How can SeaWorld manage tragedy, criticism while maintaining business, brand?

The 'Believe' show resumes Feb. 27 at SeaWorld Orlando after a killer whale pulled a trainer to her death. (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda, Orlando Sentinel)

Consider the predicament SeaWorld managers find themselves in nearly two weeks after the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau — the third human fatality linked to a killer whale synonymous with the theme park's brand.

In the short term, they have to manage the aftermath of a public tragedy and ensure the safety of their employees.

In the long term, marketing and business-ethics experts say, they need to deal with concerns of how their star performers — the orcas — are handled.

And they must do so while running a business dependent on guests paying to see shows featuring those very same animals.

"SeaWorld is branded around Shamu," Rollins College marketing and ethics professor Mark W. Johnston said. "It's one of the core elements of the SeaWorld experience. It's at the core of who SeaWorld is, I think."

The theme park's situation, he said, is "a classic ethical dilemma."

It's one a business school class might study, much the way Nike's past controversial labor practices are debated or the way Toyota's auto recall will be.

Experts say the theme park likely will have to address a range of stakeholders. Those include investors, government regulators, employees, SeaWorld's guests, its killer whales and a vocal animal rights advocacy community.

At stake is a central piece of Central Florida's tourism economy, one that draws 6 million or more visitors a year, according to SeaWorld and industry estimates.

No easy task: It could take corporate acrobatics to balance complaints that an unhappy, confined orca killed Brancheau against an old, ultra-profitable business model driven by the same killer whale.

"You think it's ethical to confine these highly intelligent animals in small little tanks? I don't think so," said actor/philanthropist Raul Julia-Levy, who wants to free another killer whale at the Miami Seaquarium. "Keeping whales in captivity just for entertainment? That's not right. . . . They [SeaWorld's management] just care about the money."

‘I want to see Shamu'

Walk around SeaWorld Orlando and you're enveloped by orcas. Images of the aquatic mammals are all over, from tail-shaped sun screens to the costumed character greeting guests and posing for pictures near the park entrance.

On a brisk day last week — little more than a week after Brancheau was killed — SeaWorld Orlando was not crowded, but a long line of guests showed up 40 minutes before a 12:30 p.m. "Believe" killer whale show.

An excited child high in the stands shouted, "I want to see Shamu."

By the time the show began, Shamu Stadium was packed; only a few seats in the close-up "soak zone" were empty.

And the business of selling orca-shaped hand puppets and stuffed animals continued down in the lower seats near the tank.

When the park's trainers appeared, the audience cheered. They applauded even louder during a brief memorial for Brancheau as an image of her doing the job she loved was displayed on the stadium's giant video screens.

Later, Brazilian tourists Gabriela Appel, 22, and her mother Rosane, 57, expressed mixed emotions about watching the show at a park Gabriela has visited five times.