Florida Theme Park Ditches Plan To Avoid Government, Still at Risk of Permanent Closure

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Tokitae killer whale and trainer at Miami Seaquarium

Credit: Isabelle Puaut via Flickr

A Florida theme park facing eviction has officially withdrawn its bid for a restraining order against the local government.

From Walt Disney World Resort to Universal Orlando Resort, Florida is packed with theme parks. While these parks contribute massively to the state’s economy, that doesn’t mean the state itself isn’t occasionally at odds with the businesses behind each location.

A majestic castle with blue spires is centered in the image, surrounded by charming, colorful buildings. In the foreground, a sword is embedded in a stone, reminiscent of a legendary tale. The clear and bright sky adds to the fairytale-like atmosphere that's beloved by both Disney World visitors and Florida locals.
Credit: Disney

Related: Is SeaWorld Getting Rid of Its Killer Whales?

In recent years, we’ve seen The Walt Disney Company engage in verbal (and legal) spats with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, primarily sparked by its public opposition to the Governor’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill in 2022. When DeSantis later repealed Disney’s special governance and taxing district, Reedy Creek, in retaliation, the company filed a now-settled lawsuit accusing DeSantis of violating the company’s First Amendment rights.

While this was dramatic enough, even more legal drama is currently occurring further south. Miami Seaquarium – a marine theme park that has operated in Biscayne Bay since 1955 – filed a federal lawsuit against Miami-Dade County in April, contesting its decision to evict the park.

Why is the Park Being Evicted?

This eviction occurred in March 2024. Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava explained that it was the result of a “long and troubling history of violations” regarding the welfare of its animal residents.

Trainer performs on orca at the Florida theme park Miami Seaquarium
Credit: Isabelle Puaut, Flickr

Years worth of USDA inspections have accused the Florida theme park of failing the dolphins, sea lions, sea turtles, tropical fish, penguins, and other marine creatures in its care. Some of the most troubling details have included an Atlantic Bottlenose dolphin found with a nail in its throat and a sea lion denied medical care for so long that it refused to eat.

In April, it emerged that Miami Seaquarium had tried to interfere with USDA investigations. An inspector’s report from a January visit claimed that management had intimidated its employees and willfully delayed the physical inspection for approximately four and a half hours.

Sea lion jumps through hoop
Credit: Kenneth Cole Schneider, Flickr

The South Florida theme park has also long been criticized for the conditions in which its last remaining killer whale, Lolita (AKA Tokitae), lived before her death in August 2023. Miami Seaquarium had previously promised to free the whale into her native waters of the Salish Sea, a decision that was met with mixed responses from activists and Lolita’s former trainers.

How is Miami Seaquarium Fighting Eviction?

Theoretically, Miami Seaquarium should have closed for good on April 21. Over a month later, the park is still open and selling new tickets.

The park’s lawsuit against Miami-Dade County argues that its animals would suffer should the eviction go ahead. While Miami-Dade County has claimed that it’s prepared to take the animals into its custody, Miami Seaquarium’s owner, The Dolphin Company, insisted that it will overcome its current challenges to “emerge stronger for … the animals we are dedicated to protecting, just like we do in all our parks.”

Tokitae, a killer whale also known as Lolita, dramatically jumps out of the water at Florida theme park Miami Seaquarium
Credit: Leonardo DaSilva, Flickr

Related: 14 Whales Die at Popular Theme Park, Raising Concerns About Animal Welfare

Last week, Edwin Gonzalez – Executive Director USA for The Dolphin Company – issued a letter to Miami-Dade County claiming that Miami Seaquarium now complies in all concern areas previously raised in USDA inspection reports.

A new inspection of the Florida theme park on April 30 allegedly “revealed no non-compliant items, affirming the Seaquarium’s adherence to stringent federal regulations regarding animal welfare and safety.”

A letter accompanying the inspection report added: “We are pleased the inspection concluded with no non-compliant items noted, affirming our commitment to maintaining the highest standards of animal care and facility management. This achievement reflects the hard work and dedication of our entire team at Miami Seaquarium.”

Miami Seaquarium Cancels Restraining Order

Now, the latest development in relations between Miami Seaquarium and Miami-Dade County has seen the park withdraw a previous bid for a restraining order against the county.

Dolphins perform at Miami Seaquarium
Credit: Leonardo Dasilva, Flickr

First filed in April, this motion reportedly insisted that a temporary restraining order was necessary as, should the county evict the park, its animals would “likely perish.”

However, according to Local 10 News, Miami Seaquarium has dropped the bid in the wake of the county’s promise to protect the park’s animals. This has “alleviated the need for immediate intervention by the Court, at least for the moment.”

The park does still note that it “retains the right to re-file the same or similar motion should the need arise.”

Man riding dolphins at Miami Seaquarium
Credit: Miami Seaquarium

Its federal lawsuit continues. This alleges that Miami-Dade County has imposed regulations that “unfairly target the operations of the Miami Seaquarium, hindering our ability to deliver on our mission of conservation and education for our community.” The park is currently seeking compensation for the “economic damages incurred due to the county’s actions,” as well as the damage to its reputation.

Several of Miami Seaquarium’s marine mammals have been relocated to other theme parks in the past, including Li’i, a Pacific white-sided dolphin, and Lolita’s old tank mate who was moved to SeaWorld San Antonio (despite Miami Seaquarium’s promise to free him with Lolita). Should the park close, it’s assumed similar parks – including SeaWorld Orlando and Zoo Miami – would take in its animal occupants.

Do you think marine theme parks should be allowed to operate? Let us know in the comments!

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