The Intersection of Sesame Place and Sea World: Accusations of Racism & Animal Abuse

The Intersection of Sesame Place and Sea World: Accusations of Racism & Animal Abuse

This last week there has been considerable press of a park in Pennsylvania that many people didn’t know about before it hit the news. Sesame Place brings Sesame Street to life in a theme park setting especially tailored for children. Or at least it should. The controversy this week centered around a walk-around character named Rosita. A family visiting the park and others have claimed the character showed negative attention to a pair of young black girls, who were cousins and guests of the park.

All this coincides as I spent time this last week at Sea World where I was actually at Sesame Street Land. Yes…the same company that owns and operates Sesame Place, owns the Sea World parks. And those parks have a Sesame Street component of some kind. In Orlando it’s called Sesame Street Land. We’ll talk about some interesting parallels between this hot topic of inclusion and a certain orca that cannot be named inside their parks. But this isn’t about muppets and whales. It’s about values and integrity. And most of all, we draw important questions out that you should consider when thinking about your values and your integrity organizationally. So join us at the intersection of Sesame Place and Sea World.

By the way, because this is a Disney at Work podcast, that means two things: First, we’ll throw in a little discussion of how Disney is dealing with these same issues. Second, our Disney at Work podcasts differ from our Disney at Play podcasts because we like to offer ideas for your own organization and how you can apply these same business lessons to what you do.

Below is an outline along with quotes and links. But the podcast goes into details you won’t want to miss. The podcast is available on PodbeaniTunesSpotify,  and ListenNotes. Please subscribe to the podcast and to this website so you can be notified of upcoming posts and podcasts! 

How do You Get to Sesame Place?

The Sesame Place park said they were committed to making it right. The problem is the park should have been committed to being right from the start, not after the fact.

Of course, if you have to teach inclusion to those hired to especially work with children and represent characters, than you have a problem. Not just a training problem, but probably a hiring problem, an accountability problem, a recognition problem and yes…a training problem.

Here is a clip from NBC of the event and fallout:

In defense of the performer behind the character let’s consider the following:

  • Having been best friends with Baloo the bear, I empathize with the extreme difficulty seeing out of a character.
  • We know nothing of the performer behind the character. We don’t know their age, their sex, not even their racial heritage. Moreover, we don’t know their own life experiences. It is wrong to judge someone without their having an opportunity to speak up. Why that person hasn’t spoken up we don’t know why.
  • The character high-fives a white, older adult, but then appears to shake a “no” finger on that individual. Then appears to shake a finger again to the small cousins.
  • The girls did appear to begin wondering beyond the striped line guests were asked to stay behind, a safety concern with a float not far behind.
  • In its first statement Sesame Place noted: “The Rosita performer did not intentionally ignore the girls and is devastated by the misunderstanding.”

I think in some ways we should assume positive intent of the character performer until we have evidence otherwise. I’ve heard people everywhere from ABC’s The View on down say they should fire the performer. They have practically knowledge of that individual–one who is likely fairly young–and they are using national media to judge the individual. That’s not right.

What is concerning, is how management is or is not addressing the issue from the start. That’s where the focus should be, and ultimately the lessons from this experience.

  • But NBC shows multiple videos of Rosita (we don’t know if it’s the same performer) and other characters that seem to show the same dismissal of children who are of a minority background. Again, it’s probably a mis-representation of the good those character performers do, but how did Sesame Place get to this place?
  • A later, secondary apology by the company notes “we will conduct training for our employees so they better understand, recognize and deliver a more inclusive, equitable and entertaining experience to our guests.” Why does it take a second apology to initiate that? Why didn’t they initiate that to begin with.
  • A third apology came out reaching out to the family expressing an interest to taking time to hear and listen to the family’s concerns. Why does it take a third apology to initiate that.
  • Rosita by the way is a bilingual puppet whose backstory shows she is from Mexico. She has long introduced a Spanish word of the day. Just to demonstrate how off-centered Sea World Parks & Entertainment is, there is a Rosita’s Cafe at Sea World San Antonio. Only the cafe doesn’t offer Mexican or even Latin American specialties. Rather the cafe offers pizza, pasta and other Italian fare.
Photo by Sea World Parks & Entertainment.

The Intersection of Sesame Place and Sea World.

By the way, Sesame Place in Philadelphia is one of two such parks, the other in San Diego. It is part of the larger Sea World Parks and Entertainment Group, which also owns a Busch Gardens, water parks, and of course the Sea World parks. The license to use Sesame Street in their parks comes via Sesame Workshop, a non-profit organization.

Go to the Sesame Workshop and you will see that this group focuses on reaching out to children the world over in very inclusive ways.

Go to the Sea World Parks site and you will see a site that is strongly supporting conservation efforts in remarkable ways. But you see very little in the theme of inclusion.

That said, Sesame Place promotes spending time with Julia, a four year old muppet that has autism. And in fact, Sesame Place is a certified Autism center. That’s a remarkable accomplishment for a theme park, where sensory sounds and images can be an overload. But it’s lost in the messaging because other messages are unintentionally being sent.

Photo by Sea World.

Go to Disney’s site by the way and you see that Inclusion has been a big message in the last few years. So much, that some have criticized Disney as being too woke. But Disney is being intentional in ways, that the Sea World Parks and Entertainment group should be at as well.s

Sea World Comparisons

It’s ironic that a park based on an IP, like Sesame Street, which is founded on principles of inclusion, can fail to demonstrate an effort of being intentional around that.

Curiously, it is that same company that based it’s messaging around conservation and care of aquatic mammals, had to spend so much time justifying the care and facilities of its whales at Sea World.

Having spent a long day recently at Sea World, here are some interesting observations I had, which honestly came to me prior to this incident at Sesame Place coming out, but still seem to hit on some of the same issues. Here are some observations:

  • In the matter of a few short years, there is one word you cannot find on Sea World property. That word is Shamu. It isn’t in their promotions. It isn’t in the title of their shows or stadiums. It isn’t in a T-Shirt. That word is gone. The word Orca is used, but not Shamu. For Sea World, that’s almost the equivalent of the word Mickey Mouse being taken out of Walt Disney World.
  • This took decades to do, even though Sea World has had a strong conservation message about the importance of preserving whales. Still, the idea that whales have value didn’t align with a show title like “Shamu for President”. The anthropomorphic qualities given to Shamu never jelled with the respect humans should have for massive creatures.
Sea World promotion back during the U.S. Bicentennial with Shamu in the Yankee Doodle Whale Show.

  • I went through a serving line to grab dinner for my family. It was a commentary not only of how badly they needed to fill positions, but how poorly positions were already filled:
    • An exhausted managing lead was having to fill in on cashier.
    • Meanwhile, the other cashier just walked away from their position.
    • The managing lead had to go back up the line to address line issues, leaving both cash registers unattended, and patrons waiting to pay.
    • While working the soda fountain, one young woman was asked why she wasn’t stalking the previously bottled beverages sitting on ice adjacent to the fountain. Her response was, “that’s not my job”.
    • If management can’t address their own employee morale issues, how can they address complex conservation care issues around sea life?
Photo by J. Jeff Kober
  • Sea World has been fairly aggressive adding new shows and attractions, but is completely remiss about the entire experience. Club music was playing all day even though it was tied to a nighttime experience. Signage clutter was the order of the day with more signs simply marking up what has been otherwise really good thematic additions to the park.
  • To prove that they are truly conservation minded, every attraction now has a sign every five feet telling you something about conservation. Somehow, they don’t know how to convey the message other than putting up a sign.
  • By the way, I spent time in Sesame Street Land when at Sea World Orlando. It’s fine, but it’s out of synch with the oceanic themes of the park. They just did it because they have the license to the IP.
  • Sea World has also failed to deliver on earlier promises to build greater sized habitats for its Orca population. Again, even though it talks conservation and nature, it struggles to deliver on the promise. This creates an integrity issue.
Image by Sea World Parks & Entertainment.

Image by Sea World Parks & Entertainment.

I hope I have been fair to both sides of this conversation. I love Sea World and have most of my life. I strongly value inclusion, and hope that I have lived up to that ideal throughout my life. More importantly, I hope I have drawn some important points that we should all consider in our own organization regarding what we value and how intentional we are about those values.

Souvenirs for You and Your Organization:

As yourself the following:

  • Are you an advocate for what you believe in, or are you on the defense for what you believe in?
  • How intentional are you about living up to your values?
  • If you were in a court of law, could you prove that you were absolutely doing everything necessary to live up to the values you espouse?
  • How intentional are you about training and development? Do they align with your values?
  • How does selection, accountability, communications and even recognition align with your values?
  • How can you prove that you live up to your values, other than putting up a sign?
  • If you can’t take care of your employees, their engagement and morale, how can you take care of your customers, or others you may ultimately serve?

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