Employee Stands up To Controversial Florida Theme Park, Lawsuit Officially Filed

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Riders at a Florida theme park on a water roller coaster featuring stingray-themed cars splash down into water beneath a clear blue sky, surrounded by lush tropical vegetation.

Credit: SeaWorld

One of the most controversial theme parks in Florida (if not the world) is now the subject of a lawsuit filed by its own employees.

Theme parks can spark controversy for a wide range of reasons, from the petty (see: the closure of Splash Mountain) to the valid. In the case of SeaWorld Orlando, the majority of debates sit in the “valid” camp. The marine theme park has been the subject of criticism for decades over its use of animals for entertainment.

Killer whales during Orca Encounter at SeaWorld Orlando
Credit: SeaWorld

Related: Major Win Celebrated in Canceling Florida Theme Park

With the release of Blackfish (2013) – the documentary focused on the killer whale Tilikum, who killed two people during his time at the park – this conversation grew even more avid, with activists and former guests alike calling for SeaWorld Orlando and its sister parks in San Antonio and San Diego to close down for good.

While SeaWorld has made plenty of effort to downplay its reliance on marine mammals in recent years, such as axing its orca breeding program and focusing more on attractions and roller coasters than animals, it remains a controversial fixture in Florida’s theme park scene.

Aerial view of SeaWorld Orlando featuring the park's high-speed coaster Mako and Kraken
Credit: SeaWorld

In June 2023, for example, the park was rapped by the U.S. Department of Agriculture after a “blatant violation” regarding one of its captive dolphins. The park had failed to separate a dolphin named Rascal from his pod despite a history of being targeted and attacked. SeaWorld then declined to hand over more information about the incident to the USDA when requested.

Now, SeaWorld Orlando is the subject of yet another public controversy – although this time, it has more to do with its treatment of humans, not animals.

Woman and man clinking drinks in front of sharks at SeaWorld
Credit: SeaWorld

According to Florida Politics, retired employee Kenneth Ward has filed a federal case against the park in which it accuses SeaWorld of not paying its employees overtime while working on their lunch breaks and before their shift’s recorded start time, all in order to cut its labor expenses.

Ward claims that he clocked off during his lunch but that this break was often interrupted by co-workers, supervisors, or unfinished paperwork. He adds that workers often did not get “a bona fide meal break” and that this extra work totaled roughly three extra working hours per week.

In a July 2020 email, SeaWorld’s Vice President of Park Operations told employees to clock out for lunch. If employees are interrupted by work during their lunch break, the email reportedly advised that they clock back in with the disclaimer that they will then get another break later on in the day.

A sea lion on a rock by a pool at SeaWorld Orlando
Credit: SeaWorld

Related: DeSantis Announces Release of Another Animal From Florida Theme Park as Controversy Continues

“Plaintiff and the putative class members are entitled to the applicable overtime wage rate for each overtime hour they suffered and permitted to work by Defendant,” the lawsuit says. It argues that SeaWorld is aware that its employees are inaccurately paid for their overtime work and that it is in blatant violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Ward reportedly spent four decades working for SeaWorld Orlando and was employed by the plant engineering department from 1989 until his retirement in March 2024. Unlike Walt Disney World Resort, SeaWorld Orlando’s workforce is not unionized.

Despite this latest development, SeaWorld Orlando is arguably only the second most controversial theme park in Florida right now. Miami Seaquarium is currently in an ongoing legal battle with Miami-Dade County, which (unsuccessfully) attempted to evict the park in March after years of critical reports from the USDA regarding its animal welfare practices.

Tokitae performing as Lolita at Miami Seaquarium
Credit: Leonardo DaSilva via Flickr

The park – which has been accused of neglecting its dolphins, sea lions, and last-remaining killer whale, Lolita (AKA Tokitae), prior to her death in August 2023 – has previously relocated animals to SeaWorld Orlando and may be forced to do the same again if the county gets its way in the coming months.

What are your thoughts on SeaWorld Orlando? Let us know in the comments!

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