By Ian Armitage
In just a few years uShaka Marine World has become a fixture of Durban's Golden Mile, allowing visitors to not just view but also get among sea creatures.
But there's nothing fishy about this success story.
"uShaka Marine World has certainly positioned itself as a key attraction," says Shawn Thompson, the chief executive officer of uShaka Marine World, which opened in 2004.
The park comprises four sections: uShaka Sea World, uShaka Wet 'n Wild, uShaka Kids World, and uShaka Village Walk. These four components are adjacent to the uShaka beach, which is Durban's number one rated swimming beach.
It is hugely successful, attracting over 500,000 visitors during the festive season alone.
You might say Mr Thompson is having a whale of a time – revenues and visitor numbers are up and the future is looking bright.
"I think there are a few factors behind it," he says. "Certainly our marketing strategy has played a part. We've become a more focused in terms of the market segments we've targeted and we've worked on ways of penetrating those. We tailor our campaigns to ensure we get the results we want and have had some very good recent successes - there's been a lot of time and effort put into segmenting the market into various demographics - by race, age, income and then targeting those. We use various media to get people to come to Ushaka Marine World. We also have a huge digital presence - our website is visited by 45,000 new visitors every month and our Facebook page has over 35,000 followers."
The introduction of new attractions has helped too.In the last year uShaka Marine World has introduced the Splish Splash Sprinkler Island, the New Seal Show, Anaconda Photo Shop, Dragons, Popup Tank, New Mascot Show and Animal Encounters.
"We've put in a significant investment with Ushaka Kids World and then just recently we introduced the Splish Splash Sprinkler Island for under 12 year olds - an interactive play area that's proved very popular. Inside Kids World is the Duzi River Lounge. Adding this this coffee shop means that when mums and dads want a little bit of time out they can actually sit within Kids World and have a coffee or watch a bit of sport and let the kids run amuck outside! So I think that whole component has taken off very well."
He says the Dangerous Creatures exhibit inside Village Walk has proved tremendously popular too. "Oh it has, very much so. And we keep adding new things to it. Just two months ago we brought in two Komodo dragons from Indonesia. They have been put in an enclosure directly outside the entrance so it really stops people in their tracks and that's been quite exciting.
"We experiment all the time with temporary exhibits and we're always looking at creating more fun. Over the holiday period we had The House of Fear, a spin-off on Halloween and our teenage and young adult market absolutely loved it."
Fortunately for Durban's residents and visitors alike there's more to come.
Thompson says it is uShaka Marine World's business to lead the way when it comes to thrills.
"We have to keep surprising our guests to keep them coming back for more. We pride ourselves on going all out to add new elements to our offering, to create new attractions and re-invest in the park. So in addition to adding fascinating attractions such as animal encounters, shark dives, the Ocean Walker and Meet a Dolphin, we created our Dangerous Creatures exhibit which I've mentioned and installed Africa's largest jungle gym at uShaka Kids World.
"And pretty soon we'll be installing the scintillating body tornado water slide which will be the first of its kind in South Africa and an attraction that will put us on a par with the best in the world."
The Tornado slide will join uShaka's Plunge Freefall Slide, Kamikaze ride and the Drop Zone - Africa's highest water slide.
"This is at the heart of why uShaka Marine World is Durban's major attraction, especially in the all-important youth market."
He says the aim of uShaka Marine World is to deliver an unmatched, fun experience to all its visitors.
The park has been rated "the Coolest, Fun Destination" in KZN over the past five years by The Sunday Times Generation Next Survey.
"I think the park has now reached maturity in terms of phase 1," Thompson says. "We've spent R50 million on upgrades over the last three years. Now, we have to look at a phase 2 and look at the next ten years. What's exciting for me is the chance to look at a hard ride component - it could be a cable car, a giant Ferris wheel like the London Eye, an expansive zip line or a roller coaster. There are a couple of ideas I've been exploring over the last year in terms of going into our upcoming strategy session and talking about the next phase in the park's life cycle.
"Theme parks work on what's called a recapitalization model which means that periodically you have incremental investments and smaller things to keep it fresh and maintained and then every major phase you have a significant addition. Certainly in this next phase, the next ten-year cycle, we would look for a significant addition.
"One significant addition that's under consideration is a crocodile enclosure including interacting with crocodiles and diving with them. That could be a very, very exciting addition from the Sea World side of things.
"The people of Durban have a lot to look forward to!"
The success at uShaka Marine World shows no sign of clamming up and it really is one of South Africa's best days out.
To learn more visit www.ushakamarineworld.co.za.
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