Sea World Now A C-Minus

November 20, 2008 at 7:36 am (Published)

Published in Pittsburgh CityPaper, July, 2002


My rant should save Pittsburgh families a vacation nightmare this summer.  The horror of which I speak: the sloppy re-incarnation of an Ohio park once boasting a trained Orca.  A ghost town taken over by carnies and litterbugs, “the same park without The Whale” is the concept peddled by corporate marketing gurus.  But, my kids were asking “Are we there yet?” all the way home.


Admission prices are up.  Now, you are paying for admission to three, merged parks.  If you only want to spend your day in one park, tough cookies.  Same price. OK, we thought; it is, after all, “the same park without The Whale…”  Three words, Pittsburgh: Stick With Kennywood.


The first difference was the smell.  Not a lake breeze, or the familiar wafting scents of barbecue and salt water…We smelled garbage.  (For another olfactory treat, stand 30 feet from the penguin exhibit’s entrance…With your eyes shut, you’ll swear you’re inside Wholey’s during an air conditioning crisis.) The once-clean bathrooms are now filthy, in disrepair, and lack basic supplies. Indigestion from overpriced, barely-edible food makes the bathroom issue even worse.


No disrespect to the instrumental stylings of Eddie Van Halen, but it once added a distinct atmosphere to hear ethereal sounds of shakuhachis piped through the park.  It was calming, I felt like I was communing with the nature around me.  I like Freddie Mercury just as much as any guy (…oops, maybe not THAT much…), but it just wasn’t the same.


If The Old Parkmongers were only in it for profit, at least they constructed a believable image of a corporation that genuinely cared about nature.  They had more interactive, more educational exhibits.  Staff were stationed by the animal exhibits, enthusiastic and willing to answer questions about the animals, rather than canned recordings on an endless loop or lazy, gum-chewing lackies who don’t even bother to plug their microphones in.  The sharks have obviously decreased in number, and we’re supposed to be thrilled by two identical exhibits devoted to watching (not touching, or feeding) stingrays.


In years past, the park was well staffed.  It seemed the staff from last year is now spread over all three parts of the park.  Maybe I should have been more careful about letting my 4-year-old son climb on the rope jungle at the “Happy Harbor.”  But I have never had to worry before about large gangs of 10- to 13-year-old boys storming the playground without their parents, or park staff, around to keep them in check.  When a big gang of these unrulies decided it would be fun to deliberately stop up the plastic play tubes, I was able to get my terrified, crying son out safely (though I sustained rope burns in places only a gynecologist understands).


When Bush won the election, Gore supporters were outraged that Bush didn’t acknowledge and address their grief.  The same is true of the New Regime (though, ironically, the ousted party in this case is named Busch…).  Every haphazardly deconstructed exhibit was a stinging reminder that The Whale is Gone.  Heaven forbid the New Regime would buy new cups for the Japanese pearl divers: they simply tried (unsuccessfully) to scratch the logos from old cups. My daughter, reading the partially-removed words, asked “Mom, what’s ‘Sea Worm’ mean?”  I half expected the oysters to contain plastic Tweety® heads instead of pearls, since kitschy shops that once carried meaningful mementos have been replaced by carnival games and generic, low-quality merchandise.


The crowd was also different.  Maybe I’m a snob, but before, you attended animal shows with people who, like you, came to add educational value to their vacation.  Now, you’ll sit next to the gnarly dude who’s only there because the line for the roller coaster was too long.  Once counted on for purposeful family fun, “Red Flags” (as my son called it) is overrun by squadrons of foul-mouthed teens with pants so big you hope The Whale is hiding in there somewhere, and will pirouette out, splash the audience, and somehow restore paradise lost.


The New Regime’s whale-sized problem, if they don’t act quickly to restore the Spirit of the Whale, is profitability.  The heart and soul of the place are gone.


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