Today’s story is from our guest contributor Andrew as we dive into Busch Gardens Moroccan Palace Theater in Tampa. Andrew talks about the highs and the lows of one of the best theaters in a theme park in the state of Florida. Enjoy! – Josh Young
The Moroccan Palace Theater was, perhaps, the first stage that set off my career in entertainment. As a child, I had been fortunate enough to frequent Busch Garden’s Tampa Bay’s signature venue enough to know many of its unique technical aspects. In fact, thanks to some very friendly technicians, this stage introduced me to the advent of intelligent fixtures, DMX, and the premise of timecoded lighting. Sometime around the turn of the century, Busch Entertainment decided it needed to change its goals for this signature venue. For just over a decade the Palace had hosted figure skating revues set to time-period music beginning with “Around The World on Ice” in 1990 and continuing with “World Rhythms on Ice” in 1998. Yet, Busch Gardens was ambitious and wanted to grow out of the ice-skating music revues that had been a staple of their parks for some time.
After all, just over an hour away a specific Mouse had caught word of Busch Gardens “adventure park” model and had actively copied large portions of the parks higher-order concepts. While the Mouse may not have been the ultimate reason, Busch Entertainment decided they needed something fresh in the mammoth Moroccan Palace Theater. After all, Busch had put a lot of effort in building a state-of-the-art venue that no other property in Florida could rival. Disney to this day doesn’t have a balcony-level, purpose-built, Broadway-style proscenium in the state of Florida. In 2003, Busch Gardens announced KaTonga!, a one-of-a-kind musical that was finally fitting for a Broadway-style facility. For perspective, this show was a large-budget production featuring puppets designed by Michael Curry (who designed the puppets for Disney on Broadway’s “The Lion King”), and lighting design by Tony-award winning Don Holder. Detail was the focus of this show, and it was clear that Busch Entertainment was going to make Orlando pay attention. From the chorus, to the lighting, to the choreography, to the technical effects, KaTonga! had some of the strongest Guest Satisfaction scores of any Busch Entertainment production – ever. Yet, times change, and in 2010 Busch Gardens Tampa Bay announced KaTonga! would have its last run at the end of the summer. KaTonga! was a step outside of the box for Busch Gardens, and it made waves. It was known for its incredible costumes, great writing, and motivational story. In 2011 Cirque Dreams Jungle Fantasy, a some-what acclaimed touring show that had visited numerous locations, called the Moroccan Palace Theater home for an undisclosed period. There’s debate about why this occurred with some sources saying that Busch Garden’s new show required far more time in production than anticipated, and some sources saying that budget issues sent the show back into production last minute. Cirque Dreams wouldn’t last long, however.
On February 2nd, 2012, the ice was back when Busch Gardens opened “Icepoloration,” a new multisensory ice show that blended Busch Gardens traditional ice-skating shows with the storytelling of a Broadway production. Centered around an 11 year old boy who was obsessed with technology, Iceploration took audiences around the world with Austin and his grandfather. Austin’s grandfather was concerned about his enthrallment with technology, and over the course of the show would motivate him to see the world and get outside. The show featured 21 animals in total, including 4 huskies, a flock of conures, and a massive cast of incredible ice skaters and acrobats. The show was ambitious, technically advanced, and one-of-a-kind, featuring a soundtrack that will get stuck in your head for weeks. Again, Busch Gardens Tampa had a hit. And again, Busch Gardens spared no expense. The show was produced by Broadway designers, and included a cast of national and Olympic medalists. Despite its success, after a five-year run, “Iceploration” would close to see a replacement in the summer of 2017.
Simply put, Busch Gardens needed to cut cost. Busch Gardens is owned by SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment, the embattled regional park operator who saw their first profits in five years just this past quarter. In 2013, one year after the shows opening, SeaWorld would begin the biggest challenge of its existence While “Iceploration” was an amazing show, it was expensive. The contracts for the performers created one of the most expensive day stage shows to operate in the industry. The show not only featured ice skaters, but aerialists and acrobats, a child performer, an equity lead-actor, live animals, and thirteen technicians. The park was part of the only profitable brand SeaWorld currently had, and it needed to find a way to make the park more efficient. For the first several years, “Iceploration” was considered a key-stone attraction. Its performances filled the theater to the point that the park reasonably assumed it would be able to make a good return. And at first, it was assumed that the financial difficulties of the company were short-term. SeaWorld, after all, had seen such challenges before. The years drug on, though. While “Iceploration” still packed a crowd, attendance was down across company, and the bad quarters kept on coming. An expensive cast, a large crew, and technical systems in need of upgrade led to the decision to close the show after a five-year run.
A Step in The Wrong (and the right) Direction
The new show opened in summer of 2017 and has been running since. “Turn It Up” is a unique entertainment offering and sees Busch Gardens return to the days of the ‘90’s era musical revues. Scratching the aerialists and acrobats, dropping the animal encounters, simplifying the costumes from off-the-shelf vendors, using existing pop music instead of a custom score, trimming the cast down to 9, and the crew down to 6 makes for a big reduction in operating cost. While I don’t characterize the show as “bad,” the show does break one of my key entertainment tenants: Spectacle for the sake of spectacle is a waste of time, space, and money. In other words, have a story. I want to come out of the theater having learned, felt, experienced, and valued more than I went in with. Particularly at a park like Busch Gardens, to have a show that implies no relation to conservation running in a theater directly across from a renowned gorilla habitat is nonsensical.
To be sure, the performers are talented. The music, however, is fitting of a Six Flags property more than SeaWorld, who has always been known for their custom and well-crafted music (search SeaWorld in Spotify, Amazon, or Apple Music). There is effectively no set, though a new 1/3rd height LED wall sits behind the cyclorama. Props are minimal, and creative intent is almost nonexistent. Even the musical revues of the ‘90’s featured custom sets and props to tie in their specific songs. Despite their lack of story, there was an effort to make the audience feel “in the moment.” This can’t be said for “Turn It Up.” Perhaps, though, we must remember why this show exists. “Turn It Up” exists out of necessity. If only because SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment doesn’t have the budget to try and best Disney at their own game, “Turn It Up” replaced a best-in-class entertainment offering with a barely-made-effort way to beat the heat in the middle of July. If not awkward in its own right, there’s a two-minute advertisement for Busch Gardens wedged right in the middle of the show. “Iceploration” in its early years would routinely sell the house out well before the curtain call. In its existence, “Turn It Up” has hardly ever seen the balcony open. If not out of want, but out of necessity. So where does this leave us? One would hope that the ambitious projects of Busch Gardens creative entertainment team are not forgotten. True groundbreaking work was done inside the Moroccan Palace Theater, and stories were told that rivaled Disney. Perhaps, when the company recovers we’ll see a change of pace and the incredible shows will return. One can only hope. Busch Gardens could really benefit from turning it down to rethink their current offering, if only to remember where they’ve come.
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