This is the story of Sea World, a theme park where the wonders of nature are performed, marketed, and sold. With its trademark star, Shamu the killer whale—as well as performing dolphins, pettable sting rays, and reproductions of pristine natural worlds—the park represents a careful coordination of shows, dioramas, rides, and concessions built around the theme of ocean life. Susan Davis analyzes the Sea World experience and the forces that produce it: the theme park industry; Southern California tourism; the privatization of urban space; and the increasing integration of advertising, entertainment, and education. The result is an engaging exploration of the role played by images of nature and animals in contemporary commercial culture, and a precise account of how Sea World and its parent corporation, Anheuser-Busch, succeed. Davis argues that Sea World builds its vision of nature around customers' worries and concerns about the environment, family relations, and education.
While Davis shows the many ways that Sea World monitors its audience and manipulates animals and landscapes to manufacture pleasure, she also explains the contradictions facing the enterprise in its campaign for a positive public identity. Shifting popular attitudes, animal rights activists, and environmental laws all pose practical and public relations challenges to the theme park. Davis confronts the park's vast operations with impressive insight and originality, revealing Sea World as both an industrial product and a phenomenon typical of contemporary American culture. Spectacular Nature opens an intriguing field of inquiry: the role of commercial entertainment in shaping public understandings of the environment and environmental problems.
Susan G. Davis is Associate Professor of Communication at the University of California, San Diego.
"In this imaginative and fascinating study of Sea World, Susan Davis powerfully combines the interpretation of metaphor and symbol with the analysis of more concrete evidence. Spectacular Nature constitutes a very significant contribution to our understanding of the relationship between human beings and other animals in modern America."—Harriet Ritvo, author of The Animal Estate
"This beautifully subtle, nuanced analysis of one of the most ambiguous of American commercial institutions—the nature "theme park"—is a landmark of social criticism and a telling dissection of a central contradiction in a world dedicated to profit and also, supposedly, to public knowledge and compassion."—Stephen Jay Gould
In Spectacular Nature, Susan Davis analyzes the shaping force of commercial entertainment culture on the American experience of nature. Focusing on Sea World of California, a theme park in San Diego, Davis shows how powerful and long-standing American cultural narratives about the relationship between human beings and nature are rewritten to serve the needs of corporate advertising and public relations. In the introduction and first chapter, Davis situates Sea World within the history of the American amusement and theme park industry. Drawing on oral and written history as well as industry documents, she traces Sea World's institutional growth and thematic innovation over the past thirty years. Davis argues that Sea World distinguished itself as a theme park by reinventing the re-presentation of "wild" nature and appropriating the tradition of wild animal performances. Because the idea of Nature carries a set of distinctive and longstanding Western cultural meanings that are tied to education, class and ethnicity, Sea World attracts an overwhelmingly white, affluent audience. Its expansion can be traced to the rise of television and mass tourism on a national scale, and to the local development of an economy based centered around high technology and tourism in San Diego. Davis also argues that the emphasis of its "product"--nature as entertainment--on the rationality of science and research positions the park's parent company, Anheuser-Busch, as a socially and environmentally responsible corporation. In chapters three, four and five, Davis draws on extensive ethnographic and interview-based research to explicate the workings of the theme park. She shows how audience research, marketing, labor, and animal training considerations work together to shape Sea World's spectacle of nature. She allows us to see the park as a complex landscape of views, movement, shows and services; as an educational entity reaching out into the public school system; and as the site of a series of problematic but standardized animal performances. In each of these overlapping areas of production, Davis argues, Sea World must locate its audience's desires and meet their shifting expectations, all the while guarding its corporate image, fending off the criticisms of animal rights activists, and returning satisfactory profits to Anheuser-Busch. The book closes with a detailed reading of the park's central product, the performance of Shamu the killer whale. Davis unpacks the workings of this powerful and popular symbol, and shows how its construction in live performance foregrounds issues of gender and family, race and ethnicity, and science and rationality for its audience. In a conclusion, the author considers the extent to which the commercialization of nature by American corporate culture shapes our way of knowing and caring about the environment. In sum, Spectacular Nature is at once an ethnography of a corporate institution, a closely argued examination of the uses of nature in commercial culture, and a critique of the private production of public meanings. It should interest readers in Cultural Studies, American Studies, Environmental Studies, and Communication.