SeaWorld may have made exactly the right move to keep its business afloat with its announcement that it would no longer be breeding orcas in captivity, but the company synonymous with killer whales will have to work hard to craft a new public image, industry watchers say.
"It was the biggest decision in the history of the company. They are making the right decision," said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services.
To be clear: The orcas SeaWorld currently has won't be going anywhere soon. SeaWorld had already announced in November of last year that it would be discontinuing its orca shows between then and 2019, and Thursday's announcement means that the 24 orcas spread over three parks will be the company's last generation.
SeaWorld chief executive Joel Manby ruled out the idea of returning the animals — most of whom were born in captivity — to the open oceans in an op-ed published in the Los Angeles Times on Thursday.
"Even the attempt to return the whale from 'Free Willy,' Keiko, who was born in the wild, was a failure," Manby wrote. "For as long as they live, the orcas at SeaWorld will stay in our parks. They'll continue to receive the highest-quality care, based on the latest advances in marine veterinary medicine, science and zoological best practices."
But the company may still have a way to go if it wants turn back the clock to before the documentary "Blackfish." The 2013 film, which focuses on the plight of marine animals in captivity, prompted a backlash from animal activists and led to a slump in park visitation. The company's shares tanked, and the parks took a beating in the court of public opinion.
After yesterday's announcement that it would discontinue captive breeding, shares of SeaWorld stock shot up 9.3 percent on Thursday to $18.72 a share, the biggest gain in years.
The company has a good shot at keeping that momentum going, said Speigel, the theme park expert.
"People will come back because they will appreciate what the company is doing," Speigel said.
But the company is going to have to make a concerted effort to get out the word about other, non-orca reasons to visit the parks.
"SeaWorld needs to reinvent itself and reconstitute its products. Shamu will no longer be the face of the company, so they will have to highlight all the other things they have, like its conservation initiatives," Speigel said.
SeaWorld should play to its big assets, said John Gerner, managing director of Leisure Business Advisors. One of those things? Simple: Water. People love the feel of the sea and aquatic life, Gerner said, and pushing the aquatic aspects of SeaWorld's brand will help keep its offerings distinct from Disney and Universal.
"They should keep focus on nature-based attractions, like an aquarium or other marine attractions that are not as controversial," Gerner said. And with the stigma that came to be associated with the captive orcas cleared up somewhat, parkgoers may feel more comfortable coming back and handing over their money to SeaWorld, he said.
"There was a guilt before that made customers uncomfortable to come to the park because of the whales," Gerner said. "Now that that is gone, they may come even more because they can enjoy it without the guilt, and also because they know this may be the last time they will be able to see some things, like the orcas."
Editor's Note: NBCUniversal, which owns the Universal theme parks, is the parent company of NBC News.