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Orlando Sentinel

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August 28, 2007

Record attendance at SeaWorld Orlando this summer has come with what officials there say are record customer-service marks despite the thick crowds -- thanks in part to lessons learned from the theme park's rich little sister park, Discovery Cove.

During the past two years, SeaWorld officials say, they have dramatically ramped up customer-service programs. Additions include a dozen roving guest-service ambassadors, satellite customer-service centers deep inside the park, and sidewalk animal exhibits to entertain people waiting in lines.

The marine-life theme park also overhauled its signature dolphin and whale shows and made other attractions changes. Yet SeaWorld General Manager Jim Atchison insists the more comprehensive push has been in guest services, and that is showing up in the park's strongest survey results yet.

"Our guests are responding positively, and we're busier than we've ever been," Atchison said. "Having a great product is of no good if people have a bad experience."

With entrance tickets that start at $64.95 at SeaWorld and $71 at its rivals, Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando, customers probably already expect top-notch customer service, says University of Central Florida theme-park professor Ady Milman.

But unlike its rivals, SeaWorld has its own testing ground for high-end theme-park experiences. Discovery Cove aims for a Ritz-Carlton Resort type of crowd, with average admission tickets that top $200 a person and a maximum daily attendance of 1,050 people.

SeaWorld cannot match the employee-to-visitor ratio that Discovery Cove customers expect, but Atchison said ideas developed in the smaller park are being borrowed -- such as the roaming ambassadors, whose job is to look for customers who look as if they want help.

Also based on experiences in Discovery Cove, SeaWorld has assembled animals ranging from anteaters to exotic birds for sidewalk encounters, creating a team of eight animal trainers who work with 20 animals -- not including a flock of flamingos that parades through the park periodically.

Mike and Amy Barstad and their children, 10-year-old Brandon and 8-year-old Briana, ran into a green macaw and a bald eagle last week while visiting from Glenwood, Wis.

"That's why we brought the kids to SeaWorld, so they could see all the animals," Mike Barstad said. "This was kind of a surprise, to see these animals here. We think they're kind of neat, as you can see, since we've been looking at them a long time."

Not all the new programs were adapted from Discovery Cove -- SeaWorld has added what might be the theme-park industry's only parking-lot entertainment troupe this year, for example.

And not all the changes inspired by Discovery Cove are winding up in SeaWorld. The 11 popular, and private, cabanas for rent at Discovery Cove have led SeaWorld to include 23 such cabanas in the new Aquatica water park that opens next spring.

Milman, a professor at UCF's Rosen College of Hospitality Management, said SeaWorld's customer-service emphasis should make a critical difference in marketing the park.

"A theme park is a theme park. A roller coaster is a roller coaster. The distinction from one product to another is the level of service," Milman said. "Probably they want to position themselves as a much more service-oriented park, and by doing so create a niche for themselves."

As far as Keith and Mary Fletcher were concerned, the new guest-assistance center outside the Sea Lion and Otter Stadium, deep inside SeaWorld, was not just a customer-service convenience, but a lifesaver.

That center, and another like it in Shamu's Happy Harbor, were designed to offer everything from information to concierge services to a cool, quiet, private nursing lounge.

The Fletchers, educators from Chelmsford, England, and their 12-year-old son, Callum, were in the park July 31 when the boy fainted in the heat, not far from the satellite guest center.

Shop clerks were on the family in seconds, and when one of them called for help, first-aid attendants seemingly appeared from nowhere seconds later, Keith Fletcher recalled. In just a couple of minutes, he said, Callum was lying on a couch in the air-conditioned guest center, being attended to and awaiting paramedics.

The problem was dehydration, and Callum has since recovered, his father said. But all the Fletchers knew at that moment was that their only child had collapsed unconscious, and they needed help now.

"It was the most frightening experience we've ever had," Keith Fletcher said by phone from England last week. "The care at SeaWorld was quite unbelievable. The way they handled it was first-class."

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