iami Seaquarium is likely to get some new attractions and exhibits thanks to its acquisition by national giant Palace Entertainment, but officials do not foresee anything that will impact traffic flow on the Rickenbacker Causeway.
“We’re not putting a rollercoaster out here next,” said Andrew Hertz, General Manager. “We’ll be looking at aquariums around the world that are premier attractions to see what kind of exhibits they have that are really thrilling to people, and that’s what we’re going to bring in.
“But it’s not something that is going to cause traffic problems.”
Hertz said he already met with Mayor Frank Caplan, before the news of the park’s sale broke last Friday, to address any concerns from a Key Biscayne perspective.
Caplan said he was reassured by Hertz’s remarks that the deal won’t result in traffic problems, and also hopes to post similar questions at a planned meeting with Palace Entertainment officials.
“I inquired about whether the nature of Seaquarium’s mission might change, particularly if a change would alter materially traffic volume. Andrew’s responses were reassuring, and I noted his very strong positive impression of this particular buyer,” Caplan said, adding he was pleased to hear Hertz will remain with the park as general manager.
Caplan said he looks forward to hearing more details from Palace Entertainment reps, noting he is interested in learning about the company’s commitment to and track record on animal-oriented parks, specifically “their plans and commitment to house and care for highly intelligent, highly social marine mammals.
“I expect we will meet with the new ownership soon,” the Mayor said. “I will welcome them to the neighborhood, and I expect to learn more about their plans. I anticipate receiving credible assurances they will invest in the facilities and basically continue operating a modernized Miami Seaquarium.”
Seaquarium officials announced Friday, March 28, that the Virginia Key attraction was acquired by Palace Entertainment, which owns and operates parks in 11 states.
Newport Beach, California-based Palace Entertainment is one of the largest park operators in the United States. It is a subsidiary of Festival Fun Parks.
The company operates Boomers locations throughout Florida, including those in Fort Lauderdale and Boca Raton; its other Florida holding is Destin’s Big Kahuna’s. Other parks under the Palace Entertainment umbrella include Kennywood, Splish Splash and Story Land on the east coast.
Hertz described the deal as a win-win situation.
For Seaquarium, he said, the agreement will allow access to economies of scale and the expertise of an experienced park owner. “We’re very good at what we do, but we can be made even better,” he said. “Palace Entertainment – this is what they do.”
While any changes at Seaquarium spark concerns on the Key about growth and ensuing traffic issues, Hertz said while there will be new offerings aimed at keeping the park South Florida’s premier tourist attraction, more than likely they’ll be on the same intimate scale as recent additions.
For example, Hertz pointed to the park’s stingray touch pool and Sea Trek helmet dive program – both are hugely popular with guests and great for the park’s word of mouth, but don’t change traffic patterns coming and going from the facility and are housed in structures of only a couple thousand square feet. Sea Trek, for example, is in the park’s existing Main Reef Aquarium and is available to only eight guests at a time.
Hertz said those kinds of intimate experiences – and the small structures they require – are more than likely what the park would look to add: “I always say, if I do something new and it doesn’t have that interactive component, I’ve failed in some way.”
He added Palace Entertainment has a lot of experience with those types of attractions.
While new experiences will await guests sometime down the road – Hertz said he can’t yet set a timetable – the most immediate work Palace Entertainment will spearhead won’t be noticeable to guests. He said having a larger ownership group in place will help finish behind-the-scenes work that is already underway, including updates to the park’s electrical and water filtration systems.
Meanwhile, Hertz stressed having ownership headquartered across the country doesn’t mean the park won’t remain very much a local entity.
He said Seaquarium’s six-person senior management team – of which he is actually the newest member, with 18 years onboard – will stay exactly the same, and will still be based at the park.
“Before, we would call our owners in Coral Gables to discuss decisions,” Hertz said. “Now, it’ll be a long-distance phone call to make those decisions.”
Bottom line, Hertz explained, Palace Entertainment officials respect the fact that Seaquarium’s leadership is good at what it does – and that includes its conservation mission and local outreach.
Hertz said one of the big reasons Palace Entertainment’s offer was so appealing – even though Seaquarium never actually hung out a “for sale” sign – is that the new owners share its goals of responsible environmental stewardship, education, entertainment and customer service.
“We’re very serious about wildlife conservation and our community involvement,” he remarked. “We made it very clear – our presence in the community cannot be diminished because our ownership isn’t local. That fits with their vision and style.”
In a statement, Fernando Eiroa, Palace Entertainment President and CEO, commented, “We understand the commitment that Miami Seaquarium has to wildlife conservation, community involvement and their dedication to both educate and entertain guests.”
Seaquarium’s presence at local events will also continue.
To give a couple examples, Hertz said the park remains committed to charitable endeavors like a huge Christmas party for disadvantaged kids hosted by the National Association of Hispanic Firefighters, and smaller-scale activities like a recent Sea Trek dive for local veterans.
Seaquarium fits Palace profile
While Hertz sees plenty of ways Seaquarium gains from the deal, he said Palace Entertainment is also getting an asset that fits its business profile perfectly.
“Palace Entertainment has been in acquisition mode for the last few years, and it has grown by leaps and bounds,” he noted; one recent acquisition was the Noah’s Ark water park in Wisconsin Dells, which it purchased in 2012.
Hertz said the company targets the No. 1 attraction in an area so its growth is focused on parks with a history of success. “We fit perfectly in their portfolio,” he said.
In his statement, Eiroa remarked, “Palace Entertainment is excited to be adding such a premier entertainment and educational destination to our collection of family parks.”
Deal moving forward
Although Hertz noted it was “a two-year dance” to get to this point, he expects the finalization of the deal to move forward quickly from here.
He said all paperwork is already signed, and the only step left is a formality: seeking the Miami-Dade County Commission’s blessing.
The County owns the Seaquarium property, and Miami-Dade parks officials are completing a review of the proposed acquisition and are expected to present their findings to the Commission in the coming weeks. Hertz expects Commissioners to address a resolution at their first meeting in May, and is completely optimistic about a positive response:
“There’s absolutely no reason for them not to do it,” he said, noting the deal doesn’t require the board’s approval, but all parties involved want the Commission’s blessing. “There isn’t a doubt in my mind this is going to sail right through.”
Remain premier attraction
When it does, Hertz is confident Seaquarium will remain the area’s premier tourist destination without causing any additional traffic hardship on its neighbors in Key Biscayne.
Along with his assessment that any new attractions will have no impact outside the park itself, he said he doesn’t expect a fundamental shift in the park’s hours of operation.
Already, Seaquarium is open 365 days a year and attracts more than 500,000 visitors each year. It is the longest continuously-operating oceanarium in the United States and has grown steadily over the past half century, and offers eight marine animal shows and presentations daily, exhibits, shows, attractions, food and shopping opportunities.
Hertz expects that will only get better.
“Palace Entertainment has an incredible record of theme park success,” he said. “We are excited to be joining our 58 years of heritage with the Palace Entertainment family of parks. This is a great fit between Palace Entertainment and Miami Seaquarium, and most important, a wonderful opportunity for the community to enjoy the park for many years to come.”
That said, he acknowledges at least one part of the deal is bittersweet:
The park’s current ownership group, Wometco Enterprises, is led by Hertz’s dad, and he knows the daily father-son interaction that entails is something he’ll miss dearly.
“I’ve been telling people the biggest difference for me is I won’t end every conversation with the owner with ‘I love you,’” Hertz said. “The last 11 years as GM I’ve reported to my father, so it’s going to be bittersweet not having a reason to call my dad every day.”