SeaWorld Drowning In $12 Million of Debt, Theme Park Hit With Legal Action

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Killer whales jump out of the water at SeaWorld San Diego

Credit: Pray It No Photography via Flickr

After a lengthy legal debate, SeaWorld has officially been sued by the City of San Diego.

SeaWorld may be one of the biggest theme park operators in the world, but it’s faced plenty of backlash over the past few years. Ever since the release of Blackfish (2013), its parks have been plagued with accusations of animal cruelty due to its captivity of orcas, dolphins, and other marine mammals.

Tilikum performing
Credit: Milan Boers via Flickr

Related: Protestors Swarm SeaWorld, Demand Release of Captive Animals

As a result of Blackfish – which focused on Tilikum, the infamous killer whale at SeaWorld Orlando involved in three of the four deadly orca attacks on humans – SeaWorld has experienced a huge dip in attendance. While revenue has increased at its three parks in the United States (SeaWorld San Diego, SeaWorld Orlando, and SeaWorld San Antonio), its biggest park – SeaWorld Orlando – received just 4.54 million guests in 2022 compared to 5.36 million in 2012 (pre-Blackfish).

In an attempt to win back visitors, SeaWorld has pulled back from orcas. It ceased its orca breeding program in 2016, making its current generation of orcas the last to live at its theme parks. Orcas also no longer participate in performances.

Guests watch an orca show at SeaWorld
Credit: Joseph Stalin via Unsplash

SeaWorld has instead renewed its focus on thrill rides. Its Florida, California, and Texas theme parks have all received new roller coasters in recent years, including Pipeline: The Surf Coaster, Ice Breaker, and Arctic Rescue.

Despite its efforts to avoid controversy, SeaWorld has now found itself embroiled in yet another drama – this time with the local government of its original park.

Pipeline coaster tracks completed at SeaWorld Orlando
Credit: SeaWorld

The City of San Diego has officially sued SeaWorld for more than $12 million in unpaid rent and interest. This was accumulated during the closure of its Southern California park during the COVID-19 pandemic from March 2020 to April 2021.

SeaWorld’s lease with San Diego stipulates that it must pay either a percentage of its gross revenue or a minimum of $867,000 per month – whichever amount is more.

According to Courthouse News, the city filed a complaint on Thursday (September 7) alleging that SeaWorld breached its lease by failing to pay rent for nine months in 2020. It also claims that SeaWorld paid less than the minimum amount of rent in 2021.

Killer whales jump out of the water at SeaWorld San Diego
Credit: Pray It No Photography via Flickr

Related: Roller Coaster “Tore Itself Apart,” SeaWorld Allegedly Closes It for Good

In its late payments for 2020, SeaWorld allegedly calculated its rent based on a percentage of its gross revenue. As the park was closed due to local COVID-19 restrictions, this equalled a sum considerably lower than $867,000 per month.

“On information and belief, Sea World had, and has, the financial ability to pay the rent, surcharge, audit cost, audit interest, late fees and all other amounts due under the Lease,” the city claimed in its complaint. “It disclosed its lease obligation to City of between $8.3 million and $10.9 million in its annual and public reports.”

The San Diego City Council previously voted to take SeaWorld to court in May if it didn’t pay its outstanding rent. It found that SeaWorld had underpaid rent and surcharges by approximately $8.9 million between 2019 and 2021 during an audit last year.

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