San Diego Business Journal

Council Approves SeaWorld's Expansion Plans

Staff Writer

With approval from the San Diego City Council last week, the next milestones in SeaWorld San Diego's multimillion-dollar expansion are expected this fall.

Construction is planned to begin in October on two projects on SeaWorld's 189.5 city-owned acres , an education facility and a 95-foot-tall water ride similar to a roller coaster.

The ride, expected to open in April 2004, has been a lightning rod for criticism.

It's the first major attraction to exercise the theme park's ability, endorsed by voters in 1998, to build structures taller than the 30-foot limit imposed on coastal property.

Bob Tucker, SeaWorld's public relations director, said the expansion's first phase is expected to cost between $50 million and $100 million. The phase also includes a new entrance and a new catering facility, he said.

Before ground is broken, two more approvals have to go through, and Tucker said the park doesn't foresee any problems with them.

The first takes place in Los Angeles in September, when the California Coastal Commission reviews changes they requested to the park's expansion plans.

After that, a final approval is expected from the board of the park's parent company, St. Louis-based Anheuser-Busch Cos., Tucker said.

The education facility, scheduled to open next summer, will house the park's youth programs, including day camps and overnight activities.

The water ride is being modeled after a ride at SeaWorld Orlando called Journey to Atlantis. The San Diego ride will be more covered, and will likely have a different theme, Tucker said. The attraction will also feature the park's Commerson's dolphins, which have been kept behind the scenes since being displaced by the park's Shipwreck Rapids ride in the late 1990s.

On July 9, the City Council agreed to consider increasing the park's current rent payment in January, according to the City Clerk's office. The park pays an undisclosed percentage of its sales income as rent. It paid the city $6.72 million last year.

The council approved the Coastal Commission's recommendations, which included keeping new structures at least 75 feet from the shoreline and limiting fireworks shows.

In other items, the council asked the park to provide annual attendance figures and endorsed the expansion's environmental impact report. They also agreed SeaWorld should give 90 days notice before seeking permits to build an on-site hotel in a later phase of its master plan.

The city expects to hold public hearings about the hotel, which won't be built for 10 years.

The item updating SeaWorld's lease with the city, which included the final expansion plans, was passed unanimously.

Councilwoman Donna Frye, whose district includes SeaWorld, plans to clarify her vote.

Frye said she approved of the commission's changes, but did not support SeaWorld's expansion plans. She said she considered them an inappropriate use of public parkland.

The changes, particularly the construction of taller structures, will be detrimental to San Diego's skyline in the Mission Bay area, Frye said.

Frye said she is still concerned about the expansion's impact on the area's traffic, and whether SeaWorld's plans to alleviate it are enough.

Councilman Jim Madaffer said he was pleased with the council's decisions.

"I don't know a single issue like this one that has had more public meetings and more public input than this one has, including a vote of the people," Madaffer said.

He continued, "While I'm not interested in turning SeaWorld into a Six Flags Magic Mountain or some other kind of amusement park, I think they came up with a balanced approach."