The first three months of 2018 brought positive financial results for SeaWorld Entertainment, the parent company of SeaWorld Orlando. A true, sustainable comeback for the park, plagued by years of declining attendance and negative press, may require rethinking its place in the world’s most competitive market for theme parks.
Opened in 1973 — two years after Disney’s Magic Kingdom — SeaWorld Orlando has never been on the Mouse’s level in terms of attracting guests from around the world. But through its animal exhibits, shows and more recent thrill rides, it remained a popular choice for tourists looking for additions to their Walt Disney World vacations.
That has changed since the release of the 2013 documentary “Blackfish,” which questioned the company’s use of captive orcas in its parks and detailed how one orca, Tilikum, was involved in the deaths of three individuals. The park’s annual attendance has dropped from 5.3 million in 2012 (pre-“Blackfish) to 3.9 million in 2017.
Michelle Bulmer, co-owner of the Mouse & Muggle travel agency specializing in Orlando vacations, told Orlando Rising that the park has made strides in addressing its critics and travelers have been receptive to the park’s post-“Blackfish” efforts to improve its image. What she hasn’t seen, however, is more interest from tourists in spending part of their vacations there.
“I would say about one-fourth of my clients inquire about adding a day at SeaWorld to their Disney or Universal vacation, but most opt out of this in the end because they are trying to squeeze too much into too little time,” Bulmer said. “None of my customers have actually based their entire vacation around SeaWorld, but I feel like more would if I marketed it more as a stand-alone destination.”
Between SeaWorld itself, Discovery Cove, the neighboring Aquatica water park and the more distant Busch Gardens Tampa, SeaWorld already offers multiple days of experiences for travelers. Yet it could find a place as a more attractive option for Central Florida locals.
One major factor helps SeaWorld among local visitors: It’s less expensive than Disney or Universal at $80 for a single-day ticket.
“That can be particularly appealing to locals since they are generally more price-resistant than tourists,” said John Gerner, managing director of theme park consulting firm Leisure Business Advisors.
Locals may also find SeaWorld’s more recent emphasis on thrill rides appealing. Three of the park’s roller coasters — Kraken, Manta and Mako — have at one point been named among the 50 best steel roller coasters by theme park trade publication Amusement Today. Its adding another attraction aimed at thrillseekers this summer with Infinity Falls.
Whether that’s going to draw in more tourists is another matter. In Bulmer’s experience as a travel agent, visitors to Orlando don’t associate SeaWorld with thrill rides.
“In my experience, most of my clients interested in SeaWorld have had young children between the ages of 3 and 12,” she said. “I haven’t seen a lot of interest from the teen market nor young adults,” adding that those demographics lean toward Universal Orlando.
If SeaWorld Orlando is truly turning a corner, the proof will be in Monday’s release of the company’s second quarter earnings. As for how it can survive in such a crowded market, Gerner suggested focusing on simple things.
“It should continue to improve operating performance and visitor service,” he said. “Although less expensive, guests still expect high-quality service similar to that at Disney and Universal theme parks.”