SeaWorld San Diego opened in 1964 on 22 acres in Mission Bay Park. It featured two shows, three marine exhibits…and no killer whales. Few in the industry gave it any chance of success competing against the San Diego Zoo, Marineland, Disneyland, and others in the burgeoning Southern California tourist attraction business. SeaWorld’s first-year attendance registered well below the projected one million visitors.
A female orca whale arrived in the park in late 1965, but no one had ever trained a killer whale before so the animal was simply put on display. That whale became the first in a line of whales called Shamu performing at various SeaWorld locations.
In 1966, still missing attendance projections and unable to afford national advertising, SeaWorld’s four founders, headed by the late George Millay, faced bankruptcy.
Millay and his board of directors brought its Eastern bankers to San Diego and convinced them to invest another $2 million to try and keep the park afloat. The late Mike Downs, Sea World’s first Marketing/PR director, was urged to step up publicity efforts to bring national attention to the park. Park trainers offered to try teaching Shamu a few performance behaviors. Public relations asked if some penguins could be taught to roller-skate (on specially-constructed skates) for a new act.
The PR department booked the skating penguins on “The Jack Benny Show” where they were a smash hit. Re-runs of the show brought flocks of visitors to SeaWorld wanting to see more of these loveable creatures.
The killer whale proved to be a fast-learner and soon had its own show performing with a white-coated trainer in a “Shamu Goes to the Doctor” skit. Mike Downs was persistent in pitching the networks (Barbara Walters and her staff consistently said no), and finally Hugh Downs (no relation to Mike) of “Good Morning America” came to town and bravely rode the “killer,” thrilling millions of TV viewers.
Unfortunately, it took a near-tragedy to give the marine park international fame. During a publicity stunt, a bikini-clad SeaWorld secretary, Ann Ekes, was bitten and nearly drowned while riding Shamu. Local Channel 8-TV caught the accident on film, and it was shown around the world. But PR defused the situation by publicizing Ekes, while in the hospital with over 100 stitches in her leg, forgiving Shamu, “who was only being playful.” When Ekes returned to work, Public Relations photographed her being “kissed” by Shamu and the wires ran with it. Later, she was flown to New York to appear on network shows, dispelling the image of Shamu as a killer.
In addition to entertainment, SeaWorld also achieved scientific success and recognition for its penguin propagation program, the first successful killer whale birth in captivity, and exhibiting a live great white shark for a (then) record 16 days before releasing it back to the wild. In 1971, SeaWorld gained international attention by exhibiting a juvenile California grey whale, named “Gigi,” for one year. Scientists from around the world came to study her. The public relations and publicity generated from Gigi’s capture, scientific study, and re-release wearing a radio transmitter was invaluable to the park’s image. A documentary on the whale’s release, “Gigi Goes Home,” won an Emmy that year.
In its 45 years of existence, SeaWorld has grown to 200 acres of first-class exhibits and shows. It attracts four million visitors annually making it second only to Disneyland in theme park popularity.
Over the years, SeaWorld has provided full- and part-time work for thousands of San Diegans and paid millions in leases and taxes to the city. And, its star performer, Shamu, has moved into the public’s consciousness as a household name, joining such popular animal stars as Lassie, Flipper, and Smokey Bear.