SeaWorld logoWhen it comes to amusement parks (excuse me, “Adventure Parks”), I’ve always felt that SeaWorld and Busch Gardens, with their focus on wildlife, have the best and most obvious opportunity to make an impact on the environment. Indeed, they have a large non-profit organization committed to wildlife conservation. The SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund was created to support habitat and wildlife conservation, research, education and animal rescue. And many of the animals at Sea World have been rescued from the wild, or in the case of one of their non-oceanic shows, “Pets Rule,” from shelters around the country.

However, while visiting SeaWorld yesterday (I’m in San Diego for a couple of days on a family trip), I was struck by the juxtaposition between this commitment to animals and the almost blatant (to one who is tuned in to it, anyway) disregard for anything else in the name of the environment and/or sustainable business practices. Sure, there were the obligatory recycling bins near trash cans throughout the park, but very few outward

commitments to sustainability. And these kinds of environmental practices really just put the onus on the visitor instead of on the host. What about the issue of selling drinks in non-recyclable plastic cups, or all those other plastic souvenirs, or the incredibly unhealthy food? (Don’t get me started on that one.)

Shamu and partner dancingAside from one poster near the killer whale viewing area, a short video before the Shamu show promoting their Conservation Fund, and a plaque above the urinals in the men’s restroom plugging their effort to clean up beaches (which, I found out later, they don’t include in the women’s restrooms), I found very little evidence of any other commitment to environmental practices.

One ride offered at SeaWorld San Diego called the “Sky Tower,” is a delightfully restful ride in a comfortable, rotating “pod” that slowly rises 500 feet up a huge mast in the middle of the park and provides a fantastic view of the greater San Diego area, including the bay, downtown and a bird’s-eye view of the park itself. A park such as this must use an incredible amount of water and electricity. I haven’t gone digging around to see if I can find anything, but the mind boggles when you see all the pools, tanks, buildings and everything else from on high. But what I didn’t see while I was up there was a single solar panel. C’mon, this is southern California! The sun shines over 300 days a year here and the government has done more than any other state to provide incentives for alternative power sources.

What I saw (or, more importantly, what I didn’t see) at SeaWorld raised many other questions for me throughout the day.

• What kind of environmental impact does a place like Sea World have on the environment?

• Is Sea World, with its commitment to the world’s oceans, a better kind of amusement park than a place like Disneyland?

• What kind of impact do they really have with their environmental programs?

I can’t help but think of what a great opportunity SeaWorld has in putting a message of sustainability in front of such a huge number of people daily, most of whom probably don’t have a clue or a care about the impact they’re having on the environment. Yet this opportunity seems to be squandered by doing so little at all. In fact, they spent more time honoring the firefighters who fought the recent fires in Southern California and the troops fighting in Iraq than talking about their conservation programs. While I certainly don’t mean to belittle the work that either of those two groups of people have done or are doing, SeaWorld just doesn’t seem to be the place to make the most noise about it.

After a day at such an “Adventure Park,” I feel a bit like my intelligence and sensibilities have been assaulted. And even though the professionalism of those working there and the presentation and shows are truly top-notch, I can’t help feeling like they’re catering to the lowest common denominator.

I just don’t understand why, as Americans, we have to be that way. We’re not all dumb sheep. And most of us would and do rise to the occasion when faced with a challenge. We see that with the firefighters in southern California and we see that with our troops overseas; why can’t we all rise to the occasion when it comes to the environment, a cause that is every bit as important and threatening as a wildfire?