(WSVN) - An animal rights organization is calling for a state investigation into a controversial aquarium company. At issue: customers who bought advance tickets to a South Florida aquarium that never opened. 7’s Karen Hensel investigates.
It’s not surprising that 6-year-old Eden knows the words to a very catchy children’s song, but her parents’ attempt to introduce their daughter to some real baby sharks — tanked.
Rachel Cherkis, bought advance pass: “So SeaQuest was opening, supposedly at the time, they were opening in November of 2018, so I bought the annual pass thinking we’d have lots of use of it.”
They got no use out of it because SeaQuest, an aquarium and petting zoo, never opened inside the Galleria Mall in Fort Lauderdale.
Don Anthony, Animal Rights Foundation of Florida in 2018: “It’s a tourist trap. That’s what it is.”
As 7 Investigates first reported in 2018, activists called plans to bring SeaQuest here “disturbing” and cited allegations of animal deaths at other locations.
The local fish fight would span the next two years.
From protests outside the mall…
Ken Pelton, protester in 2018: “It’s just a way to promote business at the expense of animals.”
… to city hall.
Protesters: “There’s no excuse for animal abuse!”
In the end, the mall’s owner sued to evict the exhibit, which was still under construction.
In December 2020 — the CEO of SeaQuest told us he was pulling the plug.
Vince Covino, SeaQuest CEO in 2020: “We decided to close it down and pack up.”
But in the years before Seaquest scrapped plans to open here at the Galleria Mall, the company had been selling families advance tickets online called “annual passports.”
Prices varied from $20 up to lifetime memberships listed at $200, but these passports ultimately provided a trip to nowhere.
Rachel Cherkis: “They were selling tickets everywhere.”
Frustration spilled onto SeaQuest Fort Lauderdale’s Facebook page.
One person wrote: “Many of us have purchased memberships! what’s the deal!?!?”
Another added, “What if you already purchased the year family pass? Can we be refunded?”
Michelle Sinnott, PETA Foundation lawyer: “So the likelihood here is that Seaquest owes a lot of people a lot of money.”
In early March, PETA sent a letter to the Florida Attorney General requesting an investigation saying SeaQuest “should have automatically refunded customers” and “didn’t.”
Rachel Cherkis: “I think I emailed and called three or four separate times and didn’t get an answer. I’m not accustomed to being ignored.”
Her persistence paid off. SeaQuest refunded her nearly $70 after she filed a complaint with the state.
Rachel Cherkis: “It took a lot of work to get that refund.”
Seaquest told 7Investigates they “processed all refund requests” and “still accepts” them, but they would not disclose how many annual passes were sold.
While there are currently no locations in Florida, the company said they’re looking at “several major cities” and believes West Palm Beach is likely to be next.
The Florida Attorney General’s Office told 7 Investigates they are contacting the company to confirm refunds will continue to be provided.
For those who purchased tickets for SeaQuest Fort Lauderdale — and want a refund — the company says to send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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