After several years of declining attendance and a seemingly unsolvable image problem, there were signals of a recovery for SeaWorld Orlando in the latest quarterly earnings report for its parent company.
Across SeaWorld Entertainment’s parks in Orlando, San Diego and San Antonio, as well as other properties like Busch Gardens Tampa, attendance was up 14.9 percent, or 3.2 million guests overall, compared to the first three months of 2017. Other positive signs were a 16.5 percent increase in revenue, a 10 percent jump in sales of season passes and a 6.4 percent increase for in-park per capita spending, a measure of what guests spend once they’re inside the park.
The numbers represent quite the turnaround from the company’s 2017 results, when it reported a 5.5 percent decline in attendance compared to 2016. The fact such results came for the period covering January through March make them even more remarkable. This is typically SeaWorld’s worst quarter since only five of its 12 parks are open during the entire three-month period.
“We are happy about the progress we made in the first quarter and the continued positive results we are seeing year-to-date in April and are laser-focused on continuing to execute as we enter the peak summer season,” SeaWorld’s interim CEO, John Reilly, said in a news release. “Our first quarter results were mainly driven by our new marketing and communications initiatives, the anticipation and receptivity of our new rides, attractions and events and new promotional pricing strategies.”
Attendance did receive a boost thanks to the busier Easter holiday falling inside the quarter, which SeaWorld said could’ve added an additional 200,000 guests to its attendance figures.
The company did post an overall loss for the quarter of $62.8 million. That’s also typical in the first quarter of any year, again because most of the company’s parks aren’t open. Losses were somewhat inflated this time around, the company said, because of $21.5 million in expenses for “separation-related costs and a legal settlement.”
Some of that may be attributed to former CEO Joel Manby, who stepped down in February. His severance package could be worth up to $8.2 million, according to a Securities and Exchange Commission filing in April.
Whatever the mitigating factors may be, SeaWorld can use some positive news after years of bad press. Beginning with the 2013 documentary “Blackfish” questioning the company’s use of captive orcas — one of which, Tilikum, was involved in the deaths of three individuals — the SeaWorld brand has suffered and attendance has steadily declined.
The Themed Entertainment Association’s annual reports pegged SeaWorld Orlando’s 2016 attendance at 4.4 million, down from a high of 5.9 million in 2008 and 5.3 million seen in 2012, the last pre-“Blackfish” year.
Rehabbing the company’s image has been the top priority ever since, emphasizing its animal rescue efforts and non-animal attractions, like the Mako roller coaster which opened in 2016 and the virtual reality upgrades at Kraken. The format of its orca shows has also changed to focus more on a pro-conservation message.
Those strategies will continue in 2018 and beyond for SeaWorld Orlando. The new Infinity Falls river rapids ride will open this summer while the 60-foot-tall Ray Rush family raft slide at the adjacent Aquatica Orlando water park is scheduled to welcome guests starting May 12. 2019’s major addition will be a new area based on Sesame Street.
If guests truly are giving SeaWorld another chance, the current quarter’s financial report will be the chance to prove it as it competes for visitors against Universal’s new Fast & Furious: Supercharged attraction and anticipation for the opening of Toy Story Land at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
But if you ask one of SeaWorld’s biggest critics, animal rights group PETA, the positive first-quarter numbers aren’t the beginning of a comeback story.
“This financial fluke is a one-off unless the company not only continues to shift its focus to non-animal attractions but also ends animal acts, and PETA predicts that it will do nothing to stop SeaWorld’s well-documented fall into oblivion,” PETA’s executive vice president, Tracy Reiman, said in a statement. “The company needs to accept that its only hope for sustained economic growth is to close its archaic animal prisons and start building coastal sanctuaries for all the orcas suffering in its tanks.”