SeaWorld San Antonio evolves and expands
by Joe Kleiman
UPDATE: Since publication, SeaWorld San Antonio successfully opened Discovery Point in Spring 2016. In March 2016, parent company SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment determined that it would discontinue its orca breeding program and plans for Blue World Project at its three SeaWorld parks. Instead, it is replacing the existing orca shows at its parks with new guest experiences themed around orcas and their natural behaviors. This new experience, called Orca Encounter, is slated to open at SeaWorld San Antonio in 2018.
[dropcap color=”#888″ type=”square”]S[/dropcap]eaWorld San Antonio is in the midst of its largest expansion to date, with a new waterpark and new attractions that increase the size of animal exhibits and change the way park guests experience animals – and how those animals interact with park guests.
Lost Lagoon becomes Aquatica
A significant update in 2012 transformed Lost Lagoon waterpark, which had been included with admission to SeaWorld San Antonio, into a standalone facility with a new look, theme, and name – Aquatica San Antonio. The reimagined waterpark took elements from SeaWorld parks in Orlando and California, Busch Gardens parks and Discovery Cove in Orlando. Whereas the animal exhibits at Lost Lagoon had been secondary, animal interaction was now an integral part of the waterpark experience.
In a 2014 interview, then Aquatica General Manager Tim Morrow (now Executive Director of the San Antonio Zoo) told InPark, “The differences you will find at the Aquatica parks are different species focus. Aquatica Orlando has beautiful Commerson’s dolphins. Aquatica San Diego has amazing flamingo and fresh water turtle exhibits. Our signature animal in San Antonio is the stingray.”
At Stingray Falls, a family raft adventure down a winding slide ends as a trip through a cave on a lazy river, with a large curved window allowing the riders a unique view of a school of stingrays. Park guests also have a unique opportunity for a stingray encounter in the water with the rays.
In 2014, Aquatica opened Roa’s Aviary, an experience that park visitors can enter on foot, by swimming, or via intertube on the park’s main lazy river. Chris Bellows, SeaWorld San Antonio Vice President of Zoological Operations, notes, “It’s been a year since we opened Roa’s Aviary. The landscaping and trees have grown significantly and we have over 100 birds in the aviary.” According to Bellows, Roa’s Aviary has proven popular with local school and birding groups as well as waterpark guests.
Learning through play at Pacific Point
The waterpark is not the only part of the property to undergo a significant reworking. This year, in addition to adding a new sea lion show, SeaWorld San Antonio revamped its existing sea lion exhibit within the Pacific Point Preserve area into something more exciting for both guests and animals.
Using the original concrete basin, new, more naturalistic rock formations were constructed, including ledges for the animals to jump off, and large viewing panels bringing guests further into the action. According to Bellows, “In its original design, you had to look over the edge to see into the pool. With the new look, we’ve added a grotto with big glass panels. We’ve had six sea lion pups born in the new exhibit and it’s great to see them go up to the window for a nap or to look at kids and watch the kids look back at them.”
Throughout the exhibit are graphic displays that show the importance of play. “It’s important for us to encourage kids to play by expressing how animals can learn through it,” says Bellows, “But we have to be careful. They also need to understand that sea lions, just like kids, need to learn to play together.”
When designing exhibits such as Pacific Point Preserve, animal keepers, trainers, and veterinary staff from both the San Antonio and other parks are consulted. Often, this results in creative solutions for animal care issues, many of which are not seen by the public. For example, to the untrained eye, the new sea lion habitat may appear to lack shade, but, according to Bellows, “there are shaded areas in the water and underneath the overhangs. There’s also a waterfall in the grotto, and we created a space hidden behind it, which the sea lions also take advantage of to get out of the sun.”
Animal encounters at Discovery Point
Currently under construction for a 2016 opening is the park’s new dolphin habitat, Discovery Point. This new exhibit is composed of two zones: an exhibit area themed to the Texas coast, which will introduce a new, underwater dolphin viewing area; and a swim program area, similar to the one at Discovery Cove where guests swim with dolphins.
There will be additional new enrichment opportunities. Prior to an encounter experience, guests spend time in a classroom where they learn about the natural history and physiology of the dolphins and undergo an orientation.
Once complete, the Discovery Point facility will also be where guests for the park’s other encounter programs check in and undergo orientation for encounter programs in other areas of the park such as Beluga Bay and Sea Lion Shallows. Each encounter program takes a small group each day for an additional fee and lets them interact in the water with the animal of their choice. Bellows says such programsare important because, “In the United States, it’s illegal to just jump in the water and swim with them. We’re able to provide a safe and enjoyable experience.”
SeaWorld San Antonio – then and now
In 1984, then mayor of San Antonio Henry Cisneros wanted to expand the city’s economy while securing San Antonio’s place as the top tourism destination in Texas. In December of that year, Cisneros and a delegation of local officials visited the Orlando headquarters of book publisher Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, which had purchased the park chain from its founders in 1976. The meeting was over within 30 minutes. Company CEO William Jovanovich was so sold on the prospect of a San Antonio park that he later bragged about how he never commissioned a feasibility study for what, at over 250 acres, would be the largest marine life park in the world at the time.
The original layout of the $140 million park was designed by Jovanovich itself. Using native Texas hill country landscaping, it provided a combination of shows and animal exhibits along with tributes to Texas history and the area’s Hispanic culture. Although many of the park’s animal attractions were mostly bare tanks or downsized versions of those at the company’s San Diego and Orlando parks, San Antonio featured a number of firsts, including the world’s largest killer whale tank, housed in a unique stadium in the round setting.
Since Harcourt Brace Jovanovich opened the park, ownership of SeaWorld has shifted to three other firms, with the chain eventually becoming its own publicly traded company. After purchasing SeaWorld in 1989 from Harcourt, Busch Entertainment Corporation added rides to the San Antonio park – water-based rides relocated from a closed park, new roller coasters, and the waterpark described above (a waterpark had been included in the original Harcourt plans for San Antonio, but dropped before opening). Animal exhibits remained largely unchanged over the park’s first quarter century of operation.
When Busch Entertainment’s parent Anheuser Busch was purchased by Belgian-Brazilian brewing conglomerate InBev in 2008, the new owners continued to operate the parks before selling the division a year later to investment bank Blackstone Group, which renamed it SeaWorld Entertainment. In 2013, Blackstone converted SeaWorld into a publicly traded company, selling off 37% of its ownership in the IPO. Currently, Blackstone controls 21% of the company.
Upon its opening, William Jovanovich declared SeaWorld San Antonio to be the “last great park in America.” The changes now being made to its animal exhibits will result in a park physically unrecognizable to its founder, yet one that maintains his vision.
The Stranding Network: Emphasis on rescues
SeaWorld is well known for its rescue efforts. Less well known is its support of the Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network, the official, federally-mandated marine mammal rescue group for the state of Texas. Since 1988 SeaWorld San Antonio has made its animal care staff and facilities readily available for the Stranding Network while also donating funds and other resources, including a new animal rescue boat. A key part of the Discovery Point display will tell the story of the Stranding Network and the important role it plays, along with teaching guests what to do should they encounter a stranding.
Dolphins aren’t the only marine mammals that have made their way to the park. The park is also caring for Mitik, a walrus adopted by the New York Aquarium after being found orphaned in Alaska. When the aquarium suffered severe damage following Hurricane Sandy, SeaWorld San Antonio, based on its strong history with walruses, was asked to care for Mitik while repairs take place in preparation for his return. Currently, Mitik participates in shows and outreach acting as an ambassador for his species to San Antonio visitors.
It all culminates in a Blue World
The new developments will culminate in Blue World Project, featuring the world’s biggest killer whale tanks, to be built at each of the three SeaWorld parks. Although general plans have been announced, the specifics of what might be included in San Antonio’s Blue World tank remains to be determined as the park will evaluate what works and what doesn’t at the San Diego tank, scheduled to open in 2018. It’s a similar process to how exhibits at other SeaWorld parks have influenced Aquatica, Pacific Point, and Discovery Point.
When all is complete a decade from now, SeaWorld San Antonio will be a dynamically re-envisioned park with larger animal habitats designed to improve animal welfare along with new and more innovative ways for guests to perceive and interact with them. • • •
Joe Kleiman ([email protected]) is News Editor of InPark Magazine. He is a former zookeeper and volunteered with the Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network in the early 90s.