On first inspection, the news for SeaWorld Entertainment did not seem particularly good Thursday. The company's second-quarter income fell 84 percent as park attendance dropped in part due to its tarnished image in California, where outrage over the treatment of its killer whales has kept away visitors. SeaWorld has been struggling to undo the damage to its reputation brought on by the 2013 documentary Blackfish, which argued that one of the park’s star orcas may have attacked and killed a trainer because the animal had been so traumatized by its dismal living conditions. Last year, the company's stock collapsed as it became clear that the public relations fallout from the movie was taking a serious toll on profits.
Since then SeaWorld has launched a massive marketing campaign designed to rehab its name, while unveiling plans to build larger, supposedly more humane tanks for its whales. The expense of that PR push was one of the reasons this quarter's earnings came in so low. "We realize we have much work ahead of us to recover more of our attendance base," CEO Joel Manby told investors. He added that "fully resolving our brand challenges in California will require sustained focus and commitment to correct misinformation.” (It helps if you read that line with imaginary snark quotes around "misinformation.")
But here's the thing: It seems like Californians may be the only theme-park enthusiasts with consciences these days. While SeaWorld's visits also dropped in Texas thanks to the historic rainfall that flooded the state, it rose in Florida. Moreover, while overall attendance was down during the spring, it's actually up slightly for the first six months of the year. It's hard to interpret exactly what all this means means, since SeaWorld also runs parks like Busch Gardens in Tampa, Florida, and Williamsburg, Virginia, and doesn't break out information on individual brands or locations. But it seems possible that America's revulsion at the company has peaked, at least outside the West Coast. If so, I guess we can at least find some comfort in the fact that the controversy will bring the company‘s whales some bigger, swankier jail cells.