filed a lawsuit against Fox and Disney for many alleged acts of evil deedery. Click here to read the initial filing. I’ll share more about the case as the courts make more available.

Meanwhile, in Asia….
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Wang Yonghong’s photo in the China Rich List 2015. Credit: Forbes (he was worth $850 million at the time)

It appears that Wang Yonghong remains in self-imposed exile in Hong Kong. He’s the owner of Zhonghong Zhuoye Group, the majority shareholder of Zhonghong Holdings, in case you didn’t know. I’d say he’s also the majority shareholder of SeaWorld Entertainment, but things are afoot behind the scenes that I’m not yet ready to discuss. Statewide, while Yoshi Maruyama retains the position of Chairman of the Board at SeaWorld Entertainment, it appears that he is no longer doing so as President of Zhonghong Americas LLC.

As for Zhonghong Holdings, the stock delisting process started on Friday, November 16 and will be completed on the final trading day of the year, December 28. A government mandated meeting with creditors that had been scheduled for November 16 has been postponed indefinitely due to Zhonghong just not having the documentation and analysis ready to deal with the hundreds of parties that filed against the company as creditors.

And now, a short break for a behind-the-scenes look at how rumors become news.
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The internet is full of passionate people. When that passion conflicts with statements on the internet, the outcome resembles a rabid raccoon stuck upside down in a trashcan full of cocaine. Although I know a Loro Parque staffer I was speaking with was joking about the name, I figured what the hell, and posted this photo on Facebook with the caption, “Newly released photo of Baby Ingrid at Loro Parque.” 43,000 views and 28 followers banned.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 Welcome to the funhouse known as ThemedReality.

Two executives within a company involved in the proceedings told me that Six Flags was in talks to purchase all or or part of SeaWorld Entertainment. I was given permission by these individuals to post this information on grounds of anonymity. I was given additional information confidentially by these sources, but I adhere very closely to my six rules, so don’t expect those juicy tidbits to be shared until they’re public record.

The first thing I did after speaking with these executives was to attempt to contact the corporate PR directors at both chains for comment. I didn’t receive a response from either and made the decision to post the statement on the Facebook page and monitor feedback.

Now, if you look at the disclaimers that appear on both this blog and its accompanying Facebook page (in the Our Story window), you’ll see that:

. . . READERS ARE ADVISED TO CONSIDER STATEMENTS MADE BY ANONYMOUS SOURCES AS SPECULATIVE

Within an hour after posting, a follower of ThemedReality who happens to be a self-proclaimed expert on orca captivity, and who operates a website with the domain www.fromthedolphinspointofview.com, decided to tip off a reporter with the Orlando Sentinel. Although the reporter appears to have looked at the Facebook page, she never contacted me (though I must credit her for attempting to contact the theme park operators). Neither did individuals reporting on my post for the Orlando Business Journal and Orlando Weekly. In journalism, contacting a source before running a story is called due diligence and it’s part of the vetting process.

Yet, although this practice may not be the norm in Orlando, once the Sentinel article had hit the newswires and become international news, I was contacted by a number of major publications from the US, Canada, and the UK (it’s not that hard to contact me, even if it’s through a Facebook or twitter instant message). I explained to these reporters how this was a non-news story, that it should be considered nothing more than rumor, and a statement too broad and ambiguous to accurately interpret. They all agreed and it did not run in those publications.

One of the more interesting comments I found on a discussion thread accused me of panicking when I wrote two additional Facebook posts – one breaking down and analyzing the statement and the other disclosing that I do not own stock in either company – a preemptive move as the non-news mainstream media spread rumor had now bumped up share value at both companies. While this individual may call it panic, I call it being responsible. But I’m thankful for the hyperlinks in his comment to my posts. I learned a long time ago that the more people you piss off or get to ridicule you, the more likely it is that someone opposed to your stance will link to your post. And more links = more hits. It doesn’t really help me out financially. I’m not making $58,200** doing this. I’m not running ads on the blog (if you see ads, the money goes to WordPress), and I’m not in it for the notoriety. After all, this blog and its Facebook page are nothing more than my personal opinion and observations (it’s in the disclaimer), which is why, for the life of me, I have no idea why this small little blog nobody’s ever heard of recorded 72,000 hits in the first ten months of the year. Someone must be reading.

So now, this thing’s gone national. There’s analysis on message boards, videos are being made, and even the Motley Fool’s weighing in. What I found most interesting in following this is how many people took the statement verbatim. Everything I read was off the mark – with the exception of analysis by the website Behind the Thrills, where I’m an occasional contributor. The site’s owners were kind enough to not only contact me, but to enter into lengthy discussions about what I could share with them. But as strange as this might sound, the bloggers that took their information from or plagiarized Behind the Thrills still got their facts very wrong.

So how can this be?

Without breaking confidentiality, I can share one of the techniques I use when researching a personal blog post or a professional article that I’m writing for the day job. Often, it’s a matter of reading between the lines, looking at how words are grouped, and finding the message that isn’t on the surface.

In the Facebook post, I wrote:

Reliable sources inform me that Six Flags Entertainment Corporation is in talks to purchase all or part of SeaWorld Entertainment. More as details become available.

I never mentioned who Six Flags was in talks with.

Now, in all fairness, if Six Flags, SeaWorld, or another company involved contacts me and states on the record that talks never took place, I will gladly post a correction. But three weeks after the initial posting, that has yet to happen.

Finally, in Asia…..

Osaka has been named the host city of the 2025 World Expo. Congratulations!

The blog Disney and more writes that this is huge news for Universal Studios Japan, located in Osaka, and very bad news for Tokyo Disneyland. I couldn’t disagree more, and here’s why.

The error lies in a gross misunderstanding of the business of world’s fairs and their impacts on local tourism economies. Whereas Olympic Games welcome the majority of their visitors from foreign territories, World Expos invite local populations to see the best that other countries have to offer.

For the 2025 Expo, organizers anticipate just over 28 million visitors – 3.5 million from foreign territories and 24.7 million from Japan. Japanese are very loyal to the Tokyo Disney Resort and it’s highly unlikely that a visit to Osaka would result in not visiting Disney, rather that Disney would be scheduled for a different trip. Many of these local visitors will be visiting the Expo on a day trip basis (Osaka is only 3 1/2 hours from Tokyo via bullet train), and therefore will probably hit Expo but leave Universal for another holiday.

As for foreign visitors, based on travel patterns from past world expos (and most of the foreign visitors to Osaka are anticipated to be from the Asia-Pacific region), they are expected to make multi-day, multi-city trips involving the Expo along other cities and attractions across the country, including Disney.

Another important factor is the kind of visitor to World Expos, which tend to be multi-generational families, and both Disney and Universal have figured out how to cater to that demographic. So, based on visitor composition, it could go either way based on preference – and the same problem exists in Japan as in the Southern California and Orlando market for families with limited time – Mickey Mouse and Wreck-it Ralph or Harry Potter and Nintendo?

**$58,200 is how much the US government paid an orca expert for a few months of research that was ultimately canceled. I’ll explain how and why in a future post.

The Other Side of the News OCT 2017

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Lots to share, so let’s dive in….

THE FORTUNATE SIDE EFFECT OF AN UNFORTUNATE INCIDENT

My heart goes out to the victims of the tragic Las Vegas shooting. Someone I personally know, a member of my congregation, was among those shot and has gone through multiple surgeries. It’s the third such case where I’ve known someone to be shot in a mass shooting incident – the others being the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and Luby’s cafeteria in Texas. I’ll be writing another post comparing banning guns versus gun control and why physical incidents like this strike more fear into the populace than perceived threats, like our current one for nuclear war.

Law enforcement was fortunate with this incident in that the gunman decided to shoot from that particular hotel at that particular target. If reports are accurate that he attempted to check into the Ogden in downtown Las Vegas during an 18-block wide music and culture festival a few weeks ago, or that he rented a room in Chicago overlooking the Lalapalooza festival (above photo, which personally bothers me as my good friend Lauren was attending with her husband and teenage daughters), the results could have been more catastrophic. As it is, with both the Mandalay Bay resort and the Las Vegas Village festival grounds being owned by the same company – MGM Resorts International, law enforcement’s access to facilities, surveillance, and assistance has been streamlined in a way that’s accelerated the pace of the investigation, a benefit that would have been lacking had he either shot from a non-MGM hotel (such as the Tropicana) or in one of the other festival locations.

MANAGEMENT CHANGES AT CEDAR FAIR

Matt Ouimett is taking control of the board and Richard Zimmerman will be the company’s new CEO. I wish them the best. This change looks primed for continued Cedar Fair expansion, but I can’t help but remember that the last time something like this happened at a major theme park chain (Six Flags), it didn’t necessarily work out.

FELD IS OUT OF THE ELEPHANT BIZ

While monitoring more than 20 zoos, aquariums, animal attractions, and sanctuaries in Central and South Florida during Hurricane Irma, there was one I couldn’t access on either its website or social media – the Ringling Center for Elephant Conservation. Entering the web address rerouted me to the Feld Entertainment homepage, where all mention of the elephant center has been removed.

I have since confirmed through multiple sources that Feld is now officially out of the elephant game and has sold its collection to White Oak Conservation near Jacksonville. Once the elephants have all been relocated, the Center for Elephant Conservation will close shop.

What does this mean? There have been well-founded rumors for quite some time that Feld has been in talks to be bought out by a larger company – Disney is the name that is most often mentioned – and that the elephants had been a sticking point in negotiations. If this is the case, I anticipate a buyout announcement within the next six months.

MERLIN DOES NOT WANT TO BUY SEAWORLD

Speculation has been running rampant throughout the media and investor sites that Merlin Entertainments has submitted a bid to purchase SeaWorld Entertainment.

As reported previously on this blog, Merlin is not interested in the entire company, but rather the two Busch Gardens properties and their waterparks. Although the land for SeaWorld-branded properties in San Antonio and Orlando is quite valuable – the recent settlement with the tax assessor shows the property value of the Orlando parks is around $170 million – a purchase of the SeaWorld-branded parks would place Merlin in a difficult spot as the company’s anti-cetacean captivity policy would conflict with owning the world’s largest collection of captive cetaceans.

The easy answer is always “stick them in a sanctuary.” But is that practical for Merlin, a company that has been working for eight years with Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) to establish a sanctuary for its four dolphins from Heide Park and Gardaland? Meanwhile, those four dolphins continue to perform at the Nuremberg Zoo and the Genoa Aquarium.

HOLD ON A MINUTE….some late breaking info….one of Merlin’s Heide Park dolphins was shipped last year to ZooMarine in Portugal for breeding and swim with dolphin programs.

I don’t know what to say….I’m at a loss of words…I mean, doesn’t this go against everything Merlin says it believes about dolphins in captivity?

And that’s why Merlin shouldn’t buy SeaWorld as a whole and won’t. Those parks are going to the Chinese anyway.

See you real soon!

The Other Side of the News AUG 2017

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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. 

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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.)

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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.