Seaworld Orlando: a bleak future

Edited: July 28, 2018, 1:26 AM

So we all know Sea World Orlando has been struggling bigtime over the past decade, and although Blackfish certainly hasn't helped, I would make the argument that competition has more to do with it than anything. The expansions of Disney and Universal with extremely popular IP that is getting great reviews is killing Sea World, and now that both properties have waterparks that is taking a big segment of their business away as well.

The really scary thing for Sea World is that this trend is accelerating, not reversing.

As much as I like SWO I cannot see how it's going to get any better. Avatar at DAK is getting stellar reviews and drawing big crowds, Star Wars at DHS, Guardians of the Galaxy at Epcot, and Tron at MK. Obviously this was done on purpose to make people have to visit all four parks.

Harry Potter, which is by far Universal's biggest draw, is probably going to have lands in three different parks. Plus just think about the fact that they are going to have three theme parks and a water park.

So when you take into account a lot of people haven't seen Avatar yet (or love it and its a "must" revisit) and all three other Disney parks are getting new IP e-tickets, and Universal is getting a whole new the math, that's SEVEN must visit theme parks between two properties. I think that because this is all popular IP these are going to be much more of "must visits" then attractions that have been built in the past because people are familiar with them and they have huge fan bases.

People only have so much money and time to use on vacation. I don't know what kind of tricks Sea World has up their sleeve but if the last 10 years are an indicator they are in big trouble. They have been aggressively trying to cut operating costs, doing annual layoffs, playing games with the prices, and (other than Christmas week) it still seems like the park is always totally dead. Nobody is going to see a new rapids ride, which both Disney and Universal have had for decades, and be like "we've got to go there!" If a B&M hyper coaster didn't bring people to the park a rapids ride won't. They put some spin on their last earnings report to make it look positive although they still lost tons of money. I think the Busch Gardens parks are carrying this chain. Look at the rides they have been adding recently: S&S skyloops and a crummy fake submarine thing that closed after only a few months. Screamscape is reporting SWSD is likely going to be getting another cheap fake-coaster thing next year. This tells me they are out of money to build real new rides like they used to. Honestly i'm starting to think that in 10 years or so SWO will be condo's.

Replies (18)

July 28, 2018, 2:03 AM

Agreed. Where is the creative vision? I love what SeaWorld has stood for in promoting conservation and real respect for wildlife. But it needs to be more than a zoo with food festivals to succeed in the theme park business.

July 28, 2018, 6:36 AM

The way I see the theme park industry now is in 2 tiers. You've got Disney and Universal as your top tier, dream destinations, and then everything else.

Disney and Universal are no longer affordable middle class destinations though. They are expensive and due to their popularity only going to get more expensive. Orlando for many is becoming a once in a lifetime trip, not an annual destination.

I think this leaves an opportunity for other parks to start appealing to the more budget conscious travellers. If you can't afford Orlando, visit a regional park. Knotts, Cedar Point, Legoland and Dollywood are all doing good business, partly on the back of being Disney or Universal. I believe there's more opportunity for this all over the US.

SeaWorld needs to find its niche again, and find out what the budget conscious traveller wants and how they can provide it. I personally don't think they'll do it, particularly not in a crowded market like Orlando. If they don't drastically reimagine their brand, I agree with the-man that they'll go the way of the dodo.

Interesting question though, if Busch give up on it are the parks worth anything to anyone to rebrand? I can't imagine Disney or Universal would be interested, but would any other competitors?

July 28, 2018, 10:35 AM

The two-tier analysis makes sense but is anybody going to travel all the way to Orlando to visit a budget friendly (aka lesser desirable) park? IMO if people are going to Orlando they are going because of Mickey Mouse and Harry Potter, up until Potter opened Universal and Sea World were always the "lets take an extra day and go there too" parks. Now that WDW and UO have so much stuff and are so expensive there is no time or money for that extra day.

The argument can be made that a Cedar Point type park would work in Orlando but I don't think the lower budget parks do well in Orlando. There are the two Fun Spot parks and I guess they do OK (as in they are still in business), but I know someone that works in finance at Fun Spot and the "parks" are barely profitable, really they make their money off of the upcharge attractions.

July 28, 2018, 11:14 AM

We used to enjoy Sea World, and would try to always squeeze in a day at Discovery Cove. A lot of things turned me off to Sea World in the last few years. The park uses the rides to lure guests in, and not a single one was working on our last visit.

Manta and Kraken were down all day, the flume ride was empty of water, Antartica was having issues all day too. The park itself seems so dated and old, and top of that, they turned off A/C to some stores to cut costs.

Not much has changed in 20 years, except the animal shows, which are now shells of their former selves. We probably won't be going back ever again.

Now, the addition of Volcano Bay has a lot to do with this. Wet N Wild was sort of a dilapidated joke, so people staying at Universal would opt for a day at Sea World / Aquatica.

The new water park and HP have made it so people don;t want to leave the property.

Disney has always had multiple top notch water parks, so I think Sea World was banking on Universal visitors for the most part.

July 28, 2018, 1:52 PM

After mulling on it for years I honestly believe a Six Flags or Cedar Fair acquisition makes the most sense.

I think a SFMM or CP type park would be a big success with international tourists, especially all of those groups that come from South America who would no longer go to BGT, and it may upsell a lot of season passes from people who live in different parts of the country.

July 30, 2018, 10:39 AM

I think Sea World got burned with Antarctica. The park was desperately trying to recover from Blackfish, and attempted to go toe to toe with Disney and Universal with a world-class trackless dark ride. They hyped it for nearly a year before it opened, and it flopped. Personally, I think the ride is a lot better than its reputation suggests (more as an overall experience than a stand-alone ride), but I think people are generally disappointed because the trackless ride is essentially a slow-loading, overwrought conveyor belt to the top notch penguin habitat. Because Antarctica was such a spectacular and expensive failure, Sea World has been unwilling to try again. Instead they are installing a mediocre (and months late) raft ride along with trying to leverage their Sesame Street IP.

I'd like to think that if Antarctica had not flopped so hard that Sea World might have fully recovered from the damage inflicted by Blackfish. Unfortunately, they are now trying to bandage gushing wounds with duct tape and super glue. I don't know if there's a way out, but building cut-rate attractions and trimming spending to bare bones levels (along with nickel a diming even their most loyal guests) isn't going to pull them out of their current tailspin. They need an angel investor that is willing to hang in for the long haul, and ignore some short term losses to see a park that could still carve itself a niche in the market under the proper leadership.

July 30, 2018, 2:50 PM

Russell ... I agree with your assessment on the Antarctic exhibition, but I think you will find Sea World had that planned long before Blackfish appeared in early 2013. It is an unmitigated disaster, and if the ride mechanics of Infinity Falls doesn't live up to expectations, then that will hit them really hard (again !!). We still haven't received our pass holder invites to be one of the first to ride it, so it's still a few weeks away from opening. I'm not enthused about the ride, but I suppose I'll go and get soaked just the once to say I've done it. I'll write a review anyway. Although saying all of this, it has been very encouraging to see the park packed when I go in after work, around 4:30. I haven't been on Mako since June, so that tells me it's certainly busier than this time last year. I.F. will also take the strain off Atlantis which has been so hit and miss this summer. Sea World won't become condos, but it will need to change significantly to survive. Kraken has been running with no VR again, and they seem to have gone back on the idea of converting the Shamu show to the Orca Encounter ??
It still has it's place in this crazy town I call home, but looking a long way down the road ... what happens when the Orcas have gone ?

July 30, 2018, 3:20 PM

I agree that planning for Antarctica started long before Blackfish, but the problems with the attraction are more due to the publicity and marketing campaign. If you view it more from a total package from start to finish instead of just the ride (granted the "wild" and "mild" silliness doesn't help), it's a solid attraction - definitely better than The Living Seas (old version or new Nemo version).

I'm not sure if others got the same impression as I did, but I felt like they pushed it far too hard with their web series, viral videos, and twitter campaign that was not only an attempt to publicize the new ride, but to steer people away from negative publicity from Blackfish and other PETA nonsense spreading around at the time. Whether Sea World was deliberately trying to counter program or was simply trying too hard to market Antarctica through social media is unclear, but for me it came across more as the former. They spent so much time and energy publicizing Antarctica that there is no way it could have lived up to the hype.

It's great to hear that Sea World is packing them in, but they're still getting hit with negative publicity. Not so much from Blackfish anymore, but now the changing passholder parking perks, demand-based parking prices, deliberate under-staffing, and the still unannounced decision regarding the Orcas.

I, for one, think Sea World can definitely survive without the Orcas, but management continues to make decisions that stray away from what the park should be in order to succeed. I've always viewed Sea World as the greatest aquarium on the planet, yet they build a ride like Infinity Falls that doesn't appear to have any animal habitats or connections to a real world location. I think there's a desire from guests to learn a little bit while you're having fun, and while Sea World might not have the IP (or even the financial wherewithal) to design a Disney or Universal level attraction, there's plenty of aquarium concepts that they have not touched. For instance, the Wild Arctic attraction used to be quite a marvel, but without polar bears and just a single walrus and pair of beluga whales, the pavilion is a wasteland. Why not redesign or repopulate the exhibit to refresh interest in a part of the planet that has become a bit of a hot button issue? There are so many possibilities beyond that, but Sea World seems to think they need to build a thrill ride to get people through the gate when the appeal of the park has been to draw families with a broad range of ages within the group (grandparents, parents, teenagers, and little ones).

It's also a big problem when you're building a new water ride, and it hasn't even begun testing as we approach the end of July. That's a HUGE missed opportunity and big FAIL for a company that has a razor thin margin for error.

Edited: July 31, 2018, 2:19 PM

I have been a fan and supporter of SeaWorld for a long time but the truth is they have major issues which have to drive a paradigm change or they will, literally, go under. Only yesterday in the UK, Thomas Cook, the main UK travel operator and the one I have used for the last 15 years, announced it has stopped selling tickets for SeaWorld as well as other animal parks. And here lies SeaWorld's issue. It is not just the lack of rides or the dated shows or the orcas or Blackfish but the gathering momentum sweeping across the world, fuelled by social media, of "our" human collective conscience towards animals in captivity. Therefore, they have to become a thrill park with possibly some animal education elements as a sideshow. If they don't THEY WILL GO UNDER!

As for a second tier park, I actually think a top tier park a la Cedar Point aimed at the adrenaline junkies would fit in Orlando, would be a draw and would likely stand on its own two feet against Disney & Universal. However, whether SeaWorld has the vision, courage, conviction, finances or time to make it happen remains to be seen.

Edited: July 31, 2018, 2:09 PM

"Only yesterday in the UK, Thomas Cook, the main UK travel operator and the one I have used for the last 15 years, announced it has stopped selling tickets for SeaWorld as well as other animal parks."

That's a surprising statement. Have they stopped selling tickets to DAK, EPCOT, and BGT also? What about Sea Life Aquarium, which is operated by England-based Merlin? This seems like a double standard requiring some further explanation by the travel operator.

I think there is a happy medium between thrill park and "edutainment", and Sea World's parks can more easily slide into that niche instead of trying to be Florida's Cedar Point. There's a need to bring awareness of the world around us, and if that can be done in a humane way, then society should promote that instead of ostracizing companies whose goal is to try to get guests to care just a little by the end of their day in the park.

If Thomas Cook indeed has blacklisted Sea World and other animal parks deemed unworthy, but not every single captive animal park, zoo, aquarium, and game reserve, then perhaps people should reconsider purchasing trip packages through the obviously biased operator. I think Thomas Cook has some explaining to do if this account is accurate.

July 31, 2018, 2:17 PM

Russell, here you go.... I stand corrected to a point, it is only parks keeping orcas. However, the core argument in my reply still stands.....the attitude of people, globally, making a stand against animals in captivity is gathering momentum at an alarming rate, just read your Facebook feed. SeaWorld has to change, and not just restricted to killer whales.

July 31, 2018, 2:44 PM

...or society needs to come to grip with reality. The push to eliminate all animals in captivity is coming from a tiny minority that is given far too much latitude and amplification in the media. The reality is that places like Sea World, along with zoos, aquariums, and other properly maintained and accredited animal parks serve a necessary role in our world. Without the lessons, insights, and research that these facilities provide, our awareness of the world around us would be gravely diminished. Go to any small publicly financed zoo or aquarium, and you'll see exactly what PETA and others complain about - tiny habitats, outdated exhibits, and mediocre care. Then go to a place like Sea World, DAK, or for-profit aquariums, and you see dynamic exhibits, realistic habitats, and highly diverse collections. This is all about kneeling to the will of a small, but vocal group of protesters that are about as hypocritical as they come.

I agree to a point about criticizing the captivity of certain animals. Critics accurately note the tight confines restricted to Sea World's orcas, but the company was making strides to take the "circus" out of their performances and was poised to exponentially increase and naturalize their habitats. PETA and others (including the California Coastal Commission that doesn't have a single marine biologist in its ranks) deemed that insufficient, so Sea World is at a loss with animals born in captivity that don't know how to live in the open ocean and can't simply be released. However, so many of the other animals on display at Sea World (particularly the marine mammals) are rescued, cared for, and returned to the wild if it's in the animal's best interest. Animals that are born in captivity are similarly put on paths to eventually live in the wild, and are given some of the best care on the planet. They live in habitats cleaner and healthier than what they would find in the wild, and leave an impression on guests as to what the "wild" should really look like.

The bottom line is that society needs places like Sea World, but certain organizations and individuals feel the need to put their own political and societal agenda above what is best for the animals and for humanity as a whole.

July 31, 2018, 3:22 PM

Russell, I completely agree and still love SeaWorld as a place of entertainment, education and appreciation of what they do for stranded and injured animals. I was one of the 10% in the survey as it was sent to me and I responded. I am sceptical regarding the 90%, though.

Blackfish et al does prove that the militancy of a few can influence the attitude of the many, especially using social media platforms effectively, and once it becomes topical it influences people in higher office as with Thomas Cook..... and a few years ago in Britain with the abolition of fox hunting after centuries of tradition.

As they say in England, SeaWorld is on a sticky wicket and I genuinely believe drastic action is required to save it. Reinvention seems the only way to go for the longer term.

July 31, 2018, 3:27 PM

SeaWorld's entire identity is about Orcas/Shamu and sea creature exhibits. They aren't that interesting beyond the education.

The bright spot is a Chinese corporation invested in SeaWorld and opening a park in that location. I suggest that they take the Orcas, the entire lot, from San Diego, San Antonio, and Orlando, and place them there to be retired. This will free up resources for park expansion.

The only way to save it is make "SeaWorld" only a portion of the Busch Garden & SeaWorld Parks. Make Busch Gardens more prominent, while also deemphasizing the animal exhibits.

Edited: July 31, 2018, 8:54 PM

Sea World is in a situation where whatever it does it just can’t get a break. The animal lovers don’t care for the coasters and the coaster riders don’t care for the animals. It’s a lose - lose, which is sadly spiralling out of control. Yes, they don’t help themselves .. Infinity Falls should have been opened months ago ... The VR on Kraken has been a disaster ... baby walruses that we’re never in Wild Arctic when you wandered thru ... a 2nd rate sea lion show (compared to the previous show) .... no news for months on if and/or when the orca encounter will/will not open ... the list goes on and on.
And then they have royally stuck their middle finger up to us pass holders this year that has infuriated so many. The discontinuation of the dining plan was a major mistake and the last straw for many of my pass holder friends.
Nothing has been heard of how they plan to move forward since Manby left ... what the hell are they doing !?!? Usually we get chance to ask some questions that concern us at the picnic, so we wait and see if that opportunity is given to us this year. Who knows what answers we’ll get anyway.
There are things they do get right though ... Electric Ocean is jammed packed most nights .... Christmas at the park is beautiful .... the new dolphin nursery is a huge hit .... the shark grill is a very good restaurant .... if they can recreate the popularity of Sesame street as it is at BGT, then they should have something to shout about come next summer.
I love Seaworld, it’s such a nice park, but it’s the little things they can’t get to grips with, and that may well prove to be the deciding factor in respect to what their future will turn out to be.

August 6, 2018, 11:09 AM

Nice to see some improved earnings numbers from Sea World today, courtesy of the OBJ ....

"Revenue for the first six months of the year totaled $609.1 million, an 8.7 percent increase from $560.1 million reported the previous year. Second-quarter earnings, for the period ending June 30, were up 4.9 percent to $391.9 million from $373.8 million the prior year.
In addition, attendance saw a bump for the six months to 9.64 million, up 8 percent from 8.93 million the same time last year. In addition, the quarter's attendance increased by 4.8 percent to 6.41 million from 6.12 million visitors last year"

......... as I've been mentioning, the number of people at SWO has been much higher than I've seen for years, so seems my observations have been confirmed. A long way to go, but any good news has got to be welcome for the park.

I.F. seems to be getting closer to opening, as they announced over the weekend the names of 2 of the rafts. Their story line being naming of the rafts brings good luck to those who travel the rain forest rapids. We shall see, but as bioreconstruct's latest photos show, there is still a long way to go.

This is Sea World's last week of opening late during the week, as the kids start back to school at the end of this week/start of next week. I'm sure it will still be busy with the tourists, but things will take a dip after Labor Day. Good news though, as I'll finally be able to get back on the rides unhindered by any lines ... :)

Edited: August 6, 2018, 1:17 PM

So first half of the year is up almost 9% in rev and attendance but Q2 (the busier quarter) only up almost 5%. If their reporting is accurate, that means massive attendence and revenue gains in particular in Q1 2018 over Q1 2017. Can someone explain how that happened and what parks drove that growth? New festivals or something?
Edit: I see spring break 17 was in Q2 18 was Q1 that might explain it.

Edited: August 6, 2018, 2:26 PM

One word ...... Easter. But hey, it's good to see my 'home park' making strides in the right direction. Although as the old saying goes "1 swallow doesn't make a summer" it's encouraging news for us pass holders.

They've also announced $150M investment in "new rides, attractions, shows and events at every SeaWorld Entertainment-owned park each year"

Aquatica has already announced a new ride for 2019, and I think for them the popularity of that park has really helped. (Being in FL as well for sure !)

And finally .... this from John Reilly on the Infinity Falls debacle ...

"While we will announce the opening date of this ride soon, the timing of the opening of this ride is clearly disappointing," "We need to, and will be better, going forward at opening all of our rides and attractions in time for the peak summer season."

Time will tell.

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