Of the three men who influenced SeaWorld the most – George Millay, Bill Jovanovich, August Busch III – Millay was the consummate showman and entertainer. The park that he engineered in the 1960’s and 1970’s was in many ways different than than one it became under Jovanovich and Busch, but his ideas can still be seen throughout the SeaWorld chain today.
A meteorologist by training, Millay co-founded Specialty Restaurant Group in 1958. He maintained a minority share in the company until the late 60’s. Specialty Restaurant was famous for its tiki-themed restaurants and lounges, but it was its first location, The Reef in Long Beach, CA, that would lead to Sea World.
In the early 60’s, when Millay wanted to add a lounge with an underwater show element, possibly with an underwater window right onto Long Beach Harbor, he brought in his old fraternity brother from UCLA, Ken Norris, to consult. In 1953, Norris had been hired as the founding curator of Marineland of the Pacific near Los Angeles. Six years later, he earned a Ph.D. from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. He would go on to be a leading force in marine mammalogy, based at the University of California, Santa Cruz. In fact, it was because of his presence at that campus, that future cetacean captivity opponent Naomi Rose, would chose Santa Cruz for her school.
Millay and Norris determined that the new underwater tank, whether artificial or a window to the harbor, would be impractical. Norris suggested a new bigger endeavor that would combine the South Pacific theming of the restaurant with the animal collection of Marineland. The two of them brought in another fraternity brother, Dave DeMott, who acted as secretary-treasurer of the new venture, and their old fraternity advisor Milton Shedd, an investment banker, who would help the company raise funds and would serve as its first Board Chairman. Millay would be the first President.
Two questions quickly arose – what to name the new oceanarium and where to place it. There was already a “Marineland” in Southern California. They opted to go with something bigger than a land – a “Sea World.” They also needed a location – prime real estate with a local population with disposable income. San Diego was just completing a 30-year transformation of marshland into a recreational park – Mission Bay – and resort hotels were starting to appear on its shores. The City of San Diego, which owned the park, had been submitted a joint plan by the Scripps Institution and the San Diego Zoo for a marine education and conservation park on the Bay’s shores. The Sea World owners would have to present a better plan, showcasing the kind of revenue they could bring in from operations. They estimated one million visitors would visit the park in the first year. They won the rights.
When the park opened in 1964, it featured an underwater theater with mermaids (and various marine mammals throughout the years), an aquarium, sea lions, a dolphin/stunt show that would eventually include the chimpanzee owned by the park’s first veterinarian riding dolphins around the lagoon theater, Hawaiian Punch Village – the best dining in the park with a tiki theme, pilot whales, performing penguins, and a Japanese village with pearl diving.
The Japanese village was a given as San Diego was a huge Navy/Marine Corps town and most of the servicemen had spent time in Japan. This allowed them the opportunity to purchase a pearl for their loved ones, pretending the two of them were overseas together.
But in the end, it wasn’t enough. The total admission, depending on source, was between 200,000 and 425,000 that first year – far below the one million they had anticipated. Something had to be done to increase attendance and the solution for year two included rollerskating penguins and an animal not even Marineland wanted.