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SeaWorld San Diego hints at a limited reopening after a six-month shutdown

SeaWorld San Diego
If SeaWorld San Diego does reopen, it could only offer outdoor, animal-focused attractions for now.
(U-T)

The theme park could welcome back visitors based on health guidelines for zoos, but rides likely would remain closed for now

With San Diego County gaining ground against the spread of COVID-19, SeaWorld San Diego is hinting of a possible reopening after being shut down for six months.

But if the theme park does indeed welcome back visitors anytime soon, it could only offer outdoor, animal-focused attractions akin to the San Diego Zoo, under state and county health guidelines.

Indoor aquariums, roller coasters and other rides must remain closed, according to county health officials. It is still unknown when California Gov. Gavin Newsom will allow the state’s amusement parks to reopen.

Orlando-based SeaWorld teased fans through Facebook on Wednesday by posting “Big News Coming” at the San Diego park, with a companion video featuring seals, sea otters, dolphins, sharks and other animals.

SeaWorld officials declined to elaborate on the post on Thursday.

Like other theme parks across the country, SeaWorld closed its 12 parks nationwide on March 16 amid coronavirus lockdowns. While it has reopened nine parks in Florida, Texas and Pennsylvania, SeaWorld San Diego has remained closed.

Under current health rules, the San Diego park can reopen under state guidance governing museums, zoos, galleries and aquariums, said Tegan Glasheen, a spokesman for San Diego County.

Those guidelines have been in place for a couple of months. They’re the roadmap that allowed the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park to remain open since mid-June, with restrictions. The guidelines generally allow only outdoor activities, with social distancing, masks and enhanced sanitation required.

Indoor attractions and roller coaster rides must remain closed, said Glasheen. Live animal shows would only be allowed if social distancing and sanitation could be ensured. SeaWorld San Diego also needs to create a “Safe Reopening Plan,” like any other business, to bring back visitors.

While known for its aquatic shows, SeaWorld has emphasized roller coasters in recent years, in the wake of scathing criticism of its treatment of Orcas documented in the “Blackfish” documentary. But SeaWorld San Diego’s much anticipated new Emperor coaster, which was supposed to make its debut this summer, now will not open until next year.

Coronavirus closures have dealt a heavy blow to theme parks nationwide. SeaWorld Entertainment saw both its revenue and attendance plunge by 96 percent during the second quarter.

Revenue totaled just $18 million, compared to the $406 million reported for the same period last year. Attendance was just 300,000 during a time of year when SeaWorld parks would have normally drawn several million visitors.

San Diego County has made strides against the COVID-19. The region officially was removed from the state’s coronavirus watchlist on Tuesday, starting the clock on a two-week countdown that could see some, mostly private schools bring students back to classrooms as soon as next week.

What the watchlist exit means for businesses is still unclear. But SeaWorld isn’t alone in testing the waters of welcoming back visitors. The Maritime Museum of San Diego expects to reopen on Saturday.

SeaWorld has several good reasons to reopen now, even on a limited basis, said Dennis Speigel, head of International Theme Park Services, a Cincinnati-based industry consulting firm.

“They need to get their face out there,” said Speigel. “They are getting some publicity out of this already. They need to test new programs — sanitation, temperature, spacing, masks. And they need to find their break-even point.

“Our single biggest expense in the industry is labor,” he continued. “They are going to have to find where the sweet spot is based on the numbers and attendance.”

Updates:

12:06 PM, Aug. 21, 2020: This story was updated Friday, Aug 21, with a new photo.


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