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SeaWorld Is Trying to Coax Back Visitors with Free Beer

Five years after Blackfish, SeaWorld’s attendance is back up—and the fact that there's booze on the house is no coincidence.
Bettina Makalintal
Brooklyn, US
orca whales performing at seaworld

SeaWorld wants to make a comeback. While the aquatic theme park never actually went away, the past few years haven’t been kind to the chain. Viewers of the 2013 documentary Blackfish, which exposed dangerous conditions for trainers and inhumane conditions for orcas at SeaWorld (and the psychological damage that animals suffered as a result), will likely feel this is deserved—and the film has been at least partially responsible for its languishing numbers over the past five years.


But now, SeaWorld has been trying to turn things around. It’s simple: free beer.

While the start date for the promotion hasn’t been announced, SeaWorld Chief Executive John Reilly told the Orlando Sentinel, “Our free beer promotion proved to be very popular at SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa Bay this summer. We’re committed to bringing this promotion back with an expanded calendar in 2019.”

SeaWorld’s numbers indicate that it could be making a surprising comeback: Since the third quarter of 2017, SeaWorld’s earnings are up 22 percent as attendance has risen, says the Sentinel.

In case you needed a refresher on where things got dark for the chain, Blackfish exposed the conditions of its sea animals in captivity, suggesting that the separation of young orcas from their parents caused the kind of extreme stress that led killer whales like its prized bull Tilikum to attack, and ultimately kill, SeaWorld trainers. It made plenty of people—like myself, who once called the 90s drama Free Willy a favorite—realize the horrors of SeaWorld.

Unsurprisingly, the entertainment chain took a hit after its release. In 2016, following a decision to phase out theatrical orca shows, SeaWorld announced an end to its orca breeding program, then laid off hundreds of employees.

Suddenly, though, SeaWorld’s attendance is up, and apparently the beer has been one popular factor. It’s part of an overall brand shift away from theatrical orca shows and toward an educational theme park approach instead.

As part of its ploy for relevance, SeaWorld is digging back into its boozier roots. Though “pandering” was my first thought, too, it turns out that beer is a key part of SeaWorld’s history. Founded in 1964, SeaWorld was owned by Anheuser-Busch’s family entertainment division from 1989 to to 2009. And beyond the free beer promotion, SeaWorld Orlando is hosting its first SeaWorld Craft Beer Festival for the first two weekends of November.

With more than 100 beers on draft at the festival, that just might be enough to take the edge off the memory of all those sad baby orcas.