I was recently asked on Twitter if I thought the name SeaWorld was an oxymoron. Now, I know where the person asking was headed with this. With the seas taking up 71% of the planet’s surface and containing 97% of its water, isn’t it pathetic to call a small theme park with animals entrapped in enclosures in tiny facsimiles of their native grounds “sea world?”
Well . . . .
If you’re going to try to be literal, there are a number of other parks the oxymoron game works better with:
- Universal’s Islands of Adventure, which has no islands.
- The San Diego Zoo Safari Park, which in its former incarnation as the San Diego Wild Animal Park, only held captive animals reliant on human care for survival.
- EPCOT, which is not the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow that its letters stand for.
- Tokyo DisneySea, which borders a Bay and surrounds a man made lagoon.
- Knott’s Berry Farm, which is no longer a berry farm, nor is owned by the Knott family.
In the realm of marine parks, there’s a hierarchy. A “land” (Marineland) is higher than a “park” (Sea Life Park). A “world” (Sea World) is higher than a land. And a “kingdom” (Chimelong Ocean Kingdom) outranks them all. Of course there are variations, many playing off the terms “aquarium” and “oceanarium,” such as the Miami Seaquarium or the Gulfarium.
The term Sea World itself can be found worldwide, with Sea World parks unaffiliated with the American company operating at one time or another in Argentina, Australia, Indonesia, Japan, China, South Africa, and Italy. The root of the American park’s name goes back to 1963, when it was under development. The company had a very close affiliation with Marineland of the Pacific at the time, and Marineland actually acquired many of Sea World’s original animals. It was necessary for the operators of the new park to differentiate themselves from their neighbor in Los Angeles. If the LA park was “marine,” they could be “ocean,” “aqua,” “water,” or “sea.” And if the LA park was a “land,” they had to be one step up the hierarchical ladder, and become a “world.”
There was one other reason to call the park a “world.” In March 1964, when Sea World opened, “world” was the buzzword of the day. A month later, the much anticipated 1964/1965 World’s Fair would open in Flushing Meadows, New York. It was the largest fair on US soil after World War II. Disney had designed pavilions at the fair for Illinois, General Electric, PEPSI, and Ford. The celebrated design team of Ray and Charles Eames designed the IBM pavilion. And the State of Florida brought live dolphins to the fair site in Queens to perform.
In 1964, the world was a very real concept that personally impacted many in San Diego. Marines and sailors stationed in the area were headed to Vietnam, via Japan and Okinawa. So they could share with the wives and girlfriends (hoping not having both simultaneously) what they experienced overseas, SeaWorld on opening day featured a Japanese Village, which remained until just a couple of years ago. Women would dive to the bottom of a tank and pick an oyster, which could then be shucked and the pearl inside placed into a fitting (another great way for a serviceman to keep his loved one happy).
Is SeaWorld (the name condensed due to a trademark case filed by Australia’s Sea World) an oxymoron? I don’t believe so. Its animals come from the sea and they come from all over the world. On opening day, there were animals caught in the Pacific and the Atlantic, performing penguins from Africa, and even in the second year of operation, Amazonian river dolphins. The longest continually running attraction at SeaWorld San Diego is an aquarium, that for most of its existence was known as World of the Sea.
Years ago, in Galveston, TX, there was a marine life park that a young John Hargrove (former SeaWorld trainer and author) used to visit, where he would watch a young Todd Robeck, now SeaWorld’s Vice President of Theriogenology, train the dolphins. The place was called Sea-Arama Marineworld. Now is that an oxymoron? I couldn’t begin to tell you, because I don’t even know what that means.