ORLANDO, Fla. —Shamu is big business at SeaWorld, which owns more killer whales than anyone else in the world and builds the orca image into its multimillion-dollar brand. The killing of a trainer this week won't change that.
Shamu shows will resume today, three days after a 6-ton bull orca dragged Dawn Brancheau underwater to her death at the end of a show in Orlando, SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment president Jim Atchison said Friday. But staff at the parks in Orlando, San Antonio and San Diego won't get back in the water with the hulking ocean predators until SeaWorld and a panel of outside experts complete a top-to-bottom review of how the company handles orcas.
"We have created an extraordinary opportunity for people to get an up-close, personal experience and be inspired and connect with marine life in a way they cannot do anywhere else in the world," Atchison said as orcas swam behind him on the other side of an underwater window, "and for that we will make no apologies."
Public relations and marketing experts say SeaWorld will need to review every safety precaution to reassure the public and preserve its image.
Larry Smith, president of the Institute for Crisis Management, in Louisville, Ky., defended SeaWorld's response so far and said the attack could actually drive up attendance of at least one demographic — teens and young adults.
"It's not going to draw families necessarily or older people who would typically visit there, but there is an age group that gets excited about the risks and the potential for drama and it may attract some of those folks," he said.
The timing of the killer whales' return to performances reflects just what the sleek black-and-white mammals mean to SeaWorld, which the private equity firm The Blackstone Group bought last fall for around $2.7 billion from Anheuser-Busch InBev.
"SeaWorld operations are built around Shamu and the orca. So quantitatively they mean literally hundreds of millions of dollars to that company," said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services, a consulting firm.