SAN ANTONIO – SeaWorld has made some big changes due to public pressure, but is the park still worth a $68 full-price ticket?
The park just reopened with a new show, and missing are the theatrics that have lured visitors for decades. Reviews are mixed, but the park said it had no choice but to evolve.
On opening day for the 2017 SeaWorld season, crowds packed the Pacific white-sided dolphins and beluga whales arena.
"I want to see the animals," said Taya Runge, as she waited to see the show for the first time.
"We've never seen them and we love them," said mom Kayla Runge.
Returning guests noticed the changed. After eight years of Azul, there's a new act in town called Ocean Discovery.
The divers, the synchronized swimmers, the high-energy music and the makeup are all gone. The trainers swim with the animals while playing soothing music, while the announcer gives facts about the aquatic mammals.
The diving boards sit empty while trainers invite kids up from the crowd to interact with the animals too.
Jenny Mairot, the director of the Husbandry Department who helped create the new show said, early runs tested well with crowds in the summer.
"They want to see live animals and have an encounter with them. That changes them. That moves them emotionally," Mairot said.
Reviews from the children after the show were mixed.
Wayland Dugi said he's gone to SeaWorld a lot and said he misses the theatrics.
"I like this one, but I like the old one better," said 10-year-old Hailey Hernandez. "It had more things to watch in it."
"It's different but I like it," John Baiz said.
Every child said they wanted to come back.
Park President Carl Lum said the changes were the right decision.
"Public perception was changing, so we needed to make a change and we did," Lum said.
Since the 2013 documentary "Blackfish," SeaWorld's national attendance has steadily dropped from 23.4 million guests in 2013 to 22 million guests in 2016.
In the 2016 financials out this week, revenue nationwide dropped by $30 million when compared with 2015, resulting in a $12.5 million loss.
Attendance at the San Antonio location did go up by 330,000 people.
In response to the pressures, Lum said the changes are apparent. Trainers no longer swim with orcas and the park stopped breeding them. Come 2019, the show at SeaWorld San Antonio will focus on education too.
Lum said he has the task of reimagining the park with more rides and interactive attractions before the last generation of the orcas passes away.
He said a new roller coaster is opening in the spring.
"It's more about experiences that matter," Lum said. "I think as you look forward, and you look at SeaWorld, it'll be more of a mix."